So here’s the riddle of the day: what do federal politics, second-rate Canadian P.I. shows, and the Serbian Revolution have in common?
Over the last few days, like the minority of Canadians who are politically half-awake, I’ve been following political news at all three levels in Canada, all with a varying degree of disgust.
- At the municipal level, there’s Rob Ford, the embattled, boorish, cartoonishly incompetent mayor of Toronto, who has allegedly (but an extremely smoking-gun reliably kind of “allegedly”) been caught smoking crack cocaine with a cadre of Somalian drug-dealer buddies. This is worth a whole blog post in itself; stay tuned.
- At the provincial level, there’s British Columbia’s provincial election; and the less said about that, the better. The kindest thing that can be said is that vacant-eyed Conservative muppet Christy Clark and her dark masters won, as near as can be told, fair and square. Her campaign was vicious and unkind, but not illegal: the sense I get from Canadian politics is that we’re lucky to get that much. She should have been easy to beat; that NDP “leader” Adrian Dix couldn’t even manage that ensures he’ll spend the rest of his political career fetching coffee for someone with a better chance of closing the deal.
- Finally, at the federal level we have absolute, glorious pandemonium among Stephen Harper and his Calgary Conclave as a $90,000 kickback from Stephen Harper’s personal chief of staff to fraudulent Senator Mike Duffy has been irrefutably outed, triggering an ethical inquiry and even a criminal investigation that has been long, long overdue. Senator Duffy joins Pamela Wallin and alleged sex offender and wife-beater Patrick Brazeau among those who add residence fraud, to the tune of hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars, to their other personal failings. The last time a trio this ethically and politically colourful got what was coming to them, it was off to the Phantom Zone with them on the orders of Krypton’s highest court of law. Now that even Harper’s Chief of Staff is taking the fall for him, the cracks are beginning to show. There are no doubt some very nice corporate benefits set up for those willing to take the plunge; but with this kind of attrition rate the tar sands engine is going to run out of parachutes before Harper runs out of fall guys.
In any case, even though some of this is good news, none of it’s positive news. Anything that will get Rob Ford out of office is good for Toronto… but who would actually be happy to hear about some sad middle-aged dropout who loses his only good job because his substance abuse problem renders him more cartoonishly unstable than a Nicolas Cage freakout reel? Only jerks, that’s who. As a politician, Ford’s got to go, but once he’s out of that office for good, he’s just a human being with a problem, and he deserves more pity than rancor from that point on.
The same kind of “false happiness” greets us every time the Harper government tries, and spectacularly fails, to hide the evidence of its own misconduct. It’s important and good that these things come to light, but they shouldn’t make us happy. I’m not happy about that $3.1 Billion of our money that went missing, and when the world starts isolating us for our awful, awful economy-over-Earth environmental policies, I won’t be happy about that either, even though it’s a good thing.
There’s just not that much to be happy about in the news these days, I thought.
Then I read about Rob Stewart. And finally, finally some news to be happy about. And true to form, and true to the stories I like to tell, it’s a story so absurd that it must be true.
I’ll bet you don’t know who Rob Stewart is. It’s a testament to the one-percenterism of Hollywood celebrity culture that you don’t. He’s a Canadian actor whose “filmography,” at least on paper, is more impressive than 95% of actors still working. The guy was in Highlander (heeeeere we are, born to be kings…). He guested on Flashpoint, which is probably the biggest Canadian-grown series being produced right now. He’s been on XIII and had a major part in the classic series Nikita. Not a year has gone by since 1987 in which he hasn’t found at least one instance of big or small-screen work. And that, in itself, is above average for an actor. More significantly still, Stewart was the lynchpin of the series Tropical Heat for three seasons and a movie—more lead-actor time than Alan Tudyk has had in all his Joss Whedon work combined. Why isn’t this guy on the convention circuit?
To put this in perspective, Alan Fryng is still touring on his fame as the Imperial Officer with one line in Return of the Jedi: “Sir, we’ve lost our Bridge deflector shields!” on board the Executor right before it crashes into the second Death Star. You’d think a guy with a three-year stint on an admittedly small-time show would have a similar following to a virtual extra in something more iconic. But no, Tropical Heat was not enough to grant Stewart any measureable fame.
Does anyone else remember Tropical Heat? It was a Caribbean detective show—equal parts Magnum P.I., Miami Vice, and Jimmy Buffett song. It came out in 1991, on the heels of those more original and successful ‘80s-based forays into Caribbean crime-fighting adventure comedy.
The series was better known to some (including me) by its alternate and much better title, Sweating Bullets. Stewart played leading man Nick Slaughter, a ponytailed, Hawaiian shirt-wearing Canadian ex-cop with perhaps the most blatantly obvious action-man character name ever (the name, in fact, was part of my inspiration for the “stage name” Nick Storm, to those of you who know the character).
