J.R. McConvey is a writer based in Toronto.
One thing is certain about elections: they bring out the signs. Lawns and roadsides across the country are cluttered with red, blue, orange and the occasional green. An already busy visual landscape is surrendered to the will of the politically solicitous.
One of politics’ more durable lies is that policy and governance take priority over image management. Contemporary politics is a visual medium. Conducted through signage, carefully orchestrated public appearances, television and social media, political narratives play out as screen content, designed to compete with – and borrow tactics from the creative and commercial content with which they jockey for clicks.
With the pandemic making it harder to court voters in person, screens must convey more of the candidates’ personalities. Hence, in campaign materials for the front-runners, we see a new taste for casual haberdashery. In August, the Conservative Party of Canada launched its platform with a GQ-style mock magazine cover featuring leader Erin O’Toole in a black T-shirt, arms crossed for maximum flex. It evoked a “thirst trap,” slang for a type of selfie intended to elicit praise or desire. Days later, a Liberal ad pictured Justin Trudeau in a similar black tee. In the age of remote work, it’s no longer enough to roll up your sleeves; to connect with the pyjama-clad masses, you must dress down.
The sartorial relaxation aligns with a general trend away from formality in political imagery. It’s telling that when the CPC had to pull an attack ad featuring Mr. Trudeau’s head superimposed on the body of Veruca Salt – the selfish, petulant child from the 1971 film Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory – the terminal issue was copyright infringement, rather than the use of sloppy internet troll aesthetics to frame the Liberal Leader as a garish caricature.
Some images aren’t so easily expunged from record. The most recent politician haunted by a revenant from their virtual past is Lisa Robinson. The former CPC candidate in the Toronto riding of Beaches-East York suspended her campaign after Liberal incumbent Nate Erskine-Smith dug up screenshots of posts she allegedly made in 2017, telling Muslims to “go home.” Ms. Robinson claims the posts are fake. Either way, the image has spoken: Mr. O’Toole, striving to project positivity, cannot be associated with hateful tweets, no matter their veracity.
If the discourse is more about the candidates’ social content than their platforms, there’s good reason for that. This is Mr. Trudeau’s arena. With his staged photo-ops and rakish pandemic beard, he set the terms by which others must play. When sunny ways and feely optics are at odds with concrete policy, it doesn’t merely entrench cynicism; it pushes the political conversation deeper into the visual realm. A lesson we should learn from the Trudeau government is that it matters less how Canada’s cabinet looks than how its members represent the communities that voted for them. Keeping the Canadian flag at half-mast might remind us that the Trudeau government feels bad about residential schools, but symbolism without policy to support it is merely theatre.
At present, the tendency is to analyze political iconography in the context of colonialism, fascism and white supremacy. While these are animating factors, they’re all subservient to the only category that matters in today’s media landscape: attention. In his 2016 book, The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads, media theorist Tim Wu analyzes what he calls “the attention industry.” In exchange for our attention, Mr. Wu argues, “we have accepted a life experience that is in all of its dimensions – economic, political, social, any way you can think of – mediated as never before in human history.” He locates the maturation of the attention industry in 20th-century war propaganda, but claims – writing before the presidency of Donald Trump – that propaganda’s use by tyrants made it unappealing to modern Western governments.
Those days are gone. The visual grammar of Western democracy is now shaped by strategists such as Brad Parscale and Nick Kouvalis, whose work straddles politics and marketing. To call it propaganda feels outdated. But a phenomenon such as Ford Nation, with its slogans and bespoke PR channels, has echoes of the 20th century’s outsized personality cults. Doug Ford is an enthusiastic practitioner of visual politics, filtering every communication through a would-be working-class aesthetic based on sensible conservative blue, with nods to the bold, brash style prevalent in American cable news. Mr. Ford’s brand is so strong that he didn’t need a platform to get elected premier. Meanwhile, many of his greatest misses in office are design gaffes: recall the blue licence plate, the gas-pump sticker, the fundraising flyer designed as an invoice. Whether or not they work – whether the stickers stick or the licence plate is visible at night – they’re pieces in a larger narrative that places attention capture through visual media at the centre of the political project.
