Vicarious compassion

Posted in 1 by Editor on December 20, 2010

If, last week, Union Ħaddiema Magħqudin general secretary Gejtu Vella felt the need to speak out against “exaggerated” pay rises for government ministers, arguing this showed lack of sensitivity to the difficulties employees, pensioners and their families were going through right now, then you can rest assured this government’s more intelligent supporters have realised Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi needs to be saved from himself.

The Prime Minister himself must have realised this when, as reported by this newspaper on December 13, he conceded that “people deserved ‘an explanation’ regarding the generous pay rise granted to politicians two and a half years ago”. Having acknowledged this, he went on to give anything but an explanation. Instead, he chose to go on about whether the opposition knew about the decision or otherwise. About what the majority of citizens who are finding it increasingly difficult to make ends meet may think of the generous pay rise he and his colleagues have awarded themselves, Dr Gonzi decided to be silent.

In my previous contribution in this column, I seized the opportunity presented by a Maltese judge’s eloquent pleas for compassion towards men and animals to highlight the absence of compassion we are often confronted with in this country. Well, if the Prime Minister’s incredible lack of sensitivity towards the considerable hardship that many of his fellow citizens are facing today is not the opposite of compassion, then I don’t know what is.

Those who will have to make do with a weekly €1.16 cost of living allowance are finding it very difficult to swallow this one, irrespective of the political colour. Those who have to humiliate themselves by pleading with ARMS Ltd to spread water and electricity bills by making monthly payments they can anyway hardly afford (and I am not speaking about the down-and-outs but about many who recognise themselves in what we euphemistically refer to as the middle class) will not forgive the Prime Minister this one. This one won’t go away.

Unless we are jumping to conclusions. Unless we underestimated the Cabinet’s compassion. Unless, in his New Year’s speech, the Prime Minister will finally confess it was all a joke and the second pay he and his ministers decided to award to themselves (backdated) will go to pay for what the Child Development Advisory Unit (CDAU) needs to give a better service to a bigger number of children that badly need it and need it yesterday.

Evarist Bartolo, during the Budget debate, revealed that the Minister of Health had a report spelling out how badly the CDAU is functioning. The Labour member informed the House that, at that point in time, 1,163 children were waiting to be assessed by the CDAU. He went on to explain the CDAU needs 12 additional employees and more psychologists and that, with an investment of only €300,000, this service could improve radically.

This and other figures he shared with the House were “as embarrassing as they were scandalous”. In an article in another English language paper, Mr Bartolo quoted Chilean poet Gabriela Mistral: “We are guilty of many errors and many faults but our worst crime is abandoning the children, neglecting the fountain of life. Many of the things we need, can wait. The child cannot.”

If the Health Minister knew all this, then he will have no doubt informed his Cabinet colleagues and, of course, the Prime Minister. Perhaps then Dr Gonzi will prove us wrong about this two-salaries-for-one-job story and surprise us all by endorsing the priority spelt out by Mistral. Perhaps Dr Gonzi will tell us, before wishing us a serene and prosperous New Year, the second salary for ministers can wait but children with special needs cannot. He will explain it was all just a clever provocation to make us reflect, in this festive season, about this country’s Christian values. About compassion.

Not that this impossible coup de théâtre would save the Prime Minister from himself. There is so much that now separates this government from the people it is meant to serve. Mr Vella knows this only too well. Therefore, in the speech I quoted above he also said the UĦM was also “worried” about the awarding of the power station extension contract. He called for more transparency “for the people to be assured the contract was given in the proper way and have the assurance that taxpayers’ money was spent properly”. But will Dr Gonzi – but can Dr Gonzi – give such assurances?

And what about the report by the Pensions Working Group commissioned by the Employment Ministry (I quote this newspaper) “which sought a strategic review of the adequacy, sustainability and social solidarity of the pension system five years since the pension reform in 2005”? The two-salaries-for-one-job story could not have emerged at a worse time for a Prime Minister who will now ask for a reopening of the debate on the retirement age, thereby admitting his own failure. Perhaps Mr Vella will consider showing some more vicarious compassion for the electorate by expressing his union’s concern on this issue too.

Meanwhile enjoy the festive season.

The original of this article appeared in Dr Vella’s regular column on The Times of Malta on December 20, 2010 and may be accessed at  http://www.timesofmalta.com/articles/view/20101220/opinion/compassion-of-the-vicarious-kind


Neruda in a Maltese court

Posted in 1 by Editor on December 6, 2010

On November 27, 1947, a Venezuelan paper published what came to be known as the Intimate Letter To Millions Of Men by Chilean poet Pablo Neruda (1904-1973). The future Nobel Prize laureate accused Chile’s President Gabriel González Videla of having reneged on his electoral promises of badly needed radical social reforms and of having betrayed the progressive parties that had supported his candidature.

The President brought charges of contempt against Neruda for having insulted his own head of the state abroad. Unrepentant, the poet repeated his accusations of the “Chilean Judas” in a speech in the senate, of which he was a member. The Supreme Court, however, upheld the charges against Neruda and issued a warrant for his arrest. At this point, he went into hiding to complete his great poem Canto General.

