On Stupidity: Rob Ford and Stephen Harper.22.05.13

On Stupidity: Rob Ford and Stephen Harper                                                         22.05.13 


Howard Adelman

Many will be offended by this blog. It is one thing to call Rob Ford, the Mayor of Toronto, and Stephen Harper, the Prime Minister of Canada, arrogant, insensitive, lacking in principle, full of themselves – you name the characteristic. But to call them stupid is to be abusive and insulting. That is why when I read the many and various articles and commentators and listened to pundits, I cannot recall hearing or reading anyone dubbing them stupid. Pundits do not want their own outrage turned against themselves by their readers or listeners. But the reality is, as Woody Allen cracked, “Some people drink deeply from the river of knowledge. Others only gargle.”

In Rob Ford’s latest imbroglio over a film of him allegedly smoking from a crack pipe and using derogatory words to depict Justin Trudeau and racist expressions for the teenaged footballers he coaches, and in Stephen Harper’s equally tight-lipped response to the Senate spending scandal and the much larger scandal of the Office of the Prime Minister being used to pay a Senator over $90,000, whatever the evidence for impropriety, unethical behaviour and even illegal behaviour, the greatest sin both men have committed is not even the sin of stupidity, though I believe that is their primary sin, but the sin of thinking that voters are stupid without acknowledgement of their own superiority in that realm.

We must be stupid. We may not have voted for them but we elected them. And we are stupid. For all humans are stupid. Everyone knows that when Confucius said that, “It is impossible to sling mud with clean hands” he was dead right. If we call someone else stupid, we must recognize our own stupidity. Stupidity is the fundamental condition of man, his original sin recognized by both Socrates and in the opening chapters of Genesis in the description of Adam’s behaviour.

Adam was the epitome of stupidity. That does not mean he was unintelligent. Webster’s dictionary is misleading in equating stupidity with unintelligent behaviour or unreasoned action. Adam was the archetypal scientist beginning with the most basic of traits of a scientific mind – classification through noting similarities and differences. Adam was made in the image of God because he brought things into being through language, by giving them names. He said and there was. But while very intelligent, Adam was also very stupid. After all, he did not even know he felt lonely. God had to tell him. And when Eve was created, he was so stupid that he did not recognize she was another person but imagined she was an extension of himself – an essential trait of the most fundamental forms of stupidity particularly characteristic of the male gender. Further, when the erect snake seduced Eve, he objectified that erection and said it was another, an independent being and not himself. “Oscar (or Peter) did it, not me.” The complementary behaviour of projecting onto everyone else one’s own stupidity is then blaming someone else for your own actions and failing to assume responsibility for what you do. This is the essence of stupidity.

“Stupid” is rightfully regarded as a derogatory term because we are stupid. That is why when Liberal MP Scott Brison yelled at Conservative MP Shelly Glover in Parliament to say, “You’re stupid,” the language was called “unparliamentary” and Brison was both ruled out of order and required to apologize. We must not say what we most fundamentally are, especially in parliament. We can say to someone that they are misinformed or deceptively misleading. But we cannot say they are stupid. We denigrate the adjective and demean it lest we have to accept it as our essence. That is why Socrates thought that the most fundamental moral lesson required is that we first learn that we know nothing and are essentially stupid. To make a mistake in reasoning is not being stupid; it is just being illogical. But not to recognize a fact staring us in the face is to be stupid. That is why Forrest Gump is such an intriguing character. He may have had an IQ of 70 – intelligence is measureable after all – but he was not stupid. His mother taught him to be wise. As he says sitting on his park bench, my momma always taught me that, “Stupid is as stupid does”.

Forrest Gump’s mother recognized that stupidity is not a trait, like beauty or intelligence. Stupidity is a practice. It is what we do, not how we are. Stupidity is a form of behaviour and not a reference to our intelligence. Stupidity cannot be measured but we can smell it, taste it, see it and hear it. It is a behavioural characteristic that most assaults us. And the assault was best captured by the response of one Tory supporter to the scandal on a CBC call-in show, “Cross Country Check-up”. “Does Harper think I am a blockhead?” Because that is how we recognize stupidity most acutely – when those who behave stupidly think and say or imply that in questioning stupid behaviour that we are the stupid ones.  

