The Malta Independent 18 February 2020, Tuesday

Conservation and conformism

Mark A. Sammut Sunday, 25 August 2019, 11:00 Last update: about 7 months ago

This week I met a political refugee from a Horn of Africa nation. I was in a restaurant, eating and reading a book on exile, called Les degrés de l’exil, as part of the research for a new book I’m working on. Obviously attracted by the title, this young man approached me, with yearning in his eyes, and asked me about the book. He told me he fled his country; as a leader of a student organisation that demanded democracy, he had got in trouble with the repressive police.


He fled to Europe, hoping for a better life in a democratic country. He was a student back home; he is a waiter in Europe. I enquired whether he continued studying in Europe. He said he couldn’t. He can’t afford to rent, support his son, and attend university.

I was saddened to hear this. Here was a smart young man whose potential was withering away, accruing benefit neither to himself nor to his home or adoptive country.

As we went on talking, he told me he’s Muslim. I told him that I do not know whether Islam has any similar story, but Christianity has a story about a master who before travelling to somewhere faraway, leaves a number of talents with his servants. Two servants use their ingenuity to make profit on those talents; the third, digs a hole and buries the talents given him by his master, who then punishes him upon his return.

He agreed he should not give up but look for a scholarship to try to finish his studies.

Later, I thought about this little incident. I wondered what a left-liberal would have said in my place. What are the stories that the liberal ideology offers to everyday incidents, apart from Hollywood movies that consistently promote libertinism, hedonism, and, essentially, consumerism? What would we be, even in the 21st century, without the legacy of Christianity?


The Kappillan of Malta

Or, to be more precise, the Provost of Birkirkara. Who caught up in the maelstrom of modernity.

This publishing house’s daily paper summarised the situation correctly: “Provost’s fiery homily misinterpretation leads to outrage and condemnation”. A misinterpretation and all hell breaks loose.

There could be an entire tome to write about the violent reaction to the Provost’s words, but I’ll limit myself to three comments.

One. The twin concepts of sin and redemption are essential to Christianity. The Provost said that people have to change – change is the lynchpin of redemption. You have to repent of your sins to be redeemed, and to repent you have to... change! Why this rage at a priest who’s preaching the teachings of his Church is beyond me! (Not to mention two basic tenets of democracy: freedom of expression and freedom of religious expression and worship.)

Two. The situation reminded me of a video-clip in which a Polish priest is delivering a homily against abortion and a number of female parishioners stand up and leave the church in disgust. It was unbelievable. What did these parishioners expect? A pro-choice Catholic priest? It’s so child-like, so delusional, you feel like banging your head against the nearest wall until you pass out. Similarly, all this outrage because a priest said that same-sex marriage goes against the teachings of his church and that, if people want to be saved, they have to change...! It’s hysteria.

Three. Some quarters want to try their hand at theology. The Malta Independent reported that some quarters posted this message: “the experience of LGBTI persons calls us to a deeper search and understanding of everyone’s purpose in this life, rather than an interpretation of a creator who is violent and that somehow he/she/they wanted a heterosexual cosmos and anything that does not fit the story has to be eliminated.”

I will not try to assess the logic of this message, but will simply say that it is a sort of theological argument. If I am understanding correctly, it implies that the Creator(s) created a wide spectrum of sexualities. Not being an expert, I will not pass any comment. But if this LGBTI lobby is resorting to theology, why torment the Catholic Church? Why crucify a priest who, all told, was simply doing his job? Why not create an own, Qaws-Alla, Church or sect?

Quoting Pete Buttigieg, a Baptist who probably believes that Genesis needs a sequel (and possibly a prequel too!), is not a trump in the difficult game of Theological Dispute. À propos, isn’t the theological dispute a hallmark of the “Middle Ages”?

At least the Provost can say – with well-deserved satisfaction – “Quod erat demonstrandum!” This phrase I learnt, many years ago, from a wise man called Furtu who taught me that it means, “The very thing it was required to have shown”. The Provost said that the progressives want to “eliminate” those who disagree with their agenda. The reaction to his words proved his words right. Q.E.D.


Nothing is sacred

Owen Bonnici, the Minister for “Culture”, is not at all amusing. The MUŻA mould debacle is a complete shame. Likewise, whatever’s up at Mnajdra Temples is also not amusing. Frankly, we don’t care whether it will be a party or not. Only a hillbilly can allow an activity with slum-demolishing bass lines playing at full blast in a place as u-n-i-q-u-e as Mnajdra.

Nothing is sacred for a Hillbilly Government.


The Turkish Cemetery, San Ġiljan, and more

The problem belongs to political philosophy, not law. Which is why Chapter Two of our Constitution enumerates the lofty ideals the Maltese State should aspire to (including protecting our cultural heritage and the environment) while stating that these principles are not enforceable in a Court of Law. Because you cannot enforce political philosophy in court – you can only enforce law.

