That “Dirty Little Coward” Rob(ert) Ford

Toronto Mayor Rob Ford Addresses Media, November 5, 2013 following his revelation that he smoked crack cocaine

by Matt Sheedy

Some will no doubt recognize the title of this post as a nod to “the man who shot Jesse James,” Robert Ford, whose reputation as a “dirty little coward” was immortalized in folk songs and made popular in more recent decades by the likes of Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen.

The play on words linking the infamous assassin with Toronto mayor Rob Ford, aka, “The crack-smoking mayor of Toronto,” will likely prejudice readers as to what I think of the man whose vaudevillian antics continue to make headlines around the globe and provide a seemingly endless buffet for late-night talk show hosts everywhere.

As a scholar of religion, however, what interests me about Rob Ford is not the question of his moral or political legitimacy—though as someone who was born and raised in the city that bares his name, I am far from indifferent on that matter—but how his name functions symbolically; that is, what it signifies in a chain of interrelated signifiers (Rob Ford: mayorTorontocrackcorruption, etc., and perhaps now even “dirty little coward”[?]), which tends to prejudice conversations about him and guide the terms of debate.

In a recent interview on the Daily Show, Jon Stewart sat down with Robyn Doolittle, a city hall reporter for the Toronto Star and author of the book Crazytown: The Rob Ford Story, where she made the following observation:

I think outside of Toronto people know Rob Ford as the crazy crack smoking mayor who ends up on Youtube for doing stupid stuff, but there’s this really interesting, fascinating story that brought us to this point about a family that fancies themselves a political dynasty.

Attempting to look beyond Ford’s antics, Doolittle begins her discussion with his rise to power and suggests a few reasons that help to explain why he still remains in public office, maintains an approval rating of around 40%, and will stand for re-election in October of 2014. For example, she points out how only the province of Ontario (and not the city of Toronto) has the authority to remove a mayor from office, which they are hesitant to do since it would create a troubling precedent that could be used by future governments for “political reasons.” Doolittle also notes the appeal of Ford’s populist “everyman” persona, his low-tax rhetoric, and the rise in “American style” journalism in Canada, where talking points get amplified over “fact-checking” and substantive debate (see clip below).


While this last point touches on an important variable that no doubt influences the conceptual and discursive ground where conversations about Rob Ford take place, this problem is nothing new and has always existed in some measure when we consider the difference between the dictates of scholarship versus those of the public sphere. Tim Murphy makes this point in his essay “Speaking Different Languages: Religion and the Study of Religion,” (2001) when he writes:

Because it takes as its basis, as its guiding principle, the dictates of practical reason, the temporal horizons of the public sphere are much narrower than are those of the sciences. … Practical questions demand practical answers, answers which may form the basis for concrete plans which can be realized within a foreseeable time frame. The public sphere is necessarily constituted by these demands, and cannot have the patience to “wait and see,” a gesture of deferral which is essential to science. (188)

Following Murphy’s observations, it is not hard to see that narratives about Rob Ford are very much conditioned by the “temporal horizons of the public sphere,” which demand practical answers, typically reducing complexity to caricature. Add sensationalism and satire into the mix (e.g., Ford has often been likened to the late comedian Chris Farley in the U.S.) and it doesn’t take much to see how the kind of work that Doolittle’s book looks to accomplish can never escape the dictates of practical reason. Indeed, the type of “wait and see” work of (good) investigative journalism is constituted by practical questions that arise in the public sphere—hence the title of her book.

Here it is worth asking, are similar processes not also at work for scholars of religion?

I am reminded of a well-reported incident that occurred on April 30, 2013, where a group of “Buddhists” razed parts of the “Muslim” village of Oakkan, in Myanmar, just outside of Rangoon. Part of a wave of sectarian clashes throughout the country during this time, the headlines were dominated by images of Buddhist monks participating in violent acts against the “Muslim” minority, sometimes described as Rohingya Muslims. While it is important to recognize the ways in which the identities and self-descriptions of such groups are caught-up in this conflict, the very framing of this incident as a “religious” clash and not, say, “ethnic” or “political,” shifts the emphasis away from the material realm of historical production and prejudices the types of questions that we ask, such as how could a Buddhist monk be violent? The standard response, of course, is that she or he was not a “true” Buddhist since, as we all know, Buddhism is a “religion of peace.”


As Steven Ramey points out in Monday’s post on the Wendy Doniger controversy in India, confusing the first-order, self-descriptions of many insiders (and many outsiders, for that matter) with second-order re-descriptions (i.e., theory) is problematic for both scholarship as well as for questions that are raised in the public sphere:

Asserting that our own selective construction represents the definitive definition is arrogant, especially as the variety of expressions and understandings that we identify with those labels are much more complex and diverse than any simplified statement.

Similar issues were also recently raised in Aaron Hughes’ reply to Omid Safi’s article surrounding the sticky entanglements of scholarship and identity politics, among other things.

My basic point here is simple enough to grasp. We are always “speaking different languages”—as scholars and as actors engaged with practical questions—when talking about “religion.” One problem for scholars is that we are constantly confronted with conceptions of religion that are framed within the public sphere—conceptions that effect us personally and are typically loaded with moral and political implications. Taking a step back and theorizing the interests, ideas and implications behind the dominant rhetoric and representations is one task for scholarship, as I imagine many of our readers would agree.

Still, I wonder if we can ever escape getting caught up in moral and political issues in our scholarly work, especially when it is engaged with practical questions that arise within the public domain? For example, you can probably tell that I am not a fan of Rob Ford, despite my (very brief) attempts to theorize and historicize his character.

Here I would suggest, building on Tim Murphy’s ideas, that it is not just that we are “speaking different languages” but that we tend to speak these “different” languages simultaneously when justifying our theoretical positions in relation to questions that are raised within the public sphere. One question for scholars to ask, then, is not how we can avoid moral and political prejudice from creeping into our work altogether, but how we can acknowledge it in such a way that scholarship is not reduced to advocacy or led by apologetic concerns, while not falling for the illusion that our theories can ever be “value-free.”

Down with Rob Ford! 😉

Matt Sheedy is a PhD. candidate in religious studies at the University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, and associate editor of the Bulletin for the Study of Religion. His research interests include critical social theory, theories of secularism, ritual, myth and social movements. His dissertation offers a critical look at Juergen Habermas’s theory of religion in the public sphere. He is also conducting research on myths, rituals and symbols in the Occupy movement and discourses on ‘Nativeness’ and ‘Native Spirituality’ in the Aboriginal-led Idle No More movement.

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