This article appeared on the Malta Independent on Sunday on the 20th April 2008.
That Sinister Way of Thinking
In 1964 a Labour politician took his place at Downing Street after a successful election campaign boosted, among other things, by a scandal in government. I am of course referring to Harold Wilson and the Profumo Affair. Probably, one of Wilson’s most quoted phrases is “a week is a long time in politics”. I wonder what the Liberal turned Labourite would have to say about the seven weeks left in the MLP leadership campaign. The times have been a-changing since 1964. In ’64 the world was bang in the middle of the great ideological divide of East versus West, Commie versus Western Democracy, the Beatles were rocketing to the top of US charts, the Vatican was condemning the female oral contraceptive and a little island in the Mediterranean was obtaining its independence.
Since then, the Berlin wall has come tumbling down, the death of ideologies has been proclaimed, a Brit artist has returned to the dizzy heights of the US charts, the Monty Python song “Every Sperm is Sacred” is still topical, the price of oil is skyrocketing in its own way, Malta is a member of the European Union and England won the coveted world cup (easy now… back in 1966). This week another event destined for the almanacs of history was recorded as il Cavaliere and his People of Freedom returned to government in Italy as the Italian left was left in disarray. In a delayed sign of keeping up with the times, the Italian people chose (or were forced to choose depending on how much weight you give to the “Voto Utile” argument) to leave out the extremes – the right and the left. In this battle the left was the bigger loser for some semblance of the right remains in the form of the Man with the Hard One and his Lega Nord party which obtained a mind-boggling 8% of the popular vote.
And the left? What has happened to that ardent fire of progressive movements? Where are the champions of the workers and the defenders of the oppressed? Bertinotti’s Sinistra dell’Arcobaleno was erased from Senate and Parliament. No place for reborn (wishy-washy) commies, no place for socialists and no place for the last bastion of left thinking as we know it. Or as we knew it. Have the people spoken and ungratefully ditched those who purport to represent the weakest, the oppressed and the alienated? Or is there a deeper reason than this? To begin to understand what has been left outside it might be interesting to see what has been kept.
For the inverse of the argument that says that the ideologies have been thrown out of the window in this “express” change states that what remains does not have much ideological content. There is much to be learnt from both aspects of this two-sided observation.
Personality Goes a Long Way
“I wouldn’t go so far as to call a dog filthy but they’re definitely dirty. But, a dog’s got personality. Personality goes a long way.” Samuel Jackson’s character in Pulp Fiction (Jules) has a hard time distinguishing dogs from pigs. It’s true that the discussion was based on dietary preferences and Jules just about manages a bit of coherence by using the personality trump card. It would seem that political choices today have been narrowed down to just that – the personality trump card. In Malta we seem to have a new word for it: leadership. It’s a big suitcase in which the aspirant shepherd has to pack charisma, affability, resolution and vision. Whether we are looking at il-Kap (the Chief?) or il-Mexxej (the Leader) all our efforts are concentrated on weighing the pros and cons that each candidate’s personality has when seen from the personality perspective.
Right now the man to beat is the PM Gonzi. He had enough charisma to turn a lost battle sufficiently to scrape the necessary relative majority into government. That is why the question of which personality will be able to not only survive but win the next battle when the gloves are up and the blows are exchanged becomes more than legitimate. In accepting this kind of rationale (as Vincent would say) we also unconsciously accept that other equally important considerations are being waylaid. Politics is changing because it is ruled by the marketing gurus. Those who can sell you a turd once they fathom what is the best package and best pitch necessary for selling it.
The danger here lies in how we are looking for the person that packs the right personality – someone who has “drive and clarity of vision”. What we seem to be ignoring is that in our rush to weigh, dissect and analyse the various vying “personalities” we tend to take the “vision” part a little bit for granted. And here comes the link to the death of ideology. In 1964 when selecting someone to the head of a Labour or Christian Democrat party the party members would know the driving vision that such leader would be expected to push. Leaders would promote a policy that oftentimes would have been elaborated from within the party based on the values of the time. Ideology might be too big a word but somewhere in the libraries of Dar Centrali, probably collecting dust, are copies of a book called “Fehmiet Bazici” (roughly translated “Basic Beliefs”). A member of the nationalist party has this book as a guarantee. One assumes that he joined the party because he subscribes to the very same beliefs and not because the man in charge is full of charisma and political spunk.
