Rob Ford, a homeless shelter, and the discipline of political discourse

After working at a men’s shelter for five months, I find myself in a varied state of having 1) confirmed some of my existing assumptions about homelessness, 2) been proven wrong about an equal number of things, and 3) discovered new patterns and trends that I hadn’t associated with life on Toronto’s margins. Re: the first point, I’ve learned that a huge majority of my new friends struggle through cycles of addiction and mental illness. On point #2, I’ve been surprised to find that 118 middle-aged involuntary male roommates actually maintain order amongst themselves pretty well.

As for the third category, I’ve stumbled face-first upon the fact that the shelter drop-in is an inconspicuous bastion of Ford Nation.

It’s been baffling to personally confirm what some pundits have started to recognize: that Rob Ford enjoys wide support from low-income groups that he shows very little interest in from a policymaking standpoint. Since candidates began filling the mayoral slate last month, I’d estimate half of the men I’ve asked claim they’ll be voting for the incumbent. ‘He’s an average guy’ and ‘nobody else is cutting the waste’ are the types of justifications they offer, driving home the homogenous message percolating amongst an economically, socially and culturally heterogeneous base of support.

This paradox – the fact that a platform explicitly aimed at taxpaying homeowners can appeal to a large group of homeless men – could conceivably be explained in numerous ways. The Ford camp has utilized unsavoury, but unusually savvy, media stunts to project an aura of personal connection with folks on the margins. Further, they’ve effectively used blue-collar mediums to retaliate against liberal urban elites, whom they characterize as pompously indulgent and self-serving (maybe someone’s been tuning the drop-in radio to Newstalk 1010 on my off days. Grrrr…).

It could be so many things. Primarily, though, I think support for Ford  – both in the shelter and elsewhere – is a result of chronically low expectations of political leadership. Beyond the incompetency of specific figures, we hold our leaders to shockingly feeble standards. How else could a mayoral race in one of the most highly esteemed and economically successful cities in the world centre around perpetual quarrels over a three-stop subway line?

Such low expectations are a result of a more broadly bored and cynical civic forum, in which national politicians get away with reciting bullet point economic figures, and sending the media home before it can ask meaningful questions about the health of our democracy. With this climate persisting at the highest level, it’s unsurprising that our local political communities have faced a similar type of depreciation.

In his essay “Discipline and Hope,” American cultural critic Wendell Berry argues that such pettiness is a result of the devolution of politics from an art in which leaders defend their visions and principles, to a “shallow game” where “language ceases to bind head to heart, action to principle, and becomes only a weapon in a contention deadly as war”. He claims that just as farming has been alienated from land and marriage from love, politics has abandoned the disciplines that should be at it’s heart; namely, “considerations of fact and of principle and of human and historical limits and possibilities”.

Berry observes that marketing tactics designed to placate a need for immediate cultural and political satisfaction have replaced these disciplines of discourse. Such tactics are rooted in a ‘popular perfectionism’ that – like philosophical traditions such as Marxism – strives for a utopian society, but is uniquely childish in obnoxiously demanding it now. Such civic irrationality stems from a broader societal obsession with consumption and efficiency, which has resulted in the “relentless subjection of means to immediate ends”.

If Berry is right, it’s no wonder that we have come to expect so little of our leaders. The pettiness of their means is a direct response to the impatience of their constituents, who exercise their democratic rights with the same degree of resolve and commitment they demonstrate while channel surfing.

Whether our city’s public offices remain the “hunting grounds of mediocrity and vanality” that Berry describes ultimately does not depend on the inherent intentions or character traits of political candidates.  Rather, such a fate will be decided by citizens’ resolve to build engaged and sustainable communities, whether they live in condo developments, housing projects, or homeless shelters. In other words, we have to want responsible leadership much more badly than we currently do.

If I’m impatient with one thing, it’s widespread acceptance of leadership that appropriates public anger and disillusionment to destroy our civic institutions. On October 27, I’ll be voting for a candidate that shamelessly loves and embraces the discipline of political discourse.

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