Punching down on those anxious about immigration will not help us move forward

LONG READ • Racist rhetoric is cause for alarm, but what does it say about those vocal on human rights, rule of law and good governance, and a gleeful stream of ridicule of working class ‘Malteseness’?

Ancient Egyptians held a unique set of beliefs on (im)mortality. In their spiritual universe, a person dies twice: first, when you take your final breath. And then, the last time someone says your name. Egyptians devoted their lives to building pyramids so that their god-kings, the Pharaohs, could flourish in their second life until the end of time.

The Black Lives Matter (BLM) protesters defacing monuments of controversial historical figures reminds us of the purpose of monuments: Cementing the name of powerful men in history. And the statues of the men – as it almost always men – we choose to honour and the ones we don’t, says as much about who we think we were, as it does about who we are.

Last weekend, the Bristol monument of the prolific slave-trader Edward Colston, who became immensely wealthy from selling an estimated 80,000 people into slavery, was torn down and rolled into the river to great applause and cheering. In a more restrained act of rebellion, red paint was splashed on the statutes of King Leopold II, the private owner of the Belgian Congo. The profound horror of life in the Congo Free state is best depicted by the haunting photo of a Congolese man staring at the severed hand and foot of his five-year-old daughter, one of the estimated 10 million Congolese butchered as punishment for failing to make the daily rubber quota.

These events drove some to draw parallels with the memorable vignettes of Iraqis toppling a bronze Saddam Hussein or Parisians defacing portraits of Adolf Hitler. Others were furious as they equate iconoclasm with the erasure of history, glossing over the condemnation of Leopold II and Colston during their lifetime. The spontaneous defacement by a small group of protestors and not through general consensus certainly complicates their departure.

Yet it is undeniable that these symbolic actions are electrified with a political potency that makes for an unparalleled educational tool. They have done more to educate about the racist institutions that propped up these men than history lessons at school ever could. As although the statues capture the likeness of man, they embody power structures and ideology. And while it can be argued that toppling these statues ‘erases’ a part of history, the opposite can also be true. Monuments can be historical erasers. As blunt instruments of commemoration of powerful people, they can obscure despicable actions committed by these people during their lifetime.

The Justice for Lassana memorial coincided with global Black Lives Matters protests
The Justice for Lassana memorial coincided with global Black Lives Matters protests

In the future, we might look back at this juncture as a critical turning-point. The historical narrative that propped up these figures is being reassessed and our shared past, in which they are butchers and not revered heroes, is being re-imagined. After all, history is neither static nor linear. Past events are shaped by our present; much of our history is sieved through modern views. Our collective understanding of the past is fluid, continuously contested and updated. In the words of MM Bakhtin, “nothing is absolutely dead: every meaning will have its homecoming festival”.

The spread of BLM protests across the capitals of former European imperial powers, from the Netherlands, to the UK, and Germany, via France and Belgium, have galvanised citizens into an ad hoc decolonisation process of their public spaces. It remains to be seen as to whether this homecoming will continue to be a meaningful one. Their governments have not been sufficiently moved to review contentious policies vis-a-vis the African continent.

A different kind of colonial aftershock

The view from Malta is coloured by its experience as a former colony. We are experiencing a different kind of colonial aftershock. As Malta remains entangled in the web of international power politics, the contradictions of our colonised past, and our present role as a sentinel for Fortress Europe, came into a sharp focus through last Monday’s ‘pro-migrant’ protests and Justice For Lassana memorial, and ‘anti-migrant’ counter protests.

The former are capitalising on the BLM media coverage to highlight the brutal murder of Ivorian immigrant, Lassana Cisse, in a memorial that took place weeks after his death’s anniversary during the COVID-19 lockdown. The latter are expressing anger because the memorial comes days after Malta had to take in 425 migrants, but who were left on private boats for five weeks in a failed attempt at moving EU countries to share the responsibility. They embody the resentment of a humiliating defeat as casualties of greater forces. How this sense of victimhood aligns with their toxic patriotism is key to unlocking one of many curious paradoxes that characterises Malta.

British rule came to its final end in 1979, when the Maltese waved goodbye to the last foreign troops on sovereign Maltese soil. Not all islanders were happy to see the back of British soldiers and a handful of elderly citizens remain sentimental to this day. Independence was a watershed moment for Malta and Malteseness flourished. This continued throughout the 70s, with post-colonial stirrings expressed in novels, poetry, theatre and activism.

Nowadays we treat this part of our history as a closed chapter. We don’t really talk openly amongst ourselves about our parents’ and grandparents’ quotidian experience of colonialism. There is a disconnect between generations.

In the run-up to CHOGM, membership of the Commonwealth was described as.... [an Organisation] “you join based on your past, the other [European Union (EU)] you join based on what you want your future to be”.

