Heroes just for one day

Moviment Graffitti has a long and distinguished tradition of always making itself a pain in every government’s arse... regardless which of two largely indistinguishable political parties happen to be in power at any given moment

when the ship called ‘popular narrative’ could be seen smashing headlong into an iceberg called ‘reality’, it was when the police broke up a protest organised by Moviment Graffiti at the Planning Authority offices last Thursday.

I’m assuming you’ve all watched the video, so I won’t bother describing the event itself (other than to say it bore a conspicuous resemblance to around three or four similar scenarios – also involving the same NGO – that unfolded over the past couple of decades). No, what makes this umpteenth repetition of the same spectacle so significant is that it placed its finger squarely on pretty much everything that makes Malta the uniquely bipolar place it is.

Let’s consider a few of the more typical reactions. At surface level, they can be neatly divided into (surprise, surprise) two diametrically opposed perspectives: those who applauded the activists and showed solidarity with what they describe – quite accurately – as a violent clampdown on freedom of speech; and those who took mortal offence at the very idea that people might actually protest against the current glorious administration (slap-bang in the middle of this Golden Age of ‘L-Aqwa Zmien’, too).

Inevitably, the latter perspective takes the form of that predictable (and entirely hackneyed) question: ‘Fejn kontu?’ (Where were you?) Where were all these environmentalists/trouble-makers, these people ask, when the environment was being just as brutally raped over 25 years of Nationalist governments?

Well, the short answer is: ‘They were protesting.’ Maybe it’s because I’ve worked in newspapers for most of those 25 years, but unlike nearly everyone commenting on this latest incident, I happen to remember all those previous protests. They weren’t just about the rape of the environment, either. Graffiti also protested against ‘warships in the harbour’ in 2009 (and around a dozen times before that)... only to be physically manhandled and dragged away by the same police force, in exactly the same way as last Thursday. They also protested against censorship under Lawrence Gonzi; and in both cases, the same Labour media that now alludes to them as ‘trouble-makers’ had vociferously supported and encouraged them in their efforts.

Moviment Graffitti has a long and distinguished tradition of always making itself a pain in every government’s arse... regardless which of two largely indistinguishable political parties happen to be in power at any given moment

Just a few months ago, the same Moviment Graffiti led a public cavalcade to ‘reclaim Manoel Island’: even going as far as to physically tear down the barricades to take symbolic ‘possession’ of the place  – a far more radical approach than they used last Thursday, even if the police response in the former case was... um... non-existent. No prizes for guessing why, either: back then, Graffiti enjoyed the support of Gzira’s Labour mayor; and in any case, the decision to gift Manoel Island to speculative developers had originally been taken by a Nationalist administration, not a Labour one. So Graffiti’s actions at the time were not, as they are today, a case of ‘childish attention-seeking’. Even if the two protests were ultimately motivated by the exact same concern.

This much, at least, should be clear to any level-headed observer. Technically it makes little difference whether public land is lost forever to build new petrol stations, or to build new ‘state-of-the-art’ residential enclaves. It’s still loss of public land. And unlike both its newfound supporters and detractors, Moviment Graffiti has been nothing if not spectacularly consistent on this one issue. It has a long and distinguished tradition of always making itself a pain in every government’s arse... regardless which of two largely indistinguishable political parties happen to be in power at any given moment.

This makes Graffiti something of a rarity, in an NGO landscape that is otherwise dominated by thinly-disguised vehicles for partisan propaganda. And there are at least two reasons for its remarkable consistency, both of which are vitally important to understand exactly why we’re in the state we are in.

The first is that Moviment Graffiti actually possesses a political ethos of its own. You can agree or disagree with what they stand for all you like; but the one thing you can’t realistically accuse Graffiti of is clambering onto other people’s political bandwagons. They have their own bandwagon; and it is actually the two political parties themselves that climb onto it from time to time (only when it suits their own purposes, naturally. When it doesn’t, they will try and torpedo that bandwagon, as Labour is doing right now.)

