Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Songs We Continue to Sing: Rob Ford and the Culture of Corruption

The night Rob Ford was elected Mayor of Toronto, almost four years ago, he had just won a bitterly fought battle to lead the city, and he did it by marshalling and manipulating a populist rage towards city government. Ford had warned us of a "gravy train" of bureaucratic waste depriving us of our hard-earned taxed dollars. While he positioned himself as city saviour, he also began targeting those he described as 'liberal elites,' a pampered, educated and entitled bunch, whom he saw as the true enemy of the hard-working individual. If Margaret Thatcher had once casually dismissed the notion that society actually existed, Ford went a step further. He talked about the city of Toronto only in terms of the taxpayer rather than in terms of its citizens. Since we all pay taxes – even when we're homeless and buy a cup of coffee – taxpayer was merely a code word for property owner. To Ford, Toronto wasn't a diverse and multiculturally vibrant urban community, made up of those who are privileged and those who aren't; it was instead a dysfunctional corporation he was about to restore to efficiency. His message to the city, where he alone could determine those he'd serve and those he wouldn't, was communicated with obscene clarity on the day of his coronation. CBC Television broadcaster and former NHL coach Don Cherry had arrived in his flamingo pink suit to drape the chain of office around Ford's neck. It was Cherry who helped set the new tone for the city in his opening remarks. "Well, actually I'm wearing pinko for all the pinkos out there that ride bicycles and everything," Cherry began with cheers from the crowd in the upper rotunda while city counsellors sat in shock. "I say he's going to be the greatest mayor this city has ever, ever seen, as far as I'm concerned – and put that in your pipe, you left-wing kooks." One thing certain in those tone-setting remarks: contempt was now public policy.

At first, it all seemed absurd. Cyclists everywhere, not used to being identified by a former hockey coach as Red Guards out of Mao's Cultural Revolution, donned buttons proudly proclaiming themselves pinkos, while others in the outer suburbs began approving this newly declared War on Bikes. Yet even if it was a predictably strange first year of Ford's term, where debates about whether we even needed libraries brought out the animus in Margaret Atwood, who would have guessed what it would devolve into today? Many of us, I'm sure, rightly figure that if we were in a position of social responsibility and we were caught on video smoking crack cocaine, lying about it, appearing in 'drunken stupors' after hours in the workplace (or at large), consorting with criminals, calling the chief of police, whose budget we control while we consort with criminals, a 'cocksucker' on video, ranting (again in a recording) about someone we wish to kill, we would likely be finding ourselves in the unemployment line (if not in court). But Rob Ford is once again running for Mayor, and still showing strong support from his constituents. And none of the other candidates (perhaps for fear of the power of that constituency) want to go after him. (Their dubious and fatal strategy appears to be to just ignore him.) Journalist Robyn Doolittle first broke the crack cocaine scandal in the Toronto Star and (with Kevin Donovan) pursued the story rigorously despite being disbelieved by many in the city because they couldn't produce the smoking gun.

Don Cherry and Rob Ford at his coronation

While American talk show hosts got plenty of mileage out of such outrageous behaviour (especially in such a quaint and inoffensive country as Canada), the larger questions were going unanswered. How could a public figure bring on himself and the city such personal and public disgrace and still hold office, and even feel as if he still had a right to? In America, if a married presidential hopeful has an extramarital affair, it can end his hopes. Just ask Gary Hart. So how did Rob Ford survive the onslaught? In her book Crazy Town (Viking Canada, 2014), Robyn Doolittle not only chronicles the whole sordid story, she tries to get at the questions behind how it happened and why it's been enabled – not only by Ford and his supporters, but by the city at large. "The man has used up all nine lives and then some, and still he endures," Doolittle writes in Crazy Town. "Now, he's a global celebrity. A rock star who gets mobbed everywhere he goes. With his reputation in supposed tatters, he can haul out novelty bobble-heads of himself and people will line up for hours to pay for one. In normal times, admitting to smoking crack cocaine, being exposed as a compulsive liar, and getting caught up in two massive police investigations into guns, gangs, and drugs would spell the end of a political career. But these are Rob Ford times. They are not normal." The notion of normalcy may be relative, but she has a point here. Our perception of corruption itself has changed over the years. It's as if we no longer hold that ethics have any place in public office. We have finally embraced the cynicism of the barroom pundit who tells us that everything is corrupt so why bother doing anything? Ford's admissions merely shows us that he's human, and that he's at least admitting what other leaders are too cowardly to confess. The Ford story localizes a civic malaise, but it is also part of a larger one that has even been expressed in a number of popular movies this past year.

