Historical revisionism? Mintoff in a tie...

The Malta of my childhood was overshadowed by fear: the fear of Mintoff, which – though probably unfelt by roughly half the country at the time – was very, very real to the people who had cause to fear him

Not so much because ‘Mintoff the man’ (as opposed to ‘Mintoff the monument’ – and, by extension, ‘Mintoff the myth’) was never seen wearing one in real life. Heck, even I remember instances when he appeared suited in public... such as the last televised campaign debate before the 1981 election, when I was around 10 or thereabouts.

But then again, there is a reason I happen to remember that particular detail (and not, for instance, anything he actually said during the debate). It was unusual. People commented about it at the time. And it took some 20 years or so for his nephew Wenzu to finally shed light on the mystery, in an episode of TVM’s ‘Gganti Tas-Seklu’ series. It turns out that ‘Uncle Dom’ had worn a jacket and tie to that debate, not to make any form of unlikely political (or fashion) statement... but to cover up bruises, cuts and scratches to his arms and torso, acquired while swimming in rough weather the previous day.

So there: it took exceptional, extraordinary circumstances to induce ‘Mintoff the man’ to dress the way his public monument has chosen to preserve his image for posterity. And if a public monument had but one job to do, I would have thought it was to somehow capture the essence of its subject, as he or she looms/loomed in the popular imagination...  NOT as he or she might have occasionally appeared when dressed totally out of character.

Ah, but how do people remember Dom Mintoff today? Not exactly an easy question to answer. Let’s stick with accoutrement for the time being. In my own mind, Mintoff always appears wearing a tight leather jacket over an open shirt: one hand thrust between trousers and belt – with its trademark horseshoe buckle – and the other free to gesticulate as though waving about an imaginary pipe.

I’ll admit that it’s probably an inaccurate image, too; or at best, that it captures only one facet of a clearly multi-faceted historical figure. But if I say so myself, that mental construct of mine tells us a lot more about Dom Mintoff’s personality, than that bizarre ‘alien in a suit’ who now towers above Castille Square... even if (to be fair to the sculptor) the alien does physically resemble the man I remember; and the posture is almost identical to how I described it above (minus the buckle, of course).

For starters, it tells us something about Mintoff’s non-conformism: which he often wore (or chose not to wear) much in the same way as a jacket and tie. By all accounts – though naturally with exceptions – Mintoff routinely shunned such events as gala dinners, formal receptions, etc.; and similarly absented himself from occasions like Mass at St John’s to commemorate national festivities (note: the significance of this latter detail was evidently lost on the organisers of his funeral in 2012. But I’ll come back to this point later).

It was a persona he cultivated as much as his own personal appearance, and for the same reason: to convey the image of a ‘working man’s working man’. There is plenty of evidence that this characteristic also carried over into his dealings with others. I have heard first-hand accounts of how Mintoff used to occasionally enjoy publicly humiliating people who stood their ground on such matters as ‘decorum’ and ‘protocol’: reminding them to their faces that all their insistence on ‘pomp and ceremony’ was ultimately meaningless... given that, regardless of what boards they may have chaired, or what social positions they may have occupied... the only true power in this country was wielded by... himself.

And in case you’re wondering, I’m not even bringing this up as criticism of the man. It was not, perhaps, his most endearing personality trait... but there can be no denying that – in the world we are talking about here – Mintoff was perfectly right. There has not been a Prime Minister since (I can’t comment about before) who wielded anywhere near the all-but unlimited political power Mintoff wielded over Malta in the 1970s and early 1980s.

Eddie Fenech Adami is the only one who comes remotely close: but Eddie’s vision was pre-emptively circumscribed by his ambition to join the European Union. There were natural limits to how far he could impose his own will on the country... something that was not the case with Mintoff at all.

If you close an eye at pressure from the Opposition – of which he probably faced more than any other prime minister – and resistance from within his own party.... there was nothing stopping Dom Mintoff in any shape or form. No higher power to intercede if (or when) he overstepped certain boundaries; and not even the Law itself... for another of Mintoff’s well-known habits was to tweak Malta’s laws to the utmost extent that was legally permissible, in order to achieve his desired objective. And – Maltese legislation being what it was at the time, and (more pertinently) Mintoff’s legal advisor being who he was – there was very little he couldn’t (and didn’t) get away with.

