Indifference is the new intolerance

Rob Ford, Danielle Smith, and the grave danger of saying nothing instead of saying the right thing

Jeff McIntosh/CP Images

Forget Ottawa when it comes to political turpitude. The action is in two provincial capitals, one east, one west, where two very different villains are stirring up trouble. Both are suspected of harbouring, or at least enabling, backward beliefs. The eastern villain is Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, who raised the ire of the ever-uppity gay community when he announced that he’s once again going to skip the annual Gay Pride Parade in favour of a weekend at his family cottage. The western bad guy (girl) is Danielle Smith, the leader of Alberta’s Wildrose party (now the official Opposition to the 41-year-old PC majority), who during the recent election campaign refused to chastise a party member and former pastor for his interpretation of the gay afterlife. (Hint: it involves a lake of fire and a lot of pain.) For these sins, Ford is branded a bigot, and Smith a willing defender of them.

However, they aren’t under attack because they’ve expressed an interest in revoking gay rights—but because they’ve expressed nothing at all; it appears that indifference is the new intolerance in Canada. Ford won’t attend Pride and Smith won’t apologize for her colleague’s remarks. Neither has really done anything yet. And consequently both, it seems, are equally benign—albeit distasteful to some.

There is, though, a critical distinction between the two. Take Ford first; the gift that keeps on giving. He has snubbed his city’s gay community, flipped off a Toronto mom who chided him for talking on his cellphone while driving, and all but abandoned his public weight-loss challenge with a very public display of Kentucky Fried Chicken. He is a man his people love to hate—so much so that they seem to get more pleasure deriding him than displeasure from his failed policies. Which makes all the outrage (or “barely contained glee” as National Post columnist Chris Selley called it) about his Pride snub, more than a little bit phony. (Like Whitney Houston’s obituary, the newspapers probably wrote their “Ford is wrong to skip the Pride parade” editorials months in advance.)

Nobody actually wants Ford to realize the error of his ways and attend the parade, because that’s not what villains do. It would be like the Penguin organizing a green initiative in Gotham City, or Cruella De Vil posing nude for PETA. There is no fun in a gay-friendly, health-conscious Ford. But there’s lots of fun in Ford as he is: the buffoon we love to hate, with very little power to introduce retrograde social policy when it comes to gay rights. He’s the perfect foil: cardboard bluster, no real danger.

Not so Danielle Smith. In her own subtle way, she’s substantially scarier than her eastern counterpart. A lot of people, even those who aren’t keen on the Wildrose party, regard her as a breath of fresh air, commending her “refreshing” refusal to give the knee-jerk politically correct response when the “lake of fire” comments came to light. But how refreshing would her restraint seem if the comments in question had been about Jews or Muslims? (Groups that are just as susceptible to the wrath of Christian hell as homosexuals.) There’s a kind of false relativism here that informs Smith’s Wild West morality in general—which could very well be why she wasn’t (as the majority of pollsters and pundits had us believe she would be) a shoo-in for premier after all. As for the fact that she’s come out publicly in favour of gay rights, and has recently been seen donning traditional garb at a Sikh temple, better an allegedly closeted homophobe like Rob Ford than a refreshing social progressive who would escort homophobes out of the closet.

For the moment, with the PC victory in Alberta, the halls of power have dodged the doublespeak (think conscience rights) of the Wildrose Party. But those who would be scandalized by Rob Ford in Toronto would do well to remember how good they have it when it comes to demagogues. All villains are not equal. Lake Muskoka (or wherever Ford does his cottage bellyflopping) is not a lake of fire. Both politicians are indifferent, but one is more dangerous. The reality for Ford and Smith—and any other Canadian politician who favours avoidance in the face of an ethical conundrum—is a highly unpleasant one. There is simply too much room for thought in silence and restraint, too much time and space for constituents to assume the very worst of you. Canadian leaders can no longer afford to take moral passes, because in a tolerant age, saying nothing may be the very worst thing you can say.

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