The Maltese prefer to forgive and forget. It was in this vein that Malta advised other members of the former colonial club to ‘move on’ from ‘the blame game’. An aspirational nation, the Maltese prefer to invest in their future. Forgiving is fine. Bitterness is a useless emotion that hurts the person who holds it far more than its target. Forgetting is not. A collective amnesia replaced the fierce ideological debates and skirmishes throughout the decolonisation process leading up to Freedom Day and is reflected in our education curriculum.

Growing up, history lessons were an exercise in erasure. Revolving around historic dates, alternating between besiegement by or liberation from (usually Muslims) and the ‘great men’ associated with these dates. The zenith was reached with the Great Siege of 1565, a template for Malta’s popular understanding of its identity as the David protecting Christian Europe from the Philistine Goliath. Never mind that the Crusaders were arguably the religious fundamentalists to the tolerant Ottomans who practised religious pluralism through the millet system.

Politics in its rawest form, the power dynamics that creates hierarchies, whether class or racial, was always absent.

History was sterilised of conflict and glossed over facts, notoriously the Arab period, that challenged the Catholic Church’s supremacy as a cultural vector of Malteseness.

Our passage through time was presented as a consensus-driven exercise, in the form of a one-directional progressive march towards an inevitable end point of salvation.

The partisan zealotry that permeates every aspect of daily life is to blame for this. To prevent partisanship from polluting schools, education is stripped of the big ‘P’ politics of partisanship, depriving students of the ability to learn how the small ‘p’ politics of power and privilege drive historical processes and determine outcomes.

Turning our attention to colonial legacy

What if we viewed the BLM as an opportunity, electrified by political currents, to turn our attention to our colonial legacy?

Dare we hope that in updating the past, we might understand our present? Could demythologisation spur us to critically assess the nature of the racial anxieties that continue to colour our national identity, and how this informs the tribal way in which Maltese people relate to each other and to ‘outsiders’?

Ambivalence and anxieties about Malta’s Europeanness, a proxy for ‘whiteness’, inevitably emerge in public debates linked to Malta’s standing in Europe. Malta’s location on the fringes of the EU, a stepping-stone into Africa, here but also there, underpins this ambiguous identity.

The categorisation of ‘whiteness’ is based on the biological attribute of colour and a social construct that was defined by the subject and the rulers, and a reflection of the hierarchy of economic, social and cultural privileges. David Zammit describes how during Victorian times, the Maltese were racialised distinctively from Europeans. He explains that Maltese ‘natives’ were being “increasingly depicted in racialised terms which naturalised their poverty, ill health and religious beliefs; drawing an implicit contrast with their European and Protestant rulers.”

Not even the Maltese ruling families, vassals of empire, could completely avoid racialisation. They founded the Casino Maltese as a reaction to being barred from the prestigious British-only Union Club. Signs that stated ‘Dogs, Indians/Irish/Blacks Not Allowed’ were ubiquitous across the Empire.

The colonial gaze was reflected in the hierarchy of the Casino Maltese, only this time it was a small minority of Maltese puliti (polite society) looking down on the Maltese masses.

It doesn’t take much of a stretch of the imagination to understand that the working class fared worse. Born as British subjects, destitute Maltese workers forced to migrate to the British settler colony of Australia, were subject to the White Australia Policy, which aimed to keep the number of Maltese arrivals low. During one stand-out incident, Prime Minister Billy Hughes tried to prevent the disembarkation of Maltese men or ‘coloured job-jumpers’ and kept them imprisoned aboard a ship for weeks.

More recently, this racial ambivalence was leveraged for political mileage by the ‘Yes’ (to EU membership) campaign. One instance saw ‘Yes’ campaigners presenting EU membership as a neat segue from Malta’s Norman conquest and the victory of Western European Christian culture. Throughout the campaign, the alternative to EU membership was unfavourably compared with ‘inferior’ relations between Arab countries and the EU.

There were various legitimate reasons for joining the EU. The benefits centred around the economic, environmental and security pillars. Indeed, there is general consensus that EU membership remains overwhelmingly positive and that there is a strong correlation between membership, and Malta’s recent economic growth and pockets of excellence like its LGBTI+ human rights record.

However, in the current tense immigration stand-off, we should be reflecting on the less palatable side of the discourse surrounding membership and the racist dog-whistles that are coming back to haunt us.

Leaping past post-colonialism

Maltese voters understood all too clearly that settling the debate about our ambivalent whiteness was the cherry on the EU membership cake. They eagerly ate it up, seemingly settling Malta’s identity question. The country leapfrogged past post-colonialism into a post-racial reality without ever settling anxieties about our standing in a racialised pecking order.

