The Malta Independent 30 May 2020, Saturday

The virus and the movies

Mark A. Sammut Sunday, 5 April 2020, 10:38 Last update: about 3 months ago

It is ironic that while the government has been bragging about a booming economy for the past seven years or so, it seems to need the Church’s help to buy a €50,000 ventilator. The Gozitan Church’s initiative is laudable; the national government’s self-delusion, laughable.

Not so laughable is the admission that utility bills cannot be lowered because of the Chinese share in the ownership of the nation’s only power plant. Even less laughable is the incredible clause in the hospitals contract. And absolutely not laughable at all is the soaring in prices for foodstuffs and other daily necessities that’s apparently taking place.



Some thinkers are arguing that the current pandemic might profoundly change the world as we know it. One possible change could be a shift toward dictatorial government; another, the demise, or at least re-dimensioning, of globalisation and the neoliberal order. It is perhaps too early to say whether these are instances of wishful thinking or far-sighted predictions.

What does seem obvious to me, however, is that the current pandemic resembles the pattern you can observe in the myth of the Tower of Babel. In that myth, humanity spoke one language and felt emboldened enough to erect a tall, huge structure – a ziggurat – to reach the skies and do away with the higher authority (“God”). The higher authority gets annoyed and not only destroys the ziggurat, but also disperses humanity and causes humans to start speaking different tongues.

I will not discuss whether these events are historical or the product of human imagination; I’m neither an archaeologist nor a Fundamentalist. But what attracts me in this myth is the theme of hubris – the idea that all of humanity can unite in one great effort and overcome the higher authority, replacing that higher authority with itself. It’s such a fascinating delusion.

It is fascinating because we can see the phenomenon on an individual level in everyday life. We all know at least one individual who flies on his way like an eagle, as high as the sun... to touch the sun... and then just like Icarus, the wax that welds his wings starts to melt, the feathers fixed to the frame fall off, and he tumbles out of the sky! (The classic example in Malta has become Joseph Muscat... but that’s another story.)

The myth is perhaps even more fascinating because it describes the world’s current situation. Almost the entire world speaks one language – the language of globalisation and neoliberalism – and embraces one notion: “bio-politics”, that allows humanity to take decisions that “God” should take. By trying to replace “God” (the higher authority) through the precepts of neoliberalism, humanity has built the equivalent of a new ziggurat.

Don’t get me wrong here. I’m not saying that the virus knows what it is doing, or that it is sentient. I think the virus is just carrying out bio-chemical processes. So I am not projecting on the virus any human (or higher animal) qualities, such as intentionality, free will and all that.

What I am saying is that the infrastructure and mechanisms that humanity constructed, consisting of a globalised ideology of exploitation and “bio-politics”, on the one hand permits the survival of the fittest place of production and the enrichment of the entrepreneurial classes, but on the other exposes humanity in its entirety to localised dangers. Indeed, a virus that appeared in one part of the world (Wuhan, China) spread with incredible speed and ease all over the world.

Some pundits are expecting the virus pandemic to bring the globalised, neoliberal system to its knees opening the door to a return to national actors on the world stage. In a way, it would be like the Tower of Babel myth.

But only time will tell.

What is “bio-politics”?

I have used the term “bio-politics” without explaining it. I’ll borrow the definition from somebody else: bio-politics is ‘the endeavour, begun in the eighteenth century, to rationalize problems presented to governmental practice by the phenomena characteristic of a group of living human beings constituted as a population: health, sanitation, birth rate, longevity, race’. We could add migration to the list.

Clearly those life-related phenomena have an impact on the economy and the role of commerce in a civil society. It is here that liberalism enters the picture. ‘In a system,’ asks the same author I quoted above, ‘anxious to have the respect of legal subjects and to ensure the free enterprise of individuals, how can the “population” phenomenon ... be taken into account?’

Governments have to give freedom to allow the growth of the economy.

Apart from devising rules that permit that freedom (or liberty), there is also the need to devise an ideology (a system of ideas that depict a world-view, almost like a “religion”) to sustain that freedom.

Which better way to spread that ideology than films?

