Once upon a time there was a troika...
Secularisation in a place like Malta does not merely entail a decline of religious influence but also a decline of ideologically-committed institutions.
9 August 2012, 12:00am
Maltese society changed dramatically between the two Gonzis, the Monsignor and the Prime Minister. However, on many levels we are now starting to feel the impact of Europeanization processes. Whether we like it or not, this society is now walking on shifting sands and the traditional set-ups were derailed.
This week many celebrated Dom Mintoff's 96th birthday. If we employ current online political banter, we can say that he was born before the advent of radio and relinquished the leadership even before the spread of the internet. This past year, his life was marked by hospital visits and a film production entitled Dear Dom which portrayed him as a negotiator and a strongman but cunningly chose to ignore his role as a social reformer. Dom Mintoff earned divine connotations as Salvatur ta' Malta (Malta's Saviour) when he established a welfare state that lifted up his working class support-base. When he left the helm of his party, some wanted a leader able to step into his shoes; it actually took years for grassroots supporters to accept they needed a leader able to step out of his shadow.
Once upon a time, when the troika overwhelmed public life, patriarchal secular leaders were endowed with pseudo-religious traits that were also employed after the rise of Dr Edward Fenech Adami. "Eddie" became PN leader merely a yearly before Britain's Margaret Thatcher won her first election; that is, when Saatchi and Saatchi actually originated the first "Labour Won't Work" billboard.
He soon achieved virtual martyrdom when his family home was vandalised in a series of political incidents. He was entrenched as a national hero when he delivered his supporters from 16 years of Labour rule.
Since we have now become billboard crazy, we must mention the close-up portrait of the silver-haired leader that was put up in the 1990s. Surrounded by a clear blue sky, his picture was almost reminiscent of holy pictures portraying God the Father. Fenech Adami's mission became truly apostolic when barely ten years ago he proclaimed the spread of the Christian message to be among Malta's missions within the enlarged European Union. He then proceeded to make an unsuccessful bid to entrench Christianity in the European Constitutional Treaty. His departure from the helm of PN coincided with secularization pressures that stemmed from his own party ranks and so his successor did not merely have to fill the void left by this larger than life figure, but also he had to cope with these new tensions.
In the past it was normal to bestow idealised leaders with father-figure qualities. Patriarchal parties were extended families and often behaved like warring tribes. The public facade of these families was that of a harmonious unit, where dirty linen was washed behind closed doors. Adherents had a very solid sense of belonging as their group was deemed to safeguard their interests in a harsh milieu characterised by a dearth of opportunities. All this has been changing.
And then there is the Church. In the past, its power was such that it led to bitter politico-religious battles each time secular leaders gained more political power; in the 1920s through autonomous government and in the 1960s with Independence. Since then social transformations have eroded some of Church's power to an extent that many people claim they are believers, but they may not feel attached to the institution. Take the sharp decline in mass attendance. In my hometown, St Paul's Bay, attendees amount to merely 36% and we can only guess their age groups.