Insightfully missing the point in a recent article titled “Rob Ford: a dubious grasp on recovery fundamentals,” Jim Coyle of the Toronto Star examined our illustrious mayor’s behaviour and statements on his return from rehab, and found them to be inconsistent with the narrative of an addict in recovery.
Says Coyle: “About his experience in rehab, the mayor recited only bromides and generics. This was unusual. Virtually all rehab grads have moments of clarity, small epiphanies, those times when they get it. These are usually heart-scalding. And hardly a rehab grad speech is made without a man or woman telling of an instance deeply meaningful to them. Ford has had nothing of the kind to say. Likewise, he had almost nothing specific to say about the behavioural changes that will be necessary to live sober — the mundane nuts and bolts in which rehabs specialize. … The most screaming silence of all, of course, was his failure to specifically mention his children or wife — who, if they are like most every other family to have walked this path, will have suffered most from his addiction. Most every parent who goes into rehab has a searing moment when they realize just how much pain they’ve caused loved ones. It causes our greatest grief. It inspires our greatest determination to get well and get it right. Most every parent coming out of rehab dedicates themselves, above all, to being better fathers or mothers.”
Long story short, Rob Ford’s recovering addict performance was unconvincing. Coyle seems to think that Ford is addicted, but not recovered. I suspect, however, that it goes deeper than that: Rob Ford, though a problem drinker, was never truly addicted in the first place. The defining feature of addiction is akrasia: using against one’s better judgement. Wanting to stop, but being unable to stop. It is not the same as merely having a drug/alcohol problem, as drugs and alcohol can cause serious problems even in the absence of an addiction, and, indeed, one can be addicted without having suffered any dramatic harm (and most users of every popular drug are not addicted and will never be seriously harmed by their use). Rob Ford was not constantly drunk, but was prone to binges, and in his excess frequently got himself into trouble. The claim that he has an addiction, as far as I can tell, was never substantiated, but was taken for granted since the news first came out about the crack video. There was, at that time, some debate about whether the allegations about using crack were correct. There was, however, no debate about what crack use signifies.
In the white middle/upper class imagination, crack has long provided a convenient transfer point by which the responsibility for racial inequities could be shifted from white society (racism) to black people themselves, via the proxy of a drug. Crack thus inherited the legacies of slavery and systematic discrimination. Faithful to these roots, its criminal prosecution has brought terrible violence against already severely marginalised people. In the United States, prior to the Obama administration, crack cocaine was punishable 100 times as severely as powdered cocaine (under Obama, that ratio was lessened to 18 to 1), even though crack and powder cocaine are literally the same drug, different only in means of ingestion (and therefore in rate of absorption). Powdered cocaine, however, is associated with rich whites, and crack cocaine is associated with poor blacks. As those incarcerated in the United States are required to work, often under threat of increased sentences or even solitary confinement, disproportionate prosecution of the War on Drugs against young black males has ensured a steady supply of slave labour for American manufacturing. To justify these practices, crack has been repeatedly vilified, its harms conflated with those of endemic poverty and malnutrition. Discrimination is covered up by medicalisation, turning a moral problem into personal problem, poverty into criminality and then into disease. Rob Ford, however, is not black, nor is his family poor. To the gentrifiers who dominate this city, for a white mayor to be a crack user was incomprehensible — it didn’t match the script for either mayors or crack users. Much of the ensuing scandal revolved around race, with Ford casting himself as white saviour while simultaneously uttering bigoted comments, repeatedly accused of racism but also of having inappropriately appeared in photographs with people whose appearance marks them as outsiders to be avoided. He got high with people from whom he was supposed to be hiding, and it blew everyone’s minds.
Should we have been so surprised? While “a whopping 85 percent of those sentenced for crack cocaine offenses were black … the majority of users of the drug were white.” (Hart, 2014) Most of what most of us think we know about crack is completely untrue. For example, there never was a crack baby epidemic. It’s not that crack is totally safe; there can be significant health effects from regular crack smoking, but they’ve been vastly overstated in drug war propaganda, and so the public has a very distorted image of its effects and users. One of the lies we’ve been told is that crack is instantaneously addictive: try it once and you’ll become mindless, incapable of making rational choices, forever consumed by the hunger for crack. To see if this were actually the case, psychologist Carl Hart performed an experiment in which crack users were given the choice of crack now, or a monetary reward some hours later. If the mindless-crackhead model were accurate, no amount of money would have been enough to outweigh the option of getting high right now — but, in the experiment, $20 was a sufficient reward for every single crack user to delay gratification. If only $5 was offered, sometimes they’d choose the crack, provided there was enough of it. This makes it clear that crack users can rationally consider their options and refrain from using if there’s a better option available. Moreover, most people who use crack do not become addicted to it, and even if they end up struggling with addiction, they can still weigh options and choose appropriately. Addiction is a conflict of values, where the good parts about getting high, though outweighed by the bad parts, are still serving an important function which cannot be so easily released, and this conflict can expand and take over entire lives, or even entire communities. Rob Ford, however, is not even addicted — or, at least, there’s no evidence that he is. We simply found out that he’s used crack and immediately assumed he must be addicted, because we’ve been lied to for decades in the hopes that the slavery of black people might thrive uncontested.
