Political posters and banners are not new in Beirut. Activists have long hung portraits of party leaders or hastily spray-painted party symbols to claim territory, mark special events or simply insist on being recognized. At certain city intersections, these images are nearly always layered thickly, one literally covering up its competitor. Since the summer 2006 war, however, political imagery seems to have grown “louder.” Much of it bears the imprint, subtle or no, of transnational corporate advertising agencies.
The presence of the transnational in Lebanese political imagery is also not a new phenomenon, nor one limited to the corporate sphere. At the end of Israel’s devastating bombardment, Hizballah fastened banners labeled “Made in the USA” upon piles of debris in the dahiya. These signs, conspicuously written in English, sat alongside those proclaiming—in Arabic, English and French—a “divine victory.” While some American reporters expressed surprise that Hizballah would directly address a Western audience, the party’s well-staffed media offices do this all the time. The rapid deployment of the post-war banners was a response to the broad international attention to Lebanon during the Israeli bombardment. It demonstrates the party’s understanding of how transnational media are consumed, as well understanding of how many Westerners grasped the clear US role in the war.
More striking and louder still has been a billboard campaign designed by the Saatchi and Saatchi advertising firm, and sponsored by USAID, that has dotted the cityscape with the declaration “I Love Life” (see Daniel Drennan, “Brand America: Of False Promises and Snake Oil,” Electronic Lebanon, February 7, 2007). In the United States, these billboards might be taken as an annoying, but harmless exercise in Babbitry. In today’s Lebanon, the slogan is a not so subtle denunciation of the Shi‘i Muslim community, assumed to be equated with Hizballah and its allies, by tarring the opposition in Lebanon as lovers (and, therefore, seekers) of death. Not only does this imputation evoke the accusations of Hizballah’s Lebanese adversaries that the party brought the summertime devastation upon Lebanon, but it also plays on stereotypes about Shi‘i martyrology. The US underwriting of the billboards betrays Washington’s neoliberal assumption that anything and everything is available to be commodified and marketed: “freedom,” “choice,” “democracy”—and joie de vivre as well.
The “I Love Life” campaign did not go unanswered. The opposition countered with an Arabic-language campaign that used plural pronouns—“We want to live…”—and added key qualifiers, including “…with dignity” and “…without debt.” Independent leftist activists, critical of both the government and the opposition, morphed the slogan into “I ♥ Capitalism,” “I ♥ Consumerism,” “I ♥ Sectarianism” and other phrases that capture the entanglement of the original campaign with these three ills. The leftists’ website highlights the class dimensions of Lebanon’s conflict, and its relationship to the prime minister’s neoliberal economic reform proposals:
“Behind the pretty red, white and green posters is a big fat lie about independence, sovereignty and freedom. These concepts, while laudable in and of themselves, mean nothing when over 60 percent of the population is living under the poverty line, when those that have most to lose have no say in the country’s economic policies, when those policies continue to be peddled for the benefit of the few at the expense of the many.”
E-mail circulation ensures that these Lebanese images traverse the globe. In the past months, a Johnny Walker ad (on which the walker kept walking over a destroyed bridge) made the rounds, as did a photograph of a stereotypical Lebanese “protest babe” (as young women participants in the 2005 “Syria out!” rallies were dubbed by male American bloggers) with a Hizballah flag draped on her shoulders. These images can be received in ways that drain them of critical content. So, for example, the young woman’s picture was shared among some Arab Americans as evidence that the opposition “looks like us, too”—a statement that says something about the viewers’ class-based and religious sensibilities, but nothing about Lebanon. Not only did these viewers miss the sexism inherent in the “protest babe” stereotype, they missed the fact that “looking like us” is a troubling criterion by which to judge political dissent.
Another well-traveled set of images consists of installments from a print ad campaign meant to undermine sectarianism. Attached to an e-mail headed “Awareness campaign about sectarianism,” images include the intercom panel for a building, the sign outside a doctor’s office, a license plate, a series of business cards, the sign for a parking lot and the caller identification on a cellular phone. Underneath each person’s name is her or his confessional affiliation. While masked as a grassroots effort, especially in its circulation, this campaign was in fact also designed by an advertising agency, H&C Leo Burnett.
At first glance, this campaign would seem to highlight the dangers of sectarianism by exaggerating its manifestations, but this strategy—if that is indeed that the campaign’s intention—backfires. Many Lebanese already assume their ability to “classify” others based on their names, neighborhoods of residence or villages of origin. But, in this case, merely making the implicit explicit is not enough. Because the campaign does not question the idea that people can so easily be categorized, it has the effect of making confessional “identity” seem natural. Sect in Lebanon has a lot to do with political arithmetic, with counting heads for various ends. Assumptions that one is “born into” one’s sect ignore conversion, intermarriage and the complexities of the relationship between belief, practice and identity. A successful critique of sectarianism has to take as its starting point the deconstruction of the category of “sect” itself. Both the “I Love Life” and the “anti-sectarianism” campaigns, regardless of varying intentions, have the effect of naturalizing difference along sectarian lines and erasing the complexities of sect as it functions as a social category. Sectarian difference is privileged in both campaigns at the expense of class, downplaying or completely ignoring the effects of global capitalism and the political-economic roots of the Lebanese conflict.
Sectarian divisions are easy to magnify and exploit. The privileging of sect in these campaigns echoes rhetoric about the “Shiite crescent” and obscures—even if unintentionally—US and other government policies of pitting some ethno-religious groups against others. The fact that both these campaigns were designed by transnational advertising corporations only underscores the links between US interventions and global capitalism.