The result of this rewiring plays out as we speak, in conflicts over the latest politicized fashion statement: wearing a mask. In a climate where everything is a symbol, a functional piece of equipment designed to protect people from disease has become a statement – of conformity, solidarity or repression, depending on who you ask.
Herein lies the danger of a predominantly visual politics: we are not fully conscious of the ways in which visual information works on our brain – or of how sophisticated the techniques being used to control those functions are. Much as we have done with the intentionally addictive mechanics of smartphones and social media, we proceed without alarm, as though seismic changes in technology and intent do not ripple through our political discourse, our very psychology.
If politics is to continue being waged on screens – and surely that is where most hearts and votes are now won – we must factor aesthetics and design into the discussion. Otherwise, we fail to see what’s right in front of us.
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Tigray forces say air strikes hit Ethiopia’s Mekelle, government denies
Rebellious Tigrayan forces accused the Ethiopian government of launching air strikes on the capital of Tigray region on Monday, though the government denied the reports.
The reported attack follows intensified fighting in two other Ethiopian regions, where the central government’s military is trying to recover territory taken by the northern province’s Tigray Peoples Liberation Front(TPLF).
Tigrai TV, controlled by the TPLF, said the attack on the city of Mekelle killed three civilians.
A resident of the city told Reuters one strike hit close to a market, behind a hotel. An aid worker and a doctor in the region also said there had been an attack and a diplomat shared pictures of what they said was the aftermath, including pools of blood and smashed windows.
All asked not to be named. Reuters could not confirm the authenticity of the images.
Ethiopia’s government spokesman, Legesse Tulu, denied launching any attack. “Why would the Ethiopian government attack its own city? Mekelle is an Ethiopian city,” he said.
“Terrorists are the ones who attack cities with innocent civilians in them, not government,” Legesse added. He accused the TPLF of killing civilians in fighting in neighbouring regions.
Reuters was not able to verify any of the accounts in an area that is off-limits to journalists.
“I WAS A FEW METRES AWAY”
War erupted in Tigray almost a year ago between the Ethiopian military and the TPLF, the political party that controls the region, killing thousands of people and forcing more than two million to flee.
Tigrayan forces were initially beaten back, but recaptured most of the region in July and pushed into the neighbouring Amhara and Afar regions, displacing hundreds of thousands more.
A week ago, the Tigrayan forces said the military had launched a ground offensive to push them out of Amhara. The military acknowledged on Thursday there was heavy fighting there, but accused the Tigrayan forces of starting it.
Reporting details of Monday’s air attack, Tigray TV said the first strike hit the city’s outskirts, near a cement factory, while the second struck in the city centre.
A doctor in the region said they heard the first attack on Monday morning. “First I heard the sounds of jet and also an explosion from afar,” the doctor told Reuters?
“Then in the afternoon there was another sound, which seemed closer. This one seemed like it happened inside the city,” the doctor said.
A Mekelle resident told Reuters that around noon, (0900 GMT), a strike hit close to a market behind the city’s Planet Hotel, in the city centre.
“I was a few metres away, I thought they had hit our compound,” the resident said.
TPLF spokesperson Getachew Reda tweeted: “#AbiyAhmed’s ‘Air Force’ sent its bomber jet to attack civilian targets in& outside #Mekelle,” referring to Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed.
Diplomats are worried that renewed fighting will further destabilise Ethiopia, a nation of 109 million people, and deepen hunger in Tigray and the surrounding regions.
(Reporting by Addis Ababa newsroom; Additional reporting and writing by Nairobi newsroom; Editing by Alison Williams, Andrew Heavens, William Maclean)
What's ON: The week ahead in Ontario politics (October 18-22) – TVO
Every Monday, TVO.org provides a primer on what to look for in the coming week in Ontario politics, and features some stories making news now.
Here’s what we’ve got our eye on:
Queen’s Park Keywords
They’re back – again: MPPs return to the legislature today after a one-week break.
Gag on grassroots(?): Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing Steve Clark has been accused of using Ontario’s election finance laws to silence three grassroots organizations. The Toronto Star says Clark filed complaints with Elections Ontario, alleging the groups were “conducting unregistered third-party political advertising.” Two of the groups are protesting a proposed prison in Clark’s riding. The other is the Peaceful Parks Coalition, which describes itself as a volunteer group trying to ensure Ontario’s wildlife and wild spaces are protected. A spokesperson for Clark said the minister has received complaints from constituents about third-party political activities in his riding. The Star reports that Elections Ontario did find the Peaceful Parks Coalition were violating election finance laws, while the complaint against the two groups protesting the prison was found to be without merit.
