The Malta Independent 18 June 2024, Tuesday
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Under the podium

Karsten Xuereb Sunday, 26 August 2018, 08:57 Last update: about 7 years ago

I was quite intrigued when reading the very erudite piece by Dr Norbert Bugeja entitled "At the podium" celebrating the decade of leadership by the head of the Partit Laburista and current Prime Minister (TMIS, 8 July). Dr Bugeja is an internationally established academic and writer whose research is sharp and urgent, while his poetry so subtle and evocative of a range of emotions, experiences and perspectives that its like is rarely enjoyed in the Maltese language. A common thread that weaves itself through his written output is the relevance to humanity and its way to the minds, and hearts, of his lucky audiences and readers.


This same rich vein was evident in his article which recounted the experience of addressing a political rally for aficionados of what seems to be a cultural phenomenon that never goes away: that of the adulation of the cult of the leader. I find the act of frenzy by growing numbers of people, from what we read in local polls as well as internationally, is really about feeding itself and celebrating one's own celebration rather than the actual person of the leader. In a local context, I am reminded of what many festa manifestations seem to have become. In this case, obviously, one needs to substitute the saint or holy figure as the case may be, for the politician. As admitted by Dutch anthropologist Jeremy Boissevain, rather than die down, festas have grown, cleverly capitalising on the economic, feel-good and touristic benefits spun by what is arguably the closest to a cultural industry Malta can claim to have. It would be interesting to learn what Professor Richard Florida, city regeneration guru, speaking in Malta later this year, thinks about this indigenous form of creativity in the age of the global and the local coming closer together.

The tendency to believe in a cause and trust in someone who promises to deliver a vision of a better future, even at the price of relinquishing one's critical independence, seems to go very deep in human nature. Leaders and their acolytes also seem to manage to achieve what appears to be a very delicate balance between claiming the experience of an improved present, in comparison to a jaded and unjust past, while admitting that the road to real, significant and long-lasting change is still a long way off, somewhere in the realm of the future. In other words, il-kbir għadu ġej.

In his latest publication Seven Types of Atheism, philosopher John Gray describes such behaviour as delusional, since our material world and our very human lives, while valuable, are not improvable. Rather, his appreciation of human nature makes one consider that our condition is the very reason we should value our relations and ourselves, rather than sign up to the exploitation of who we are, and who we may yet become, by regimes that construct übermensch pointing to salvation and promised lands. However, as we know, religious and other faith systems make good use of this balancing act between improving present and utopian futures, as do political projects that try to address current circumstance while encouraging their followers to persist in their trust that the best is yet to come.

One tried-and-tested way of keeping the faith is creating a clear Other, at times a proper enemy, whom to mistrust, against which to act and in opposition to whom one must keep on guard and undermine on each possible occasion. Past experience, in this case, is a guarantee of what may happen in the future, should one act naively by allowing doubt and a dose of healthy individual cynicism, humour and irony to dilute missionary-like verve and fanaticism.

Furthermore, sticking together is much more fun than not. Also, the punishment of ostracization and exile, as is justly imposed on those branded as traitors, and hence a danger to the stability and progress of society, is a strong reminder to those in the flock who may find themselves wandering off. It is much better, safer and beneficial, to drive one's way to the heart of one's companions, especially, as stated by Dr Bugeja during the rally, when one's heart is in the right place.

That same expression made me wonder. I tend to associate that phrase with a justification, with an attempt to explain why everything is not yet as it should be, and reinforce the belief in a future that will reach completion. It reminds me of the belief of various liberal and neoliberal political regimes, as well as socialist structures, through the ages, from Malta to Singapore, from Turkey to Venezuela, that certain controls must be placed on society for a time. This must be done in order to weed out the bad, and allow the good to prosper to such an extent that eventually, all will be well. It is a pity that history does not readily provide us with examples of such projects that turned out as promised. Neither does literature, if writers like Margaret Atwood or Orhan Pamuk are to be trusted. In the meantime, I will keep looking. 


Dr Xuereb is a researcher in cultural policy and relations


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