Unbecoming Europe. Or, The obscenity of power.

Posted in 1 by Editor on July 22, 2009


Guess which Maltese quango unblushingly proclaims the following as its “vision”: “A bold and daring expression of Malta’s unique Cultural and Artistic identity that engages society and impacts future history” (capital letters in the original). Let me spoon-feed you: It is the same organisation that, according to its “mission” statement, solemnly declares its resolve “to achieve new heights in creativity and accomplishment for Culture and the Arts in Malta” (again, their caps). There’s more: It also spells out how it will behave in the course of its mission. It will be nothing less than “Adventurous and Brave”, “Passionate and Committed”, “Focused”, “Open”, “Quality Driven” and, of course, “Results Oriented” (sic, their caps yet again).

You don’t need to be particularly savvy in the corporate communications trade to know that the drafting of mission statements is a chore that serious copy text writers undertake with the healthy cynicism that one expects from hardened professionals. In fact, clients’ own enthusiasm for hyperbolic mission statements has visibly decreased over the years. The onset of the global economic crisis has further encouraged the adoption of a more sober and feet-on-the-ground language. Ironically, the taste for ornate corporate rhetoric tends to linger on in the culturally-provincial peripheries.

Back to our mysterious quango. If you haven’t yet worked out its identity, I’ll give you some more clues.
It was set up by an Act of Parliament in 2002, which Act decrees that the said body “shall consist of a chairperson and not less than four and not more than eight other members”. These “shall be appointed by the minister [responsible for culture] for a term of three years but the members so appointed shall be eligible for re-appointment on the expiration of their term of office”. The law also provides for any such member who “in the opinion of the minister […] is unfit to continue in office”. In such cases, the person concerned “may be removed from office by the minister”.

In a manner typical of quangos (quasi nongovernmental organisations), the body in question is a hybrid. It “is a body corporate having a distinct legal personality” but it is ultimately at the minister’s mercy. When He (my cap this time) directs it to do something, the organisation “shall […] give effect to all such directives and shall conduct its affairs accordingly”. Should the mysterious body “fail to comply”, “the Prime Minister may make an order transferring to the minister in whole or in part any of [its] functions”.

The Act provides the members of this body with operational guidelines. Some are frankly nebulous and ambiguous, for example, to “advise the minister on cultural policies and strategies that reach out to the whole socio-cultural sphere”. Others are refreshingly clear and to the point, for example, to “promote […] freedom of artistic expression”.
Make no mistake. This organisation is not just a talking shop. It may enter into contracts, acquire, hold and dispose of property, employ people, lend and borrow money, levy fees and other payments prescribed by the Act, receive funds from the Minister of Finance from the Consolidated Fund, use and administer immovable state-owned assets. It can be a very influential body and/or an effective transmission belt of decisions and instructions by effective decision makers. It can be an instrument of state power.

Quangos can also be used to protect the ultimate wielders of power from the focus of public attention. Power, you see, often prefers to be off-stage, off the scene. Perhaps because sometimes, having disobeyed the divine order not to take a bite of the fruit of the tree of good and evil, power becomes aware of its nakedness. It perceives itself as obscene (according to an admittedly uncertain etymology, “that which should not be seen”) and hides behind a variety of fronts.

I could perhaps add that this body recently took responsibility for a disturbing decision, one that does not become the highest standards of European culture. In fact, from a European point of view, it was an unbecoming decision and will certainly not help this country become as European as it should be. This body’s decision to exclude from an exhibition an artwork whose author’s artistic seriousness has not been questioned is scandalous, even by such “old” standards as the 1973 Miller test.

Wittingly, or otherwise, the corporate entity I have chosen not to name – call it a form of symbolic censorship or of censure if you must – has promoted the sort of culture Zizek refers to when he writes: “Is this not what, ultimately, culture is? One of the elementary rules of culture is to know when (and how) to pretend not to know (or notice), to go on and act as if something which happened did not happen. When a person near me accidentally produces an unpleasant vulgar noise, the proper thing to do is to ignore it, not to comfort him: ‘I know it was an accident, don’t worry, it doesn’t really matter!'”

If anyone considers the above text libellous, please sue me.

Mario Vella

The original article may be accessed at  http://www.timesofmalta.com/articles/view/20090720/opinion/unbecoming-europe


Unveiling right and left.

Posted in 1 by Editor on July 17, 2009


Don’t worry. My last substantial comment on Fr Peter Serracino Inglott’s “perspective”, published 20 years ago, was 218 pages long. [1]  Today’s comment will be somewhat shorter and not as substantial. Please refer to Miriam Vincenti’s interview with Fr Serracino Inglott in The Sunday Times of June 21, [2] wherein she begins by coyly declaring that she will refrain from asking him about the European Parliament result as this would amount to “rubbing salt in the wounds”. Instead, she announces, she will ask him about the book he is reading.

