The body of others.
A conversation with Vicky Sultana,
nurse and anthropologist,
on Tuesday April 7, on Tango, One TV.
Ms Sultana teaches at the
Institute of Health Care,
University of Malta.
Just over a week after Joseph Muscat’s election as leader, Ranier Fsadni published an interesting article in this newspaper, entitled The Liberal Turn (June 19, 2008). In it, the author – a social anthropologist – inaugurated what I believe is an on-going project, the study of the “moves and slides in Dr Muscat’s rhetoric and its likely future force“. In this article, Mr Fsadni used the term rhetoric in its technical sense of the strategy and tactics of persuasion.
Mr Fsadni wrote: “While in the name of openness Dr Muscat is proposing to dissolve political polarisation in Malta, what he in fact wants to do is replace one polarisation with another: the PN-MLP divide will be substituted by a ‘conservative-liberal’ divide. He has already accused Lawrence Gonzi of being a conservative. It is a label that might stick. If so, the MLP will make inroads among some of the demographic groups where the Nationalist Party has in recent elections registered significant strength: youth and the middle-aged professional class.”.
Mr Fsadni’s argued that Dr Muscat aimed at broadening Labour’s support base by reinventing it as a party with an inspirational appeal to all those who think of themselves as progressives, regardless of their political roots. Should Dr Muscat’s strategic project succeed, Mr Fsadni reasoned, the PN would lose its cutting edge among certain socio-economic and age groups and, therefore, its electoral majority. To succeed, however, Dr Muscat must beat Dr Gonzi (or any other Nationalist political figure) as the champion of a progressive vision.
The main subtext of Mr Fsadni’s article was that the PN’s survival in government depended on its ability to reject the label ‘conservative’. The secondary point was that Dr Gonzi’s conservative outlook was “a label that might stick“. This was understood by many to mean that unless Dr Gonzi reinvented himself as a progressive then he should go for the sake of his party.
These points were dubbed Ranier’s Thesis in a detailed review (labourinlabour.wordpress.com/2008/07/09/raniers-thesis/) in Labour-in-labour, an ‘unauthorised’ blog that managed to irritate conservatives in both parties. It has since ceased publication but is still accessible online. Now, nine months to the day after that remarkable article, Mr Fsadni writes another related and interesting piece in this newspaper. In his Return To Sender (March 19), I detect a note of irritation.
The author is peeved at Dr Muscat’s impertinent refusal to stick to the lines allotted to him in his own (Mr Fsadni’s) screen play featuring a wannabe-statesman with a dream. Go on, keep your eyes wide shut and imagine him: a young ‘liberal’ (in the US sense of the word, synonymous with the more European ‘progressive’), uttering utterly predictable abstract first principles.
The problem with Dr Muscat is that he will not conform to paradigms of political culture. Real-life political success, in the sense of successful implementation of a political project that brings real and sustainable benefits to a country’s citizens and to their guests, requires much more than the repetition of first principles. It is not enough to proclaim that all men and women are equal and that life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are their inalienable rights, nor to proclaim that the truth of these propositions must be held to be self-evident. Their truth depends on concretely constructing the economic, institutional and cultural conditions that make them achievable.
In Return To Sender, Mr Fsadni argues that in his proposals on illegal immigration in Parliament of March 16, the PL leader overplayed the ‘legality’ element and ignored ‘integration’, adding that the emphasis on legality is typical of conservative views whereas integration of immigrants is more popular with progressive politicians.
I invite Mr Fsadni to read all the actual transcript of Muscat’s speech and to reflect on its context; to go beyond sound bites from Gordon Brown, José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero and David Cameron and revisit the various policy documents he refers to in their entirety and context. This conversation with Mr Fsadni does not end here.
