“I can’t operate on him — he’s my son!”
There’s an old riddle that both hinges on, and is meant to expose, sexist prejudice. It’s been a long time since I’ve heard it, but it goes something like: ‘A man and his son are driving in their car when it is struck violently by another vehicle. The father is killed upon impact, and the boy is rushed to hospital by paramedics. In need of an emergency life-saving operation, he is wheeled into the operating theatre only to have the surgeon exclaim desperately “I can’t operate on this boy — he’s my son!”‘ (The answer to the riddle is that the surgeon is the boy’s mother; it doesn’t really work on anyone born after Mad Men times.)
But the same logic seems to be at play in the cultural reactions to Rob and Doug Ford, and their family. It goes like this: some folks have noticed that the Fords are trashy boors — they wear football jerseys and brag about how much pussy they eat; they wear old novelty ties and chains around their necks (full disclosure: I wear a small, I-think-tasteful gold chain with a small fleur-de-lis on it); they’re Philistines who may or may not know who Margaret Atwood is; they drink heroic amounts of booze, stagger around publicly drunk and they (at least Rob) do drugs.
Then: some of the folks who have pointed out this boorishness have been accused of dog whistle class prejudice and even racism. Some of these critics have offered thoughtful analyses of what’s problematic about obsessing on the mayor’s crack use. And it’s true that some of the criticism against the Fords’s gaudiness has been couched in snobbish terms.
But there’s also something weird about calling out “elitism” and “racism” in the denunciation of a pair of rich, white men. This should be obvious, but: noting & condemning the Ford family’s trashy exploits doesn’t make one “anti-working class.” It means trashiness isn’t a working class thing. Pointing out that Rob Ford smokes crack isn’t racist — it means that crack isn’t a black thing.
Here’s where I think we get into “I can’t operate on him — he’s my son” territory. In the riddle, the force of a particular (in this case sexist) prejudice is so strong that it is taken a priori as fact, so the rest of the facts need to be lined up with the reality that the prejudice projects. Similarly, it seems that certain racial and class prejudices are so strong — that only blue collar people act like dumb, tasteless bozos and yahoos; that particular drugs are “ghetto” drugs — that even those purporting to be in solidarity with, or at least sympathetic to, working class people and communities of colour can’t see the forest for the trees. The problem isn’t that the Fords are “acting like” hard-done-by people; the problem is that you think that’s how hard-done-by people act.