Introducing your town’s new nig... I mean, mayor

Who cares if Marsa really does one day elect an African councillor, or even an African mayor? African or Maltese, they will still face all the same difficulties all previous councils have ever faced, when trying to make a difference to the lives of their constituents

Such a shame that all the best gags have already been thought up and used before. In this case, by Mel Brooks in the 1974 movie ‘Blazing Saddles’
Such a shame that all the best gags have already been thought up and used before. In this case, by Mel Brooks in the 1974 movie ‘Blazing Saddles’

It’s one of the best moments from one of the best comedies ever made, so bear with me while I set the scene. We’re in the small, fictitious desert town of Rockridge, Nevada, in 1874. The townspeople have assembled in the main square to welcome their newly appointed sheriff (in keeping with the time-honoured traditions of the Old West, the previous incumbent was shot dead at high noon). The mayor rehearses his welcome address on the podium; the band is lined up and ready to play; … and a look-out has been posted on a nearby rooftop, scanning the horizon through a brass telescope.

He spots a horseman approaching from afar, and alerts the townsfolk below. The band strikes up a merry tune. The church bells start ringing. People chatter in anticipation.

As the image in the telescope sharpens into focus, the lookout realises to his horror that the new sheriff of Rockridge is… um… let’s just avoid unnecessary complications, and say ‘African-American’.

“Oi!”, he yells out frantically. “The new sheriff is a NI…!”. But the final word is drowned out by pealing bells.

“What did he say?”

“He said: ‘The sheriff is near’”.

“No, gone blame it dang blammit! I said the sheriff is a NI…[DONG-G-G!]!’”

By this time, however, the ‘ni-[DONG!]’ in question has already ridden into town, and is in full view of the astounded townsfolk (all except the mayor, who is still busy rehearsing his speech). The music slowly wheezes to a halt. Jaws drop. Women gasp; men slowly remove their hats (or adjust their spectacles) in bewilderment. Even the church bells fall silent, as America’s first-ever State-appointed, African-American town sheriff canters slowly, deliberately, towards the podium.

Only the mayor remains oblivious to everything; and right on cue, he begins his speech without looking up:

“As chairman of the welcoming committee, it is my privilege to extend a laurel, and hardy handshake to our new…” [looks up for the first time]… “n*****.”

Ah well. Such a shame that all the best gags have already been thought up and used before. In this case, by Mel Brooks in the 1974 movie ‘Blazing Saddles’… though whether it was his own gag, or the brainchild of either Richard Pryor or Gene Wilder (who co-wrote the screenplay) I can’t possibly say.

But still: here we all are, in 2018, talking about ‘giving Africans the right to vote in local council elections’… only to find that the exact same issues (down to the exact same reactions) have already been parodied by a film made almost exactly 50 years ago… and set almost exactly 150 years ago to boot.

Only there’s a small difference between those two scenarios. In Mel Brook’s spoof-western, the character known as Bart (played by Cleavon Little) really does become the first African-American State-appointed public official. Those reactions I described above were not to some vague, half-baked future possibility, naively put forward for discussion by an idealistic Cabinet minister. The townsfolk’s shock and horror was occasioned by a very real event – within the parameters of the film, naturally – that also foreshadows the social and cultural upheaval of the Civil Rights Movement, when the movie was made 100 years later.

This places ‘Blazing Saddles’ a few steps ahead of us in terms of civic rights recognition. Here in Malta, a similar attempt to grant basic civic rights to minorities got ‘shot down’ – in keeping with our own, vaguely ‘Wild West’ traditions – before it even had time to be discussed. This, for instance, is a description of the sort of ‘debate’ that actually accompanied Helena Dalli’s “Voting Rights in Local Elections for Third-Country Nationals (TCNs)” position paper, presented to Cabinet last week:

“The reaction of the other ministers appears to have been particularly vocal and vehement, with one senior minister describing the idea as ‘mad’, while another minister asking if ‘we wanted an African mayor in Marsa.’’

Yep, that’s right. According to at least one Cabinet minister – in a Labour government that is supposedly committed to something called the ‘Migrant Integration Strategy and Action Plan, 2017-2020’ – the big problem with this ‘mad idea’ is that we might end up with a ‘gone blame it, dang blammit NI-[DONG-G-G!]’ as the next mayor of Marsa. And we can’t have that, can we…?

