Register Monday | December 17 | 2018

The Ford Brothers and the Complicated Politics of Class

Rob Ford with a puppet. Photograph by Shaun Merritt.

For many downtowners, streaming Doug Ford’s Global News interview on their laptops, the thin gold chain around the city councilor’s neck was as important—and as damning—as the allegations that he sold hash in high school.

I think I speak for most of Toronto’s left-wing social elite when I say that selling hash to kids in the suburbs is a pretty benign thing to do. No worse—in fact, probably a good deal less harmful—than selling alcohol to the public at large, as the government of Ontario does.

I had friends in high school who sold weed (and Doug is right that we should treat hash and marijuana the same way, disapprobation-wise). One of those friends is now poised to become very successful in a non-drug-related industry, as well as being a nice, well-adjusted person.

It isn’t Doug Ford’s drug vending that has the city gasping and reaching for the smelling salts. The thing that really shocks the haute bourgeoisie of downtown Toronto is how tacky the Fords seem. I mean, gold chains?

Don’t get me wrong: you can fault the Fords for plenty on the merits alone. But it’s their style that really rankles. For many, it feels like The Beverly Hillbillies have taken over at City Hall.

At first, this seems incongruous with the Fords’ enormous wealth. The family label business is worth millions. Rob and Randy Ford drive Cadillac Escalades. How could such rich people be the subject of classist snobbery?

Because class isn’t really about wealth. George Orwell knew as much in 1945, when he wrote, “Anyone who pays attention to class differences at all would regard an army officer with £1000 a year as socially superior to a shopkeeper with £2000 a year.” This holds more or less true in Canada today. The Fords are the shopkeepers with £2000 a year. For all their wealth and power, they remain members of the petit bourgeois, the lower middle class. Their status is inscribed into everything they do, not least their drug scandals.

As Doug slyly pointed out in his Global interview, lots of journalists have done cocaine. Some do it casually but regularly, at parties. This might affect their ability to do their socially important job of reporting the news; cocaine is addictive and impairs the user’s sound judgment. But Rob Ford allegedly did crack—the grotesque sibling of powder cocaine, containing baking soda and smoked out of a glass pipe. How low.

Nor does Rob’s drinking problem conform to genteel conventions. Rob doesn’t overdo it with the pre-dinner martinis and then down a couple bottles of cabernet sauvignon before desert, like a John Cheever character. No, instead, he buys mickeys of Russian Prince vodka and apparently drinks them when he’s alone. (According to a story in the Toronto Star, staffers were concerned about his drinking but rarely saw him drinking.) Would this behavior shock the city’s sensibilities just as much if he added a little vermouth?

The fact is, Rob and Doug Ford are hosers. They say “eh?” They say, “Hooooly Christ!” when they walk into cameras. It’s not hard to imagine them saying “friggin.’” They are “branded on the tongue,” as Orwell put it—their accents are just indelibly hoserish. It’s hard to describe, but imagine the middle of their sentences reaching a high, squeaky pitch of incredulity, then descending to a thudding, exhaling indignation: “You hit me with a camera.” “Jeeez, eh?”

Even removing the filter of their Doug-and-Bob-MacKenzie accents, the Ford diction often conveys the family’s class origin in a way that makes left-wing elites either giggle or retch. Take one representative example from Doug Ford’s Global News interview, transcribed verbatim. The whole thing needs a big, meta, square-bracketed sic: “Their allegations were unfounded, unnamed sources, and, is that the best the Globe and Mail has? Is that the best, thirty years ago? They wanna go back when I was in high school? Come on Jackson: gimme a break.”

There is only one remotely cogent sentence in there, but, taken as a whole, the quotation communicates volumes: it says, “You downtowners can snicker all you want—I’m a business guy from Etobicoke and my people are going to understand me loud and clear.” It lays the tonal foundation for the more overt class politics the Fords sometimes employ. 

In the Global interview, Doug just goes for it: “Is this the social elites in this city…that have controlled this city for years…to make sure they fill their pockets from the blue-collar workers of this city, that we represent?” Dude sounds like Lenin at a Comintern meeting.

That a millionaire businessman can claim to speak for the working class; that he can be completely convincing in doing so; and that this self-proclaimed tribune of the plebs can feel so aggrieved by the slights of people whom he could buy and sell several times over are helpful reminders of how class works today.