Now that Don Cherry has disappeared from TV and lurks in the obscurity of a podcast, and every columnist in Canada has already spoken, can I talk?
For all the Canadian angst about Cherry, he is merely typical and his type is not confined to Canada. He’s a representative male figure with traits and affectations that are shared, especially with certain politicians. Their type is this: the male buffoon. And their rise and reach is empowered by the dynamics of television.
Television allows these figures to engage directly and polemically with an audience. Why they have great impact is a mercurial question. In part, it’s about the conflation of reality-TV culture, with its alleged authenticity, and politics. With so much on television, from political debate to fictional drama, being obviously orchestrated and artificial, the gut feelings and personal disposition of the male buffoon emerges as authoritative and credible.
Cherry belongs in a category with U.S. President Donald Trump, former Toronto mayor Rob Ford and others, such as Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and now British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. These figures are sometimes lazily defined as “strongmen” when what they actually share is an inarticulate, rambling manner of speaking and a command of clichés. They overcome their limitations by being loud, assured and unashamed.
It’s the unashamed element that clicks on TV, allowing the male buffoon to triumph over fact and expert knowledge. For decades, Cherry’s lack of shame was displayed weekly on CBC TV. The garish clothes, the rambling commentary that required the assistance of Ron MacLean to summarize into coherence, the platitudes aimed at glorifying the military above everything in Canadian culture, the references to “the lunch-bucket crowd” that came, without a trace of shame, from a highly paid media figure, who was handsomely reimbursed for disjointed observations on television.
Cherry was always political and some politicians knew it. Ford had Cherry speaking at his swearing-in as mayor of Toronto and put the chain of office on Ford. Cherry used the occasion to rail that voters are “sick of the elites and artsy people” running politics, and said, “It’s time for some lunch-pail, blue-collar people.”
This was in the context of well-off career politician Ford entering office. The assuming of the mantle and persona of the working-person is typical of this male type, from Trump to Johnson. Trump’s alleged affection for ordinary working people, from coal miners to an array of “big strong guys” who are moved to tears by him, might be risible. But it’s enormously successful, as Trump’s intuitive understanding of the dynamics of reality-TV allows him to accentuate the importance of people who are rarely seen on TV. It amounts to blather, but it is a spectacle of blather and television worships a spectacle.
While Johnson got attention for avoiding TV interviews during the recent election in Britain, what he was up to daily was using television to present an electable persona. At photo-ops arranged for TV, he dressed up as and played the role of fishermonger, milkman, builder and baker.
It’s possible to claim that Johnson merely took on the male buffoon persona to massage his media image. Perhaps this Eton- and Oxford-educated man is no buffoon at all. But it’s certain that television helped endear him to the British population. As a prominent journalist with political ambitions, in 1998, Johnson was invited to be a regular on the BBC’s panel show, Have I Got News for You, a light-hearted quiz show with jokes about the news. His antique sense of humour, and habits of waffling, rolling his eyes and ruffling his own hair made him a lovable, non-threatening toff, almost cherubic and adorable. He’s glided on that persona, a kind-of buffoon-lite, all the way to 10 Downing St.
With the election of Johnson, the current cadre of male buffoons – political division – is complete, and television was their crucial birthplace. There is no point in blaming TV as a medium for the phenomenon. Exposure on TV does not equal merit. The TV audience is not made up of dunces. It’s simply a fact that certain male figures, loud, assured and unashamed, are captivating. They might seem self-parodic or narcissistic in person, but television enhances and empowers them.
We live in peculiar times. The world’s moral compass might be personified in a 16-year-old Swedish teenager named Greta Thunberg, but political power is in the hands of these male figures. They won’t go away anytime soon. Look at how long our great Canadian buffoon, Cherry, held sway with TV viewers, and was tacitly supported by CBC TV and others, including many voters.