Unlike Moviment Graffiti, which has a clear political identity of its own, the average Maltese political supporter has no such political centre of gravity, and neither knows nor cares what the two parties even represent

But it is the second reason that should really concern us all. If Moviment Graffiti applies the same yardstick to both parties, it is only because the two parties are equally guilty of exactly the same offences, time after time after time. Among other things, this forces us to question the other side of the public reaction to Thursday’s protest: all those wavering, inconsistent political stooges who now openly identify with those activists... turning them into what David Bowie once described as ‘heroes just for one day’... when they themselves had heaped scorn on those same activists, for daring to protest under successive, ‘benevolent’ Nationalist administrations.

What does that reveal about their own motivations? Do these people support Moviment Graffiti because they share a basic concern with rampant overdevelopment? Hardly. If that were the case, they’d have consistently supported the same NGO every time they protested over that one issue... and not just today, when it might create a little useful ill-feeling towards the present administration. And this, ultimately, is what makes Thursday’s protest so revealing.

It illustrates multiple reasons why the Nationalist and Labour Parties have so successfully morphed into such perfect replicas of each other, to the overwhelming detriment of Maltese democracy as a whole.

Part of the reason has been visible to all and sundry for decades: for all their claims to be radically different in politics and outlook, both parties remain to this day entirely dependent on exactly the same industrial and commercial powerhouses for their own survival. When commercial interests collide with environmental issues – as they inevitably will – both parties will always capitulate to business interests, at an ever-increasing (and non-refundable) environmental cost.

But you all knew this already. Meanwhile, there is a second, less obvious reason for the total and utter convergence between Labour and PN on practically all issues.

Unlike Moviment Graffiti, which has a clear political identity of its own, the average Maltese political supporter has no such political centre of gravity, and neither knows nor cares what the two parties even represent. The only thing that has ever mattered to these people is that ‘their side’ wins; even if it results in exactly the same issues that they all pretend to care about when the shoe is on the other foot.

And that is a dangerous thing, because politics, by definition, operates on the principle of demand and supply. If a Nationalist or Labour voter is only ever interested in electing a Nationalist or Labour government... and even then, only ever for its own sake... what impetus does either party have to even bother with such things as ‘policies’ and ‘political principles’?

Forget it. Waste of time. Much easier to just concentrate on bashing your political opponents, even while proposing the same way of doing politics yourself. That’s what voters want; and being such an easy thing to deliver, that is the only thing they’ve ever been given, and will ever get in future.

For starters, that explains why nothing ever changes on the policy front. Most of the people commenting about Thursday’s protest – from both perspectives, please note – seem to be unaware of what the protest was even about. Some evidently thought that it was an attempt to influence the decision to be taken at the PA board meeting itself: giving rise to the argument that it was ‘useless’ (or ‘a success’, depending on your point of view), because the PA went on to reject the applications for new petrol stations anyway.

But that was not the reason for the protest. Moviment Graffiti’s entire point was that the vote should not have been taken at all, because a new petrol station policy should already be in place by now – making all those applications illegal – but isn’t, because the PA has chosen to drag its feet on implementation.

This changes the entire landscape: the real issue at stake is the institution’s reluctance to enforce a policy which would limit the number of new petrol stations to begin with. And as long as that policy remains unenforced, new applications will simply keep rolling in, with no end in sight.

Nor is this the only thing that will remain unchanged. On a separate level, Thursday’s event also illustrates why both parties seem stuck in the same rut: incapable of ever attracting any new people with anything interesting to say, because the parties themselves are clearly not interested in ever representing anything but their own, self-absorbed concerns.

So no matter how many new faces they slap up on their campaign billboards, the message is always identical. It’s never a case of, ‘Vote for us, because we have a vision that is worth believing’; but always, ‘Vote for us, because we’re not them’. Even if... um... ‘we are them’, and ‘they are us’, as routinely evidenced by the depressing consistency of both parties’ actions.

This also leaves us all with a permanently unresolved dilemma. Clearly, the political system – in and of itself – is incapable of ever delivering anything different. It doesn’t want to; and its supporters don’t want it to either.

What choice does this leave for those among us who do care about environmental issues – or indeed any other non-partisan issue, of any kind at all? Not much, as far as I can see. You either resign yourself to the status quo; or try and do something about it, and get dragged off kicking and screaming into oblivion.

The one option that is no longer realistically available, however, is to carry on pretending you care... while simultaneously upholding the same political system that perpetuates the rot you supposedly care about. That much, at least, should by now be visible to absolutely everybody.

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