The Malta Independent 17 August 2019, Saturday

Shipwrecked on our own islands – Part 3

Mark A. Sammut Sunday, 21 April 2019, 10:43 Last update: about 5 months ago

This three-part piece started off, a fortnight ago, with something I noticed while watching a video recording of the performance of the rock opera Ġensna. The lyrics spoke of dying in vain, for the foreign master (mitna ta’ xejn, mitna għall-barrani) and of kissing the white-and-red flag (il-bajda w ħamra nbusha/ bħalha m’hemmx/ din ma tintemmx), while prominence was given to the George Cross on the flag billowing in the breeze on the big screens behind the orchestra.


Meanwhile, public thinker Charles Xuereb was involved in a public debate on the not-so-new question of whether to keep the George Cross on the flag, or remove it. The debate highlighted the tensions between (popular or cultural) memory, or myth, and historical fact.

I then made the point that if the George Cross is a symbol reminding one and all of the Maltese contribution to the defeat of the racist Nazi-Fascists, let us not forget that the same Empire which gave us the cross was racist too. This necessarily led to the question whether we want to identify with a symbol recalling times when racist ideas and policies were accepted and implemented.

While having no strong opinion either way on the George Cross issue, these questions did lead me to consider whether we have emancipated ourselves from the colonial mindset. Has political decolonisation triggered decolonisation of the mind? Are historical facts slowly but surely managing to encroach on popular or cultural memory and myths?

This is politically important because the country’s symbols are officially sanctioned: they represent the State of Malta locally and internationally. What is the self-image our little State wants to portray to the world?

If politics followed logic, the George Cross would have been removed on May 1, 2004. But the logic of politics dictates otherwise; it follows emotion and economics, objectives and considerations kept hidden from the public (security, corruption, legitimate and/or illegitimate commercial interests, soft imperialism, etc).

But this discussion on who we are and what to do post-Empire, is equally important on the societal and personal level.

It is in part dependent on our traditions and collective memory. But also on the rain of new ideas brought to us by clouds formed elsewhere. This tension electrifies the debate between the liberals – the partisans of “new” ideas – and the conservatives, who are for tradition and memory.

Both approaches have their inherent risks. For the conservatives it is the risk of thinking that things were always done in a particular way. If the conservatives accept that change happens over time, they would experience less anxiety.

The liberals’ major risk is to assume that all that is new has to be good solely on the basis of it being new. They forget that revolutions are costly because they embrace untested novelties. If the liberals accept that slow reform is wiser than rash revolution, they would cause less anxiety, for themselves and others.


Attack of the clones?

Being a very small country, we clone almost everything, including ideas. Ġużeppi Schembri (Bonaci) opened his 1989 book on the common heritage of mankind by quoting, if I remember well, the Russian thinker Vernadsky: a people that only imports ideas is a dead people. This might apply to huge nations – like Russia – but not to micro-nations, as new ideas arise where there is experimentation not in backwater communities.

This is the big identity challenge: how to find ourselves in the meanders of post-Empire cultural imperialism.

Whether we like it or not, our only real communication channel with the outside world is the English language. Whatever seeps through from other linguistic worlds does so through the mediation of English and of British culture. We read mostly in English, and mostly British and American authors.

Our students study from books written in English for their exams, our professionals depend on books written in English for their work (apart from the legal profession, which still refers to old Italian books in certain fields). Those who study foreign languages, usually study literature, nothing else.

We therefore still inhabit the world of ideas of the former colonisers, and, now, their senior partners. This is not decolonisation of the mind.

Real emancipation can be achieved through the acquisition of knowledge in other languages, to open ourselves to other approaches to knowledge.


A phantom menace?

We need to step out of the neo-colonial comfort zone, possibly through a gradual reform of the educational system, introducing, little by little, the study of certain subjects at secondary and tertiary levels in other languages. I have French, Italian, and German in mind, allowing future citizens to acquire skills in specialised disciplines in these three languages in addition to English, thus accruing not only intellectual but also economic benefits.

The country needs to master these three languages in addition to English, to achieve three parallel objectives: emancipation from the neo-colonial mindset, penetration of the Italian, German, and Francophone markets not only in tourism but also in other profitable economic sectors, and adjustment to the post-Brexit European environment.

Depending intellectually on only one country is, to put it in a circular fashion, intellectual colonisation. What do we stand to gain by chasing the ghost of a Britain that no longer exists? Why should we feel menaced by the prospect of finding ourselves in a wider context?


A force awakens?

The irony is that even a debate on post-Empire gets caught up in Empire terms, as the Empire arouses nostalgia and criticism in present-day Britain. The only way to leave Empire is to open up to other cultures, because our own resources are too limited for cultural self-sustainment. We need to import ideas and to aspire to an intellectual cosmopolitanism.

The Maltese can forge their own identity by savouring different cultures while avoiding slavishly to limit themselves to one, dominant culture they encountered by happenstance 200 years ago or so. The new identity would then percolate to the rest of society in a long-term project. It would be the awakening of our force.


