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Book review: John Barber on how Ford drives Toronto

Toronto political journalist Edward Keenan, author of, Some Great Idea, in the cafe at Toronto City Hall on January 17, 2013.

J.P. MOCZULSKI/The Globe and Mail

The Gift of Ford (e-book)
By Ivor Tossell
Random House, 92 pages, $2.99

Some Great Idea: Good Neighbourhoods, Crazy Politics and the Invention of Toronto
By Edward Keenan
Coach House, 176 pages, $14.95

Nashville has music, Los Angeles has film, and Toronto, according to urban expert Richard Florida, "has urbanism.""It's what everybody cares about," the U.S.-born, Toronto-based academic tells author Edward Keenan in Some Great Idea: Good Neighbourhoods, Crazy Politics and the Invention of Toronto. "And I think there's a school of Toronto urbanism that has a lot to say."

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The quantity is undeniable: No other Canadian city has found as much to say about itself over the years, leading in self-regard as in so much else. Toronto's civic life proceeds like some endless self-improvement seminar, a process in which the pleasure of talking about oneself acquires the aura of destiny.

Journalists Mr. Keenan and Ivor Tossell, author of The Gift of Ford, represent the latest generation of young people to be lured into the game. But you can hardly blame them: The figure who dominates their attention may be the most asinine politician in the history of local politics, but he is also a riveting, unavoidable story.

Mr. Keenan and Mr. Tossell take different approaches to the task, the former encasing the well-known litany of political absurdity in a broader, theoretical philosophy of Toronto – the destiny thing – while the latter performs a brisk and breezy hatchet job in the newfangled form of a 90-page e-book.

To both authors, the "gift" of Ford is the crisis he has created, which they see as inspiration for a new save-the-city political movement led by members of their own generation. While it might seem naive to believe in a post-Ford urban renaissance in Toronto, that, too, is a prerequisite for reform.

Cynicism has always been the more appropriate attitude for city-hall watchers, and that Mr. Tossell delivers con brio. "So it was," he writes at an early stage of the story, "that the gravy train pulled out of Reality Station and chugged off across the border to Ford Nation" – a place the author locates as "somewhere between Leafs Nation and Sleep Country Canada."

It's a fun read, but would be better with more new facts – especially the sort of insider stuff one normally expects in behind-the-headlines political books. At $2.99, you get what you pay for.

Mr. Tossell's great contribution is the concept of "uncompetence" to explain the secret logic behind the current misrule. Unlike incompetence, which simply produces bad decisions, "uncompetence" is willful: "It is the act of not merely approaching a situation with a healthy ignorance about the subject at hand, but of doggedly maintaining that ignorance, since clarity would muddy the waters."

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Using Mr. Ford's testimony in the mayor's recent, ultimately exonerating conflict-of-interest trial, Mr. Keenan likewise discovers a politician who is "not just ignorant, but proudly so," one implacably resistant to "any insight or advice that will help dispel his ignorance or clarify his understanding." And one who "will do so in the proud, unshakable certainty that he is right."

The print-book author has more on his mind than just Rob Ford, and struggles to wrestle recent headlines into a coherent theory of Toronto. The concept is intriguing: "What we're talking about is a cosmopolitan retooling of – and improvement on – the ancient idea of empire, one based not on conquest and colonization but on immigration and incorporation," Mr. Keenan writes. But the exposition is less coherent and ultimately unpersuasive.

Rewriting the story he initially chronicled as a weekly columnist, Mr. Keenan folds in a miscellany of personal experiences, policy ideas and thoughts that aspire to answer the question posed in his introduction: "What does Toronto Mean?" No clear answer emerges, and the bright spots are too often occluded by urban-shmurban bromides.

But it's good that somebody cares. Indeed, both authors show remarkable generosity towards a city whose actual politics – as made clear in Rob Ford's landslide electoral victory – is motivated increasingly by a toxic mixture of stupidity and resentment. If they fail to give us hope, they serve well to keep our eyes open.

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