The formula was pretty campy: (“he’s a ponytailed, Hawaiian shirt-wearing ex-Mountie private eye; she’s a sassy red-headed travel agent with connections at the local tiki bar. They fight crime!”) To be fair, ponytails were cool: Highlander leading-man Adrian Paul had one, and Steven Seagal was the height of cool masculinity for most of that two-year window. And Sweating Bullets was, you know, a fair-to-middling, standard show, good by Canadian production standards and good enough to support three full seasons. It stands up fairly well alongside a peculiar family of campy early-90s Canadian series: Once a Thief, Forever Knight,and so on.
The show was on the air when I was 9 and 10 and thought it was cool–an adult-style steamy cop action-drama-comedy that was actually tame enough for a kid. It was good fun, good enough that I remember it and its catchy steel-drum theme song 21 years later.
Apparently, not many people felt the same way. In the intervening years, Rob Stewart drifted away into complete obscurity. His acting career tanked, which I venture is less the result of his acting chops than bad luck and the natural state of the industry (after all, as just mentioned, Nic Cage is still getting regular work). Stewart ended up moving back in with his mom in his hometown of Brampton, Ontario, bringing his teenaged son along—a seemingly ignoble end for a nice guy who tried, and failed, to make it as a big-time Hollywood actor.
UNTIL NOW. In the course of trying, and failing, to be another generic Hollywood leading man, Stewart succeeded at something much more incredible and important.
Fast forward to 2008. A 46-year-old Rob Stewart, destitute and living in obscurity, maybe waxing nostalgic for his Caribbean crimefighting days. His son introduces him to this new “Facebook” thing and he creates a profile, just like you or I did.
When he wakes up the next morning, he has 17,000 friend requests, and they’re all from Serbia. What he finds next is almost too surreal to explain.
-He’s remembered in Serbia.
-By “remembered,” I mean that he’s a big star.
-By “big star,” I mean that he’s the single biggest star in the history of Serbian motion pictures.
-By all that stuff, I mean that he’s a bona fide folk hero there, and a legendary figure in the popular rebellion against infamous war criminal Slobodan Milošević.
It’s true. By a series of happy accidents, a UN trade embargo imposed a complete media blackout on the Former Yugoslavia, mere days after the tapes for Tropical Heat went across the border as part of a low-grade syndication deal. As the country began to break apart under sectarian conflict and finally outright civil war, the people desperately needed an escapist “happy place” to run to in their minds. That place was Sweating Bullets.
All four of Serbia’s broadcast stations picked up the series, the last new programming from outside, and syndicated it with religious fervor. The show’s idyllic setting, coupled with Slaughter’s uniquely self-effacing but ballsy performance—a performance shaped by Canadian ideals of masculinity, fairness and justice—made him a folk hero of sorts, a symbol of wisecracking resistance to totalitarian oppression. Over time, the phrase “Slotera Nika, za predsednika” (Nick Slaughter for President) became a defiant and repeated graffiti battle-cry against Milošević’s absolute control. It was as poignant as Britain’s “Eric Clapton is God” graffiti, at least as far as graffiti-induced pop cultural moments go; except that it was founded in the bald-faced defiance of a totalitarian regime. Local bars named themselves “Tropical Heat,” after the bar on the show; many children of that year, too, were named “Nick Slaughter,” with their patronymic coming in distantly behind it.
When the populace mobilized with their Tropical Heat banners held high as a symbol of the outside world, of fairness and defiance, what resulted was a virtually bloodless political coup in which none of the revolutionaries fired a single shot. There may have been fighting elsewhere; there may have been clashes after the fact. But the revolt itself was inspired at least in part by Slaughter (who as a beach-bum early-’90s TV detective was peculiarly laid-back in his badassery), and carried out according to terms that would have pleased his peculiarly Canadian sense of justice. Meanwhile, back home in Canada, nobody knew anything about this. It was more than a decade before Stewart looked himself up on Facebook and suddenly found himself to be an Eastern-bloc revolutionary war icon.
With nothing to lose, and maybe a couple of bucks to gain so he could get his own place, Rob Stewart took a couple of documentary filmmakers to Serbia to explore the weirdness of this phenomenon. He arrived in Belgrade to a hero’s welcome. Grown men wept to shake his hands, top politicians thanked him for saving their country, and he found himself appearing in their comic books the way Batman appears in ours.
Stewart’s documentary of this insane experience, Slaughter Nick for President, is now making the rounds in Canada with very poor distribution–probably the most ridiculous, surreal, and amazing little indie film out there.
So what do we take from this little story? And what does Nick Slaughter have to do with the rampant corruption of the Harper Government?
For one thing, it’s the kind of success story that used to by synonymous with Canada, and our sense of what being Canadian used to mean. If getting rich as a Hollywood leading-man was Rob Stewart’s American Dream, maybe what’s actually happened is the Canadian Dream. Our impact on the world as Canadians comes without the kind of money and power we can control… but it comes through extraordinary, unexpected, quirky, and just plain weird avenues, of the sort we might never have anticipated. Tom Cruise has sold six billion dollars in theatre tickets, but he’s never inspired a nation. Stewart doesn’t get recognized and he doesn’t get many autograph requests–but when he does, they’re to autograph the protest graffiti he inspired.