What to do when you’re stuck at home

Even though there are many Nobel Prize aspirants who think it’s cool to disregard the clear and absolutely reasonable request made by the authorities for people to stay home (to avoid contagion), a good chunk of the population are sensible and stay indoors, avoiding unnecessary social contact thus reducing the possibility of virus transmission.

The question becomes: what to do when you’re stuck at home? Probably watching movies is one of the most popular activities, and the easiest. You just fall back into your favourite armchair, or lie down on a couch, and entertain yourself.

But is watching a movie just entertainment? Isn’t it also a passive learning experience – one, however, that is bereft of an explicitly-stated syllabus? Don’t many movies adhere to the dominant social values and – wittingly or unwittingly – promote them? Aren’t those values the ingredients of the dominant ideology?

Most movies promote the dominant ideology, or aspects of it. Let’s consider one example: Dirty Dancing, of 1987, starring Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey. The plot depends on the unplanned pregnancy of a dancer at the beginning of the story, and the support she receives from her friend and a new acquaintance to terminate the pregnancy. There’s no discussion as to whether perhaps the child should be given a chance to live; the group takes it for granted that the child has to die. It’s striking that abortion as the right solution is taken for granted, without even debating the pros and cons, despite the characters’ different social backgrounds. This is an ideological – as opposed to ethical – approach.

Most movies are replete with such underhanded ideological indoctrination. Solutions to real-life problems are presented without any discussion of available alternatives. Discussing alternative solutions is boring and slows the narrative pace down.

The importance of żinn!

Real life isn’t a movie but few movie-viewers know it. So much so that certain TV shows explicitly warn viewers not to try at home whatever they’re watching on screen.

When I was young, there was a great word: żinn! I don’t know if today’s young people still exclaim żinn! when they see something self-evidently incredible in a movie. Perhaps the age of żinnijiet has passed. Żinn! was the natural vaccine to the suspension of disbelief virus of the cinematographic pandemic. By exclaiming żinn! the viewer highlighted the line of demarcation between fiction (the movie) and reality (the world around the viewer).

However, żinn! was usually limited to visual effects, such as acrobatic driving or the inaptitude of the baddies to shoot the protagonist down while he could kill seven of them with his single-action six-shooter without the need to reload.

Żinn! was rarely invoked to resist ideological indoctrination.

Whereas it should.

Instead of teaching English literature, schools could teach movie criticism. Perhaps students don’t need Wordsworth and George Eliot, but need to read between the lines of Hollywood movies.

My Personal Library (91)

There’s a good book called Film as Religion: Myths, Morals, and Rituals by John C. Lyden (2003) which looks at movie watching as a “religious” activity. Lyden argues that this approach could supplement theological and ideological criticism of movies.

However, since I have referred – albeit obliquely – to school curricula, I will refer to Kenneth Wain’s The Value Crisis: An Introduction to Ethics (1995). In this book, written by a Maltese philosopher who has had an impact on school curricula, I have found a lot of ideology.

(Whereas I am not sure I really need to clarify this, more is sometimes better than less. By “ideology” I mean a set of beliefs which produce knowledge that serves the interests of a particular group or class. While true statements about the world are science, false statements are ideology.)

Professor Wain’s book is divided into 13 chapters, the first 11 of which are a good historical introduction to ethics (as promised in the title). It’s the last two chapters that are ... well ... bogus. In the sense that they present ideological statements as if they were scientific. If instead of ideology Chapters 12 and 13 contained alcohol, the reader would be breaking the law if she drove after reading them. The libertarian influence in these chapters is intoxicating.

At one point, for instance, the author asserts that past Western societies were culturally and ethically homogeneous. No historical evidence is supplied to support this statement; the assertion is presented as self-evidently true and serves as premise or predicate for other propositions.

It is simply not true that Western societies were not pluralistic in the past. And it is also not true that current Western societies are not culturally homogeneous – movies are the prime instrument in the imposition of homogeneity in Western societies. Other instruments are the insistence on political correctness and the public shaming or side-lining of conservative thinkers and academics.

Despite the libertarian ideology that colours the last two chapters, the rest of the book makes a good introduction to ethics. That said, it is ethically questionable that a book that is aimed at ‘the educated lay person and the student with little or no knowledge of philosophy’ should try to influence the reader toward one side of the spectrum. It would have been a better book had it taken a neutral stance, leaving out the personal prejudices of the author.


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