Of Vladimir Putin and Rob Ford: Brothers Under Our Skin

In which the Elegant Bastard argues that boycotts and demands for resignations are not enough.

I doubt that many of you need to be told who Vladimir Putin is, but readers not fortunate enough to live in Toronto the Good may wonder who this character called Rob Ford might be, and why am I suggesting that these two sad little men are in some way siblings. More, why do I firmly believe that Olympic boycotts and mayoral resignations will do nothing to address the issues associated with each man, both of whom are nothing more than symptoms, festering growths  on the surface that distract our attention from the breeding germs  at work beneath our shared skin.

Robert Ford, the mayor of Toronto, does not so much move around the city as much as he lurches, stumbles, and oozes. Reportedly a failure in nearly everything he has ever attempted (other than running for mayor) and seemingly a classic example of self-loathing mixed with self-hatred, [i] he is a seething and obese ball of platitudes, prejudices and panderings, all designed to keep his legion of haters –  often called “Ford Nation” – submissive, obedient and ready to leap to his defence.

His role in their lives is important. He embodies and celebrates their failings, calling them in from the margins and placing them vicariously alongside “their boy” at city hall. Let him mouth his racist and homophobic (or, in the case of cyclists, cruel) comments. He merely says out loud what they are terrified to say in whispers for fear of censure. Let him wander aimlessly and apparently intoxicated along the wrong stretch of a Toronto street festival, where he is filmed and ridiculed far from his panicking handlers. His followers will morph him into a “hard working boy” letting off a little steam – just like them! He is the little man of the little people and those who think he will be easy to remove are politically naive. For as much as he may be one Torontonian’s nightmare, he is another’s wet dream.

Mr. Putin is cut from the same bolt of cloth – albeit a much smaller piece. An authoritarian and petulant narcissist, he would be a sad and silly figure on the international stage –  if only he had less oil and fewer nuclear weapons. As is, he repeatedly gives the world reason to roll its eyes and wring its hands.  This past year or so, he’s been quite a busy little boy.  He has in off-hand and almost cavalier fashion supported the brutal Assad regime in Syria. He has used Russian orphans as a political tool against the United States. He has established bureaucratic networks that assault and/or imprison all who protest against the increasingly undemocratic structure of the Russian state. And he has allowed virulent homophobia to be enshrined into law, even to the point where it threatens to profane the upcoming Sochi Winter Olympics.

But his pathos becomes more evident than his politics when Putin attempts to show us the man that he would like to be. Among many many other carefully created images and anecdotes, we get “heroic” pictures of him crouching beside a (tranquilized) tiger, posing in a (stationary) race car, sitting bare-chested upon a (walking) horse and wearing a hockey uniform in the company of real (and much younger) players prior to a game.[ii] His overt need to have his masculinity validated at every possible location becomes first ludicrous, then wearisome and finally, troubling. He is a man in search of his own penis and world affairs are apparently a means to that end. (Mr. Ford must make do with a mere city.)

Just as there are childhood issues behind the accidental and self-abusive buffooneries of Toronto’s Rob Ford, so too are there multiple dynamics at work creating the putative super-hero, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin. But whether he was made by the horrors of post-war Leningrad, the fact that he was born to doting older parents, the relative poverty that meant he was raised as a slightly built skinny child in a neighbourhood of violent toughs, or the Soviet hierarchy that condemned him to impotent decades of mindless bureaucratic tasks when he wanted so badly to be a spy, [iii] this “leader” – who proudly claims to have been a childhood “thug” – seems somehow incomplete as a person. Small wonder that he “despises” the comparatively elegant and confident Barack Obama. We need only look at a recent picture (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/08/08/world/europe/obama-cancels-visit-to-putin-as-snowden-adds-to-tensions.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0) of the two together to perhaps understand the real reasons a gleeful Putin will keep Snowden safe in Russia. Obama has not even unfolded to his full height and he already towers over the vengeful little man beside him, the one whose face shows the strain as he tries to puff himself just one centimeter higher.

Yet just as Fordian bigotries appeal to the weak in Toronto, Putinian myth-making resonates in a Russia where many remember and long for the superpower status of bygone decades, the time when the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics stood toe to toe against the Yankee behemoth and nearly won the Cold War. Putin is their manufactured poster boy, the man who tweaks American and European noses at will and gets away with it.