Our role on the world stage for the longest time came likewise not from economic muscle, but from our ability to inspire. Stewart’s Nick Slaughter is a kitschy throwback to the last generation’s inspirational heroes, a generation that included Terry Fox, Wayne Gretzky, and David Suzuki–a man branded as a virtual “eco-terrorist” by this government even though it’s Rob Ford who bears an uncanny resemblance to a Captain Planet villain. These people were not great because they were extraordinary powerful, or even because they were extraordinarily gifted (admittedly, Gretzky could skate like the wind–but Terry Fox was not a fast guy. In 1979, in the only competitive marathon Terry Fox ever ran, he finished dead last, ten minutes behind his nearest competitor).
The model of success–and it is largely an economic success–that the Harper Government is trying to push on Canada is a top-down model. It’s a model in which finishing first is a priority. It’s a model in which Terry Fox is not a hero because he’s not fast–in which Rob Stewart is not a hero because he’s not rich and famous. There is a world in which Stewart found success, stayed in the U.S., and became another generic action star with a decent paycheck. There is a world in which Terry Fox kept his leg, ran slightly more competitively with two-legged distance runners, and had a modest career as another generic marathon runner, and made a decent paycheck doing it.
But that’s not what happened, and in general, Canada hasn’t inspired the world to greatness by being a bunch of nobodies with moderate to high economic success. It’s inspired the world by its character, its incredible generosity, and its greatness of heart. Our greatest successes in the world have never been, as now, to further our own self-aggrandizement, but rather to lessen the hardship of people everywhere. That is what Canada has stood for, and continues to stand for on an individual level in spite of the devastating economic greed machine that is (rightly) turning the public opinion of the world against us.
In spite of the horrendous war crimes committed during the Yugoslav wars, the bloodless popular revolt in Serbia began over electoral fraud, as it very well could here in the shadow of an ongoing robocalls scandal. It began with students and educated young people who simply refused to inherit his corrupt regime. Long before MIlošević was indicted for war crimes, people’s beef with him was centered around corruption, abuse of power, and embezzlement–though as a totalitarian party leader who ruled primarily by fear, he made extensive use of government scapegoats to ensure he remained above the law.
If this had been an American story, an armed revolt would have been what took him in the end, supported by international powers–a big budget affair. Big explosions. Lots of action heroes. But his overthrow, after all the horrors of the Yugoslav Wars, was largely bloodless. It became clear this would be the case when the army indicated they would not protect him. The loss of military support has, since Roman times, spelled the death knell for tyrants. If this were an American story, this loss would take the form of defeat, of violent attrition, as it did for Nazi Germany. But instead, this loss came the Canadian way: by a gradual and complicated change in the way people fight, and a re-ordering of what people thought it was worth going to war over. A social reordering of the sort only the figure of Nick Slaughter could inspire. His courage, after all, was the sort of exhausted courage shared by Bogart’s Rick Blaine: the courage of a deeply wounded man who played at dandyism and rakishness, but ultimately still believed in justice. That he was a P.I. rather than a cop had something to do with the values of the show, which connected justice to truth and its discovery–the solving of the mystery–rather than to 24-style retribution and punishment.
We live in an age when Harper minion Pierre Poilievre can get away with saying the “root cause of terrorism is terrorists” as if it’s the final normative word on searching for truth–as if the truth is a thing to be enforced rather than discerned, or invented rather than merely discovered. It is an age when the truth about Canada that is enforced from on high is dramatically at odds with the truth about Canada that can be discerned from below. In this case, “on high” is that upper echelon of successful people helming a successful industry of Canadianism–citizens not of a nation, but rather of an economy. “From below,” naturally, encompasses the Rob Stewarts of the world–the working stiffs who, when they find themselves capable of vast stores of inspirational greatness, find it surreal or hard to believe, as if they can’t imagine how it got there. We have mis-learned, as a culture, that success, prosperity, and temporal power are indicators and predictors of greatness. We have mis-learned that to be a Senator is to somehow be greater than human. We have mis-learned that the person who wins the race is somehow greater than that one-legged guy who finishes last.
These are the myths that the figure of Nick Slaughter is meant to burst. And if he’s a one-dimensional, poorly imagined, over-simplified character, I venture that that’s almost a prerequisite of being a mythic figure. We draw all of our heroes in broad brush strokes. As a wise man once said on the matter of cultural heroes, “it ain’t about you, Jayne. It’s about what they need.”
Maybe before we export Nick Slaughter off to Serbia to replace their head of state, we should be looking around at home to see if we have a head of state who’s in need of some replacing. I think we could do a lot worse than a Hawaiian shirt-wearing, pony-tailed, self-deprecating Prime Minister who’s goofy yet shrewd, ambitious yet compassionate, eager to lead yet grateful rather than contemptuous for the support of a nation. We need a Prime Minister like Nick Slaughter. The persistent appeal of Justin Trudeau, I think, only goes as far as his physical, cultural, and ideological resemblance to this early-’90s icon of freedom, fairness, and Canadian heart. And anyone who thinks the job of Prime Minister couldn’t be done better by a reasonably talented actor, even one with no political experience and no history of party leadership, just hasn’t been paying attention.