The Malta Independent 9 December 2019, Monday

Chronicle of Tragedies Foretold?

Mark A. Sammut Sunday, 21 July 2019, 10:50 Last update: about 6 months ago

He is clearly under pressure. After the botched attempt to attain high office – a foolhardy ambition given his internationally-known blunders, which shows all-round shallowness of judgment – he himself has to face the music. In the sense that everything now seems to indicate that his style of ruling was based on the assumption that he would soon be leaving for greener pastures, and his successor from his own party would clean up the mess. Now that the cunning plan has failed, he must see how to find the way forward in the mess he himself created.

His knee-jerk reaction has been to spray outlandish claims all around, such as that the people never had such a good quality of life. But many – including his own supporters – are beginning to see through the buzzwords, to make their own calculations. They are realising that the impersonal economy might be doing well, but that their personal situation has not really improved. It has actually deteriorated. After all, only a small percentage of the population is raking it in from the wanton destruction of the environment, but it is the vast majority that’s paying the price for this “economic growth”. It is very much private (minoritarian) profit at the cost of public (majoritarian) welfare. This is probably the hallmark of his legacy.

That a tragedy is in the making is very clear. The economy works in cycles, and he knows it. It would seem logical to suppose that he was preparing his exit from local politics to coincide with the downturn in the economic cycle. Not too long after I published my book L-Aqwa fl-Ewropa. Il-Panama Papers u l-Poter, an economist got in touch and told me that the economy would start cooling down in 2018/19. The Finance Minister himself – who, of all people, now seems to be embroiled in financial bamboozling – had acknowledged this some time ago.

This abuse of public office is nothing short of obscene. Public office is not there for private ambitions. It’s there for public service. But this sense of self-abnegation seems to be alien to the left-liberal worldview, which rewards pleasure and regards with suspicion those who apply self-restraint in their dealings with themselves, the others, and society as a whole.

This week, two important Italians passed away: Andrea Camilleri (about whom further down) and Luciano de Crescenzo. Both were over 90 years old and both were from the Italian South, which is supposedly backward and less civilised than the North. Luciano de Crescenzo was a Neapolitan engineer who, somewhat late in life, became a philosopher-novelist. His most famous novel is Così parlò Bellavista (obviously a pun on Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra) and when it was published in 1977, it sold more than 600,000 copies. In it, the protagonist – a retired philosophy teacher – explains the difference between the Love Peoples (Italians, Spaniards, Poles, Irish, Greeks) and the Freedom Peoples (Britons, Scandinavians, Germans) and those in-between. But he also speaks of the difference between the Stoics and the Epicureans.

The Stoics are those who are ready to forgo pride and pleasure because they believe in something bigger than themselves. The Christians, for instance, are Stoics because they believe in eternal happiness and are therefore ready to suffer on this earth to acquire happiness in the next. The Epicureans are those who seek pleasures in the here and now.

To my mind, de Crescenzo’s explanation of this categorisation applies to politicians. The Stoic politician applies self-abnegation because s/he is a wo/man of State and the interests of the State inspire his/her actions. The Epicurean politician could not care less, and thinks only of how occupying a State office can serve his/her own ambition, be it political, financial, or God knows what else (remember, only two things are infinite: the universe and human imagination, be it intelligent or stupid).

By applying this categorisation, we understand that we are currently ruled by an Epicurean, for whom instant gratification is more important than long-term planning. We can clearly identify the ingredients of tragedies foretold. Indeed, all tragedies are foretold – it only takes men and women endowed with judiciousness, whose judgment is not shallow, to read the signs. It then takes men and women of courage to act on those signs, even if in the short term they might encounter the backlash of unpopularity. But he feels the need for popularity more than the need to do the right thing. The real tragedy is that the price will be paid by the nation, not by him.

All tragedies are foretold. Do you remember the Genoa bridge that collapsed last year? An inquiry has now established that safety problems had been apparent for at least the last 10 years before the disaster. Did anybody do anything about them? No. The tragedy – unlike the concrete of the bridge – did not fall from the sky. It had been in the making for a number of years; people with “second sight” (the “prophets” of the past) could extrapolate from what they saw but, like all “prophets”, they were ignored. And then the tragedy that had been foretold, happened, and left 43 dead.

The country as it is being managed at the moment has all the ingredients of a tragedy foretold. When the tragedy happens, however, we will only have ourselves to blame. In the environmental sector, it is abundantly clear that it’s “abandon ship”. In the reputational sector, the damage done is huge. And on it goes: a litany of tragedies foretold, but whitewashed by sparkling buzzwords and linguistic bravado.

He is a like the Wizard of Oz. He gives diplomas to Scarecrows, medals to Lions, and heart-shaped watches to Tin Men. But as yet, he has not admitted that he is a humbug, though intelligent people are realising that he’s not administering our Oz in the interests of Oz.

