Since a week or so Amsterdam subway stations show a poster campaign by the Dutch liberal party VVD (the word liberal has everyweher in the world a different national/local connotation, I will explain later how one could read the Dutch word ‘liberal’ now). It is a text only poster with the following curious sentence:
From now on
that deserves (can also be read as ‘earns’)
At the bottom of the poster the logo of the party is shown + two cryptic words: “The Netherlands once again” (Nederland opnieuw).
There is a flashing website of the VVD party where this, and other slogans for the European election campaign, are displayed. Interesting is that these posters seem to appear only in subway stations, bus-stops and the like, many of them providing a dreary frame for this typographic exercise that is supposed to collect votes for the liberal party. The VVD in full Party for Freedom and Democracy (Partij Voor Vrijheid en Democratie) has been founded in 1948 and has her roots in de Vrijzinnig Democratische Bond (Liberal Democratic Union) which was founded at the beginning of the 20th century and has at that time actively campaigned for the right of women to vote and developed ideas of how the state should be an instrument to steer economics for the common good (so a derivation of classical liberalism). The party had limited influence in the inter-bellum and showed good democratic behavior during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands. During that period links with the Dutch social-democrat party were forged, but at the brink of the cold war in 1948 a need for a new separate liberal party was felt. The party held for decades some middle position in Dutch politics, being in and out government coalitions with social-democrats or christian parties. In the last decade with new right wing parties (in two cases split offs from the VVD) and neo-Dutch nationalist populism (mostly driven by islamophobia) the party had to compete with the Dutch New Right and has adapted their policies and slogans. Multi-culturalism (as practized by Dutch governments in the seventies and eighties of last century) has become a dirty word and hardliner rhetorics have found its way into Dutch political discourse.
The colors of the text and underlining (blue and orange) are in fact a historic reference to the flag of the Prince of Orange and also used by the Dutch rebels against the Spanish empire the Geuzen in the 16th century (Orange White Blue (“Orange Blanche Blue”, or in Dutch: “Oranje Wit Blauw”/”Oranje Blanje Bleu”); the flag of the The Netherlands is Red, White, Blue). So one may ask if there is a suggestion here that us Dutch should go back to morals of the Dutch founding father, Prince Willem van Oranje? My first association seeing the poster was somewhat pleasurable I did read it as a SM reference with a slave waiting for the master to give a few pleasure whips, the master shouting “do you deserve punishment?” …. “yes master”…zackkk — “thank you master!” but that association faded away in a split second and gave way to other associations.
My second flash was of course VVD party leader Rutte finally getting what he deserves, after years of running free, and I will not describe all the others that had to climb the scaffold of my imagination. In fact the poster faded from my mind within an hour or so, till the moment, last night, when I saw a short news item on local television of a lovely young lady taping over the words straf/punishment with the word ‘love’. The young reporter asked her why she was doing this and she answered that she did get such a dreary feeling of seeing these posters, especially in such depressing environments like the subway. She was light and joyful about her personal initiative and said she did it first of all for herself to wash off the bad vibes.
A quick check today did find of course a whole series of what the situationists call a ‘détournement’, a twist of meaning, without the authors having any idea that fifty years or so ago, some guys in Brussels thought up a theory of the ‘détournement’ as a cross-fertilization of pre-war surrealism and post-war lettrism. I just have thrown a few of these meaning twisters together, and one should differentiate between the real actionists doing it for real and the virtual activists limiting their activity just to their blogs.
A bad taste remains even after seeing these often no-fun exercises twisting a party slogan around. Who is to be punished, how these punishments will be done, by whom? Is it a call for liberal vigilantes to take to the street and catch those who “deserve to be punished”? Who will do the punishing and how? I can see nothing liberal and democratic in this unwise poster action, it thrives on rancour in general, it is much too unspecific to belong to any party political process. In short it’s a shame for what was once the Dutch liberal and democratic legacy.