The Malta Independent 23 July 2019, Tuesday

Liberal environment

Mark A. Sammut Sunday, 24 March 2019, 10:30 Last update: about 5 months ago

Sandro Chetcuti, of the Malta Developers Association, not too long ago rightly complained about lacklustre urban planning in this country. He was quite obviously correct in his assessment, though it did not cover the entire picture.

Our urban (and by extension, natural) environment is in this state not only because of the reasons mentioned by Mr Chetcuti, but for others too. Consider the fact that there are relatively few investment opportunities in Malta. If people endowed with stamina, acumen, and foresight were to find other avenues for their investments, our architectural heritage would probably be spared the current onslaught.


Instead of negotiating outside-village-core deals, the Government should encourage export-oriented business. We have formed part of a 512-million-consumer single market for 15 years now. Is it not high time our entrepreneurs start seriously availing themselves of the opportunities provided by the largest single market in the world?



But the ongoing degradation of the environment is also due to the individualism that has taken root in the Maltese collective psyche. Individualism is the centrepiece of the Extreme Liberal ideology, the dominant ideology of Late Capitalism, and capitalism is the model wholeheartedly embraced by Prime Minister Muscat (as he bragged to Politico a couple of weeks ago).

But let us be clear. Individualism is not just selfishness, even though the two overlap. Individualism is a mixture of selfishness, egotism, and exaggerated self-esteem. The boundaries between these three (and other) elements are neither rigid nor clear-cut.


My desire above all else

The idea that one’s desire is the measure of all things allows, among other things needless to say, the ongoing destruction of our architectural heritage and the natural environment. This idea negates that the individual lives in a community; that his or her desires have to have a limit, and that that limit is set by the needs and desires of other members of the community.

Incidentally, this is one of the basic tenets of the philosophy underlying human rights. My rights end where your rights begin. Vice versa, and just to make sure the ultra-egotists understand, your rights end where mine begin. It is a continuous negotiation between positions, and nobody can have it completely his or her way.



Do you remember that incisive sketch by Comedy Knights, in which an applicant appears before a fictitious Malta Nature and Buildings Authority and the board members urge him to build higher and bigger? That was intelligent satire and not symbolically far from the truth.

But what I have in mind is something a bit different. By negotiation I do not mean the height and the façade, but the very idea of fundamentally changing the nature of a neighbourhood and a town (incidentally, a theme Comedy Knights dealt with in their sketch).

At this point, it is necessary to make a distinction between the rights of others expressed individually and the rights of others expressed collectively. Let us consider the threat posed to a two-storey neighbourhood by the application to “develop” a high-rise building. Some neighbours might individually claim that their right to sunlight and fresh air could be denied because of the new building. But for somebody who does not live in the neighbourhood, the right to a beautiful landscape or skyline is a right expressed collectively. It is a right of the community, made up of individuals.

Even overbuilding town peripheries is an abuse of this collective right. Do we want our towns to be surrounded by soulless, at times Brutalist, high-rise buildings embracing a quaint core?


The Constitution

This collective right is protected by Article 9 of the Constitution, which speaks of the “Nation”, that is the community made up of individuals par excellence: “the State shall safeguard the landscape and the historical and artistic patrimony of the Nation. The State [...] shall take measures to [...] nurture and support the right of action in favour of the environment.”

(We still labour under the wrong impression that acts going against this provision are not actionable in court. Judge Giovanni Bonello argues why action can be taken in his book Misunderstanding the Constitution (2018).)

Instead of safeguarding the “landscape and the historical and artistic patrimony of the Nation”, the State is permitting its destruction. This is what Sandro Chetcuti complained about. This is what courageous organisations like Flimkien għal Ambjent Aħjar are fighting against.


Shift in mentality

The problem lies on a deeper level: the shift in mentality permeating the country’s entire culture. (Switch on your irony receptors please.) The much-liked, highly respected Saviour Balzan, of Media Today (you can switch off your irony receptors now), has rightly claimed that Joseph Muscat’s liberal vision has galvanised a climate conducive to requests for the legalisation of abortion. This clearance of Extreme Liberal permissiveness at the moral customs house has resulted in the splurge of permissiveness in other areas.