Meanwhile, permit me to quote some of the final lines from Dr Muscat’s speech: “The PL could have chosen to do nothing. We could have sat quietly on our opposition seats and avoided all political risk by pleasing everybody and upsetting no one. We could have taken political advantage from a situation that is certainly not an easy one for the government and, especially, the Prime Minister. We could have accused it of being inhuman and racist. We could have accused it of being weak. Weak in the face of illegal immigration. Weak in the face of those that are certainly making money out of this situation. Weak with the European Union and weak with Libya. We could have decided to run with both hound and hare. But […] we decided to offer to share the risk with the government“.
This article appeared on March 30 in Dr Vella’s column on The Times of Malta. You can access the original at http://www.timesofmalta.com/articles/view/20090330/opinion/return-to-ranier-fsadni
Rejecting Peppone. Why obsolete anticlericalism will not emancipate Maltese culture from its provincial and repressive mediocrity.
Gino Cervi as Peppone and Fernandel as Don Camillo
Ever since Graham Greene published his Monsignor Quixote in 1982, I have preferred Enrique Zancas, mayor of El Toboso, La Mancha, to Giuseppe Bottazzi, Giovannino Guareschi’s small town mayor of the Bassa Padana, that melancholic strip that runs along the Po between Pavia and the Comacchio wetlands. The Bottazzi of my youth – better known, of course, as Peppone – had been reduced to a caricature of political folklore by the black and white state television of a Cold War Italy dominated by the Democrazia Cristiana.
It must be said that Guareschi’s original character lent itself well to this sort of operation. Guareschi was himself a political caricaturist entrenched on the right wing of the DC with a penchant for penning successful electoral slogans. The well known Nel segreto della cabina elettorale Dio ti vede, Stalin no (In the secrecy of the voting booth God sees you, Stalin can’t) appears to have been his creation.
Togliatti calling Guareschi “three times an idiot times three” during a mass meeting did not prevent Peppone’s success as a media icon, as an image that acts as manipulating mediator between audience and reality, that shapes the audience’s view of reality and, ultimately, becomes the audience’s reality. He was a reassuring figure. As long as the forze laiche were led on the ground by the likes of him, determined and sincere, burly and indignant, but ultimately incapable and possibly unwilling to displace Don Camillo as moral arbiter of the last resort, Italy and the West were safe from the secularisation of morals.
Mark Anthony Falzon (The Sunday Times, March 8) fears “that things are looking pretty hopeless” for us, firstly, because this “island of Don Camillo is small and peripheral” and, secondly, because our Peppone “seems barely interested in any case” in championing the “secularisation of morals” – as I have referred to it above. This apathy of our Peppones and their tendency to retire into an erudite but cowardly individualism is, in Dr Falzon’s view, a main cause of the failure of the pluralisation of the media so grandiloquently announced by the Nationalist Party soon after they came to power in 1987.
Dr Falzon correctly points out that although under the banner of pluralism we did get a proliferation of radio and TV stations as well as the production of a large number of communications graduates, this did not result in a corresponding diversity of world-views. On the contrary, we witnessed a shrinking of diversity. We got more means for the delivery of views, more media, but the range of diverse views became narrower and tended to cluster around a set of middling values, of profoundly conservative clerical values. This, as I have argued in my blog, is the foundation of the mediocrity of our media, itself a reflection of the profound mediocrity of our culture.
Dr Falzon blames, partly at least, our Peppones for this, understood as those who should know better than to let our Don Camillos and their lay lackeys hog the media, thereby producing the dull uniformity of world-views that make our culture one of the least pluralist in Europe. Dr Falzon eloquently refers to these Peppones as “erudite renegades” and indeed they are. But, can one realistically expect any better from Peppone? I began, in fact, by reminding readers that Peppone was a caricature produced by the conservative clerical right in post-war Italy with the express intention of demonstrating the superiority of its Don Camillos, especially in the country’s peripheral small villages and towns.
That is why I prefer the manchegan mayor Enrique Zancas to the emilian mayor Giuseppe Bottazzi aka Peppone. That is why I prefer Graham Greene’s creation to Giovanni Guareschi’s. Zancas, unlike Peppone, is a complex character and not a pathetic caricature. He is not the fist-raising hero of socialist realism, far from it. He has no illusions about the moral and dogmatic infallibility of the party in whose ranks he has for so long militated.
