The "Crack-Smoking Mayor of Toronto" and the Politics of Middles

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Hardly could you find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy than the Toronto City Council these days. It’s theater, not fine theater, mind you, more Trailer Park Boys meets House of Cards, but it gets huge ratings. This is a real problem for the actual work of politics which has not only ground to a halt, but has derailed in a firebomb to rival the Hindenburg. Now most pundits are wondering if these pieces can even be put back together again. Shrapnel from the blast has literally reached around the world. 

What a delicious scandal for those of us who can now tune into the nightly news to get our Springer fix: councilors bowled over, lewd shouting matches, NSFW gob smackers, all but WWF collapsible metal chair throwing, which I predict is still ahead. 

The old counterintuitive maxim among political scientists is that too much politics in the news, too high of a voter turnout, is actually bad for democracy. It’s not that engagement itself is bad, rather that high levels of engagement generally suggest major dissatisfaction or outright scandal. We Canadians generally prefer that our politics operates beyond our acuity, doing the slow, dignified work of “peace, order, and good government” – plowing streets, building schools, running sewer lines – not front stage, not pastoral or moral leadership, just competent public justice.

Call me a misty eyed monarchist, but this kind of picture soothes my Canadian soul, and it makes me almost nostalgic for the yester-month conversations about Senate reform and why our Prime Minister seems like such a meanie. Most politics, most good politics, normally operates beyond our acuity. It’s not that we’re ungrateful as citizens; it’s just that our governments generally are overwhelmingly good at what they do, especially compared against the global average. Our governments’ work is characterized, as Michael Gerson puts it, by the banality of goodness: the repeated, dignified, honest work of governing in slow, peaceable, democratic ways. The goodness of numerous committee meetings, of answering constituent emails late into the night, of wolfing down too many bratwursts at town fairs. It’s the rumpled suits and the tired smiles of Foreign Service officers who have stared long into the abyss of aid and trade policies that they know can and should be better, but are as good as they’re going to get today.

Toronto Mayor Rob Ford.  Photo via West Annex News.

Toronto Mayor Rob Ford.  Photo via West Annex News.

Politics is about these middles. Lauren Winner talks about Fitz Lane’s The Western Shore with Norman’s Woe, an 1862 oil painting of a cove, water, clouds, and a boat (Cape Ann Historical Museum, Gloucester, Massachusetts). Its distinguishing feature, she says, is its palette, what nineteenth century art critics called middle tint. 

“the grays, the browns and blues and dull brick reds, not bright; the colors that do not sing out for your attention; the colors you might not notice if you are not looking for them. They are the gray curve of Lane’s rocks, the enormous expanse of ochre sky. They are the putty of buildings that dominate a canvas but do not draw the eye. Middle tint makes the shadows in your painting; without it, your canvas would look flat. Standing here in this museum before Lane’s great landscape, you might not linger on the middle tint, but without it, you would not be able to see the bright sharp clouds, the curve of stark black earth that holds your eye.” 

The middle tint, says Winner, is the palette of faithfulness. “Middle tint is going to church each week, opening the prayer book each day.” It is “rote, unshowy behavior, and you would not notice it if you weren’t looking for it, but it is necessary; it is most of the canvas; it is the palette that makes possible the gashes of white, the outlines of black; it is indeed that by which the painting will succeed or fail.”

Middles lack the glory of beginnings and endings, the congratulations of acceptance, and the applause of graduation. But they are essential.

Rob Ford makes for truly sensationalist television and like everyone else, I can hardly look away. The disapproving clucks from “average Joes” underwrite the tragicomic nature of the thing: an eye-rolling defeatism that, after all, “that’s just politics.” But this, pointedly, is not politics. The nightly news will give us headlines, but it won’t usually give us politics. For that, we need to get waist deep in middling, the unshowy, rote work of slow justice, the banality of goodness. We need to pay attention to the rest of the art that makes the Ford debacle such an outrageous splash on an otherwise middling canvas. Rob Fords will come and go, but the banality of goodness soldiers on. That, at least, soothes my Canadian soul.

-  Robert Joustra is a Fellow with the Center for Public Justice. He is assistant professor of international studies at Redeemer University College and editorial fellow at The Review of Faith & International Affairs.