What could have been an opportunity to reconcile a post-colonial identity with an exciting EU future was transformed into an exercise in forgetting. Our whiteness rubber-stamped, our anxieties repressed, bubbling away beneath the surface, only to flare up during debates, from abortion to immigration, that challenge our identity as white European Christians.

The Sette Giugno monument in St George's Square in Valletta
The Sette Giugno monument in St George's Square in Valletta

I first started writing this article on Sette Giugno, the public holiday during which we honour the four compatriots gunned down by British soldiers in 1919. The timing could not be more apt. The Sette Giugno monument itself became contested as both groups of protesters claimed ownership over the symbolism of this pivotal moment of civil disobedience.

The absurdity of the small group of blue-collar, anti-migrant protesters recycling Dom Mintoff’s anti-colonial slogans was not lost on observers.

The distortion of history compounded by the Nazi salute and monkey sounds during the BLM demo, was as pitiful as it was nauseating and disturbing. Under Mintoff’s Labour government, Malta joined the Non-Aligned Movement and the Afro-Asian People’s Solidarity Organisation, in support of ‘the ideals of national liberation and Third World solidarity’. Racist groups like Imperium or Patriotti Maltin are not worthy representatives of the working class.

The decoupling of the working class from Malta’s tradition of internationalism is a gross misrepresentation. Sette Giugno is notable for having catalysed the anti-colonial movement. But it was the excessive grain and bread prices charged by Maltese merchants, also suspected of having been war profiteers, that first triggered the riots. It was the homes of these profiteers that were ransacked.

With the exception of Moviment Graffitti and some others present last Monday, the absence of a class dimension in the debate about migrant solidarity remains a glaring blindspot.

George Floyd was not only killed because he was black. He was also killed for being poor.

And irregular immigration remains a flashpoint in European politics because immigrants are poor and their host communities are predominantly the working class.

Globally, diversity campaigns are enriched by the inclusion of a class analysis of both migrant and host communities. Activists are aware that the only way of reconciling them is through an intersectional response.

Whilst racist rhetoric is cause for alarm, what does it say about those whose vocal positioning on matters of human rights or debates on rule of law and good governance, can often be accompanied by a gleeful stream of ridicule of working class Malteseness? More often than not, it will take the form of sneering at their crude English accent, caricaturing them as an ignorant and vulgar horde and therefore not puliti. How is this abuse aligned with the values of diversity and inclusiveness?

In the taunts of “Go-beck-to-yor-cuntry!” and hamalli, there are distinct echoes of the colonial dehumanisation of the Maltese, such as the Victorian English woman quoted by Zammit saying of the Maltese as possessing “inarticulate sounds of brutes than of human beings”. The silent majority bristle at this punching-down and this plays into the hands of those who wish to ferment tension. There is a large number of voters who abhor the racist taunts but for whom the influx of immigrants remains a legitimate grievance. The vocal and influential minority’s ridicule is viewed as proof of bad faith.

Another instance of point-scoring at their expense to curry favour with ‘outsiders’. But mocking those who are uncomfortable about immigration will not reduce the salience of irregular immigration in Maltese politics.

Time to pause and reflect

Where does this debate leave us? How do we square the circle between the dehumanisation that we have internalised and that we now inflict on ‘inferior outsiders’ and ‘inferior Maltese’?

Admittedly, we can’t draw direct parallels between the oppression of black American citizens and migration in the Mediterranean. There is Malta’s right to balance its sovereignty with EU obligations, as well our generous welfare state. This greatest of all European inventions is the price we willingly pay for greater social cohesion.

There are still lessons that we can learn from the American export of BLM. At the very least, it can offer a window into the explosive outcomes of racialised inequality. We are not doing enough to prevent the brutalisation of our growing community of Afro-Maltese and other bi/multiracial citizens.

I came across one muted call for the decolonisation of our physical space, starting with Queen Victoria’s statue – one of hundreds of identical statues sprinkled all over colonies – that stands in front of the Casino Maltese in Valletta. My personal preference is for a broad re-orientation of our popular understanding of history, starting with the State’s display of the Knights’ eight-pointed-cross in Malta’s embassies. Removing symbols without an informed discussion about their underlying ideologies is pointless. And dogma papers over complexities, including the partially progressive nature inherent to the contradictions of British imperialism.

We owe it ourselves and future generations to have an authentic national conversation about the dysfunctional situation that we find ourselves trapped in – on one hand squeezed by the EU to manage irregular immigration solo, and on the other, repurposing anti-colonial rhetoric that rings hollow.

There are no easy or fast answers.

I can only offer this: in the absence of answers, the only option is to pause and reflect on how we move forward now that Europe’s past is catching up with our present.

Dr Michaela Muscat is a sociologist writing in a private capacity. The full article, complete with references, can be read at www.michaelamuscat.com

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