Guareschi portrays Peppone – of course – as a shrill and strutting anti-clerical. If noisy but ineffectual anti-clericals did not exist, the clerical right would have to invent them. To Camillo’s cultural hegemony over his parishioners, Peppone can only respond with petty spitefulness and anti-clerical rhetoric. On the other hand, Zancas’ relationship with Monsignor Quixote is a rich and textured dialectic that morally enriches both. Indeed, it is Monsignor Quixote who finally rises against the Church-state phalanx and is ruthlessly suppressed.
If you haven’t already done so, read Greene’s magistral scene in which the monsignor creates a scandal during the procession – he attempts to force a parish-priest from parading Our Lady through the village clothed in banknotes – and is hunted down and killed by the Guardia Civil, much to the relief of his ecclesiastical superiors. Zancas emerges a wiser man from this experience, emancipated from any dogmatism, rising above shallow anti-clericalism. It is the adventures he shares with Monsignor Quixote that finally distinguish him from the two-dimensional Peppone.
I prefer Zancas because he reminds me of the thousands of Spanish democrats who were not prevented from developing politically and intellectually by fixation on the memories of the Civil War. It is they who have made possible today’s Spain. Josè Luis Rodriguez Zapatero’s Spain is a country where “plural and challenging public discourse” (to borrow Dr Falzon’s terminology)is valued as a sine qua non of democracy. Of course, there are those who look back with nostalgia but the Zancas are vigilant. Spain today is possibly the EU’s most pluralist member state.
Perhaps we are not seeing the increasing number of persons who are quietly but steadily emancipating themselves from this country’s cultural mediocrity because we would not recognise them if we saw them. We are looking for Peppones when these persons reject the Peppone model. No wonder we fail to see them. No wonder some of us say that “things are looking pretty hopeless” and see only the “grotesque line-up of ubiquitous faces” extolling the virtues of mediocrity on the media.
This article appeared in The Times of Malta on Monday, 16th March 2009. You may access it directly at http://www.timesofmalta.com/articles/view/20090316/opinion/forgetting-all-about-peppone
Art, education & power.
with John Baldacchino,
Tuesday 16th March
on Tango, One TV, after 22.30
Professor John Baldacchino, Associate Professor of Art and Art Education at Columbia University Teachers College, New York, will be speaking on Art’s Pedagogical Polity on Monday 16 March, 6-7 pm, at the University of Malta, Msida.
John is the author of four books, the latest being Education Beyond Education: Self and The Imaginary in Maxine Greene’s Philosophy (Peter Lang, 2008).
Art’s Pedagogical Polity is his new book project – art as a pedagogical polity where the main concern is not simply that of art’s political forms and how they are taught, but rather, art’s inherent pedagogy and its consequences for aesthetics, education and the politics of aesthetics. Dr. Baldacchino invites feedback in what will be an open-ended discussion.
Currently he is working on two book projects: Makings of the Sea: On Mediterranean Aesthetics (Gorgias Press, 2009) and Art’s Way Out: Exit Pedagogy and the Cultural Condition (Sense Publishers, 2010).
The seminar will take place in the Mediterranean Institute Room 124 opposite University Library by the Arvid Pardo Study Area. Entrance from Carpark 4. Open to the public.
Professor Baldacchino is being hosted by the Work in Progress Seminars at the University of Malta, convened by Professors Paul Clough and Peter Mayo under the auspices of the Mediterranean Institute.
Resisting mediocrity and the interests it serves: how the Maltese media contributes to the creation of a mediocre audience and then blames this audience for the mediocrity of the media. All in the interests of the ruling social networks. A footnote to a comment by Raphael Vella.
Raphael Vella, writing last Sunday in a local English-language paper, argued that “television constantly adapts itself to the mentality of its audience. [Its programmes] essentially confirm the conservative tastes of a conservative public; they challenge no orthodoxies, change nothing, and definitely never tell people what they do not want to hear.”
