Column

Making instant myth out of Mr. Parrot: is this the best TV can do?

Allan Fotheringham November 13 1978
Column

Making instant myth out of Mr. Parrot: is this the best TV can do?

Allan Fotheringham November 13 1978

Making instant myth out of Mr. Parrot: is this the best TV can do?

Column

Allan Fotheringham

The first modern strike that grasped public attention and pitted one defiant union against the might of government was a wonderful match. John L. Lewis vs. Harry Truman in 1946. The most famous eyebrows in history, the most powerful union leader in the United States, taking his 400,000 members of the United Mine Workers union out on strike, threatening the entire American economy and challenging the little haberdasher from Missouri. Harry S. could bomb Hiroshima, but could he tame John L.?

The Mine Workers, with a strike fund of $75 million, fined $3.5 million and threatened with the army.

“You can’t dig coal with bayonets,” said John L.

Gripping drama, fascinating even for foreigners.

In this country the face of Quebec—and ultimately Canada—was changed as a result of the 1949 strike of 5,000 miners at Asbestos and Thetford Mines. Among other things, it jerked Quebec out of the myth that it was still a sleepy rural society § and, like a glass of cold £ water in the face, made jjj the province realize it was g well into an urbanized, Œ unionized existence. Duplessis, by sending the Quebec Provincial Police in to break the heads of the miners, unwittingly shattered the governmentchurch alliance that had kept Quebec in thrall as the Catholic leaders went through their own psychic barrier and supported the strikers. That strike was a coalescing point for the progressive forces in Quebec who set in motion the ferment that would end a decade later in the Quiet Revolution.

Finally, the Asbestos strike for the first time dragged some personal involvement out of a world-travelling dilettante called Pierre Trudeau who— dubbed “St. Joseph” by the strikers because of his straggly beard—spoke so passionately before the miners that he had to be restrained by labor leader Jean Marchand because his oratory was so inflammatory. The searing experience of the Asbestos strike got Trudeau involved in public issues, led to the es-

tablishment of the formative journal Cité Libre along with Gérard Pelletier and—one could argue—was the event that resulted in the brilliant dilettante now residing at 24 Sussex Drive, however tenuously.

Those were epic struggles, worthy of capturing the attention of an entire nation. Today, with our advanced methods of communications, our ability to synthesize and capsulize such national events? Today, we have on our nightly TV screen and in our daily headlines the

overpuffed, overdone soap opera of a government that cannot run a post office—supposedly the most mundane task of all, ranking just up the complexity scale from cleaning streets and making sure the flush toilets work. The nation is paralysed in fascination to watch Jean-Claude Parrot made into a mythic figure. Is this really what television was invented for? Was this the finest hour of a Liberal hegemony that goes through wars, lifts satellites and has introduced the four-letter word to parliamentary democracy?

There is, going on here before the glazed eyes of Mr. and Mrs. Front Porch, an escalation of triviality. Nonentities who are not worthy of being alternates on game shows, who would not make the semifinals of The Gong Show, suddenly get more prime time than Gordon Pinsent. Al Johnson has had his moment in the sun. Does he realize that Jean - Claude Parrot

lusts to be his successor?

The problem with much of this—with making people more important than even their mothers ever dreamed them to be—is the nature of television itself. Television loves nothing more than a stationary event (the very antithesis, of course, of sport, which is the most successful thing on TV simply because there is so much unpredictable movement). The thing television loves most of all is a fire. This is because (a) it is stationary, (b) it is colorful, since few flames are in black and white, and most of all, (c) since it takes a long time to happen and is in no danger of going away. It takes a pretty dumb field producer to louse up a nice juicy oil tank fire.

The spurious world crises foisted on us lately—i.e. a strike of airline oil-greasers, a strike of post office baggagesmashers—are given such importance in our lives because they are—like fires—easy to cover. The cameras are stationed outside the arbitration room, lenses poised, eager innocuous questions framed for The National. We watch, over the mandatory six nights of a national crisis, the growth of tentative surly union leader into national celebrity.

One year it is the lovable Joe Davidson, with his kindergarten haircut. Now it is Mr. Parrot, with that ineffable curl of the lip.Watch, each night, as this week’s changeable national crisis (airlines, posties, air traffic controllers, CBC newsreaders) evolves. Each night the stance and confidence of the national union leader bristles and improves. Even the wardrobe improves.

Somewhere, somehow, television and the press have got to look at their own responsibility, their own sense of perspective, in determining how much they tend to be the problem rather than the solution. Union leaders, like politicians, gravitate to the camera as moths to the flame.

Andy Warhol said everyone eventually will be a celebrity for 15 minutes. Accepted, but six successive nights on The National does tend to turn the head. And the stomach.