Reflect on this apparently innocent starter. Knowingly or otherwise, the interviewer is indicating to the not particularly advanced reader that philosophy professors who read books that he is unlikely to have ever heard of, let alone read, such as a collection of writings by Louis Massignon (1883-1962), have reason to be unhappy with the European Parliament results. Had the great unread allowed themselves to be guided by philosopher kings, by wisdom and reason, the results would have been different.

As this is a well-worn rhetorical device, the experienced reader is not at all surprised when Fr Serracino Inglott magnanimously waves aside the interviewer’s scruples, proceeds to sacrifice himself on the altar of the “public interest” and cheerfully welcomes the rubbing of salt into his wounds for our salvation. Before he gets on with it, however, there’s another rhetorical trick up his sleeve. Expecting most readers to expect him to be concerned with the June 6 results in Malta – How many fellow citizens on either side lost any sleep on the overall results in Europe? – he again delays the exposition of his views by commenting on… the overall results in Europe.

The “motivation of my post-election blues”, Fr Serracino Inglott states, “is the loss of the elections by the Left”. He complains that “the increased relative majority obtained by the Popular Party cannot be considered to be a victory of Christian Democracy” and that “the dominant group in the Popular Party is now rather more right than centre-right”. In fact, the European People’s Party, as it is officially called, defines itself as “the largest political group in a Parliament where non-socialist parties now enjoy a clear majority” (www.eppgroup.eu/home/en/aboutus.asp). It sells itself as the champion of all those against the Left and that includes plenty of people most decent readers wouldn’t want to be seen with. Yes, Fr Serracino Inglott ought to be unhappy. We need not quibble on his assumption that Christian Democrat parties are fundamentally “centre-left”.

But what all readers are really waiting for is Fr Serracino Inglott on the European Parliament results in Malta. And, finally, mercifully, he sheds the last of the veils… but one. The “local victory by the Labour Party certainly cannot be considered an exception to the general trend”, he says. In other words, it would seem to follow, the Left lost in Malta too. Is he suggesting that the PN is the “real” Left and PL the “real” right? This would surprise most of The Sunday Times’ readers who are unaccustomed to think of themselves as Leftists.

Those familiar with Fr Serracino Inglott’s views, however, will not have been surprised. In a recent interview on my conversation programme on One TV, Tango, he insisted that he has always been on the left of the Maltese political spectrum but could not work with Labour because of a number of specific issues. In my own book on his work and its context, I argued that had Fr Serracino Inglott not existed, the Nationalist Party would have had to invent him.

My point was that Fr Serracino Inglott was decisive for the transformation of the PN from a worn-out network of conservative notables to a popular mass party speaking a local dialect of Christian Democrat language. The leftish elements of this language enable Christian Democrat parties to win electoral market share from parties with blue-collar appeal.

This is relatively easy when they are in opposition, especially when the government is itself torn between the needs of international cost competitiveness and the expectations of its own mass base, as in the Maltese case after the second oil shock of 1979. It becomes more difficult when a sometime Christian Democrat party is itself in government. At that point it is characters like Richard Cachia Caruana that are more useful than a Fr Serracino Inglott… until they too outlive their political usefulness. In my view, the traditional Left vs Right distinction is unhelpful to understand what really goes on and needs to be replaced by concrete analysis. [3]

Fr Serracino Inglott’s taste for the choreographic rhetoric of the veil (whereby the speaker comes to the point after shedding a number of veils) would certainly remind Massignon – “one of my spiritual fathers”, Fr Serracino Inglott tells Ms Vincenti – of Salman al-Farisi’s veiled criticism of the unholy hurry with which Abu Bakr was elected successor to the prophet Mohammad on June 8, 653 (“you did and you did not”, he is reported to have told the electors of, in the regard of the Sunnis, the first of the Caliphs). [4]

[1]  Reflections in a canvas bag. Beginning philosophy between politics and history, PEG, 1989.

[2] May be accessed at http://www.timesofmalta.com/articles/view/20090621/opinion/a-prophet-for-our-time

[3] I argue this in a paper in J. Cutajar and G. Cassar, eds. Transitions in Maltese society. Miller, forthcoming, 2009. 

[4] In the above mentioned interview, Serracino Inglott must be referring to Écrits mémorables, edited by Christian Jambet, François Angelier, François L’Yvonnet and Souâd Ayada, published by Robert-Laffont, in their “Bouquins” series, 2 volumes, 2009. My own reference above to Massignon’s comment on Salman al-Farisi is to an essay in Parole donnée (Paris, Julliard, 1962). Unfortunately, I do not have the French original of the latter and must refer the reader to the Italian translation in my library, Salman Pak e le primizie spirituali dell’Islam iraniano, on p.115 of Parola data, Adelphi, Milano 1995.

Mario Vella

The author’s  writes every other Monday on page 8 of  The Times of Malta. The article above (except footnotes) originally appeared on The Times of Malta on July 6, 2009, and may be accessed at http://www.timesofmalta.com/articles/view/20090706/opinion/unveiling-right-and-left