Rob Ford & the moral lessons of Watergate (hint: they’re not what you think)

Apropos of my post yesterday & my frustrations with Toronto Star editor Michael Cooke’s staunch (not to say callous) refusal to answer any questions that weren’t totally unctuous & self-serving (no fewer than six – six ­- questions on whether Robyn Doolittle & Kevin Donovan were eligible for Pulitzers), I’ve decided to post something of a parable today. I’ve been avoiding writing/talking about Rob Ford’s meteoric decline for various reasons; mostly because it’s been all anyone else has been able to talk about, & I didn’t think there was much for me to add.

But yesterday, after I sifted through the twelve (!) pages of Star coverage on our mayor & endured the secretions of Michael Cooke’s Q & A, I’m relenting. You get one post – one & that’s it. So here it goes.

As the Rob Ford story has oozed past the boarders of Canada into the American media machine, Torontonians have found ample occasion to sound sharp notes of indignation; truly, moral righteousness has never looked so like something found in an episode of The Real Houswives of Atlanta. Here’s a sampling from this morning’s Twitter hashtag, #robford:


Of particular interest, beyond poor Patty’s speechlessness (her life must be awfully gentle for this to have rattled her so) is the link provided by @ejb_. If pursued, the link yields a video of Ezra Levant’s effortlessly dull TV show The Source, in which Levant gives a direct-address talk on “media party bias” w/r/t the Ford story’s coverage. I’m not going to focus on the video’s actual content (it’s pretty vacuous, as I’m sure you’re shocked to discover), but “media party bias” did seem a curious synecdoche of my major beefs with the all the “Crackmayor” hullaballoo. In a world in which the attention of every major news outlet is vectored directly over Ford’s peachfuzz, a certain amount of perspective is seriously needed. Does the media party have a bias? & if so, what is its quality?

To answer these questions (& to get back to the parable-ish thing I mentioned supra), it might be worthwhile to consider the Ur-scandal of Political Scandals, the primordial swamp of public humiliation – the Watergate scandal of the early 1970s & Richard Nixon’s gravastellar implosion. Immortalized in celluloid by Robert Redford & Dustin Hoffman are intrepid reporters Woodward & Bernstein, the archetypal fathers of Donovan & Doolittle. Between 1972 & 1976, W & B released story after story of the bungled robbery of Democratic National Committee offices at the Watergate complex, etching themselves forever into culture’s psyche as triumphant examples of journalism’s victory over power, of the Fourth Estate’s golden democratic fleece.  They are now probably the most famous living journalists writing in English in the world.

This, at least, is the received version of events, passed down through generations, embellished & translated, interpreted & reinterpreted.  Whatever you think of Woodward & Bernstein qua journalists, there’s a bigger question that almost never gets asked.

Was Watergate important?

Usually, when it comes to the fragile sciences of history & sociology, we don’t get controlled experiments. In the early 1970s, the Universe was kind enough to provide us with one. In 1971, just a year before the Watergate break-in & subsequent exposure, a left-wing activist group called the Citizen’s Commission to Investigate the FBI broke into a Bureau field office in Media, Pennsylvania, & took with them a handful of dossiers on a top-secret FBI program called COINTELPRO.

A crash course: COINTELPRO was initiated in 1956 by J. Edgar Hoover as a wide-ranging covert taskforce designed to (quoth Hoover) “expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, or otherwise neutralize” perceived opponents of US political power; this began with the Communists in the fifties, but quickly expanded to include the whole of the New Left: women’s rights groups, gay rights groups, environmental activist, & particularly black liberation activists including Martin Luther King & the Black Panthers. Their methods included massive surveillance, harassment, theft, & even political assassination.

Rather than adumbrate the entire seedy history of COINTELPRO, it might be best just to provide an illustration. On December 4th, 1969, the Chicago Police & the FBI under COINTELPRO directives raided the apartment of two major Black Panther members, Mark Clark & Fred Hampton. They proceeded to shoot both men – firing, in total, 98 rounds. Mark Clark fired a single shot. Hampton was shot while sleeping next to his pregnant girlfriend, at first in the shoulder, then twice point-blank in the head.