The Empire struck back

We abound in contradictions in Malta. For instance, we declare that Maltese is the national language of our Nation-State and yet the fundamental law of the Maltese State, called The Constitution of Malta, is in Maltese and English, as if anybody outside of Malta really cares what our Constitution has to say or those who are interested cannot obtain a certified translation. It is our Constitution, the Constitution of the Maltese, so why should it be in two versions, one of which is not the national language? Other former British colonies have their equivalent documents in English either because English is their “national” language or because their “nation” is made up of so many tribes that they need English as a “national” lingua franca.

Then there are the George Cross contradictions. We keep a reminder of the Allied victory over the Germans and the Italians on our flag when these are now our partners in the European Union, Britain is leaving, and France and Germany have been best friends for decades.

We commemorate the Sette Giugno incidents – when British troops opened fire on the protesting crowds, killing four Maltese, on June 7, 1919 – and yet we keep the George Cross. This year will be the centenary of that event. Completely oblivious to the irony and the contradiction, we shall probably fly the George-Cross flag during the ceremony to commemorate the Empire striking back and killing four of ours.

In that same year, the Empire had stricken back, in India, on April 13, when, to quote The Guardian of a week ago, “Hundreds of civilians were massacred by a British general who was later treated as a hero”.  The British newspaper was commemorating “the centenary of a British general gunning down unarmed Indians who had gathered peacefully in a park in Amritsar”. On April 13, 1919, “without any warning, and just 30 seconds after he entered the park, [General Reginald] Dyer ordered his soldiers to fire. They fired for 10 minutes and stopped only because they had run out of ammunition. By then 337 men, 41 women and a baby of seven weeks had been killed, with another 1,500 injured.”  

The Guardian continued: General Dyer’s “admirers ranged from Ulster politicians such as Edward Carson to the Archbishop of Canterbury, who called him a ‘brave, public-spirited, patriotic soldier’. More astonishing was the reaction of the House of Commons. With Edwin Montagu, the secretary of state for India, portrayed as anti-Dyer, the House debated a motion to reduce Montagu’s salary, a severe form of parliamentary censure. Among Tories at the time it was not what Dyer had done, but Montagu’s Jewishness that became the central issue. Austen Chamberlain, then chancellor of the exchequer, wrote, ‘On this occasion all their English and racial feeling was stirred to a passionate display … A Jew rounding on an Englishman and throwing him to the wolves – that was the feeling.’”

This was the Empire that gave us the George Cross, which we claim helps us remember our victory on the Nazi-Fascist regimes (that, among other things, hated the Jews).


My Personal Library (46)

John Darwin’s Unfinished Empire: The Global Expansion of Britain (2012) is an excellent introduction to the British Empire. The blurb more or less sums up the debate: “For perhaps two centuries its expansion and final collapse were the single largest determinant of historical events, and it remains surrounded by myth, misconception and controversy today”.

In his The Gentle Civilizer of Nations: The Rise and Fall of International Law 1870–1960 (2001), Martti Koskenniemi argues that many newly-independent former colonies chose of their own accord to import wholesale the practices and systems of their former colonisers. In a sense, imperialism succeeded in civilising the ‘backward’ and the ‘primitive’. Charles Xuereb has called it a “Stockholm Syndrome” of sorts. I would agree only in part, because the Stockholm Syndrome is usually linked to captivity. In our case, I would not say we were captives on our own islands; I would say that we ended up shipwrecked – though not necessarily marooned – on our own islands, having lost the ship of our identity during the tempest that was colonialism and Empire.

* * *

As this is Easter Sunday, I would like to suggest the following books.

The Missing Jesus: Rabbinic Judaism and the New Testament (2002) is a collection of scholarly essays written by Jewish experts (including one who is Pope Benedict’s favourite Jewish interlocutor). The essays are all breath-taking, but I love one in particular (“The Gospels and Rabbinic Literature”) in which the author, Herbert W. Basser, a Jewish theologian, makes two beautiful statements: “It seems that the Evangelists had little idea about the details of Jewish laws, and only by careful analysis can we establish what lay behind their words” and “Not only can the New Testament confirm the antiquity of legal principles of early Rabbis, it can also for medieval and modern ones”. Professor Basser’s observations taken together clearly signify that the Evangelists faithfully transcribed real legal discussions of 2,000 years ago without necessarily understanding the legal details – a clear clue pointing at the historicity of the Gospels.

Bart D. Ehrman’s books, such as Lost Christianities (2005) and The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture (2011), are brilliant books that indirectly prove that tradition is perhaps more important than what’s written in the Book. Professor Ehrman is a former born-again, fundamentalist Christian who then lost his faith. Despite his being an avowed atheist, he is a staunch defender – basing himself on proper research and studies – of the historicity of Jesus’ life and death. So there’s a thought for those who, on Easter Sunday, wonder whether Jesus was an invention, a literary creation, rather than a real, flesh-and-blood historical figure.

Happy Easter to all!

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