Stupidity is an embodied behavioural trait. It comes out in our sweat, in our pursed lips, in the way we use our tongue and haunch our shoulders. Most significantly, stupidity is the body language of the throat and larynx and emerges in the way we form our words. The most usual expression is stupefaction: “What me! I’m innocent. He – the snake, the Toronto Star, the Chief of Staff – did it.” Anyone else but oneself! That is the grossest language of stupidity. When our thinking is befuddled, when it is drowning in the recollection of stupid behaviour, we say stupid things. “It is ridiculous.” It is deserving of the mockery of a Jonathan Swift. It is not The Toronto Star that invites derision, that behaves ludicrously, but the language of the stupid perpetrator who denies responsibility that is absurd and laughable.

Stupidity is a disease. It can be diagnosed like an illness for it has a set of notable symptoms, an anatomical locale, a particular physiological pattern and a definite genetic aetiology in some. And the disease comes in different types and varieties. But we can take note of the general symptoms first of all in forms of the disease characterized primarily by general denial of what quickly becomes self-evident. The following traits of denial (DEODER) are symptoms of stupidity:

a) Displacement;

b) Evasion

c) Obfuscation;

d) Deception;

e) Egoism;

f) Remorse only for being caught.

Let me illustrate by reference to the behaviour of both Rob Ford and Stephen Harper who otherwise might appear to be at opposite ends of the disease spectrum. Displacement is the characteristic of blaming others for a current brouhaha for which one bears a primary responsibility. For Rob Ford, the fault is laid at the passion of journalists, and, particularly The Toronto Star, to get him. The displacement in his case is characterized by outright dismissal. Stephen Harper’s denial and displacement onto others is cooler, less emotive and more subtle. Look at his statement the day before yesterday. Nigel Wright alone and without the Prime Minister’s knowledge and against the Prime Minister’s ethical principles made the payment to Duffy and he, the Prime Minister, knew nothing about the payment. This is denial by displacement in the most blatant way by telling a partial truth.

Of course, Harper did not know that the payment was made or how it was made. Nigel Wright was Stephen Harper’s chief of staff, his fixer. He is expected to carry out his fixes in controversial and ethically problematic areas without the knowledge of the Prime Minister so the Prime Minister can maintain deniability. The leader of the Liberal Party, Justin Trudeau, betrays his naiveté and ignorance when he insists that the only way the public can learn about the secret payment is if the key players testify under oath. Harper could testify under oath with impunity and Trudeau fell right into the clever trap of the wily Harper. The denier tells a partial truth, but it is partial and reveals the lie behind it. And it came out in the profession of the higher ethical ground on which he stands. If I had known I would have disapproved it, he said. Precisely! The structure was set up to allow you to say that. But why would you have someone as intelligent and well trained as Nigel Wright in your office if you were so principled and he was so unprincipled? Why would you have someone in your office as your spokesperson defend Nigel Wright days earlier for acting out of the goodness of his heart, out of a generosity of spirit to save the taxpayers money? And why, if you were so ethically upset would you dismiss the whole affair the day before as a distraction? As the Tory caller from the Maritimes on the call-in show remarked, do you think we are blockheads?

Then look at the evasion. “I’m very sorry this has occurred.” Not, in retrospect I apologize for hiring such an unprincipled person as Nigel Wright that he would betray my trust and the trust of the Canadian people. No. Harper apologizes for the occurrence, for an event that embarrasses him but not for creating the context and the conditions that allowed the scandal to take place in the first place. And the irony is all the greater for Nigel Wright evidently has a reputation for being a man of integrity and principle, a straight shooter and not someone who practices displacement onto others and evasive responses.  

Does Harper agree to release all the documents and allow his staff to testify under oath about the circumstances that led to Nigel Wright agreeing to reimburse Duffy for $90,172 in ineligible housing expenses and per diems?  No. The denial is simply ratcheted up several notches so that the displacement, evasion and obfuscation are further compounded by more deception. Of course if he had been asked, he would not have approved the payment. The structure was designed so that he would not have to be asked. “Had I, obviously, been consulted, more importantly I would not have agreed, and it is obviously for those reasons that I accepted Mr. Wright’s resignation.” So why was Wright not asked to resign many days earlier when Harper did know if it was “obviously not correct for that decision to be made and executed without my knowledge or without public transparency.”