It is this essential similarity – the ability to siphon political strength from the weakness of others – that makes a Ford or a Putin so difficult to defeat. True, the actions of each appal us – and rightly so. Offended at every possible level, we call for the resignation of the puerile mayor and a boycott of the Olympics so dear to the heart of the pathetic president. But these strategies will not work.

Many of my friends are calling passionately for action against the Sochi games and I share their anger. But I cannot support a boycott of the games. It would be a dramatic gesture, yes, but not much more. We would be “seen” to act, but others – our athletes – would pay the price of our “action”. No cost would accrue to us. It seems unfair to let others bear the brunt of our outrage.

A boycott may also backfire. Action creates reaction. Outrage breeds counter-outrage. Is the Russian response to a Sochi boycott likely to be the nation turning against Putin en masse and wagging a remonstrative finger at him, saying “Now look what you’ve done!” Or is it more likely to be a nationalistic and xenophobic slam right back at us – and the lionization of Putin into the Hercules he so clearly needs to be. What then might be the fate of Russian gays and lesbians when they face not just discrimination in the Duma[iv] but energized anger on the streets?

This power of counter-outrage is evident here in Toronto.  It is one of two forces keeping the grotesque little mayor politically alive. Every time angry voices demand his departure, equally angry armies thunder back, calling Ford’s attackers “leftist losers” and Ford the “BEST MAYOR EVER”. As I write, posted comments in response to his allegedly drunken appearance at the street festival are running in his favour! He may very well be re-elected next year.

The other force keeping both men in power – and it too argues against boycotts and resignations – is the political powers arranged behind Ford and Putin. Each man is a puppet. Ford is the front man for a powerful right wing cabal that loves the appeal he has to a large segment of Ontario’s voting population. They hope that with his “Nation” and their marketing, a right wing government in Ontario, in concert with its federal cousins in Ottawa,  will start removing a lot of the “anti-business” regulations that currently restrict their unfettered (and unprincipled) version of capitalism. A man named Tim Hudak – a slightly better dressed Ford clone who expresses the same hates but with more syllables – is even now busily being groomed to take power at the provincial level.

As for Putin, he is nothing more than a desperate move made by desperate men seeking to protect and enrich themselves. As President Boris Yeltsin began to fall apart, his backers elevated the unknown Putin, even though he was seen as “kind of small”, because he would be loyal, not to Russia, but to them. It is Russia’s oligarchs and its emerging upper class that manipulate and maintain Putin now. Even if we savage Sochi, they will be relatively unscathed. If anything, the fallout might enrich and empower them further.

Ford and Putin are assailable, but there will be a cost. If the villains in Russia are more the billionaires in their mansions than the bigots in the streets, then our actions need to be directed at them, a move that could cost us revenue, investment and growth. There would be political scandal when the degree of our own governments’ complicity in Russian corruption – including Putin – becomes evident.  If Ford is to be brought down, he has to be made a political liability rather than an asset to those financial and media forces who benefit from his polarizing presence. Our mockery must be directed at them as much as him. Again, there will be costs as unsavoury links are revealed. Still, if we want there to be a fight, it is up to us – and not our surrogates – to pay the price.

I am not counselling radicalism. I am far too comfortable here in the political mushy middle for that. But if we are truly outraged at what is happening in Toronto, Russia and so many other places in the world where gestures calm anger and allow business as usual to go on, we need to move away from feeble “shows”. We need to rise from our couches. We need to bare our teeth and show our claws and run the risk of wounds. Otherwise we may as well remain silent, for no successful wars were ever fought with noisy fireworks set off by unpaid and unwilling mercenaries.



[i]  For an admittedly somewhat biased but nonetheless fascinating story of how Mr. Ford became what he is, see http://www.torontolife.com/informer/features/2012/05/15/rob-ford-the-weirdest-mayoralty-ever/

[ii]  For more of these quite accidentally hilarious images, go to http://www.theatlantic.com/infocus/2011/09/vladimir-putin-action-man/100147/

 [iii] For a riveting biography – decidedly unauthorized – of Putin, see Masha Gessen’s much admired The Man Without a Face,available here (http://www.chapters.indigo.ca/books/the-man-without-a-face/9781594488429-item.html) or at Amazon.

 [iv]  The Duma is the Russian parliament

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