Rob Ford, Emotional Whiplash, and the Suburban Medieval



A malignant fat tumour has suddenly transformed Rob Ford into an object of empathy. Even his fiercest opponents are turning blue with the mantra: We have our differences, but no one would wish this upon him. The endless repetition makes one wonder if the reciters are trying to force themselves to believe it.

So many folks want to do the right thing, and separate Rob Ford’s politics from Rob Ford’s health. To do it, they must bracket off their disdain for the man they know as a racist, abusive, rageoholic addict. Leashed by politeness and perhaps the reminder of their own mortal fears, they are jerked between loathing and pity, sustaining serious emotional whiplash.

But it’s not only the cognitive dissonance between “thug” and “cancer victim” that snaps their heads back and forth. It’s also the confusion between the white ambulance and the black Escalade, between hospital bed and campaign stump.

They hear Rob’s voice trembling with sickness, fear of chemotherapy, faith in family, faith in God. But then it also trembles with faith in the gullibility of Ward 2, faith that family and ideology are interchangeable, and, of course, faith in Doug Ford. Doug: all choked up, as anyone would be at a podium outside a hospital. Doug: who misses more than half his Council votes because he’s so very busy with side-deals, covering for his brother at pressers, and verbally abusing the parents of autistic children.

What are we to feel? Kind people, or people who want to appear kind, will bite their tongues to separate Rob Ford’s health crisis from his character. But the Fords actually want to drive these together. Cancer becomes a campaign opportunity, to show how a pious commitment to neoliberal hooliganism is the noblest way to confront death.

Loathing and pity, loathing and pity. Our poor necks!

The whiplashing doesn’t end there. The Fords, enabled by flip-floppy journos, have also yoinked the city backwards into a feudalism – let’s call it “suburban medieval” — in which the king’s body is the body of the people, and his bloodline spins a divinely-ordained web of power. Merit is irrelevant. Authority is a genetic birthright preserved in the heart, bowel, marrow and fat of the king, who shakes the fortunes of the realm with every wheezy breath.

Toronto columnists are reduced to divining the city’s future through cell cultures and sarcoma statistics. Doctors measure the Mayor’s urine, and pundits measure his resolve. The entire city is consumed with the interpretation of omens. Mundane issues, like how to really help drug addicts, are pushed aside for the solemn consideration of the king’s entrails.

Dr. Zane Cohen will not interpret omens. For him, there is no significance in cancer beyond the biochemical evidence, which only says as much as it can prove. In the cold light of Cohen’s parsimonious rationalism, some begin to comfort themselves with a moral story that, unlike most medieval tales, has a positive spin:

Rob Ford’s tumours will be vanquished by his fighting instinct, his unshakeable will, his ruthlessness. He’s not a quitter, and the tumour will prove his valour. He will stay stubborn. He will pray and accept prayers, feel the grace of God shine especially upon him. He will beat his sickness back, driven by his convictions. He’ll marginalize the hell out of that cancer.

In other words: his terribly wounded anti-social narcissism is now touted as his greatest strength, and we can now turn on a dime to pray that the worst of him produces the happiest outcome.

But if folks really want to get into this medieval thing, and indulge a mythical interpretation of the king’s cancer, they can at least be historically consistent.

Medieval doctors believed that anger corroded the liver. Sloth gathered at the waist. Vile humours choked the cynical heart. They believed a tumour colonizing the flesh was a divine retribution or a sign of demonic possession, requiring the patient to be cast, a scapegoat, beyond the city’s walls.

No doctor prior to Pasteur would have moralized virtue from Rob Ford’s mass. They would have seen it in much more obvious terms: not a stimulant to his combative spirit, but the plain result of it. They would have charted the cosmic harmony between his rage and his consumption.

They may even have gone so far as to predict the nature of the tumour from the behaviour of its host. They would have seen him clearly, standing utterly alone at court, defying all of the logic of the larger system to repeatedly vote no to the health of the body politic. And through his no, to somehow grow stronger. The medievals did not understand cancer, but they had a concise picture of the cancerous character.

Dr. Cohen won’t add fuel to either fantasy: that Rob Ford’s fighting spirit is a boon to his prognosis, or that his illness reflects a toxic heart. He’ll just do his grim job, paid for by all taxpayers, deaf to the clamour of beliefs, seeing the tumour as any other tumour, and the man as any other man.