He concludes that if television “consistently challenged the public’s preconceptions – as art does so often – the grand audience ratings it brags about would suffer as a result, and its power in relation to other cultural products like print journalism and the arts would be greatly diminished [and it…] would lose its cultural and commercial monopoly.”
Raphael’s comment is a good starting point for a radical discussion of the social and cultural role of the media in Malta (all of them, print, radio, television, web-based). The greatest merit of his intervention is that it problematises an institution that has – by and large – so far been allowed to promote – indeed to impose – its own self-image on society, thereby aborting critical counter-images and seducing society into accepting the media’s self-image as the only real and the only possible image.
In my view, nothing Raphael says is in itself incorrect. What he says, however, at least in this particular comment, is not sufficiently radical, in others words it does not quite go to the roots (radix) of the problem. Raphael Vella cites Pierre Bourdieu. Great! But what needs to be done is to follow the signposts planted by this great French sociologist all the way to the roots of the issue. If we, following Bourdieu, do so, then we will have to confront the fundamental problem of power in society, of how the ruling social groups conserve and consolidate their power. This will require us, incidentally, to make use of the conceptual tools developed by the intellectual giants on whose shoulders Bourdieu himself stands.
If we do opt for this radical approach we will wake up to a number of facts, some of which are not clearly recognised by Raphael in his comment. Here are some of them (take them as hypotheses to be tested, if you wish):
1. That all the media in Malta (all of them, not only the ‘popular’ television programmes Raphael focuses on) are tendentially – consciously or otherwise – accomplices in the reproduction of the cultural hegemony of this society’s ruling social groups and, therefore of the cultural preconditions of their social, economic and political power. This, so far, has been true irrespective of political party in power and of the party-political leanings of the owners of Maltese stations and newspapers.
2. That “art” is not spared unless and until it becomes conscious of these mechanisms and takes a position against them. Unless and until it does so, “art” in Malta will continue to be a tool of hegemony, happy in its illusion of independence from the mechanisms of power. To suggest that “art” is excluded from these mechanisms is to ultimately protect them. Unless you wake up to the realisation that you are a prisoner, you will never attempt to escape.
3. That these mechanisms of power are neither eternal nor inevitable. They have a history, they developed over time, they change in response to changing (local and international) conditions. If they are not inevitable they can be changed. It takes courage, intelligence, organisation, patience, skill, creativity and – yes – humility. For an artist it takes a lot humility to realise that she/he is not a Nietzschean superman outside of society, an independent artisan free from the constraints and conditioning of industrialised mass media. Once emancipated from this petty bourgeois illusion (an old fashioned categorisation? perhaps, but still valid), the artist is free to join the (by no means inevitable) efforts to change things (to the extent that conditions make such a change possible). With more artists and intellectuals willing and capable of undertaking a critique of the society they operate in – Raphael Vella is a relatively rare example, in this country, of one such artist – we can resist these mechanisms.
4. Mediocrity is not merely an aesthetic quality. It is also a political tool. It is the principal means by which the diversity and uniqueness of individuals is compressed into an anonymous mass with middling wants and tastes, a politically harmless audience with characteristics clustered around a socially constructed average. The Maltese media play a critical role in the production and reproduction of such an audience. When we are tempted to say – as Raphael comes dangerously close to conceding – that Maltese television is forced to give the audience what it wants upon pain of losing that audience, we absolve it from its involvement in the very creation of that sort of audience. This vicious circle – like Brecht’s Arturo Ui – can be resisted.
Raphael Vella’s article may be viewed at:
The rabid witchhunt unleashed following the Prime Minister’s reluctant dropping of the co-cathedral underground museum project is shocking and shameful. The orchestrated smear campaign against officials of Flimkien Ghal Ambjent Ahjar will cause more damage to the Prime Minister than his own mismanagement of the situation before his scuttling of the project. In both cases, the prime movers are evidently unaware of the ongoing sea change in public opinion. Or they are too desperate to care.
