Many people find perverse enjoyment in the ridiculousness and melodrama of reality television. These shows represent a welcome break from the daily grind of everyday life — their bizarre nature makes them so enjoyable. But sensational personalities, events and appearances should not represent the public’s focal point in the political sphere. Back up the bus, we have a real issue on our hands.
Hot on the apparently limitless trail of scandals from Toronto mayor Rob Ford, disgraced former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi crawled out of the woodwork to lead the newly revived right wing Forza Italia party but was thankfully thrown out of senate for tax fraud on Nov. 27. And while Berlusconi’s scandals may seem less relevant to Canadians than the mayor of Toronto’s substance abuse problems, they are no less vast. During his four tenures as Prime Minister, he was investigated on 40 different accounts, a long list of legal cases ranging from embezzlement to child sexual abuse — a charge he was convicted of earlier this year, although he is expected to appeal. One could argue that Berlusconi deserves a lot more scorn than Ford. Smoking crack fries a few neurons, but at least Ford didn’t rape an underage girl.
What the two figures have in common, however, is a well of public gaffes. On Nov. 18, Ford charged toward a spectator in a gallery and knocked one of his city councilmen to the ground like some kind of rampaging bull. He has admitted to drunk driving and marijuana possession, besides blatantly lying to the public on numerous other occasions. While Berlusconi’s blunders took place on an international stage, and are admittedly darker in tone, they are still quite numerous. He insisted that the Spanish Government, composed of 50 per cent men and 50 per cent women, was “too pink,” suggested that people left homeless after natural disasters should view their ordeal as a “camping trip,” and announced during a Holocaust Remembrance Day rally earlier this year that he thought Benito Mussolini had done only “good things” for Italy.
Yes, these two men are amusing in a cynical way. But the patterns their behaviour reveals are disconcerting. Political coverage should focus on politicians’ abilities to provide us with efficient and involved public service, not a circus. Ford is the mayor of Toronto, not America’s next top model. Berlusconi is the former prime minister of Italy, not the star of Survivor. Their personalities detract from real political issues and their continued political survival represents an endemic of a world that holds white men to a lower standard of behaviour than anyone else. Female politicians who work at meaningful changes to our legal system are often ignored, such as Rosalie Abella, daughter of refugees and Supreme Court Justice, known for her work on employment equity. Such a dichotomy is only too common — women and other minority groups are often held to much higher standards than white men who are accustomed to positions of power.
Politics are serious. Berlusconi owns the vast majority of Italy’s media interests and this has made him extremely wealthy. Minute details of government policy are likely irrelevant to him. However, the results of his government policy and programs have real effects on the lives of ordinary Italians, who might enjoy a laugh at his behaviour but will have to deal with the consequences of his carelessness nonetheless. By treating politics like a silly game and the politicians who make important decisions like reality TV stars, we’re ignoring how badly these people can actually screw up our lives.
Ford’s oafish antics have damaged Toronto’s reputation and left the city without a mayor. But greater harm lies deeper, in systematic dysfunction that lets him keep his job while forcing Canadian women and minorities to perform unreasonably well to succeed in politics. And likewise, the same is true for Berlusconi. It’s hard to imagine a man of colour being allowed the same leeway with an issue like underage prostitution charges, yet Berlusconi is still in the spotlight. The public personalities of men like him and Ford do not belong in politics.