Toronto is the largest city in Canada, it is about an hour from Guelph, the small city where I live. Toronto is one of North America’s biggest urban areas, with a population of 3.5 million (~10% of Canada), or 5.5 million if you count the amalgamated areas, the suburbs that fall under city council. Toronto is a city on the verge of becoming a truly great city, with vibrant multinational communities, relatively low taxes, with strong arts and business attractions that that are the envy of many urban areas. Toronto is in the news quite a bit lately, albeit for all the wrong reasons. The mayor of Toronto, Rob Ford, has admitted to purchasing and using crack cocaine on at least one occasion recently and even driving while drunk. Oh and his longtime friend and driver, a suspected drug-dealer, is in trouble for extortion. And several people the mayor has been photographed with are gang members who’ve met with bad ends lately. The list goes on, with new revelations almost weekly, and an ongoing police investigation that is being drowned out by the sheer insanity of the mayor’s actions.
For many of us, who have been paying attention to Toronto politics or Rob Ford in general, this does not come as a shock. The man has a long history of run-ins with the police for substance abuse. On the surface a few problems on record every decade might seem minor, but consider how many serious addicts manage to stay off the radar until they break down and how many are caught and jailed immediately. His verbal record as a councilor for his ward of the city is no better, with bizarre tirades against cyclists and lefties, flirtations with racism and homophobia, a shocking ignorance of aids, and a rather ironic zero tolerance policy towards drug users. To anyone outside of his party who was paying attention Ford looked like trouble. Mind you, that’s not enough to condemn the man.
Moltar is a character that I introduced in my book Bloodlust: A Gladiator’s Tale. Chosen Moltar is presented as very similar to Sauron from Tokien’s middle earth, an ominous figure of wrath and ruin ensconced in black armour and residing in a Mordor like Domain. Unlike Sauron, he is not a direct enemy of the protagonists, he is an “evil” that resides in their society. Modern Fantasy is not content with faceless badguys, however, so as I moved through the series and into Bloodlust: Will to Power, I humanized Moltar a little. I wanted to show his perspective, so that the reader could see how Moltar is a reflection of how power allows ruthlessness and reasonable expediency to give birth to brutality. I also wanted to make a more understandable, realistic villain, someone who real people would follow.
The most surprising part of the Rob Ford story is just how ardent his supporters are. Here we have a real-life man who is cartoonish in his behaviour and the cycle of lying, apologizing only when caught, and then asserting that his issues are not a problem. And yet while his general public support is shrinking, his core admirers are becoming more and more agitated, firing off letters criticizing the “left wing media”. Here are a few of the arguments I have seen put forward in defence of mayor Ford at a time when most other politicians would be facing serious questions from everyone about what he was doing smoking crack and getting crunk while coaching high school football (yes, he is so well supported that “think of the children” is actually being shied away from.)
- But other politicians have admitted to smoking marijuana, how is him being forced to admit smoking crack cocaine any different?
- He apologized for smoking crack cocaine, can’t we move on?
- No other politician has ever faced this kind of media assault!
- He wasn’t lying, they just asked the questions incorrectly!
- Lots of great leaders have substance abuse problems!
- He’s been such a good mayor that we should overlook his issues.
The condemnation of Ford transcends the political spectrum at this point. People forget that many of his enemies on city council are conservatives who rode into power with him and were subsequently alienated. And yet the defences roll on and on, out of control. I suspect they will continue, never shrinking beyond that vital core, until he is accused of doing something monstrous.
This got me thinking about Moltar again. A populist leader, like Ford, presents themselves as a heroic figure. These days it is always the humble everyman taking on the corrupt elites, a political David and Goliath story so compelling that almost every party tries to invoke it in out elections these days. Moltar is now less cartoonish than Ford, and the idea of him acting as a kind of tough guy populist in my books is very appealing. Tolkien made it clear is subsequent writings that he viewed Sauron in a similar light. The harsh truth is that some people, people who can be very nice to start off with, do throw their support behind figures who create a compelling narrative. We don’t have to look back too far in history to see a time when this was a real problem. Whether men like Rob Ford and Silvio Berlusconi, rich men in the guise of populists, are an echo or harbinger is a matter for a political blog.
What Rob Ford’s supporters demonstrate is that good people can often be lured into supporting what appears, to a rational outside observer, to be an obvious evil. He has been caught lying time and again, but they seek excuses for him and support him even harder because they are convinced that he is a good, if flawed, man. This is not a rational analysis, it is faith based politics (I’m not talking religion, though Doug Ford, Rob’s brother did compare his persecution to Jesus being crucified… honestly, you can’t make this up.)
This is an interesting lesson to learn for a writer. A one dimensional populist villain is possible in real life. The key is to demonstrate how that character convinces people to follow him. If you take the reader on the same journey that the populist takes his followers on, you might be able to create a truly resonant experience, as well as offer deep commentary on the problems of narrative driven politics. Just don’t become the next L. Ron Hubbard as you do so please.
Another takeway from the Ford scandals that is useful for writers is how much people admire toughness and endurance. Many of the most die-hard supporters of the Mayor look up to him because he refuses to back down in face of overwhelming pressure for him to quit. It doesn’t matter how much damage his refusal to quit does, what matters is the courage he is showing by sticking to his guns and not backing down. This is a useful thought for defining both heroes and villains.
PS: I have complete control over comments on the blog, don’t even think about it 😉