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

Sunday Morning Coffee: This Week’s Ups and Downs (I)

A bit of silliness in which the Elegant Bastard attempts to predict whether the week ahead is likely to be worth the effort.

A note: If, Dear Reader, you have chosen not to live in Toronto the Good, then you might not be aware of the way the concept of “Mayor” is being redefined here. My references to the current holder of that office may thus seem strange. If this is the case, then be aware that you apparently have lucky stars and should even now be thanking them. – E.B.

I do not know why my Sunday morning coffee has acquired an importance that elevates it far beyond the many others I drink each week. I do not rank my showers or my transit rides or my lunches or any of the other physical and intellectual functions occurring regularly in any seven day cycle. A sneeze on Tuesday has no more meaning than black forest ham on Thursday.  Yet there is something about that second cup of the first day of the new week that carries with it a feeling of vague anxiety mixed with new hope and a dash of nagging fear. (The first cup – powder in hot water – brings only the caffeine jolt required to make me capable of actually brewing the second.)

Preparation for the Sunday second cup (actually, I use what I think is the world’s largest mug, given to me 27 years old) has taken on the status of ritual: the beans, roasted the day before, are ground by hand; the filters are imported from Italy, the carafe from Germany; the water started life in what I am told is an Icelandic glacier. Boiling water first pre-soaks the filter then baptizes the added grounds so that they “blossom”. A long slow pouring process follows and alchemy turns out not to be so difficult after all.

If that were all there was to it, then slipping into Brave New Week would be easy-peasy. However, there is another essential element: the Sunday morning news. Like most of us on a Saturday night, I carefully tuck the world away after making it promise to behave itself a little better when it gets up in the morning. If the Sunday news – on balance – shows evidence that a Putin-free period of peace and prosperity might be in the offing, then hope will take me striding into Monday with a smile upon my face. If instead it looks and sounds like the world will be  throwing the same tantrums as the three under-6’s who live next door, then my interest in finding out where Mayor Rob Ford gets his non-prescription drugs goes up – way up!

Does that sound logical? No? Well, to each his private madness, no? And since you are here, Dear Reader, why not join me. Is your coffee ready? Do you have your copy of the New York Times? Is your computer set to CNN, the BBC and the CBC? Is your television tuned to the most banal local news channel you can find? Then let’s see what’s in store? Shall it be an UP week or a DOWN week?

Hmmm. Something called an Austin Mahon is coming to Toronto. It looks like a Bieber. Something called a  Cody Simpson is coming to Toronto. It also looks like a Bieber. I look out my window. I am in Toronto. We are not off to a good start. And whatever happened to biodiversity? DOWN

Thousands of people are out in the pouring rain taking part in a run to raise money for research into prostate cancer and none of the runners looks like a Bieber. In your face, Big C! This is an UP.

I read that someone once wanted to start a Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Buildings. The romance of the notion cheers me instantly. I wonder how many others I could talk into joining something like this. Perhaps we could retroactively save the Royal Ontario Museum (currently being eaten by what looks like a gigantic alien sent from outer space.) A definite UP.

North Korea announces that it is ready for talks with the U.S. Apparently the Valium is working, But Kim Yong-un remains on the Rob Ford diet. The  UP is balanced by the DOWN so it all remains ambiguous. But then, what did you expect from North Korea.

(I am too taking this seriously!)

Turkey’s leader announces that the demonstrators his police are now waterbombing in Istanbul are “international thugs and terrorists”. We all know this cannot be so because all the international thugs and terrorists are busy tormenting that nice Mr. Assad in Syria. This, of course, makes us think of that nice Mr. Mubarak in Egypt and that nice Mr. Gaddafi in Libya and that nice Mr. Duffy in a province to be determined. Forget “No Fly” zones; can we please have a “No Lie” zone? All in all, it’s a BIG DOWN.

Toronto’s police chief performed what can only be regarded as silent contortions as he attempted to avoid incriminating Toronto’s largest still standing structure, its mayor. Never doubt the power of unspoken words. Hilarious.  UP! High UP. (But not as high as Mr. Ford.)

(Of course it was a cheap shot. It’s Sunday. Ok, I promise. No more Ford stuff.)

Last week’s media star, Mr. Edward Snowden, is apparently losing some of his glitter. The predictable voices – Michael Moore, The Guardian, Julien Assange, professional “activists” – continue to deify him, but others have been probing a little more deeply. A more balanced and less hysterical picture is emerging. It is entirely possible that what some need to see as heroic and others are desperate to call a traitor is just another sad little man. No surprise. Whistle blowers who say “Look at that!” are necessary; those who say “Look at ME!” are not. We see you, Mr. Snowden. We see you. Sanity is prevailing – barely. This is an UP.

Warner Brothers is making previews available to churches all over the US as it tries to market  “Man of Steel”. Its claim? Superman is really a Christ figure. The evidence?  “Startling” similarities between the life of Jesus and the life of Superman. One of the more powerful “proofs” is the fact that at one point, Superman comes down to earth – arms outstretched – before taking off again. Crucifixion and Resurrection, right.

Setting aside the fact that birds, squirrels airplanes and most drunks come to earth with appendages outstretched – and then take off again, the “shock” that a western film or literary hero might have similarities to Christ is not newsworthy. A brief list of Christ figures would include Jim Casey (Grapes of Wrath), R. P. McMurphy (Cuckoo’s Nest), Harry Potter, Jim (Huckleberry Finn) , Simon (Lord of the Flies), Jim Conklin (Red Badge of Courage) and Billy Budd.

What is new is the studio’s use of America’s churches as marketing tools. Clearly the hope is that crowds will stream directly from church to Cineplex. Does this mean the churches will start previewing sermons in the movie houses in order to send those crowds stampeding back? Churches? Movie Theatres? Can either of those two institutions handle this much honesty?

For the crassest use of a religious space since the money lenders in the temple, Warner Brothers gets a DOWN.

The clincher has to be a New York Times article in which Facebook is blamed for its members’ posting indiscreet pictures of themselves. Apparently the lure of “Like” is so strong that morality and propriety and shame all get tossed out the window. “Facebook made me do it.” is becoming the great new excuse, even more than the international thugs and terrorists. The crazy thing about this is it sounds absolutely convincing. Absurdity saves the day. After this great UP, there can be no doubt.

It’s going to be a great week!  See you next Sunday.