Court transcripts (which can be found in here) aver that the following exchange took place among the officers:

“That’s Fred Hampton.”
“Is he dead?… Bring him out.”
“He’s barely alive.
“He’ll make it.”

[Hampton is shot in the head]

 “He’s good and dead now.”

Not a single charge was ever laid, nor was the incident investigated by any external agency. When the CCIFBI went to the press with massive COINTELPRO documentation, many newspapers refused to publish it. Finally, when the story broke in 1971, it was soon swallowed whole by the Watergate leviathan. Today, ask most people what COINTELPRO is & they’ll just blink at you strangely.

This despite the fact that the vast documentation of COINTELPRO’s decades-long, totally & intentionally illegal & immoral history dwarfs, in political, cultural, historical, & moral terms, any putative significance of the Watergate break-in. As Noam Chomsky writes in his book on media control, Necessary Illusions:

Attention was limited to the relatively minor infringement of the rights of people and organizations with power and influence; the far more serious crimes against the powerless were scantily reported, and never entered the congressional proceedings.

The lesson of Watergate is stark and clear: the powerful are capable of defending themselves, and the press may offer them some assistance, to the applause of some, the dismay of others, depending on the degree of their commitment to the government’s right to control the public. The decision to focus attention on Watergate, hailed by the media as their proudest moment, was yet another cynical exercise in the service of power.

Emphasis de mois. As Chomsky’s own propaganda model demonstrates, mainstream media offers to the public an extremely narrow range of ideas which are allowed to be expressed, but within that range, huge debates & bellicose rhetoric provide the illusion of real differences in opinion.

We would do well to remember the lesson of Watergate as we indulge in equal measures of sloth & venom viz. Rob Ford, keeping our selves toasty with feel-good moral righteousness while turning away from the true horrors of Canadian policy, foreign & domestic. As Michael Cooke so neatly demonstrated yesterday, neither he nor the Toronto Star have any interest in engaging with those of us not beguiled with (or convinced by) Ford’s implosion. Neither, apparently, does his readership. The sad truth of the matter is that there are serious issues that desperately need the coverage of good journalists, & they are being ignored to better pander to the collective schadenfreude which has engulfed our political discourse. Public opinion is no longer a court; it is a lynch-mob.

Of the many important things getting lost in the gravitational pull of Ford’s event-horizon is one of the most shocking & alarming stories in decades: that Communications Security Establishment Canada (CSEC) has been spying on the Brazilian energy  & extraction sectors & federal agents have been giving briefings based on that information to the heads Canadian energy companies to ensure economic advantages. Let that detonate in your brain. Since at least 2005, the Government of Canada, using your tax dollars, has been conducting highly illegal industrial espionage in country which is ostensibly an ally, & then giving that information gratis to the heads of private corporations.

The extent of this is far more widespread than anything reported  in the mainstream press (truly; the Star‘s coverage doesn’t even mention the corporate angle, shills that they are). All the more scary, the information is available to anyone with access to Google & a clue; Tim Groves, a really excellent independent investigative reporter, wrote an article a few weeks ago about the extent of CSIS’s information-sharing initiatives with the private sector, & links to a 2010 CSIS report released through a Freedom of Information request. The report, titled Review of CSIS’s Private Sector Relationships& authored by the Security Intelligence Review Committee expressly states, among other things:


The doc also indicates that the private sector is feeding your personal information directly to the government through a system of legal loopholes:csis2csis 3

Apologists for these policies adduce “terrorism,” naturally, ignorant of the fact that this term has become utterly vacuous, since the general consensus among the courts is to allow for “broad and unrestricted” definitions. If you want an idea of how dangerous that can be, I refer you here.

Is there anyone who does not think that, in the face of our government’s acting as an enforcement & surveillance tool for private industry, the relevance of Rob Ford’s antics seems to wane apace? Does the full-frontal assault on civil liberties at home & abroad mean so little? To use Chomsky’s word, reportage on this issue has been “scanty.” Thank god for people like Tim Groves, who will clean up the vomit other reporters are just happy to photograph. The reasons for the media’s near-total void of meaningful coverage are probably multiform. A major one might be profit; since TorStar Corp.’s been hemorrhaging money for the past few years, they’re probably loving the Springeresque parade of verbal, racial, & chemical malfeasance dripping from Ford’s pores. A more salient one probably is that the mainstream media in Canada owes, as it always has, fealty to power.

