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BC’s Left - Picture This
© Bill Horne April 2005; Carhatt poster photo courtesy of Burt Cohen

Third and final in a series.

If this fixed date election was a marriage counseling session, an honest listener might tell a Campbell-obsessed leftist to get over Gordon. You never wanted him, you were never married to him, so have one last rant and get on with your life! Sure, critique the Liberal record, but try visualizing what you want, instead of what you don’t want, and go for it. Otherwise, no one will be attracted to you, the way you keep on obsessing about Him.

It wouldn’t hurt to have a place and process for activists to vent their anger and frustration, so they wouldn’t need the public to listen to constant complaints about how bad things are. It might just free up the Left to offer the public hope, resilience, and humour, as well as solid analysis.

Let’s assume for a moment that BC’s Left were to get some decent therapy, paid for by MSP (with its data – and yours – stored safely in the USA under the watchful eye of the FBI, thanks to privatization). It manages to purge its consciousness of the haunting spectre of “Gordo”, and starts acting instead of reacting. What would this look like?

Hopefully, it wouldn’t mean a simple swap of Carole James for Gordon Campbell, head for head and placard for placard. A real change would go deeper. Cataclysmic vowel movements would shake the language of the Left deep inside its gut. Its speech would be honest, clear and concise.

Left wing eyeballs at headquarters would spin and roll until they started seeing the world in colour again instead of black and white. They’d be capable of sending electrical impulses to hands, paintbrushes, pencils and keyboards to render inspiring images of justice and hope, instead of simply injustice and despair. Not the current politically correct samplings of demographic diversity that reek of clip art, nor anonymous designs that beg to offend no one and end up inspiring no one. Instead, picture imagery and language grounded in real lives and relationships - in real diversity.

For that to happen would require a radical restructuring of the Left and its institutions. A new approach that asked two questions for every answer it proposed. A way to hear more voices and learn from them.

A renewed Left would give grassroots activists, rank-and-file union members, and the dispossessed access to creative tools to express in words, music and pictures what they understand so clearly from personal experience. It would bring artists, writers, actors, dancers, artisans and musicians together with activists to examine what most sparks the imagination in ways that not only challenge the status quo, but also build a culture of resistance and vision.

Encouraging large numbers of “ordinary” BCers to express their dreams through their voices, hands and bodies has the power to win more than an election, and not just give an incubment government a rough ride. Those dreams, rekindled with passion, are just as important as a campaign platform.

For many years now the Left has underestimated the inherently subversive nature of creativity in a post-industrial consumer society. Back in the 1930s, activists understood that artists have much in common with the average worker, and much to contribute. Unions and progressive organizations sponsored music and drama clubs, writing groups and artists’ associations. “Cultural workers” left their stamp upon the times, and were in turn influenced by non-artists and organizers.

It’s hard to remember from today’s cynical vantage point that the Left once appealed to bold ideals that might embarrass modern activists. The Carhartt coveralls and gloves poster not only associated unions with progress and strength, but with hearts – hinting at love.

These days, apart from some notable exceptions, there’s little love to be found in party politics, and little unified Left-Arts effort in BC. It doesn’t even seem to be an issue.

While the Left laments the need to overcome the relentless barrage of right wing corporate media, it largely ignores the parallel barrage of film, music, magazines and television from the US. Like some kind of cultural MSG, it tenderizes brains to the point where The National Post can look unbiased. The images, words, sounds and values from south of the border bombard us - clearing the way for the latest message from the Canadian Council of Chief Executives.

With the resulting widespread growth of consumerism, passivity and individual isolation, it’s no wonder it’s an uphill battle to inform the unconverted, let alone build a sense of community. Who will listen, when the essential message pumped out day after day says that I and Me will always be more important than You and Us?

When the Left devotes so much of its effort to electoral politics, with only token attention to cultural issues, it’s unlikely to reach undecided voters. And they will remain out of reach, if no one simultaneously challenges the numbing effects of cultural slavery. As long as corporations set the agenda and the Left reacts, the most it can achieve is mediocrity.

Feminists taught us that the personal is political; can the Left learn that culture is political, too? As the playwright Bertolt Brecht said, "Art is not a mirror held up to reality, but a hammer with which to shape it." Judged by its actions when in power in the 1990s, the NDP doesn’t seem to think that artistic hammers are real tools, or that artists are real workers.

According to a Greater Vancouver Regional District study, in 1996-97, “B.C. spending on culture (excluding libraries) was $22.95 per capita, ranking B.C. eighth among the 10 provinces.” What a wasted opportunity to unleash the power of the people. To be fair, there’s been little concerted effort on the part of cultural workers in BC to barge their way into the Left and play an effective, organized role. Most are too busy trying to earn a living. But has the NDP even thought about why?

As Stompin’ Tom Connors sings, “A land without song cannot last very long.” Maybe it’s time to start singing our own songs again.

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

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