Every five years there is an “updating” of such principles in the form of an Electoral Manifesto. That too is the result of an elaboration of a vision based on a concrete plan for five years. In the time of dying ideologies – even if we accept that this term is exaggerated – I find it ironic that rather than ask questions of the visions that our aspirant leaders have to offer we fall for the marketing trap of personality and only personality. Behind that marketing smile, behind those carefully weighed statements,behind those balanced opinions lies a great unknown. In a twisted way I am jealous of the Democrats and Republicans of America who soldier on for four years without a real leader to speak of and get down to the business of politics. Frankly I find party leaders to be slightly overrated nowadays.
The New Left (reprise)
In his article “Yes we can… but how?” Leo Brincat (TMI 15.04.08 ) hit the nail on the head with his line of questioning. “To my mind the worst option is for any candidate to keep his cards close to his chest, expect a blank cheque from the delegates only to risk being undermined at a later stage with the excuse that the people that matter did not know whether he had a conservative, status quo or liberal agenda, where he really stood on our role in Europe, as well as whether he intended to close the 80s chapter or else continue to hark back to it with a sense of nostalgia.” That was worth the complete quote and I am in full agreement with this line of thinking.
I would go further. It is evident, from events in Malta and abroad, that the basic perception of the worker-centric, ‘defender of the oppressed’ type of left politics is not digging into the pulse of the people. The European left is at a turning point of redefinition and this is just as, if not more, important as choosing the leader of this or that party. My bet is that there is a need for a radical shift away from the “socialist” idea towards the more “liberal” origins of the leftist parties. A politic that focuses on the individual in today’s society, one that understands his or her needs and is dedicated to providing the tools for fulfilling his aspirations might be a possible starting point for a new global vision in a new labour party.
The opportunity for redefinition is so great that, being the political animal that I consider myself, I am jealous of not being able to participate directly in such a momentous occasion. Here is the possibility of a new party to shed (and in some instances distance itself once and for all) all vestiges of its past and providing a new, interesting alternative for Malta’s future. A lesson in the Steve Job’s school of “Think Different” might be useful. This is the time to look beyond the so-called “traditional base” and to forge a set of political aspirations that might attract a different formation – hopefully convincing the base to stay while making it sufficiently challenging and convincing to make others join the new project. From the world of information technology, to green politics through the challenges of the welfare state and the role of Malta in global geopolitics the chance is there for the taking. “Yes we can… but how”… do not underestimate the how.
The Joseph Muscats, the George Abelas and the Evarist Bartolos should not be reaching for the tv-friendly mascara and make-up but for pen and paper. They should be out there convincing the wider electorate (yes, not just the Labour party) that they are prepared to engage in a revolutionary dialectic that will result in a stronger attractive party. I’m sure you will excuse my cacoethes carpendi but you all know the latin maxim “Cucullus non facit monacum”.
It goes without saying that the nature of government in today’s world requires the important quality of management and being capable in that field is part and parcel of personality. In a political world that has been reduced (or improved) to a struggle for the centre, the platform from which such personality operates becomes the added value that might be the winning element. This is the chance to abandon the baggage of class-hatred that verges on envy. The chance to slip ahead and forget tit-for-tat politics and forge ahead by setting the agenda… this can be done even from a well-prepared opposition bench.
La Vita é bella
I cannot end this piece without expressing my regret for not being able to be in Malta in the coming week. I would have sold my soul to Giuditta the little devil to be able to be present at the evening with Maestro Benigni. To say that Benigni is one great role model for me is to put it lightly. His love of life has come out more profoundly as time has begun to thin the hairs on his head and I cannot but adore someone who masters the qualities of humour and universal love in such a manner. To follow Benigni’s course through life is to follow the simple Tuscan who brought a simple message through his works and love of life. It is a lesson that can only be cherished and never forgotten. From Mio Amico Berlinguer through Non ci Resta Che Piangere to Johnny Stecchino, Il Mostro, Il Piccolo Diavolo, through Life is Beautiful and La Tigre e La Neve I watched and rewatched the movies and admired the master at work. Who more than a coeliac can find affinity with his “Inno del Corpo Sciolto”? Who cannot be moved by his rendition of Dante’s masterpiece? Who cannot be thankful for this occasional injection of life by this Italian Peter Pan… or should I say Pinocchio?
To stay in theme here’s a quote from Benigni himself: “Dopo il Giudizio Universale Dio incontra Carl Marx: “Ah, tu sei quello che mi ha dato tutte quelle preoccupazioni nel XX secolo. Visto che hai sempre detto che io non ci sono, sarai condannato a farmi da portinaio. E quando non vorrò essere disturbato sei autorizzato a dire Dio non c’è.”
Humour and love.. they are more than just words… they are a code towards understanding how lucky we are to be here: Life is Beautiful.