When Fear Turns Graphic

SWITZERLAND stunned many Europeans, including not a few Swiss, when near the end of last year the country, by referendum, banned the building of minarets. Much predictable tut-tutting ensued about Swiss xenophobia, even though surveys showed similar plebiscites would get pretty much the same results elsewhere.

A poster was widely cited as having galvanized votes for the Swiss measure but was also blamed for exacerbating hostility toward immigrants and instigating a media and legal circus. “We make posters, the other side goes to the judge,” is how Alexander Segert put it when we met here the other day. “I love it when they do that.”

He designed the poster in question. As manager of Goal, the public relations firm for the Swiss People’s Party, Mr. Segert has overseen various campaign posters. This one, for the referendum, used minarets rising from the Swiss flag like missiles (“mushrooms,” Mr. Segert demurred, implausibly). Beside the missiles a woman glowers from inside a niqab. “Stop” is written below in big, black letters.

The obvious message: Minarets lead to Sharia law. Never mind that there are only four minarets in Switzerland to begin with, and that Muslims, some 340,000 of them, or 4 percent of the population, mostly from the Balkans and Turkey, have never been notably zealous.

In this heavily immigrant country the ultranationalist Swiss People’s Party is now the leading political party, aided at the polls by incidents like the New Year’s Day attack by a Somali Muslim immigrant in Denmark on Kurt Westergaard, the artist whose caricature of the Prophet Mohammad with a bomb in his turban was among the cartoons published in 2005 in a Danish newspaper that provoked violent protests around the world. All across Europe populist parties are growing, capitalizing, to an extent unknown across the Atlantic, on a very old-fashioned brand of propaganda art. The dominance in America today of the 24-hour cable news networks and the Internet, the sheer size of the country, the basic conventions of public discourse, not to mention that the only two major parties have, or at least feign having, a desire to court the political center, all tend to mitigate against the sort of propaganda that one can now find in Europe.

It manages, if often just barely, to skirt racism laws. In Italy, where attacks on immigrant workers in the Calabrian town of Rosarno this month incited the country’s worst riots in years, the Lega Nord, part of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s ruling coalition, has circulated various anti-immigrant posters. One, mimicked by Jean-Marie Le Pen’s far-right National Front Party in France, showed an American Indian to make the point that immigrants will soon turn Europeans into embattled minorities stuck on reservations.

The National Front also distributed a poster of Charles de Gaulle alongside a remark he once made (in the context of the Algerian occupation) to suggest that true Gaullists today would vote for Le Pen. “It is good that there are yellow Frenchmen and black Frenchmen and brown Frenchmen,” de Gaulle is quoted as saying. “They prove that France is open to all races,” adding, “on the condition that they remain a small minority. Otherwise, France will no longer be France.”

In Austria the far-right Freedom Party has come up with a poster bearing the slangy slogan: “Daham Statt Islam, Wir Für Euch” (roughly, Home Instead of Islam, or Islam Go Home, We Are for You). And Britain’s neo-Nazi National Party, which, to the great embarrassment of the country’s political leaders, lately won two seats on the European Parliament, swiped the minaret poster by switching the Swiss flag for a Union Jack. Mr. Segert and the Swiss People’s Party weren’t too pleased, populists being one thing, neo-Nazis, another.

It may be hard for Americans to grasp the role these images can play here. In subways and on the streets in America, posters and billboards are eye-catching if sexy or stylish, like Calvin Klein’s advertisements, or if modish and outrageous, like Benetton’s, but they’re basically background noise. By contrast, they’re treated more seriously here, as news, at least when they’re political Molotov cocktails. Cheap to produce compared with television commercials and easy to spread in small countries like Switzerland, where referendums are catnip to populists, they have the capacity to rise above the general noise.

Mr. Segert is the de facto reigning minister of such propaganda. He has used red rats to caricature Swiss leftists. He came up with an image of black and brown hands riffling through a stack of Swiss passports. And (until the minaret poster, this one caused the biggest kerfuffle) he cooked up the idea of three fluffy white sheep kicking a black sheep off the Swiss flag. “For More Security” was the accompanying slogan.

Cries of racism, occasional legal proceedings — none of which ended up in fines against him, Mr. Segert hastens to point out — and even bans on their display in left-leaning cities like Basel and Geneva, have only increased the reproduction of the images. All of which, as Mr. Segert said, suits him and his bosses just fine.

more http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/17/arts/design/17abroad.html