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You can count on TVO to cover the stories others don’t—to fill the gaps in the ever-changing media landscape. But we can’t do this without you.
Four-day work week: Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca has pledged that if his party wins power in the next provincial election, his government will explore the idea of implementing a four-day work week in Ontario. Under such a system, employees would work the same number of hours, but over four days instead of five. “I want us to understand if it has merit here,” Del Duca said during a speech at the party’s annual general meeting on Sunday. “We’re a party that believes in science, expertise and evidence-based decision-making and so I want us to gather the facts in an open and transparent way.” Del Duca also promised to replace Ontario’s first-past-the-post voting system with ranked ballots.
Winning the lottery: An internal government audit has found salaries and spending are out of whack at Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation. For example, from 2015 to 2018, some OLG executives received raises of between 16 to 46 per cent, compared to raises of three to 10 per cent at other government-owned corporations. Also, the audit looked at a sample of items charged to corporate credit cards. It found 29 per cent of them did not comply with OLG’s corporate credit card policy, and the purchases should have been made by other means. In a statement to the Toronto Star, OLG said the credit card charges “were found to be legitimate work-related expenses,” and that a third-party review determined the salary increases fell within market rates for the broader public sector.
Order of business
Here is some of what the legislature is scheduled to discuss this week:
- Monday: It is the first opposition day of the fall session, where the opposition parties get to set that day’s agenda. The NDP plans to put forward a motion calling on the government “to place an indefinite moratorium on the issuing of new licences and the renewal of licences of for-profit long-term care providers and prioritize the development of not-for-profit long-term care in Ontario.” There will also be debate on Bill 5, The York Region Wastewater Act. (TVO.org’s John Michael McGrath actually wrote an article about this bill and why it matters).
- Tuesday: The speech from the throne, delivered on Oct. 4, will be debated in the morning. In the afternoon, debate on the throne speech will continue, and NDP MPP Suze Morrison (Toronto Centre) intends to submit a private member’s bill. What that bill will be about was still to be determined when the legislature last sat on Oct. 7.
- Wednesday: Debate on the throne speech will continue, and Liberal MPP John Fraser (Ottawa South) will introduce a private member’s bill. “I’m not sure which one it will be,” Government House Leader Paul Calandra told the legislature on Oct. 7. “I know he might have more than one, but I’m sure he’ll give us notice.”
- Thursday: There will be debate on government notice of motion number 3, which proposes a tweak to the legislature’s debate schedule. There will also be a private member’s bill from NDP MPP Laura Mae Lindo (Kitchener Centre). “Of course, that one still is yet to be determined as well,” Calandra said.
Beyond the Pink Palace
Lower case counts: Ontario logged fewer than 500 new COVID-19 cases for the seventh straight day on Sunday. The province’s seven-day average of new daily COVID-19 cases is about 428, compared to an average of 524 a week earlier.
Pandemic supports: While several federal programs to help people and businesses through the pandemic are scheduled to end later this week, there is talk they could be temporarily extended. Federal finance minister Chrystia Freeland said in an interview aired on Saturday by the CBC that she is currently consulting with economists, business and labour groups, her department and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on what should become of the programs.
Upcoming coverage on TVO
This week’s episodes of The Agenda include a discussion on Monday about what tenants can expect when the temporary province-wide rent freeze designed to help renters during the pandemic ends on December 31st. And on Tuesday, the program will offer insights into how the provincial parties are gearing up for the 2022 Ontario election. The Agenda airs weeknights on TVO at 8 p.m. and 11 p.m.
Some of what you can expect on TVO.org this week includes a rebuttal column to an opinion piece we ran earlier that argued the province should consider putting on hold plans to expand Toronto’s subway system. Also watch for new articles by our regular columnists, John Michael McGrath and Matt Gurney, and of course the #onpoli podcast, which publishes Tuesday.
With files from John Michael McGrath.
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