The Malta Independent 19 May 2022, Thursday

Americanisation of politics

Mark A. Sammut Sassi Sunday, 8 May 2022, 09:54 Last update: about 12 days ago

The idea has been proposed recently that Maltese politics should avoid absorbing and making its own the cultural wars raging in the United States. In essence, the proposition is that we aren’t really divided between liberals and conservatives, like the Americans are.

On one level, I’d tend to agree. The way politics have evolved in the United States is in many respects different from how they have evolved in Europe. One could argue that much of American “political philosophy” descends from the “Scottish Enlightenment” of the 18th and 19th centuries. Scotland has had an excellent educational system which, however, produced more graduates than the local economy could absorb. These then migrated elsewhere, either to London or the British colonies, or the United States.

The debates that formed the Scottish vision of the world thus spread around the world; in the United States (but not only) they found fertile ground. The peculiar circumstances of Scotland, thus, formed American sophisticated thinking – circumstances moulded by religious, philosophical, and political thinking as Scotland sought its place as England’s partner in the British Empire.

In a sense, American thinking is European and not European at the same time. So, on an abstract level, one can see the point of wanting to somehow resist the temptation of assuming that what applies to the culture wars in the United States has necessarily to apply to the rest of the world.

And yet, on a deeper level, one has to disagree with this proposition.

Because America actively (if possibly unwittingly) exports its culture wars, or, if you prefer, its “philosophical discussions”.

Let’s focus on Malta. In the past, people used to go to church regularly on Sunday, thereby absorbing the world-view narrated by the Catholic Church, particularly through the parables, many of which are stories that make an ethical or moral point. One could be an atheist and still follow the moral precepts found in the parables. As a matter of fact, many of our modern legal concepts were developed from moral propositions found in the Gospels. So, church attendance had a strong impact on life decisions for people who got their education in morality and ethics from the teachings of the Catholic Church.

Nowadays, it seems to me that more people go to the cinema regularly in the weekends than they attend Mass. At the cinema they mostly watch American movies, which, often times, serve as vehicles for points of morality and ethics.

American cinema necessarily reflects American preoccupations. In the 1950s, say, when the Communist scare had reach hysterical levels, American cinema was replete with hidden and not-so-hidden elements of McCarthyism and the accusations hurled at people suspected of harbouring Communist sympathies. This tendency to reflect current themes has continued over the decades – not necessarily because the Americans want to indoctrinate the world, but mostly because art reflects life. A scriptwriter follows politics like everybody else, and the scripts they write will necessarily echo the preoccupations of the country.

And then, as Oscar Wilde astutely remarked, “art imitates life”. As film becomes the new “religion”, it is not a matter of choice whether you “Americanise” your local politics. It just happens by itself. Cinema-goers – that is voters – are exposed to the moral and ethical questions underlying film storylines and are necessarily impacted by them.

Then there’s a hint from the Italians. Whereas in English film actors are called “stars”, in Italian they’re “divi del cinema” – the Italians have truly understood the dynamics of film-watching since “divo” means “(pagan) deity”. In other words, a cinema actor is the equivalent of a “god”. They’ve probably nailed it. When the audiences listen or see an actor take a moral or ethical stance on the big screen, it’s as though a god were pronouncing the law.

The relationship between the public and cinema is two-way. The public “learns” from cinema; but cinema also listens to what the public “wants” to “learn” about.

American cinema “teaches” audiences world-wide to be attuned to American preoccupations. It’s a sort of evangelisation, but not of the Christian variety.

One therefore cannot escape the liberal-conservative narrative which American cinema has been dishing out for quite some time now.

No identity

Almost 60 years after independence, this Country is still unable to find its own identity.

Finding our own identity helps in many ways for a healthier environment. But the benefits are not only psychological – a strong identity helps to create a better experience for the tourist, enhancing the tourism industry.

We have collectively failed to understand how to create a national identity and, by extension, a national product. We have failed to identity an architectural grammar, say, to impose on new buildings, ending up with a situation in which we demolish Maltese-style buildings to erect bland, soulless boxes in their place that add no beauty and no harmony.

Even in simple things we fail. Just consider this seemingly insignificant example from Żurrieq. The Local Council erected a signpost carrying the name of a popular locality in both Maltese and English – Il-Ħnejja Blue Grotto.

Apparently the signpost has been removed by the central authorities and the Maltese name removed.

What exactly is the benefit from this decision? Why deny the Maltese place-name when the English version is also included?

Such stupid decisions betray the overall mentality: a Country that cannot understand its true place in the world, and still defines itself not on its own terms but through the eyes of the long-gone master. The signpost matter is significant because it is symptomatic of a deeper malaise.

I am not advocating complete originality and unrealistic nationalism. What I am arguing here is that we need to step up the mediation of reality through our own experiences, as only that mentality can help us see our own interests before those of others who might be using us for their benefit. That was the essence of independence, and it’s high time we embrace it in theory and apply it in practice.

  • don't miss