Hey, remember when we worried that cable news represented the death of intelligent political debate? That seems a long time ago, doesn’t it?
Imagine being Rob Ford right now. That’s probably pretty hard, because odds are, dear reader, you do not take stimulants which result in your deciding that a city council meeting is an excellent time to bowl over an old lady, like so:
Nor are you usually inclined, probably, to mock someone else while they’re speaking when all of the cameras are trained on you, like so:
But then, we can’t all be Rob Ford; he’s living in a world of his own. And that world is: giant social media hit.
After all, watch that last GIF again, and you start to wonder if there is a measure of sober calculation behind Rob Ford’s antics. Like I said, he knows the world is watching. He’s also well aware, I think, at this point, that his actions are going to be memorialized in these short clips. After all, this one here has been a classic on the Internet for well over a year now:
There’s a certain point, when you put these all together, where you begin to wonder if you could call Ford’s clip-ready antics a superpower. It’s not every person who lives their life in such a GIF-ready, say-precisely-the-wrong-thing-to-the-press way. And the truth is, if he didn’t do all of these things, crack notwithstanding, he’d be just another corrupt mayor of a North American city. The crack’s only entertaining to us, I think, because it explains this semi-amazing behavior. Otherwise it’d just be a black stroke on a list of Ford’s failings as mayor — my favorite of which is the time he kicked city commuters off a bus so that it could drive the football team he used to coach around.
The GIF-ification of political culture is certainly a lot of fun for those of us who would otherwise plunge into despair at a glimpse of the latest political headlines. It allows you to preserve those lifesaving moments of absurdity on an endless digital loop. But as in Ford’s case, it happens to underline very clearly that politics is not particularly well done when it’s conducted in memorable-imagery form. Contrast the entertainment value of these things with the work actually getting done on Toronto City Council right now and you’ll see what I mean. And it’s worth noting that all of this stage magic has not actually driven someone like Ford from politics. Indeed, as CNN found out when it traveled to Toronto to interview “Ford Nation,” there are pockets of people left up there who still believe that the hullabaloo around Ford is just everybody picking on a guy who happens to be a little clumsy:
“Don’t step down!” a woman says. “Don’t worry,” he replies. “I’m not stepping down.” “I am praying for you every day. You’ve got to stay,” she insists. “What I always say is, there are more poor people than rich people and I stick up for the poor people.” They cheer.
In that instance, of course, Rob Ford was employing an older form of politics: the soundbite. If he says he sticks up for poor people, it will be so. People will believe him. Such is the pernicious effect of the soundbite; it obliterates all nuance, sure, but also all fact.
The GIF, I think, has the potential to work the same way.
I’m not sure I’m quite ready to state a full political theory of the GIF. But I have to say, if your only engagement with politics is at the level of these images, Rob Ford comes across more like a semi-charming Arrested Development character than like an actual mayor, with actual power over the way people live their lives. There’s a certain way in which the spectacle is downplaying the very real seriousness of the situation that has begun to eat at me. When that football GIF first came out, I of course laughed like everyone else. I played both those clips from yesterday over and over again last night. But increasingly the hilarity is being overcome by nausea for a city that I don’t even live in and have little affection for. But such is the way of things in the Rob Ford age, I guess.