language fades election hopes for BC’s Left (flash version
© Bill Horne April 2005
Second in a series.
Early in the BC Liberals’ New Era, when communities and unions were trying to organize against the drastic cuts that underwrote tax breaks for the wealthy, new slogans scrolled across the screen like closed captioning of rally after rally. Many were justifiably angry, some defiant and poetic. “Six bucks suck!” still rings with righteous indignation and wastes no words about the imposed entry level minimum wage. But a few slogans were just plain stupid.
Placards announcing “Campbell’s cuts are too deep” still appear now and then, but I would guess many union members have thrown them out in embarrassment. Did they wonder just how deep the cuts should have been to not be “too” deep? Please, just slash my wrists instead of the jugular! The slogan’s implicit acceptance of cuts betrayed the anger and aspirations of the communities most affected. But ill-considered phrases like this are as abundant in the Left as glossed-over broken Liberal promises in CanWest publications.
When the NDP says it’s fighting for “working families”, which families is it talking about? Ones that have their own sweatshops in which all family members toil in solidarity? Does the NDP fight for unemployed families? Or “working people” who’ve lost their families?
The NDP is supposed to be the party for working people, but which working people? Someone who owns a corner store, works seven days a week, never gets holidays and barely scrapes by? Managers who put in 80 hour weeks and don’t dare complain for fear of losing their jobs? Or do they really mean that union members are the only real working people?
It’s hard to know when phrases like “working people”, tangled with ideological code, attempt to hide an economic analysis. Maybe it would be clearer if the NDP had the gumption to use the phrase “working class”, but fear of red-baiting has nearly eliminated that term from electoral politics in BC.
“Ordinary” and “average” British Columbians is the latest NDPspeak for “working class”. I wonder how much the party paid its consultants to patronize potential voters with this doublespeak? No doubt the phrase will contrast nicely with gleaming Liberal ads that aim to evoke pride, beauty and vision. But doesn’t everyone want to be special? The NDP might as well tell people not to get their hopes up. And for god’s sake, don’t inspire anyone! We might forget we’re supposed to be ordinary. Average.
Another zinger comes from the “Count me in” election campaign to organize voters against the Liberals. “I’ve had enough” placards are starting to sprout on lawns around the province. To be charitable, let’s assume this phrase aims to invoke the successful “20 years are enough” campaign slogan of Dave Barrett in 1972. But what if a voter is too young to remember? Or they see a placard on a day when they’re feeling satisfied? Or wonder why the signs say they’ve had enough, when real wages have fallen and wage earners need to earn more!
Only a person who is already one of the converted, or someone who can perform an intuitive ideological leap, can draw the correct conclusion from this slogan. Like so much campaign imagery, it poses what the Left is against, instead of what it is for. It will bewilder, not galvanize undecided voters.
It’s easy to poke fun at US President George Bush’s abuses of language, but the highly paid spin doctors of the Left don’t have the same excuses for their mealy-mouthed rhetoric. How did they get so disconnected from the masses they pretend to represent? Is it for the same reasons so many NDP voters jumped to the Reform-Alliance-Conservative camp and didn’t return?
Generations of consumerism, mass media, and dumping by the US industrial-cultural complex have reduced politics to semi-literate sound bites. Constant polling has diluted analysis and generated policies that play to trends instead of offering a bold vision. But worst of all, voices are missing from BC’s Left: authentic working class voices that name what they see.
And where are the poets, authors, artists and musicians in BC’s left? Many have persisted for years at the grassroots level, speaking out, singing, slinging paint. But plenty gave up after successive NDP governments cut arts funding. In its last term before the Liberals swept to power, the NDP considered passing Status of the Artist legislation, then chickened out for fear of media reaction to another level of bureaucracy. The result is that cultural workers in BC lag far behind those in Québec where that kind of labour code for the arts has existed for years.
The Left of the 1930s offered the masses ways to participate in culture: through theatre, music, art and other media. Today’s Left will have to offer more than an “ordinary” existence if it wants to attract new voices and build a culture of resistance and community. If it remembers Orwell’s lesson that democracy can’t exist without clear language, it might get its voice back.