The Canadian extractives industry is the largest in the world, boasting 75% of all mining companies on the planet; that this same industry is the one that’s been getting CSEC & CSIS’s briefings should come as a shock to no one. & in perfect demonstration of Chomsky’s axiom that serious crimes against the powerless go unreported, at almost exactly the same time as the Rob Ford story broke, there were revelations that Barrick Gold, a huge gold-mining company, was seeking immunity from the victims of gang rape at is Porgera Joint Venture mine in Papua New Guinea.

Where is our outrage over this, Toronto? Where is the “Wall of Shame” outside Barrick’s headquarters? Where are your tweets, your Facebook posts, your Letters to the Editor? Or does the mass rape of poor, largely illiterate women in a third world country simply not offend your sensibilities quite as much as Jon Stewart making a joke about you?

Moreover, there has been nothing in the press whatsoever about the mysterious resignation of Marketa Evans, the Corporate Social Responsibility Counselor for the Extractives Sector. Her job was ostensibly to mediate between mining companies & claimants. In four years, she mediated none of the six cases put on her desk. Why? Because Corporate Social Responsibility actually means “Corporate Self-Regulation,” & companies only have to enter into mediation voluntarily. There are no laws in place to protect the weakest among us, & the press is all too happy to deflect our attention away, genuflecting, rear in the air & begging Peter Munk, “Please sir, may I have another?”

What, actually, is fucking wrong with us that we are so willing to be duped by power into thinking Rob Ford matters? Our fellow citizens are getting rendered by the US with the cooperation of the government officials we elected, sent to foreign countries to be tortured & imprisoned without charge & without trial, & we get in a tizzy because some video pops up of this guy drunk & swearing? This is what induces “speechlessness” & “shame” (to quote a few Tweets)?

Rob Ford is not the shame of our city. We are. This is not a “traumatic” issue for our city; the apathy of our electorate & cravenness of our press is.

Because dozens of women were raped, beaten, & murdered in Porgera, at the hands of people paid by a Canadian company, based in Toronto, subsidized with Canadian corporate tax cuts, & we were silent.

Because Aldolfo Ich was shot & killed by the employee of another Canadian company, based in Toronto, subsidized with Canadian corporate tax cuts, & we were silent.

Because our government is spying on us, & on people all over the world, illegally, & we are silent.

Because our scientists are being muzzled by the government, & we are silent.

Because 150 RCMP officers, a team of snipers, & police dogs raided a peaceful protest, beating & pepper-spraying men, women, children, the elderly, & we were silent.

Because the government is about to shut down free expression on the internet, & we are silent.

Because every day, we take a step closer to a global environmental holocaust, & we are silent.

Make no mistake: your outrage at Rob Ford does not make you politically engaged. It does not earn you the right to indignation. There is zero moral value in it. By focusing on him so morbidly, you do nothing but aid those with power – real power, which does not sit in City Hall but in  offices on Bay Street – against those who have none.

So please. I beg you: get the fuck over it.

I’m not saying that mayoral politics is completely unimportant, or that we shouldn’t care what happens to Rob Ford now. Merely that what we need is a little perspective. Robyn Doolittle & Kevin Donovan do not deserve a Pulitzer; they deserve a paycheque. Reserve your rage for the men with money, because your chains are in their hands.

Or years from now, a footnote on the obituary of our city will read:

 The decision to focus attention on Crackmayor, hailed by the media as their proudest moment, was yet another cynical exercise in the service of power.



2 Comments Rob Ford & the moral lessons of Watergate (hint: they’re not what you think)

    1. AlexanderAlexander

      Hi Jeannette! Actually, I’ve been interested in issues related to the extractive sector for some time – it’s a big capital-C Canadian problem & therefore one of the most ignored; I sometimes do work with a really great group of people called the Mining Injustices Solidarity Network. As to what got me started…frustration, I guess, that it’s so easy to have the illusion of political consciousness, while in fact just having been fed one’s own existing prejudices. I think we all need to do some serious considering on the justifications of NOW magazine’s devoting a full issue to Rob Ford versus all the other issues going on in the world. Is Rob Ford really the most important? If so, why? What’s getting lost?


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