I work for a think tank. We have lofty goals and sometimes even think our work is important in changing the way other people think. And so, whether it is in earnestly sitting down to write a blog, reviewing various proposals with a view to making a recommendation which is worthy of our scarce resources and energy, or pontificating in a staff discussion on an issue of the day in the our office's public square, I take my job seriously. I am the Director of Research. The integrity of ideas that we put forward is my job.
In case the self-deprecating sarcasm did not adequately come through in the previous paragraph, let there be no mistake that I am under no illusion that everything I do is world-changing in its nature. That is not to dismiss it—if I didn't think it important I would find something more meaningful to do. But at its best, each day's contribution amounts to a drip on the cultural rock whose shape we are seeking to change. Do it consistently enough for a long enough time and the shape of the rock changes. In the meantime, maintain perspective, take time to laugh at yourself and with your colleagues, and realize that not everything you do needs to be taken overly seriously.
But some things do.
There are some days when the words I speak or documents I sign are more important than others. Ironically, these are usually the things that seem mundane and less rooted to Cardus's core mission. Still, when I sign official documents which include a whole bunch of small print, I need to pay more careful attention to what I am doing than in our lunchtime arguments. When I respond to a board member's question, I must be more precise in my answers, ensuring that what I portray as fact is indeed truthful. I know that if requested, I need to be able to document my answers. Without paying particular attention to the finer details of charitable governance and existence, Cardus's ability to attempt its grandiose mission would not be limited indeed.
All of this is a very circuitous way to get to Toronto Mayor Rob Ford and his current legal troubles. On one hand, in the scheme of the various misdeeds that public officials are alleged to have committed, writing a request on city letterhead to raise $3,000 from city lobbyists to support amateur football seems inconsequential, and the punishment of removing Ford from office entirely disproportional to the crime. However, the law which Ford violated is hardly a new or unfamiliar one, and the minimum sentencing provisions which hamstrung the judge are consistent with what many conservative-minded folk (like Ford) are suggesting we need more of these days.
What bothers me more about the episode is the fundamental disrespect that Ford's behaviour shows for the institution of government. Rob Ford's words and votes matter because he can legitimately claim to be the mayor of Toronto. But his disregard for the fine print of what elected officials can and cannot do is at its most basic level an anti-institutional disrespect.
That said, most of his opponents are similarly motivated by their own politics of a different flavour. The irony is that by seizing on an available blunt legal tool to derail a political agenda they did not like, they are similarly bringing the entire process into disrepute. This isn't about the mayor raising money inappropriately, nor is it about his bull-headedness in participating in a process from which he should have abstained. This is about competing political sides burning legal dollars, insulting transparency, and feverishly expending political capital in a deeply divided Toronto. One side was losing at the ballot box and in council votes, but saw in the judicial system an opportunity to offset their losses.
The losers in all of this are our institutions. Legislatures, courts, and ballot boxes are cheapened, and our confidence in them eroded a bit further. There are no heroes in this story.
Most of us feel like helpless spectators to this sorry spectacle, but it does remind us that the fine print, usually overlooked as inconsequential, is in fact important and should be taken seriously. Renewing social architecture starts with respecting the foundations of our institutions.