Public opinion is – slowly but surely – turning against the arrogance of power. We are, traditionally, a people whose tolerance for the arrogance of the powerful is incredibly high. We grumble, clench our fists and chew our innards but, ultimately, we bite our tongue, bow our head and kiss the hand that beats us. It is a characteristic feature with deep historical roots but things are changing. There are, I believe, clear signs that more and more citizens across the political spectrum are no longer willing to be led by the nose and to vote one way or another because of something akin to a tribal instinct.
This concerns both parties in Parliament. Labour (PL), in this context, enjoys the bitter benefits of opposition. It has had no choice but to reflect hard on its own and its competitor’s experience in government. Twenty-two years have gone by since 1987, of which 20 were spent in opposition. Sufficient time for Labour to think about its achievements and its sins.
The Nationalist Party (PN), on the other hand, has had no such advantage. Evidently, the two years of opposition, 1996-1998, were not sufficiently long for the PN to examine its conscience on the matter of arrogance.
The vile attacks on environmentalist Astrid Vella and her colleagues indicate that influential elements in and around the PN have yet to realise that arrogance is just not on anymore. Attacking those who dissent will not strengthen the bullies. On the contrary, undignified displays of arrogance such as we have been witnessing will only make matters worse for those who support the bullies, directly and indirectly. The least the PN can do to distance itself from the bullies is to condemn the current hatred campaign against those who opposed the co-cathedral museum extension project. Better still, it ought to apologise to Ms Vella, the FAA and all those who supported them.
• The members of the St John’s Co-Cathedral Foundation, who should ideally have resigned after their project was effectively killed by the joint statement of the Prime Minister and the Archbishop, should also – at the very least – distance themselves from the witchhunt by condemning the smear campaign against Ms Vella. If they feel they cannot do it jointly as a body, they should at least do it individually.
On February 16, commenting in this newspaper about the failure of the members of the St John’s Co-Cathedral Foundation “to resign gracefully”, Lino Spiteri asked: “Why was the foundation so pig-headed?” This query synthesised three other ones posed earlier in the text: 1) “Why did it take the Archbishop to be embroiled in a clear political move to sink the proposal?” 2) “Why did the foundation, on its own intellectual steam, not realise that so many sectors and notable individuals were against their proposal that there had to be something fundamentally flawed in it?” 3) “Why did the foundation, acting with due humility, not withdraw the proposal itself?”
The article’s bottom-line was that “It is for not doing so that the foundation members should resign”.
Evidently, they lacked the humility needed to admit that – to put it very mildly indeed – there was unequivocally not sufficient support in the country for the project. Evidently, they lacked the humility to admit that there was sufficient reasonable and expert doubt about the wisdom of the project.
Not surprisingly, therefore, they could hardly be expected to have the graciousness to resign. They seem not to have considered the possibility that their failure to resign could have been interpreted as sheer arrogance.
• Only last December, many Maltese and Gozitans congratulated and patted themselves on their back because a Maltese was awarded the special jury prize for the most deserving work in the International Volunteer Day competition organised by the Fédération Francaise du Bénévolat et de la Vie Associative (FFBA). That Maltese was Astrid Vella. She won this European award and received 12,000 votes from different countries in recognition of work carried out by the FAA, especially for the battle against development in the Tal-Papa area in Birżebbuga, the scheduling of the area around Villa Bologna in Attard and the protection of the Gozitan scenic sites of Ramla l-Hamra and Hondoq ir-Rummien.
One expects all those who, less than three months ago, were made proud by Ms Vella and the FAA to speak out now against the bullies who cannot forgive her and her colleagues for having dared to oppose the co-cathedral museum extension project. It’s not enough for them to merely grumble. They need to stand up to the bullies if they do not wish to be their accomplices.
This article appeared yesterday, March 2, on The Times of Malta. You may access the original at http://www.timesofmalta.com/articles/view/20090302/opinion/standing-up-to-the-bullies