The cracks in the Wizard’s palace are beginning to show, and clearly so. Here I’m not referring to the long-term tragedies which can be extrapolated from the way things are managed at the moment. I’m referring to strange contradictions which I must admit I cannot fully understand as yet.

Consider this contradiction, for instance. We are being told that the population has to keep increasing, and yet the property market has slowed down – as admitted by the President of the Malta Developers Association. Does this mean that there is now enough housing for the expected (artificial) increase in population?  

An aside: the artificial increase in Malta’s population comes mostly from immigration from the East of Europe, where populations are ageing and the younger generations are being depleted. In the not-too-distant future somebody will have to foot the bill for Eastern Europe’s pensioners, their healthcare and so on.

Consider something else that is happening. Tourist bed nights have dropped for the first time in four years – under the Panama Papers Minister for Tourism. At the same time, the same Minister – who it seems was embroiled in the hospitals mess – has negotiated the creation of a new, third-class-travel passenger airline. Is this a new trend? Will tourist arrivals increase while tourist bed nights keep dropping? If indeed this is a new trend, what will the consequences be?

Let’s be honest with ourselves. First, the picnic can’t go on forever. Second, picnic’s over – you have to clean up. Third, if during the picnic you’re not careful when you light your barbecue, you can even set the woods on fire, and there won’t be any more picnics in the future. This is what we’re talking about here. Do you remember The Wizard of Oz movie? At the end, the Wizard climbs on an air-balloon and leaves Oz. The movie ends with the girl Dorothy exclaiming, “There’s no place like home!” – indeed, there’s no place like home(land) and we’re ruining it.

L-aqwa li l-Aqwa fl-Ewropa!

 

My Personal Library (58)

On Wednesday 17 July, Andrea Camilleri passed away. He was perhaps the most prolific and widely-read Italian author of the last 30 years. I had the good fortune of meeting and interviewing him 19 years ago, in his Rome apartment, upon his invitation.

I cannot here do justice to the more than 100 books he wrote and published. But I can make three observations about his work and life.

One. Many readers loved his Montalbano stories for their astute plots and insightful characterisations. I have loved Camilleri for another reason. It is not because Camilleri was highbrow literature – he was not. But his novels and short stories lend the reader – particularly if the reader is young – the vantage point of the old raconteur. Camilleri’s stories are powerful because they are distillations of memories, left to mature in the casks of old-age wisdom. In a society which reduces its old folks to recluses in homes for the elderly, a national grandfather who wants to narrate about his youth through the microphone of the wisdom that comes with old age, has necessarily to become a best-seller. To my mind, Camilleri is more of a sociological than a literary case. Very much like Bud Spencer, who fulfilled the role of father to a number of generations brought up in a fatherless society, a society seemingly made up of sons and daughters of widows. It is not just a matter of feminism. The slow disappearance of the father figure has been observed in literature, starting more or less with the beheading of the French King during the Great Revolution in France. Camilleri seems to me to have been to the Italians, and perhaps even to others, the grandfather they lacked, as everybody locks their elderly away in homes just as everybody entrusts their children to day care centres and nobody has time for family anymore. The ongoing attack on the family is dictated by the dominant mode of production, which does not need the family as economic unit to function properly.

Two. Camilleri’s historical novels, all based on or inspired by true historical events, are narrative gems. Style, characterisation, plot are handled in a masterly fashion. The theme is almost always “Sicilianity” –– sicilianità –– and mostly in the context of Sicily as part of something bigger not Sicily taken as an entity separate from any other, a “stand-alone” polity. Take his La mossa del cavallo, a veritable tour de force in psychology, a treatise in strategic thinking. It is the story of a police officer who gets arrested for a murder he was about to report to his colleagues. The central idea of the novel is that the officer was originally Sicilian but his family had moved to Genoa, and he thus needs to rediscover his roots, start thinking again in Sicilian and thus unravel the hidden threads determining his situation. In a sense it is interesting for us Maltese as we think that because we sort of communicate in English, then we sort of participate in the English world. Pure fantasy, needless to say. Then, I found Camilleri’s Il re di Girgenti to be his masterpiece –– the maestro depicts and criticises ideology (and stupidity). Yet, over the years, Camilleri too succumbed to the left-liberal ideology. I found this contradictory. In Il re di Girgenti, he criticises superstitious Christian ideology, but then he himself somewhat gave in to left-liberal ideology.

Three. Camilleri’s success came late in life. He had published his first novel in the 1970s, but made no inroads in the national book market. In the late 1990s, Camilleri benefitted from the same fortune that had shone on the brave Luciano de Crescenzo: he was endorsed by Maurizio Costanzo during his highly popular talk show and from then onward he never looked back. This says a lot about luck and perseverance, in the sense that it is perhaps never too late for Lady Luck to smile at you. Camilleri’s life-story imparts a lesson in hope, in never giving up. Then again, you have to live long enough eventually to reap the fruits of your encounter with the Lady and of your perseverance.

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