A nation that has forgotten its past

Not only do we not know our history, but we have few Maltese public intellectuals to look up to and guide us in a time of crisis and question the status quo

“A nation that forgets its past has no future”. It may sound like a cliché but Winston Churchill’s are more than just a truism. And the sad thing is that this prospect is only endangered by the national aversion to reading, especially amongst children in Malta.

The digital world has certainly made it even worse, as the humble book has to compete for attention with the smartphone. And forgive me for sounding like the proverbial antediluvian, but were it for me, I’d certainly ban mobile phones in the hands of children under the age of 12. For it cannot just be the responsibility of parents alone, who most of the time may not serve as the best example; but an obligation at law.

Not only do we not read; we are reading the wrong things most of the time. A high dependence on Facebook as a source of personalised news, makes this kind of platform ripe for an output of badly-written pieces, a free zone for abuse, and a litany of attacks or self-righteous monologues. It is not just the proliferation of fake news or the unstoppable dialogues of nothingness, but social media’s monopoly on attention has side-lined the power of the written word, what many would like to call the “traditional media”. So be it. But tell me one thing: where does critical education or a basic modicum of history and culture fit in the worlds of Tik Tok, Instagram or Snapchat? My point is: in a school system which sometimes even lacks a decent history book that takes us from the Bronze Age right into the 1980s and our recent past (I understand that some schools simply use hand-outs instead of books), or which does not even have enough teachers of history, how can young generations overcome their ignorance of our roots, the lingering effects of colonialism, our early years of democracy and the people who led this country in times of fine or inclement weather?

It seems to me that they are condemned to regurgitate some bits of advice or opinions they hear from their parents and next of kin, which more often than not is anchored in plain old bias.

Not only do we not know our history, but we have few Maltese public intellectuals to look up to and guide us in a time of crisis and question the status quo.

The other day, in an interview with the former MEP, Miriam Dalli, I discussed the concept of the Maltese as a nation; I’d say that we are a nation, but also one of convenience. It seems that a good deal of Maltese cannot write in their own language, a segment insists on not speaking the language; and we do not value our Maltese artists, our poets, writers, musicians and their contribution to our cultural tapestry. Even the icons who are awarded that national accolade... tend to represent notions of national ‘acceptance’ rather than barrier-breaking greatness. I’d dare say that many of us do not even “know” their country, they cannot relate today’s events to our recent history, or even fathom the values imparted to us by the Maltese Constitution.

I’d think that it is this kind of ignorance that makes many uncaring should Malta simply be turned into a monument to concrete. I once asked former PM Joseph Muscat which country he would live in if not Malta – he sadly told me, Singapore. Never have I seen an uglier place in my life: crowded, formalised beyond all organic recognition, clinically clean, brutally modern, rich and soulless. He is not alone; many share similar ‘hyper-capitalist’ ideals of living in places like Dubai. But Muscat also knew his electorate’s prejudices and greedy aspirations: he milked them to his advantage to take him to the top. To him and many other politicians it was not about Malta but rather about the wealth that the Maltese had. Not the quality of life but the quantity that came with it.

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I interviewed Cardinal Mario Grech this week.

There was one point which stuck and could not go away. He recounted a story by a Jewish philosopher who argued that the value for a community was not how wealth it was, but rather the quality of their life.

And this is what the politicians who want to get re-elected time and time again, will never understand. That it is not material gain that matters most but rather the quality of life.

This lust for votes, coupled with the low remuneration for MPs means that will only attract individuals of either a low intellect to be our leaders, or narcissists. There will be a few who will do it out of vocation.

I am not too sure.

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Yesterday Environment Minister Aaron Farrugia announced the appointment of environmental rangers to monitor the countryside. It is a first step, a commendable one. 

I hope it will not die a natural death. Apart from the very laudable list of must-dos, the rangers should eventually be deployed to control illegal hunting of birds.

Have I mentioned a sore point? Perhaps. Anyhow, Farrugia’s initiative is admirable. Bravo!