Nor is NDP critic, MP Charlie Angus, correct in suggesting that if Harper was unaware of Wright’s repayment, it raises questions about his management of the Prime Minister’s Office. Quite the opposite! That is precisely how top officials have always managed in a position of high office, whether they are Liberals, New Democrats or Tories. At least if you are a “good” manager. And Duffy, a former Capital Hill CBC reporter, could have taken the script right from Harper’s writers. As he said, “Canadians deserve to know all of the facts. I am confident that when they do they will conclude, as Deloitte has already concluded, that my actions regarding expenses do not merit criticism. I intend to co-operate fully with the board and with all other authorities and will have no further public comments until those processes are complete.” In the supreme egoism of the denier, there is no remorse for one’s own actions whatsoever, only remorse for the brouhaha.

The rest of the Tory cabal simply join the same chorus. In the House, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird said, “no one in the government knows about any legal agreement with respect to this payment.” The disease is clearly infectious. For no one was expected to know about any agreements. The question is whether the government will ensure that all discussions and all documents relating to the affair are made public instead of ignoring such requests. And everyone knows that the Senate and the PMO are both masters of their own worlds and can deny access to the RCMP to those documents and records or memories of discussions. You can be assured that the PMO did not have any built-in device to record all conversations for, however sick, no one is as monomaniacal in their egoism as Richard Nixon revealed himself to be in the Watergate scandal.

Thus, though Harper’s process of denial is far more sophisticated than Rob Ford hiding in an elevator and putting Doug Ford up front to insist that he believes his brother, the general locale and pattern of behaviour reveals the same basic elements. Both affairs stink to high heaven and cannot pass the smell test of even my generally insensitive nose. 

Look at the core issue. A mayor is accused of being a druggie. The Prime Minister is accused of having an office that illegally pays monies to Senators without clearance or revelation to an ethics commissioner. This is malfeasance of the highest order. In neither case will those acts be sufficient to force Mayor Rob Ford or Stephen Harper to resign because their backers have been chosen and hand picked and been conditioned to be sycophants and incapable to standing up to the shenanigans of either Rob Ford or Prime Minister Stephen Harper. The reality is that when the ethical and legal rot can be traced directly to the highest centres of power, then the public in a democracy must act to throw the bums out. Though the public is impotent for several more years, it can build its strength of disgust. The real pity is the absence of a leader waiting in the wings who with clarity and principle could step into those empty shoes.

The symptoms and the anatomical locale for the disease must be recognized for what they are. But the diagnosis requires more. Look at the physiological pattern of stupidity. In the case of Rob Ford, he wears it on his sleeve as a badge of honour. Over and over again he insists: “It is just lies after lies and lies.” And he is right. But it is not the Toronto Star that is lying. It is Rob Ford. He is a serial liar.

As The Toronto Star editorial yesterday morning opined: “Beyond any one incident, or gaffe or anecdote, consider Mayor Ford’s overall, long-term conduct…the mayor’s staff, troubled by his drinking, have encouraged him to enter a rehabilitation program.  The Star’s Robyn Doolittle and Kevin Donovan also reported that Ford was asked to leave a gala celebrating the Canadian Armed Forces last month because he appeared impaired… Earlier this month Ford was at another public event where former mayoral candidate Sarah Thomson accused him of grabbing her backside while posing for a picture. …Ford caused embarrassment a few days later when he reportedly showed up disheveled at a gathering attended by several orthodox rabbis and awkwardly delivered a pro-casino rant… Ford hardly ever schedules meetings or events after 3:30 p.m. — a remarkably lax attitude for the chief executive of a $9.4-billion corporation…Then there are Ford’s repeated calls to 911, including an allegation that he resorted to obscenities with a dispatcher; his drunken tirade at a hockey game, inflicted on a Durham couple and flatly denied until overwhelming evidence forced him to confess; and Ford’s no-contest plea on a 1999 Florida charge of impaired driving.  He didn’t tell the full truth about that, either.”

