The drunk hamalla of Girgenti

No matter how garish the behaviour in that video, it still pales to insignificance compared to the sheer malice of people who resort to classism and sexism as political weapons of war

Take a good look at this picture. You probably already know the context, but just in case… this was a ‘meme’ circulated by Nationalist MP Jason Azzopardi, in the wake of the latest ‘shock-horror’ scandal to engulf the Joseph Muscat administration: a leaked clip, showing the Muscats (together with a motley assortment of party supporters, activists and hoodlums), singing, dancing, sipping champagne and generally having a good time at Girgenti Palace earlier this year.

As memes are a recent cultural phenomenon, I imagine they will very soon be given the same academic makeover we already see with cartoons and video games today. Future students of media sciences (and who knows? Maybe psychology, philosophy, anthropology, etc.) will probably plunder Internet archives for precisely this sort of material, trying to come to grips with what they tell us of zeitgeist of the time.

It wouldn’t surprise me at all if someone managed to write an entire doctoral thesis, based just on that one meme alone. To me, it speaks volumes… not just about the present situation; but about Malta’s entire attitude towards politics across three whole generations (if not about Malta as a whole: lock, stock and two smoking barrels.)

Obviously, it is intended to illustrate a general downward spiral in ‘gravitas’ over three subsequent Prime Ministers and ‘First Ladies’ (with an emphasis on the latter). You will notice at a glance that, while the first two pictures are clearly staged – the Eddie and Mary one is probably an official DOI pic, while Lawrence and Kate are seen ‘going to vote’: all smiles, looking at the camera, etc. – the third one is… spontaneous (important word, that. Keep it in mind).

Joseph Muscat lets his hair down in leaked WhatsApp video

We already know that it is a still from a very short video clip: which also means it must have been carefully selected to portray the Muscats at their most… Muppet-like, for want of a better comparison.

Now, look at it again. Why was the video paused at that precise instant, and not a second earlier or later? Who is actually closer to the centre of the frame… Joseph, or his wife Michelle? Which of the two is more unflatteringly portrayed?

No two ways about it: the real target of this meme is Michelle Muscat, not her husband. If you had to isolate Joseph Muscat and remove all background details… there’d be nothing to suggest that he wasn’t just watching a football match (or about to throw a Molotov-cocktail, haven’t decided yet). It is not a very unflattering image at all.

But Michelle? This image was carefully – maliciously, I might add – calibrated to portray her, to the fullest extent possible, as a stereotypical ‘drunk hamalla’ at a ‘xalata’… naturally, with all the Maltese idiomatic inferences that image evokes. Interestingly, the emphasis on Michelle also has the effect of pushing Joseph into the background. So not only is the drunk hamalla embarrassing the nation… but she’s also ‘upstaging her man’.

On top of being ‘cringeworthy’ (at least, to some people) Michelle’s behaviour in that picture is also that of a woman who just ’doesn’t know her place’ in society. A prime minister’s wife should never be seen having some fun, or letting her hair down. Her job is to dutifully tag along with her husband and smile at the cameras at official events… keeping her trap tightly clamped shut… as if the sole purpose of her entire existence is to serve as a permanent cosmetic accessory to her husband’s political career. Like a new tie, or a Rolex…

Now look at the other two pictures, and… well I could almost rest my case right there (but for the fact that I haven’t even started warming up yet). Speaking only for myself, I find this meme to be not only inexcusably classist; but it is quite possibly the single, most blatantly misogynistic image – in a disgusting, almost perverse ‘male fantasy’ sort of way – I have ever seen.

Yet it was gleefully posted by an opposition MP (and self-appointed Catholic martyr), who must have clearly believed that the image would somehow work to his own party’s advantage. And it was dutifully ‘shared’ by all sorts of people (mostly misogynists; at least, the ones I know) quite evidently under the same impression: i.e., thinking that this image would somehow hurt Joseph Muscat’s public standing, while improve the public standing of…

Ah, but now we come to an interesting twist. If the intention is to ‘harm’ the Muscats… who was supposed to ‘benefit’ from this meme, exactly? Surely it can’t be Eddie Fenech Adami or Lawrence Gonzi: whose political careers have long since passed into history. And if the answer is ‘the PN’… well, the same meme – through exclusion – also forces us to realise that days when that party was led by the gentlemanly likes of Eddie and Gonzi are now very emphatically over.