This, on the other hand, I do admit to bringing up as a form of criticism. I may have been too young to appreciate the background nuances; and in any case, enough time has elapsed since then to reassess many of my own earlier prejudices against Mintoff himself, and ‘Mintoffianism’ in general. Certainly, I don’t feel as angry about it as I once did. But the things I refer to now – the dispossessions, the ruthless crushing of adversaries, the oppression of dissent, the abuse of virtually unlimited political power... those things did not take place is some forgotten century, or in another space-time continuum. I haven’t forgotten – or, to be more precise, I cannot forget – that the Malta of my childhood was overshadowed by fear: the fear of Mintoff, which – though probably unfelt by roughly half the country at the time – was very, very real to the people who had cause to fear him.

But like I said earlier: this is how I remember Dom Mintoff, and I don’t expect others to agree or care. Even then, it still remains only one facet of a many-faceted personality. Mintoff also had a sense of humour – which counts for a lot, in my book – and quite frankly bucketfuls more charisma than all his successors put together. His vision for Malta may have been questionable; and his methods often unacceptable (at least, by today’s standards. We all accepted them at the time, for the simple reason that we had no choice...) but I can still appreciate the logic of what he was trying to achieve.

Perhaps the single most compelling reason to revise one’s historical assessment of the Mintoff years, however, is the hindsight of the 30 or so years that followed. I hate to say it, but the contemporary political climate is – at certain levels – uncomfortably reminiscent of the same era. Only today, the source of this totally unnecessary hate-mongering is less clear-cut to me than it appeared back then. I see complete, no-holds barred hostility on either side of the political frontier; but how much of it is a genuine expression of political frustration... and how much just a deep-seated ‘hatred of the political other’?

In the 1980s – when anyone who stood up to the government was almost literally mown down before your eyes – it was easy to justify political enmity in the name of ‘justice and liberty’. Or so it seemed, anyway. Watching history repeat itself, however... you start to wonder. By the same token... how much of my own mental image of Dom Mintoff – as an irascible, hamfisted authoritarian who brooked no dissent whatsoever – arose from his own character as a human being... and how much of it was a persona he was forced to cultivate by a national culture of sabotage and political guerrilla warfare?

I’ll admit it’s not a question I can answer myself. But watching today’s political milieu in action, you do get the impression that people may also be pushed into adopting extreme positions; that even a mild-mannered and timid politician – let alone Mintoff, who was most emphatically neither of those things – could be baited into becoming the very monster he is portrayed as by his adversaries.

But let’s go back to that monument, and see how much it reflects of the Mintoff we all individually remember. I won’t be crass and say ‘none at all’: that statue certainly does capture something of the man’s sheer bulk as a political heavyweight. Its outrageous proportions (for an effigy of such a tiny man) do indeed accurately reflect the enormity of Mintoff’s influence on this country. And as I’ve already indicated: the posture is accurate... Mintoff really did lean back and thrust his paunch out when speaking in public. (I always suspected that he did this to make himself appear taller to people standing immediately below the podium. Again, it tells us something about his personality...).

But in terms of depicting a historical figure who – for better or worse – divided public opinion irreparably, and who left such an impossibly convoluted political legacy behind him... sorry, but I don’t see any of that conveyed by that statue.

What I do see, though, is a historical reinvention of Mintoff to add to all the others... akin to that astonishing moment when his casket was carried shoulder high into the Cathedral, to chants of ‘Mintoff! Mintoff!’ (See? I told you I’ll get back to that detail...). It is a monument to how roughly half the country would like posterity to remember Dom Mintoff.... even if they themselves know, in their heart of hearts, that he wasn’t like that at all.

All that remains, naturally, is for the other half to commission a competing monument, representing its own distortion of past reality: and hey presto! We’d be landed with another example of historical revisionism, this time complete with horns, pitchfork and a pointy tail.

I mean, honestly. How long before we all realise that both reinventions are equally illusory... and that maybe – if we really do ever want to get to the bottom of this meaningless political divide of ours – we should finally start discussing Dom Mintoff in terms of who he really was, instead of what adulation and hatred inevitably turned him into?

Another lifetime, I would guess... probably as long and eventful as his own.   

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