In the larger picture of the Latin American universe, Chile’s González Videla is a minor character, as Neruda himself later observed. “In the fauna of our America, the great dictators have been giant saurians, survivors of a colossal feudalism in prehistoric lands. The Chilean Judas was just an amateur tyrant and on the saurian scale would never be anything but a poisonous lizard.”

We Maltese, familiar with mediocre politicians infinitely less inspiring than the innocent lizards of our garigue, can well appreciate Neruda’s reptilian imagery.

Originally conceived as an epic poem about Chile, Canto General grew over a period of 12 years into a book of verses about the whole of Latin America – the “great motherland”, as my good friend Fr Ġwann Xerri OP (now back in his beloved Brazil) is fond of calling it. When you read the second canto, Alturas de Machu Picchu (Heights of Machu Picchu) – parts of which have been translated into Maltese by Antoine Cassar, a Latin American literature specialist who is presently working on a doctoral dissertation at the University of Alcalá, Madrid – you observe how literally Neruda soars, condor-like, above any possible parochial small-mindedness.

But González Videla must at least be credited with having provoked Neruda to compose this “solemn celebration” of a continent betrayed by its ruling classes, creating a veritable “poetics of betrayal” (Roberto González Echevarría). In this poetic logic, the treason committed by these rulers (and their lackeys) is not an inevitable consequence of their smallness. Rather, it is their betrayal of their peoples’ aspiration to a dignified existence that makes them abjectly small.

On November 29, 2010, 63 years almost to the day after he denounced his President, Neruda appeared in a Maltese court. Mr Justice Lawrence Quintano, handing down an appeal judgment in a case involving the intentional running over of a dog, called for respect of the life and well-being of animals. The judge appended Neruda’s Un perro ha muerto (A dog has died) to his sentence. An unprecedented gesture in our courts.

It is a moving poem but not soppy or sentimental. Far from it. Recalling his dog’s friendship, the poet states almost laconically that “it was the friendship of a star, aloof, with no more intimacy than was called for”.

It is, nevertheless, a friendship so precious that it tempts the writer – generally assumed to be an atheist – to muse about an afterlife for his dog:

“I, the materialist, who never believed

in any promised heaven in the sky

for any human being,

I believe in a heaven I’ll never enter.

Yes, I believe in a heaven for this dog and all dogs,

where my dog awaits my arrival

waving his fan-like tail in friendship.”

The conclusion, gruff and abrupt in its lapidary matter-of-factness, jolts us awake:

“So now it’s gone and I buried him,

and that is all that there is to it.”

Only a month earlier, on October 14, the same judge delivered what this newspaper described as an “inspiring and emotional” inaugural speech, focusing on his six-year experience, as a magistrate, of drug cases. Mr Justice Quintano argued for the need to attempt to understand the persons involved, insisting that rehabilitation ought not to be limited to the administration of methadone but to give the subject concerned a reason to live.

The idea of a reason to live appears to have been central to the judge’s oration. I quote from this newspaper’s report: “If one did not believe in God then one should at least have something special in one’s life to give one sense and meaning, he added.” A statement clearly intended to reach out to all in an increasingly secular society. A statement we would have expected from a reader of Neruda, an eminently secular poet, whose verses suggest that even a dog can contribute “to give one sense and meaning”. Disrespecting a dog’s life and dignity diminishes the sense and meaning of our life, it weakens our reason to live.

Compassion is at the heart of Mr Justice Quintano’s approach, the need to empathise and sympathise with the suffering of the other. Wantonly killing a dog or not caring if it lives or dies is indicative of a diffuse absence of compassion, even in a small society that proclaims itself devout. No wonder that in such a society, one can justify the holding of a village festa immediately after a fireworks tragedy in a nearby locality on grounds that the dead belong to another parish. If we could only soar high above this society – as sparrows, in the absence of condors – to observe our hypocritical smallness! But then we’d probably get shot at.

The original of this article appeared in Dr Vella’s regular column in The Times of Malta on December 6, 2010 and may be accessed at http://www.timesofmalta.com/articles/view/20101206/opinion/neruda-in-a-maltese-court

ARIADNE WORKSHOPS: Closely observed Maltese sociology students

Posted in 1 by Editor on December 5, 2010

Ariadne Workshops

philosophy, sociology, anthropology and environs

 Dr JosAnn Cutajar

 “Let me Learn”. The impact of borrowed epistemologies on identity and perceived agency.

 Thursday, December 16, 6.00 pm,

 The Chapel, University of Malta, Msida

 A Gozitan living in Bormla – where she is currently working on an innovative community project that spun off from a needs assessment survey she conducted in the same locality – JosAnn Cutajar is a sociologist, a community activist and a mother. Author of various papers published in Malta and abroad, she is co-editor of Social Transitions in Maltese Society (2009).

The Ariadne Workshops are organised by an independent collective. They evolved from an informal seminar held through 2009. For further information contact Michael Grech ariadne.workshops@gmail.com