The Wolf of Wall Street
Back in the post-Watergate period of the late Seventies, a number of American directors responded to their nation's turn towards corruption in period films (The Godfather, Part II, Chinatown), and in contemporary ones (Shampoo, Nashville), but (maybe with the exception of Chinatown) there was a belief that the founding ideals of the country still made a difference and that the Nixon presidency had violated those ideals. Right at a time when America was celebrating its bicentennial, those movies expressed with both anger and passion a need to live up to those ideals by dramatizing the ways in which we had come to debase them. But that belief is no longer a motivating factor today in films like The Wolf of Wall Street and American Hustle. For about the first forty minutes, The Wolf of Wall Street, about the stockbroker shark Jordan Belfort (Leonardo Di Caprio), is a shallow but engaging depiction of immoral behaviour. With an entertaining untrustworthy narrator at the helm, director Martin Scorsese creates a buzz between the outrageous world depicted on the screen and the viewer's disbelief. But once Jordan reaches the top, Scorsese shifts into a cautionary satirical tale that loses touch with his protagonist's rampaging and appalling appetite. The rest of the movie becomes a series of long, redundant and numbing episodes – and they relentlessly pound you over the head with the decadence of capitalist excess. Depriving us of any dramatic invention, Scorsese avoids the specifics of what motivates Belfort. We don't see the ways he scammed people to become rich, or even how he managed to keep people loyal to him despite his outlandish behaviour. Scorsese and screenwriter Terrence Winter back away from his cocaine driven lust for money and sex to indulge in something more prurient: the results of that desire. The Wolf of Wall Street tells us that we all want to be Jordan Belfort, so there's no need to suggest why we wouldn't. Back in the Eighties, Scorsese provided a similar cautionary parable in The King of Comedy, where an obsessed autograph hound, Rupert Pupkin (Robert de Niro), kidnaps a popular talk show host (Jerry Lewis), and later becomes a national celebrity for doing so. Unlike in Taxi Driver, where Scorsese took us seductively into a vision of hell through the eyes of Travis Bickle, and where we came to feel his rage (even if we didn't share it), Rupert Pupkin arrived already summed up as a cipher who demonstrated that television was turning us into blind fools. Scorsese and screenwriter Paul Schrader showed us Travis Bickle's Biblical fury towards New York City in Taxi Driver, and what turned him into an assassin from inside of that rage. All we see in Jordan is a rock star-cum-gangsta who bilks the system and gets away with it. He's a sociological construct rather than a dramatic character.

American Hustle
In American Hustle, two small-time con artists (played by Christian Bale and Amy Adams) are forced by an FBI agent (Bradley Cooper) to set up an elaborate sting operation on corrupt politicians (which includes the mayor of Camden, New Jersey). While the picture is based on the ABSCAM operation in the late Seventies and early Eighties, the movie speaks to us in a more contemporary rant, like talk radio, confirming that our institutions are so corrupt that it's not actual people committing the crimes. Director David O. Russell, who showed remarkable satirical skills and revealed a deft and imaginative gift for combining absurdism and tragedy in his Gulf War drama, Three Kings (1999), has lately turned hyperactive and moralistic. (Silver Linings Playbook treated mental illness as a means to romantic self-actualization.) For over two hours, the characters in American Hustle (who are as deliberately disfigured by their hairdos as Rupert Pupkin was by his in The King of Comedy) scream at each other in relentless close-up to show us how hopeless they are. Never mind the basic incoherence of the story, where you can't believe that Bradley Cooper's insubordination towards his supervisor (Louis C.K. in a surprising and thankfully quiet performance) doesn't get him fired, American Hustle traffics in populist cynicism as earnestly as it does in cheap sentimentality. (The two scammers are celebrated – they get to have normal and conventional lives in the end.) American Hustle already accepts the assumption that our political system is corrupt from the top down, so there's no need to tell us how or why we got there. We need only revel in the irony of it all.

Rob Ford t-shirts on display at Sunrise Records

Which is why Rob Ford is now celebrated, as if he's the new Che Guevara, on t-shirts sold in Canadian shops like Sunrise Records. With his huge beaming face on the front, you can wear on your chest his most outrageous quotes, like how he didn't crave cunnilingus with a city councilwoman because he's got "more than enough to eat at home." In a recent article in Salon, Matt Ashby and Brendan Carroll talked about the "lazy cynicism" that has replaced "thoughtful conviction as the mark of an educated worldview." They use novelist David Foster Wallace as a prime example of asking: How does art progress from irony and cynicism to something sincere and redeeming? The question is vital because today most people would dismiss the idea of redemption as naive and sentimental. "At one time, irony served to reveal hypocrisies, but now it simply acknowledges one's cultural compliance and familiarity with pop trends," write Ashby and Carroll. "The art of irony has lost its vision and its edge." You can see this view embodied in television shows like Dexter (where a homicide detective is a serial killer who – ironically – murders those who are worse than him), Breaking Bad, and Mad Men, where the characters become equipped with italics that define their ironic and 'dark' shortcomings. In programs like Arrested Development, the irony is dressed up in hip and knowing clothing that makes us feel smart and cool. The viewer doesn't expect the dramatic risk of naked emotion being revealed; quite the contrary. Instead, we get a self-conscious commentary on what naked emotion is so that we can laugh at it. What Ashby and Carroll insightfully point out is how Wallace sensed that true irony, especially in the work of novelist Thomas Pynchon, had once successfully given us "a pop reference to reveal the dark side of war and American culture." But television had adopted "a self-deprecating, ironic attitude to make the viewers feel smarter than the naive public, and to flatter them into continued watching." This attitude is not just pervasive on television, but also in a contemporary culture that continues to fall into a paralyzing stasis. "Anyone with the heretical gall to ask an ironist what he actually stands for ends up looking like an hysteric or a prig," Wallace wrote. "And herein lies the oppressiveness of institutionalized irony, the too-successful rebel: the ability to interdict the question without attending to its subject is, when exercised, tyranny. It [uses] the very tool that exposed its enemy to insulate itself."