Why am I saying this? In the past days, two articles have appeared in other sections of the press that have certainly alarmed the more alert sectors of the population.

One article was penned by Alex Torpiano, the other by Conrad Thake. Both gentlemen are highly respected architects. But I am afraid that their being architects maims their underlying message. Let me briefly re-state their message, and then I’ll elaborate.

Professor Torpiano drew the attention of the thinking public to a scandalous development that evolved in broad daylight. A beautiful early-20th-century house was replaced by a soulless cube-like building, on the seashore in San Ġiljan, with complete disregard for the aesthetics of the surrounding area.

Professor Thake drew the attention of the same public to the “barbaric” development being proposed next to the Turkish cemetery in Marsa. Again, the proposed development will ruin beyond repair the aesthetics of the surrounding area.

Many of us can intuit why these two gentlemen are right. Many of us can, again on the level of intuition, share their indignation, anger, sorrow, and, ultimately, frustration. They cry for the wanton destruction of our heritage and many of us cry with them.

But there is one, big problem. And it is the problem I believe damages their message.

They are predicating their indignation on intuition. But not everybody is equipped to share their intuition. They are both architects and theoreticians of their noble art. Their intuition is therefore developed and highly sophisticated; it enables them to feel when things go astray and why. But the rest of us do not have that same exposure to the same issues. We might intuit that something is wrong, but we do not possess the wherewithal to conceptualise the reasons why. They therefore need to articulate what they feel on an intuitive level, so that more of us can share their same intuition. In other words, they need to create a Maltese Philosophy of Urban Planning.

If I understand correctly, their argument is that the problem lies not with the law but with the discretion the law affords the authorities. And this – I contend – is the realm of political philosophy.

They – and possibly others – need to create, articulate and disseminate a Maltese Philosophy of Urban Planning, which takes the following into account:

1.                   The Maltese Islands are (a) extremely small and (b) very densely populated;

2.                   The Maltese Islands are replete with historical buildings and remains, all of which require not only preservation but also a complementary surrounding context.

To my mind, both professors are for order not chaos. So they have to provide a political philosophy of order that defeats the prevailing philosophy (or non-philosophy) of chaos.

Why is Valletta impressive? (And many other cities, or at least, their historical centres, around Europe, for that matter?) Because of the order imposed from above. But the spirit of our age is no longer top-down; it’s bottom-up. The ways of Liberalism are chaotic and erratic: each is allowed to pursue happiness his/her own way, then an invisible hand will take care of everything, and progress will ensue.

Consider this parallelism. When the Provost of Birkirkara expressed what can be deemed a top-down approach (the Creator made humans in such and such a way), he was rebutted with pseudo-theology that seeks a bottom-up understanding of the Creator (the Creator requires that each can pursue happiness their own way).

The point is that issues cannot be compartmentalised. There is one ideology which dominates, and it permeates everything. You cannot ask for conformity in urban planning from a society in which each of its members can do or be whatever they like. The human brain does not accept two contradictory ideas at the same time.

This is the big challenge the Ideal Urban Planner has to face. The challenge has two dimensions. One is place-related: the smallness of the islands and the high density of historically-sensitive sites and buildings. The other is time-related: ours is the Age of (Neo-)Liberalism, when the individual (not the people, or the nation, or what have you) is deemed sovereign. But the individual’s sovereignty is couched in terms of consumerism, hedonism, and instant gratification.

The country needs this Ideal Urban Planner – this “Messiah” – to elaborate and articulate a Philosophy of Urban Planning, to save us from ourselves.


Him again

Last week I compared both the Office and the Incumbent to the ancien régime Prince, citing how the French kings aspired to be emperors in their own kingdoms. This week I went to the National Library in Paris for the same research I mentioned above, and I visited the Globes Hall, where there are two enormous 17th-century globes. I found this inscription on the Globe Terrestre (my translation): “To the august majesty of Louis the Great, the invincible, the happy, the wise, the conqueror.” Louis the Great is also known as the Sun-King, the one who said “l’état c’est moi”.


My Personal Library (63)

Christopher Dawson (1889-1970) was a Welsh independent scholar who taught at different British universities and at Harvard. He wrote extensively, but today I would like to draw your attention to a book, called Essays in Order, to which Dawson contributed the Introduction and an essay. In it he wrote, “Western civilisation today is passing through one of the most critical moments in its history. In every department of life traditional principles have been shaken and discredited, and we do not yet know what is going to take their place. There are those who hold that Europe has had her day and that our culture has entered the first stage of an inevitable process of decay, while others believe that we are only beginning to realise the possibilities of modern science and that we are about to see the rise of a new social order which will far transcend anything that the world has known. One thing is certain—the old order is dead; and with the old order there has passed away that traditional acceptance of the truth of Christianity and that general recognition of Christian moral principles, which even in the nineteenth century still retained so strong a hold on the minds of men.”

The book was published in 1931.

  • don't miss