My fellow Americans suddenly all seem to be asking whether Barack Obama will deliver the “change we need.” If one is unemployed, of course, as nearly 10 per cent of Americans are, the snap answer tends to be negative, but let me suggest that judgment is unfairly premature. It reflects the emotional response to a shifting economy, which recent economic data suggests is now outdated.
It also takes no account of how the Obama campaign of 2008 was an invitation to our nation not only to recover from an inherited economic mess but also to clarify its modern thinking. Interestingly, my being perched here near the stunningly fascinating cliffs of Dingli has prompted a mental comparison of our two nations. Please permit me to safely navigate a few of these thoughts with you on this feast day of Saint Paul.
Once revered by Europe for its closely woven society of “little platoons” (families, churches, volunteer organisations), America has been “bowling alone” (sociologist’s Robert Putnam’s well known phrase for the unsatisfied anonymity of modern life) for four decades or more now. To think of such things in Catholic terms, we are a far distance from the parish life of the 1950s which flowed over with youth organisations of all types as well as matching ones for adults like the Altar Rosary and Holy Name Societies, not to mention the fully-outfitted Knights of Columbus, and for the particularly dedicated, the Knights of Malta.
These entities still exist in the US, but the membership in most places is far less than a single platoon in size (although the Knights and Catholic Charities do raise a great deal of money put to good use). By contrast, here in Malta I have discovered a faith practice much richer and far more culturally alive than in many parishes of the United States. Malta is heavily Catholic – 98 per cent – and the islands seem organised by parish neighbourhoods with each parish celebrating a distinctive festa complete with a procession of saints, fireworks and three-hour high masses. Mix in a strong work ethic, the joy of sharing speciality pastry and pasta varieties, and finding time to walk over to the neighbours or stroll through San Anton gardens or along the waterfront, and one realises that the Maltese seem to have made a vocation of building up their lives in relation to the lives of others.
Re-reading that sentence you may think I’ve made Malta a little bit of Brigadoon, which, of course, is another Isle – an “Erin-go-brah” one of which my Irish-American wife is quite proud and that has been “green” long before the President encouraged the rest of us to be. My good friend Ambassador Dan Rooney (owner of the Pittsburgh Steeler (American) football franchise and now chief of mission for the US in Ireland) was featured during the US Super Bowl. It was a nice tribute, but I can tell you that when we were doing the “Dan & Doug Show for Barack” during the ’08 campaign, we would touch on how our nominally abundant lives and those of our fellow citizens always seemed to be lacking. Our immediate answer to that unremitting ache was for voters in Pennsylvania to fill the hole with “a vote for Obama”. Led by Catholic voters, Pennsylvania did just that by a significant majority and both of us remain confident in the President’s judgment, leadership, and willingness to find common ground.
Recent polls indicate that 75 per cent of American voters see these same qualities, even as a figure just under one-half think President Obama is doing the job he needs to do. Knowing the President, I know he grades his own performance by an even tougher metric – one that won’t be met until meaningful work and basic health care is available to everyone. Here again, I have invited the President to examine Malta’s commendable earlier embrace of universal health care. Some Maltese tell me the provision of particular medical services in Malta is subject to long waits, etc., but such imperfection in care does not obscure Malta’s recognition of health care as a basic human right.
In thinking through the change America needs, Malta is a helpful country of comparison. Making health or educational services universal is expensive, but it is a choice that has delivered some notable benefits to Malta: longevity and well-educated young people who marry and raise families and have risen to the top of their fields in medicine, law, and business around the world. Malta also didn’t have an economic crisis of its own since it kept to traditional lending practices that evaluated the strength of collateral and the character of borrowers. It also insisted on the sale of equities which was, in fact, equitable – that is premised on real corporate performance, rather than balance sheet manipulation and costly speculation that such artificial value would go on indefinitely – or at least long enough to cash a large and unmerited bonus check.
Of course, Malta cannot stand totally astride the debates over divorce and abortion or the quandary surrounding same-sex marriage. But here is an island secret I have discovered: these divisive, personal, and highly sensitive topics need not be all consuming. These are topics to be thought about and discussed with respect, but not permitted to interfere with the enjoyment of each day and the blessing that day represents. Divorce, abortion, and same-sex marriage are of course illegal in Malta, yet all exist here de facto. The leaders of the PN and PL have interesting takes on these issues. The American ambassador has his own view, and maybe after several rounds of frozen margaritas and nachos at the Hard Rock, I might say something about it. Nah. Let me just say that in America at least, turning too many of these intimate questions over to the government is unhealthy, unwarranted, and unworkable. But a lot depends on the homiletic strength and empathy of the Church, so what is needed to be said in public law varies by context even as a universal teaching is at the core.
In Malta, the usual divisions tend to exist on these questions, with young people being more liberal than their elders, but again, neither demographic wants to be consumed by the intractable nature of these questions. It seems to be the preferred Maltese way to find enjoyment in each other’s company – accepting folks as they are, following football of course – the exciting and intensely competitive European version played without helmets and pads – having dinner at each other’s houses, helping out as well as one can with the external problems of the world, such as Haiti, and thoughtfully challenging the Iranian government’s continuing escalation of its assault on human rights, but never allowing these global worries about future conduct to displace today. The Maltese refuse to indulge the pretence that on this earth – even in this near idyllic place in the Mediterranean – there is likely to be a definitive resolution to such things.
Malta lives in the here and now, even though many Americans might well be a tad unsure where this here is exactly. It distresses some of my Maltese friends that their proud nation hasn’t come to the greater attention of the average American tourist and investor. This Ambassador and the American embassy have its shingle out for just such purposes. But as you welcome Americans with the Biblically-recorded “uncommon kindness” shown to Saint Paul, the Maltese may wish to recall something about life in the USA. When Americans conjoin the words “here and now”, we mean it more as a demand upon others rather than a commitment to enjoy a life well lived in the present moment. And when our demands are multiplied at wireless speed via the ubiquitous Blackberry, daily life is burdened with typing on keys too small to be seen as we text our way through a drive-through line for a fast food dinner. For us, purchases are to be “smart and final” and meals “hot and now”. True to the name of the most popular hamburger shop in southern California (“In and Out”), much of what we eat has only a fleeting association with nutrition. Americans are learning, at times painfully, that gratification in an instant creates dissatisfaction in perpetuity. (Though if you’re really hungry, you can’t beat the Cheeseburger Double Double with fries and a Vanilla shake. Sorry, Mr President, I’ll do a couple extra miles on the treadmill.)
A great many voices in the States – most of whom appear on Oprah – contemplate living for today, but embedded in our psyche is the drive to have it better than the previous generation. On this rests the “American Dream”. In this well-told American tale material anxiety is transformed into the entrepreneurial spirit that patents new inventions and makes a better mousetrap. Undeniably, this has yielded success defined in the capitalist sense illustrated well enough by new construction, almost any American roadway, or the abundance found in discount groceries. You’ll need to determine for yourselves whether it is a vice or virtue to choose so strongly the material over the things that really matter, as C.S. Lewis might have said.
Just one caution from a visitor who has all the vulnerability of someone too caring for you to be dissembling: the choice you make will be consequential – just as it has been for us. It can’t be otherwise.
Douglas W. Kmiec is United States Ambassador to Malta