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.
Benign or malignant? It’s impossible to know just yet. Perhaps it’s best to focus on the blessings of the present moment. Here are several unconflicted ways in which I can be happy for Rob Ford.
I’m really happy for Rob Ford that we live in a city and country with socialized medicine. With no apparent privilege given to his personal wealth and influence, he could journey from a nutritious breakfast to the emergency room to a CT scan to an ambulance to an elite care facility to receive an MRI and biopsy in a matter of hours, without having to worry about how he or his family will pay for it. I’m also relieved that if cancer patients of lesser means somehow got the impression he was jumping the queue, their general belief in Canadian fairness would soothe their concern.
I’m happy that Rob Ford has been cared for by well-trained physicians and support staff at Humber River Regional and Mount Sinai hospitals, some of whom are gay and/or people of colour and/or have real Jamaican accents. I imagine the nurses – many from parts of the world where there are few social services to speak of – are so friendly, they’ll let chums like Don Cherry show up after visiting hours with a double-double and the gift of a flashy tie.
I’m happy that Rob Ford got to spend time in emergency with alcoholics, drug addicts, people with HIV, homeless people who couldn’t find a bed in our shelter system, librarians, elites and other minorities, people who have been hit by cars while riding their bikes, victims of construction accidents, food poisoning and domestic violence. It can feel so reassuring to know you are part of a society in which everyone, no matter what their health, economic, or ethical challenges may be, is cared for with equal attention to evidence, transparency, and established protocol.
I’m glad for Rob Ford that some city councilors are working to improve public transit access to hospitals so that lower-wage employees can get to work more easily to serve people like him. I’m glad for Ford that some councilors are advocating for more bike lanes, to help those who cycle to work at the hospitals remain safe from the ominous SUVs that are sometimes driven by people who are drinking vodka straight from the bottle and making obscene gestures.
I’m really glad that if Renata Ford and the children were to be economically ruined by Rob Ford’s illness or death, many city councilors are fighting for more support and shelter services for the vulnerable and for abuse survivors, instead of brokering purely financial deals with condo developers, nightclub owners, and Jon Bon Jovi.
I’m really happy for Rob Ford that if he dies or remains incapacitated, and his children, for some reason, some day, need the help of a “hug-a-thug” programme, many councilors will have stood up for more programming for at-risk youth.
I’m really glad that Ford will, with no service-fee cost to him, be offered pain relief for his lower-left-quadrant abdominal mass and the therapies that will be used to treat it. The drugs he will be given may be similar to medications offered for free at drug treatment centres, which despite many strange objections have proven indispensible in relieving the chronic physical and emotional pain that addicts so often have to live with.
I’m glad for Rob Ford that he presides over a city so generous and kind-hearted that atheists stand shoulder to shoulder with agnostics and the faithful and nod solemnly as the Chinese-Canadian mayoral candidate whose parents “worked like dogs” offers prayers for his health and well-being.
I’m glad that Rob Ford has his loving brothers, especially Doug, who will not only carry his torch on the campaign trail, but advise him on how best to perform the part-time job of serving Etobicoke’s Ward 2 from his hospital bed. I’m glad that they’ll be happy to save the city yet more money by repurposing lawn signs and buttons and click-dragging copy from one website to another. I’m happy for Rob that, win or lose, family will always come first for the Fords, sustained by the passion for free markets. Doug will accept the mayoral baton from Rob, or not, with sympathetic eye-contact and an avuncular handshake. In sickness or in wealth (or both or neither), they will march with pride, arm in arm down union-paved roads in the annual Jesus in the City parade.
I’m also genuinely glad, and also quite moved, that Rob Ford enjoys the support of so many regular people who love him because he has learned to act at home among them. His years of service have exposed a tinderbox of alienation and rage that only he has been able to both mobilize and soothe. I also love him, in my own way, because without even trying he’s shown me something crucial about the necessity of empathy, and what happens when that empathy is hard to find.
To sum up: I’m so very glad that Rob Ford benefits from the kindnesses and services he has always voted against. I absolutely wish him an end to his pain and a speedy recovery, with the willing help of our tax dollars, because that’s what I would wish for everyone.