If you watch any late-night television, you know the name Rob Ford. Mayor of Toronto, Ford recently revised months of denials and admitted what the press and police already knew (and had on tape): Yes, he'd regularly drunk too heavily. Yes, he'd smoked crack cocaine while in office.
Americans don't typically follow Canadian politics, but a crack-smoking mayor is scandalous enough to draw attention. What is happening in Toronto? my American friends ask. What is up with your mayor?
I won't pretend to fully get it. As an American who moved to Toronto months after Ford took office in 2010, there is a sensibility in this city that isn't mine. I'm a stranger to Toronto's history, an outsider to its politics. Still, I'm an avid observer and find this a fascinating cultural moment.
Since 1898, Toronto has held the nickname "Toronto the Good," coined in a book by C.S. Clark. The city earned the label for its benevolence and broad-mindedness. It was a city to be esteemed for being "liberal in matters of opinion." Toronto still lays claim to its moniker. We are a good city: good because we are environmentally conscious, good because we are unapologetically tolerant, good because our cultivated gentility drives both a law-abiding and mind-your-own-business nobility.
And now, the good people of Toronto—embarrassed and fed-up with Ford's behavior—are actually powerless to remove their leader from office. But maybe this isn't simply because there is no legislative statue for recalling a mayor. Maybe it's because Toronto the Good lacks the confident language to demand moral credibility of its political leaders who go bad.
Toronto is the most cosmopolitan city in the world, with immigrants making up nearly half of its population. Although its people are wildly diverse, Toronto manages to respect its differences. It's a city of warm and liberal welcome—and I love living here.
However, if you live in Toronto and wish to test the resilience of that tolerance, mention either that you read your Bible regularly or believe in the historical resurrection of Jesus Christ. Conversation will halt, and behind the glassy-eyes of your broad-minded Torontonian friends, you may notice a glimmer of polite disdain. Belief—an assertion of absolute truth—may as well be bigotry in this city. In Toronto, it's hard to admit that you're an evangelical Christian.
In C.S. Lewis's Abolition of Man, he examines what happens to a society that tries to abandon its allegiance to objective values, much like Toronto has. Until the Enlightenment, Lewis writes, people agreed that virtue (and virtuous judgment) had to be cultivated. We needed to be taught to love the lovely and despise the despicable. Our "affections" needed to be trained, and education, as Aristotle said, should endeavor to make the pupil like and dislike what he ought.
Today, cities like Toronto aim to make its citizens "liberal in opinion." Virtue cannot be decided objectively. The only agreed-upon virtue that remains is open-mindedness. Toronto the Good becomes Toronto the Tolerant. "Such is the tragi-comedy of our situation," writes Lewis. "We continue to clamour for those very qualities we are rendering impossible."
Tragic comedy seems sadly relevant in the case of Mayor Ford. "His mayoralty has been an experiment in what would happen if you had a feral 16-year-old boy for mayor," wrote Toronto-based writer Stephen Marche in the New York Times.
Marche, like other urbane Torontonians living in the downtown core, demand that Ford and his adolescent numbskullery must go. Though Toronto's City Council has recently stripped him of the majority of his mayoral powers, reducing his staff from 20 people to eight, Ford refuses to resign.
In his most recent interview with the CBC, Ford quoted a Bible verse (badly): "'He who shall cast the first stone has never sinned.' I admitted I sinned. I've let a lot of people down. [But] the past is the past." Politicians don't regularly go around quoting the Bible in Canada, certainly not in Toronto. The Scriptures spoken by Rob Ford, a man who does not claim to be religious, seem especially unusual.
But maybe not. Rob Ford is Toronto's anti-elite. He was voted in on a wave of suburban anger. After some of Toronto's outlying suburbs became part of its municipality, suburbanites have despised that city spending favors the needs of the wealthy living in Toronto's downtown core. Ford was elected on the promise that he would make city government work for them, too. Though himself a wealthy man, Ford postures himself as the friend of the blue collar worker living in Scarborough, not the banker living in a Toronto high-rise. Ford plays on the anger that is fueled by inequity, and that's why he continues to find support, despite having now admitted to criminal behavior.
Stephen Marche was also interviewed on the CBC, just after news of the police possession of the incriminating video was released. "The man has no honor," Marche exclaimed. "And I can't believe how incredibly old-fashioned I sound to myself." He recognized that the judgments he wanted to make about Rob Ford offended his own "liberal" sensibilities. It's easy to be liberal in opinion—to live and let live—until one's mayor makes international headlines because he's smoking crack-cocaine.
It seems preposterous, but in the days following the police confirmation of the long-rumored video, Ford's approval ratings rose. Despite the newest reiterations of political scandal emerging out of Toronto in the heft of its mayor, some have remained as bored as the ancients. Nothing new under the sun. A lying, even crack-smoking politician? Yawn.
Still, I believe Toronto is good, and I hope to stay. Rob Ford is not representative of this great city. But I can also hope and pray that Toronto will mature into a greater goodness than tolerance—even into our oldest ideas about virtue.
And if that's old-fashioned, I welcome a return to the good 'ole days.
Jen Pollock Michel lives in Toronto and worships at Grace Toronto Church.
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