And it could not be otherwise. A dominant ideology simply diffuses throughout a community, from one field of behaviour to another, like thermal conduction from one material to another. That is why it becomes dominant. Because it is widely diffused, accepted, and followed.

You cannot have permissiveness in the private lives of citizens but strict rules in other areas of their lives. People will simply approach different situations with the same thought patterns.

For instance, if they can choose their own gender identification – irrespective of what society thinks – and expect society to respect their idiosyncratic choice, why shouldn’t they decide to build a five-storey, narrow block of pigeon-coops-passing-for-flats in a two-storey townhouse neighbourhood?


Through the Looking-Glass, and what they found there

MaltaToday recently published a curious story in which, almost in Alice-in-Wonderland fashion, a local politician made this statement: “By a trans person I mean somebody who doesn’t identify with the gender I was assigned at birth. So, usually whenever somebody is born, the doctors go: you are male or female. I no longer identify as female. But neither do I identify as male, and that’s why we use the term non-binary – to identify something that is not male or female.”

The journalist’s jabberwocky logic made him conclude that “the common pronouns we usually use for male or female – which are he or she, him or her – do not apply in this [politician’s] case. At least when speaking in English, where ‘they’ has become commonly used as a pronoun to refer to a person who neither identifies as male or female.”

“But why is it important for people to respect these pronouns?” asks MaltaToday. “Well, by respecting somebody’s pronouns, you show that you’re actually listening to them. That you believe that they know who they are, and so you don’t force an idea of what you think they should be on them,” answers the politician.

Using jabberwocky logic, if one fine morning I wake up and start identifying as an amphibian (even though my body is still that of a mammal), then the others should call me “frog”.


Bend the rules, kowtow, and shut up

Just as you have to bend the rules of language to accommodate the desire of this politician to be referred to as “they” (even though we are referring to a lady), so you have to bend the rules of aesthetics and urban planning to accommodate the desire of some people to build high-rise mini-towers in two-storey neighbourhoods. It is all inter-related, the same world-view.

And, mind you, if you do not kowtow to the dominant ideology you are punished with (for the moment) verbal violence. Just consider two comments posted underneath my article of last week. It was an article against abortion in which I did not insult anybody; I simply argued that there is big money behind the abortion industry. Somebody self-styled CJohn Zammit wrote, “Even in the most polite circles, Dr. Sammut would be shown the Right Royal Finger, and told to mind his phakking business. With the correct spelling.” Somebody self-styled Anya Soldatova-Livera replied to CJohn Zammit, “Well said. What a misogynist. Not a dumb one, but very oppressive and manipulative.”

(Could have been worse. I could have been dumb as well.)

Let me say nothing about the repeated calls for a “mature debate”. Let me just highlight that whereas the Liberals do not want “you to force an idea of what you think they should be on them”, they are ready to force their idea of what you should (or should not) be on you!

When limitless desire takes control of the individual, you ultimately get destruction of the Self and by extension, of the surrounding environment.


The imperialism of the Ego

We are thus relentlessly and inexorably moving toward the imperialism of the Ego, the dictatorship of the Individual, and the relegation of the Community to a thing of the past, almost a nightmare from which society has thankfully woken up.

Such shifts take long to materialise, mostly because they need gradual changes with each new generation. They might even not materialise at all if something unexpected thwarts their progress. But tendencies are always clear years in advance for those who have the foresight to see them coming. It is up to the leaders of society to decide whether to follow the flow or to change direction.

In the meantime, while we are wasting precious time discussing Liberal “Jabberwocky”, Ricasoli Fort is crumbling down into the sea, the old Customs House in Valletta ditto, Pietà is threatened, and countless other environmental atrocities lie in wait.


My Personal Library (42)

Today I will write about what there is not in my personal library, but perhaps there should be. Shamefully, I do not have a single book on the philosophy of architecture. And I think I have only read two books in my whole life on the subject; I do not even own them, I merely borrowed them from a library, and it was within the context of a university course and specifically about the Gothic architectural revival of the 19th century and its links to Tractarian currents in English Protestantism. I wonder, however, how many people involved in the industry own books on the philosophy of architecture, and whether these ideas are ever discussed, and where. One can obviously speak from intuition, but education is always better.

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