Oh, that reminds me. There is another small difference between these two scenarios: for all their overt racism, the fictitious inhabitants of Rockridge at least have a personal stake in the issue of who gets appointed as town sheriff. It is, after all, their town. But as far as I’m aware, the only people who can make the same claim with regard to Marsa – or any other Maltese town or village, for that matter – are the ones who actually live there.

And… well, it seems that a rather large portion of Marsa residents today just happen to be African (like a rather large portion of Americans were, and still are, black). Which is hardly surprising, seeing as – for almost two decades now – It has been a consistent, official government policy in this country to simply ghettoise immigrants in places like Marsa in the first place… and then complain about them being there.

I guess that makes the entire issue a bit like slavery, too. It was ultimately the slave-trade that was responsible for the displacement of so many Africans in America, all those centuries ago; and it was the advocators of slavery who opposed granting rights to a people who had been brought to that country specifically by their own policies.

Likewise, it is the Maltese government – in the broader, non-partisan sense – whose policies have created a largely African community slap-bang in the middle of Marsa. And having placed them there itself, it is now the same government of Malta that seeks to deny those people the inevitable rights that go (or should go) with their enforced status of ‘Marsa residents’.

And I would say the mentality is about as defensible as slavery, too. Both imply a vicious cycle that makes the demand for rights – either human (slavery) or civic rights (voting in local elections) – inevitable… if not inevitably violent. For obvious reasons, ghettoisation breeds social discontent; which in turn fuels political aspirations for change. So what better way to maximise existing pressures, than to concentrate large numbers of people into shanty-towns… then shut off all the legal/municipal means of escape?

Oddly enough, it was because of these very concerns Labour used to be so fiercely critical of this (hitherto Nationalist) policy before 2013… though I can’t say I’ve seen any actual change in it since then. And human rights NGOs have been warning us all about all the possible ‘long-term social and cultural consequences’ for years.

Well, this is partly what they were trying to alert us to all along. If it is our national policy to create large migrant communities, in isolation from the rest of society – and let’s face it: we all accepted it, and many of us defend it – then we can only expect those people to eventually demand greater recognition and more rights. And with the same policy in place, we can only expect the malcontents to get more politically organised, too. It’s what tends to happen of its own accord anyway, when large numbers of people – united by common concerns – find themselves living in the same place, and sharing the same general social conditions.

And that is also why this dreadful horror we’re supposedly trying to avoid at all costs – i.e., the prospect of a ‘ni-[DONG!]’ as mayor of a Maltese town – may not be such a bad thing after all. For starters, it would mean that a majority voted for precisely that result in a democratic election. In fact, I was under this bizarre illusion that the whole point of having ‘local council elections’ was to allow local communities to choose their own council representatives; and if that’s how the people of Marsa one day choose… I fail to see how it’s anyone else’s business.

… two: for much the same reason, it would also give Marsa a local council that actually represents all its residents, with all their multifarious concerns, instead of only a small, privileged elite. And who knows? Maybe a council that is aware of the day-to-day realities faced by local communities, would be slightly more effective in actually dealing with those issues. (Slightly more, that is, than a council which only represents voters from the less immediately ‘problematic’ parts of the same locality.)

But then again, that’s a consideration that only applies if the big idea behind ‘local government’ really was the improvement of life in individual towns and villages. As we all know that the big idea was just to keep Maltese political tribalism alive and kicking at community level, like it is everywhere else… just pretend I never said a thing.

This brings me to the last consideration, which is that… well, it wouldn’t make much of a difference anyway, would it|? I mean…. who cares if Marsa really does one day elect an African councillor, or even an African mayor? African or Maltese, they will still face all the same difficulties all previous councils have ever faced, when trying to make a difference to the lives of their constituents.  (If you don’t believe me, just ask all the former Marsa mayors how successful they were in preventing the ghettoisation of their town. They all tried, you know…)

And it has nothing to do with colour or creed, either. After all, EU citizens can already vote in local council elections under certain circumstances. Like all tomorrow’s local councillors, of whatever origin or denomination, they too will learn that the position is of a strictly nominal nature. Any truly consequential decisions affecting the social fabric of Marsa – or any other Maltese town and village – will invariably continue to be taken elsewhere…

… and invariably, by the same people whose failed policies gave rise to all this discussion in the first place. So what’s there to get all worked about, folks? Having an ‘ni-[DONG!] as Marsa mayor’ isn’t make the situation any worse than it is today. For that, you need nothing more than good old-fashioned Maltese political parties in the national Parliament. And oh look, we’ve got three of them already…

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