We all know that the alternative to Muscat, right now, is neither of those two… but Adrian Delia. And the ‘generational change’ we are talking about works just as much for him, as it does for Joseph Muscat.

I am unaware of any leaked videos showing Adrian Delia, carried shoulder high, deliriously singing the ‘innu tal-partit’ as his followers get drunk around him on a combination of Cisk Lager and euphoria. (And if there aren’t any… well, it’s probably because Delia has not had very much to be euphoric about in the last 500 days).

But be honest: how many of you would bat an eyelid if it were Adrian Delia, and not Joseph Muscat, filmed leering about like a buffoon in a 17th century stately palace? How many of you can honestly declare that this sort of ‘hamallagni’ – to resort to that awful, but untranslatable word – is solely and uniquely the preserve and Labour… and not just a cultural trait that we all, to some degree, share?

Oh, and for obvious reasons I won’t even bother with the most conspicuous flaw in this meme: except to say that it’s about (real or potential) Prime Ministers… and their spouses. Apply that to Delia, and, well, see where the same meme takes you in the end. ‘Nuff said.

There is lot more I could add – like I said, this is doctoral thesis material – but I’ll mention just one small thing for now. To me, those pictures also tell another, very different story. There can be no doubt that the underlying decline in dignity and gravitas – among politicians, but elsewhere, too – is a reality. It is manifestly true that the Great Statesman of yesteryear were just more…  statesmanly-like than their present-day equivalents, here and everywhere.

But there may be a perfectly good reason for that. Eddie Fenech Adami, for instance, was born into an era where the entire country called for gravitas: the old-fashioned (and let’s face it, also moth-balled and ossified) look of that DOI pic was exactly what the population wanted, at that particular time.

Needless to say, we are no longer living in that particular time. Today’s electorate is far likelier to warm to a politician caught off-guard in the ‘embarrassing’ act of having some fun… than (no offence, or anything) to the fossilized skeleton of an extinct dinosaur, that just fell out of the cupboard.

Spontaneity. Told you that word was important. That, to me, is the overwhelming source of contrast between those three pictures. Looking at them again: which of those three Prime Minister do you think a younger, more fun-loving generation is likelier to identify with today?

A) ‘Could-Be-The-Ghost-Of-My-Great-Great-Grandfather-Who-Fought-in-WWI’?

B) ‘Looks-Like-the-Guy-from-Those-Barilla-Ads-(Wait-Why-Is-His-Wife-Not-Chained-To-The-Kitchen-Sink’?)

Or could it, perchance, be…

C) ‘Hey!-That-Could-Be-Me-And-My Girl/Boyfriend-At-Any-Old-Drunken-Bash’…

Gee, what a difficult choice…

The thing that consistently staggers me in all this, though, is how none of it ever seems visible to the people to whom it should matter the most. Jason Azzopardi, for instance. Did he really think that associating himself with this indefensible attitude – an attitude that has already cost the PN two general elections on the trot, and now looks set to cost it at least one EP seat next May – was a wise political move?

I mean… how on earth could even the ghost of such an idiotic idea remotely find its way into that big, shiny head of his?

Meanwhile, as everyone was busy wincing at the sight of the drunk hamalla of Girgenti… latest polls are in, and – oh my, how could this possibly have happened? – the gap between Joseph Muscat and Adrian Delia has grown wider… and just keeps growing… and growing… and growing…

You need look no further than that meme or a reason. It tells us exactly why: in simple, easy-to-understand pictures, too.

No matter how garish or embarrassing the behaviour in that video – and how embarrassing was it really: given that it was a private, non-official event? – it still pales to insignificance compared to the sheer malice of people who resort to classism and sexism as political weapons of war… and even then, only for what they still think – clueless that they are – is their own ‘political advantage’.

But hey! Don’t let me get in the way of a good old-fashioned game of ‘let’s all laugh at the drunk hamalla’. There are, after all, a couple of classic Maltese idiomatic expressions about laughter, too.