I think that this is a misleading litany, not because the list of failings is incorrect, but because the failings as presented reinforce a portrait of an individual with a substance abuse problem in terrible need of compassion and treatment. What is left out is Rob Ford commandeering a TTC bus so that his Don Bosco football team could be “escorted in safety.” Or Rob Ford advocating subways, subways, subways but offering no mechanism to pay for them and opposing any taxes to do so. Or Rob Ford, against the advice of a city lawyer, not only speaking but voting on a matter in which he was in a conflict of interest. Or Rob Ford, in perpetual campaign mode, pinning magnets on cars. Or Rob Ford bumping into a camera man who has been backed into a corner and then swearing at the camera man for hitting him. So when the Star says that, “What Toronto needs from Ford — what he owes everyone, including himself — is a full and frank explanation of what’s really going on. That’s the essential first step in making it better.” “Full” and “frank” and “explanation” are NOT part of Rob Ford’s repertoire.

Stephen Harper lacks Both Rob Ford’s crassness and his propensity to slip on banana peels. However, Stephen Harper is far more dedicated to institutional stupidity than Rob Ford. He gutted the basis of the Canadian long form census so crucial to collecting comparative data. He let 600 scientists go from Parks Canada who were the backbone of our collection of data on the natural environment. Though I am only really familiar with the Department of Foreign Affairs and the Immigration Department, Harper’s attack on the intellectual basis of policy analysis extended across the government; he closed the libraries and archives of the various departments so that policy could not be based on intelligent analysis by mandarins. Harper appointed an “economist” who knew nothing about libraries to be Canada’s chief librarian and archivist. Daniel Caron, that appointee then had the audacity to run up personal expenses of $174,000 over two years as he dedicated his appointment to cutting $10 million in the budget by laying off staff, cancelling grants to independent archives and ending the interlibrary loan program that made access to much vaster collections available to civil servants. After all, why would they need them if civil servants were not being used to develop policy options based on data collection and analysis or permitted to speak to the public without permission for the dedication to ignorance as the foundation for action had to be insulated from any wider discourse or interaction.   

As Christopher Hume wrote last year when hundreds of scientists protested against “the Death of Evidence,” “Not only was the protest unprecedented, even extraordinary, it struck at the dark heart of the New Canada, a nation more interested in hiding the truth than understanding it, exploiting resources than conserving them. Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s decision to search-and-destroy the environmental movement has now been ratcheted up to the next phase; his government has launched a war against science itself, an attack on the collection and analysis of the very data that enable us to comprehend the world of which we are part and on which we depend.”


What is the cause of this disease whether it expresses itself in a crass form or in a polished and suave way? The cause, as philosophers and theologians throughout history have recognized, is in all of us, and deepest and most intractable to those of us who wear a costume of transparency or profess profusely about a dedication to accountability. Rob Ford is the authentic man; he is what you see, a fat, sweaty doofus but a real guy’s guy, highly opinionated and lacking a self-critical gene in his DNA.  Stephen Harper has been dressed by the experts and talks in cool and melodious tones. He became Prime Minister and the first act of his government was to table the federal accountability legislation following the Gomery Report and the Sponsorship Scandal. Harper’s changes focused on building a moat against undue financial influence from outside. But who knew that Harper’s expertise would be in building far more important moats, moats against any intellectual influence from within government and intelligent intercourse between government officials and the public. Undue economic influence is not to be equated with undue intellectual influence, but Stephen Harper believes in cutting off both. His major changes to the government were about the latter rather than about the former recommended in the Gomery Report. As Christian Rouillard from the University of Ottawa, an expert in governance and public management, said at the time, “I fail to see how any change of law, or how any additional norms or rules and regulations could make sure that political actors that deliberately choose not to follow the law, will from now on.”

Transparency is as transparency does. Accountability is as accountability does. Stephen Harper has constructed the most secret government in the history of Canada.

When we deny who we really are – especially males with a more pronounced dedication to stupidity – then we will act out in a war against reason. It will be a never-ending war secretly dedicated to the life of non-reason. Only when we recognize that propensity, only then will criticism by others and self-criticism be esteemed and valued.  However, when we inherit an anti-critical gene, then those who carry this handicap will be a danger to us all. Rob Ford’s dedication to non-intelligence is only surpassed by Stephen Harper’s dedication to protecting his esteem for his own intelligence against the intrusions of either his own self-critique or the criticism of others. As the German poet, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, wrote, there is nothing more frightful than ignorance in action.” Or, as one of the greatest scientific minds, Einstein, put it: “Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I’m not sure about the former.”

Stupidity is as stupidity does.