Rob Ford’s behaviour has been problematic, to say the least. His comments and actions have been homophobic, racist, abusive and reckless, and his drinking has surely played a central role in that. There is much about him many of us we would like very much to sweep under the rug, and the narrative of addiction provides a convenient way of doing exactly that. By calling him an “addict,” we strip his actions of authenticity. If he was addicted, that means he was going against his own will, and so the struggling human can be separated from its body’s actions. This also functions collectively: by marking certain behaviours as “those of an addict,” we can place them outside of our collective self-concept (we’re not like that; he’s just sick). The realities that a great many people actually want to have an ignorant bigot for mayor, and that someone with power might actually like to get high (and not be conflicted and contrite about it), are harder to swallow than the old story that sometimes people go down bad paths in their lives and do awful things in spite of themselves. “Addiction” is, among other things, a script we can assume he’s following if we want to ignore what he actually is. And what is he?
A monster is a creature which exists across categories, which cannot be accounted for under the dominant system of thought, and which therefore threatens destabilisation, provoking a reaction of fear and hatred. It comes from the Latin verb for “to remind”: monsters demonstrate. In colloquial English, it also means an unredeemable villain, one guilty of cruelty and identified with the grotesque. A monster is the unthinkable and inescapable. For an addict to have made errors only to find a path to recovery and redemption would put everything in its proper place and reaffirm the social order — the gentrification of Rob Ford, defusing his potency. The definitional requirement of addiction, however, is simply absent: political manoeuvring aside, there was never any indication that Rob Ford actually wanted to stop but found himself unable to; I posit that he never wanted to stop at all: he simply likes getting drunk and high. Thus, he is a monster, haphazardly crossing the lines of race and class, revelling unreflexively in the violation of every Torontonian taboo.
Does he seem like he’s recovering? To quote again from Jim Coyle, “There was nothing of the vitality and enthusiasm that most rehab grads have on release, the gratitude for a new lease on life, the eagerness to get on with showcasing the new and improved us. He seemed like someone who had just lost his best friend. … he seemed still to be grieving.” We must now consider the possibility that Rob Ford was able to sustain his exuberance and civic engagement in the face of constant and vicious attacks not in spite of but because of his substance use. What seemed like a politically expedient move — admitting to a non-existent addiction so as to follow a simple narrative and regain public trust — has now failed. His recovery was a lie, and he has been made weaker by the effort. It may be that without the stimulating secret to his powers he will simply fade away. More likely, however, is that we have not yet born witness to the great and terrible fruition of his monstrosity, and he will soon return to shock us all once more. I can only hope that he will not do so in a way that is materially damaging to this fair city, and that he will not regain power in the upcoming election. Vote Sketchy.
If the purpose of a monster is to show unrealised possibilities for greater understanding hidden in the cracks between categories, what promises lie hidden within the ample flesh of our notorious mayor? The (well founded) accusations of racism on his part, combined with condemnation expressed towards him for associating with poor black people, perhaps, hold the key. By indulging wilfully in what we wrongly assumed was reserved for the underclass, he has crossed a boundary, forcibly inserting black poverty and drug use into the branding of a “post racial” city in the throes of gentrification. Here, as elsewhere, race continues to inform practices of marginalisation. We have supported policies of genocide against First Nations, and we have allowed the descendants of slavery to be enslaved once again under completely false pretences, blamed for the problems endemic in their communities, problems which stem from structural forces which meanwhile buoy the status of middle and upper class white Americans and Canadians such as Rob Ford. Perhaps, instead of constantly falling over ourselves to express disingenuous sympathy for Rob Ford’s “condition,” we should work to change the systemic factors responsible for establishing the narrative by which we have misjudged his conduct. Addressing endemic poverty among marginalised populations is a daunting problem and will not be simple, nor will it happen without resistance, yet it is necessary. Allow me therefore to close with two concrete suggestions for how to move forward:
1) Abolish the prison system, and pay reparations to those who’ve borne its abuses.
2) Design and implement a mincome-type system to eliminate poverty.