Ben Stiller in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty
That spirit of hermetic insulation is certainly felt in Spike Jonze's quite popular Her, where the hero comes to love the voice of his computer operating system over the rest of humanity. But Her doesn't critically examine our fascination with technology; it depicts it instead as a preferable hiding place. Within its womb, we don't have to stand for (or rebel against) anything. No wonder Ben Stiller's lovely and bittersweet The Secret Life of Walter Mitty was so unanimously overlooked by critics. Stiller had become the post-modern darling in pictures like The Cable Guy (his own version of The King of Comedy) where the cautionary satire and comedy about the effects of television were so pointed and obvious that it congratulated us for catching on. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty gets inside its subject with more reflection than reflex. The picture examines a negative assets manager of photographs at Life Magazine (Stiller) who lives in a fantasy world, but wishes to be a hero in a real one. As Life experiences job cuts and corporate changes, Mitty has to find a special photo intended for the cover of the magazine's final print issue. In doing so, he uses his imaginative life to find a way back into the real world. He doesn't change the outcome of corporatization, but his actions tell us what we've lost because of it. Unlike Her, which creates virtual worlds to reside in, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty reveals to us why the real one still matters.

If Wallace is right in saying that irony is a "protective carapace" against the appearance of naiveté, the acceptance of chic nihilism is now everywhere – even in celebrated rebels who appear to be bucking the system. You could sense this nihilism in the leaderless Occupy Movement, a group that so distrusted power that it seemed to fear standing for anything. Their perspective boiled down to a simplified screed out of Naomi Klein, or Noam Chomsky, where the world gets divided up into the powerful and powerless – and guess who wins? In this uncomplicated view, the nuances of human drama get reduced to polemical statistics. If whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg leaked The Pentagon Papers in 1971 because he knew his government was lying about its conduct in the Vietnam War, he also did it because he cared enough about what his country was putting in jeopardy. Taking huge risks, as a former military analyst for the RAND corporation, Ellsberg put the government's actions and values to the test. There was an actual country he was asking to be accountable. But what about the current heroes like Edward Snowden and Julian Assange? Sean Wilentz in The New Republic has you thinking again. He writes: "Snowden, Greenwald, and Assange hardly subscribe to identical beliefs, and differ in their levels of sophistication. They have held, at one time or another, a crazy-quilt assortment of views, some of them blatantly contradictory. But from an incoherent swirl of ideas, a common outlook emerges. The outlook is neither a clear-cut doctrine nor a philosophy, but something closer to a political impulse that might be described, to borrow from the historian Richard Hofstadter, as paranoid libertarianism. Where liberals, let alone right-wingers, have portrayed the leakers as truth-telling comrades intent on protecting the state and the Constitution from authoritarian malefactors, that’s hardly their goal. In fact, the leakers despise the modern liberal state, and they want to wound it."

This "paranoid libertarianism" of Snowden and Assange is really not so far removed from Rob Ford's "gravy train." In both views, the world becomes divided into an Us versus Them paradigm where institutions no longer provide an honourable calling to civic duty and responsibility. There is no true country to stand for, no values to test against circumstance, and no chances taken to see what it reveals about the person taking the risk. The night Rob Ford was elected I wrote a piece about his choice of Survivor's "Eye of the Tiger," the bombastic track from Rocky III, as his theme song that ushered him to his victory party. His first term has more than lived up to his taste in music. But if I were to find a song that sums up where we are now, in the face of the worst political and public scandal in the city's history, I might have to reach for Pink Floyd's "Comfortably Numb." Just don't ask me to play it.

 Kevin Courrier is a freelance writer/broadcaster, film critic and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of ZappaRandy Newman's American Dreams33 1/3 Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask ReplicaArtificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles Utopian Dream). Courrier teaches part-time film courses to seniors through the LIFE Institute at Ryerson University in Toronto and other venues. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.  

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