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Where is Wells?


No escape from Gordon Campbell in BC’s Left
© Bill Horne April 2005 - first published on The Tyee as "Branding with Bile"

First in a series.

One day back in the late 1980s, as we walked down poster-plastered Commercial Drive in East Vancouver, my sister-in-law asked “why are women rallying to ‘Fight the Right’? I thought everyone wanted ‘rights’…”

Since then, I’ve tried to look at written and visual propaganda through her eyes. I wish the organizers at NDP and BC union headquarters would do the same, or at least read George Orwell, Marshall McLuhan, Susan Sontag and John Berger, to name just a few people who have written about language, imagery and politics. Unfortunately, as the provincial election draws near, BC’s left continues to spew out confused and contradictory messages. Sometimes it’s hard to tell if they are meant to communicate issues and ideas, or just vent powerlessness, cynicism, and despair.

Not counting its campaign logo, of the four other graphics on one public sector union’s election readiness web page, all four are images of Gordon Campbell. His caricatures look predictably nasty and may score a few points with the converted, if they aren’t turned off by visual emetics. But nowhere is there a picture of Carole James, or a vision of what an NDP government might offer - not even a photogenic BC mountain, lake or river (let alone people) to inspire a sliver of political hope or to remind us of what gives our lives value.

Oh well, life sucks, but I guess – groan - we have to vote anyway, even though it’s not clear what or who for – just who we’re against. Too bad, because advertising is expensive, and every image of the “enemy” wastes money, as well as space that could otherwise promote a positive platform or offer an analysis.

Ok, I admit, I’ve loved some of the Gordon Campbell lampoons in recent years. My favourite remains activist Murray Bush’s satirical “Gordzilla” poster. It gave BC politics an appropriately campy “Reefer Madness” tone. But sometimes enemy-focused imagery reaches absurd proportions.

Early on in the Liberal New Era, the Young New Democrats circulated a leaflet titled “Stop Campbell!” with Gordon Campbell’s head cloned a grand total of 23 times. Maybe they were worried the public might not get their point. So much for trust in the masses.

I never managed to crack whatever numerological code was at work with those 23 heads, but the title was just as idiotic. After a long day of toil, how many proles want yet another imperative verb telling them what to do or think? Or another way to feel like a victim of some evil Other?

The BC Federation of Labour’s “Count me in” election page lists the top ten reasons to defeat the Liberals, instead of reasons to win the election. It features a photo of a large puppet at a demonstration: Gordon Campbell with devil’s horns. Yikes.

As a sculpture and piece of street theatre, there’s no doubt it illustrates how some people feel about the Premier. And Bill Tieleman can get away with quoting a source to insinuate that the Liberals are the equivalent of the devil in his recent Georgia Straight column about a polling company.

©Bill Horne graphic

But I doubt the BC Fed would really feel comfortable translating the devil image into text. “Gordo = Satan” would be too much like an Ayatollah’s chant to make it into print. But if political images can’t stand up to the same rigours of editing text, why use them at all?

There’s no denying that the Liberal government has wreaked havoc in BC with its budgets and legislation favouring large corporations and the wealthy, at the expense of the disadvantaged. Who wouldn’t be angry and want to rant? Sadly, when BC’s left publicly fetishizes Gordon Campbell, after months and years, it starts to look like a twisted political addiction.

One NDP web page mentions Campbell’s name 10 times. Liberalized, The Tyee Report on British Columbia Under Gordon Campbell’s Liberals, features Campbell on the cover, in glorious full colour. I expect to see his face and name plastered all over Liberal and government publications, but now he’s succeeded in infiltrating the opposition! Is there no escape? Or just more carping?

Focusing on individuals instead of policies or systems has always seemed like a risky strategy, because it leaves a campaign vulnerable to leadership changes and instant irrelevance. Far worse, though, is the tendency of hate-based politics to foster the psyches and methods of our “enemies” within ourselves and our culture.

By demonizing Gordon Campbell, the left uses the same methods of Bush and Blair when they demonize Sadaam and Osama. Like the daily Two Minutes of Hate in Orwell’s 1984, anti-imagery fits best with totalitarianism. Contemporary democratic movements ought to be able to offer better.

With traditional adversaries trying to reconcile in various parts of the world – truth commissions, dialogue groups, peace camps for Palestinian and Israeli or Belfast Catholic and Protestant children - the lessons are there. Can the NDP learn from these pioneers in peace making, and break out of its us-against-them rhetoric into more confident, inclusive and powerful politics?

“Branding” with bile will never generate effective election logos, symbolically or literally. It might be fun for a moment, like thoughts of revenge, but it’s just not attractive in the long run. When BC’s left tosses out its enemy-based visuals and depicts its vision with bold, original strokes, it will have a better chance of appealing to new voters. Sometimes life imitates agit-prop, and new imagery can only help revitalize left politics.

Next: Fuzzy language fades election hopes for BC’s Left
Fuzzy language fades election hopes for BC’s Left (Flash version)

Bill Horne's favourite slogan is “two legs good, four legs bad”.