‘Tis the season to be abnormal…

Over the years, we have all simply accepted a whole variety of political realities that would be considered bizarre – if not downright unacceptable – in any other European context

I may have mentioned before that I am not usually the type to ‘get into the Christmas spirit’… and not just this year, when festivity and merriment seem so out of keeping with the national mood.

But there is a limit to how much of a boring old sod one can be at Christmastime. So I thought I’d make a little extra special effort for a change.

Last night, I watched three different cinematic versions of Charles Dickens’ ‘A Christmas Carol’ on the trot: the 1951 version starring Alastair Sim as Scrooge; ‘A Muppet Christmas Carol’, featuring Michael Caine, Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy et al; and ‘Scrooged’, the 1988 vehicle starring Bill Murray.

In different ways, all three versions were selective in the details they chose to include from the original story. But all three featured a small incident that occurs right at the very beginning: before the ghost of Jacob Marley even appears on the doorknob.

On Christmas Eve, Scrooge is visited at his counting house by two gentlemen collecting money for charity, who argue that: “At this festive season of the year […] it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the Poor and Destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time.  Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts, sir.”

You won’t need me to tell you Scrooge’s reaction; other than to say that… well, he does have a very valid point in flatly refusing to donate to charity, up to a point.

To be blunt: there is no reason under the sun why people should be more compassionate or altruistic at Christmastime than at any other time of the year. Those ‘hundreds of thousands’ would have been just as ‘in want of common comforts’ on all the other 364 days: not just on 25 December, and the week that comes before and after.

There is, in fact, more than a hint of hypocrisy in the demands of those two gentlemen. And though Scrooge doesn’t say it in so many words (he is miserly with speech as with money), the impulse to be more generous at Christmastime can also be interpreted as the pangs of a guilty conscience, for having disregarded the plight of the less fortunate at all other times.

Scrooge, on the other hand, exhibits no such hypocrisy. He may be “a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner”… but at least, he remains that way all year round.

I call that ‘honesty’ and ‘consistency’, myself. (Note: there is even room to argue that, had the charitable been as consistent as Scrooge, those ‘hundreds of thousands’ would not be in want of anything at all... but let’s not get too carried away).

From this perspective, Christmastime does take on a slightly different sheen. Its insistence on ‘festivity and good cheer’ is plainly artificial; and though the outcome is undeniably for the best, its sudden rediscovery of a ‘national social conscience’ is in itself… abnormal.

Which brings us to perversity of celebrating Christmas at manifest abnormal times. This week, for instance, the Nationalist Party cancelled its participation in a special Christmas episode of TVM’s ‘Hadd Ghalik’, which would have pitted exponents from the two parties against an assortment of ‘panto dames’.

According to the Labour Party’s Rosianne Cutajar – one of the scheduled participants (and no, not as a dame) – “the point of this programme was to entertain people and send out a strong message in favour of national unity.”  

On its part, the PN argued that: “Under normal circumstances over the years, PN MPs have always contributed to such programmes but one must understand that these are not normal times and the transmission of this programme was therefore unacceptable from our end.”

Now: much as I resented calls to boycott this year’s L-Istrina – for much the same reason as those two gentlemen were shocked by Scrooge’s reply – there is nonetheless something deeply hypocritical about putting on a false display of ‘national unity’… at a time when both parties are at each other’s throats like never before.

Unlike Ebenezer Scrooge, however, neither party has displayed any consistency on this point over the years. Right now, Labour has a vested interest in maintaining an external veneer of festive spirit: any party in government would; just as any party in opposition would prefer a dismal, soulless Christmas to add to the many things it can blame the present government for.

But Labour cannot expect generations of induced tribal hatred to simply be forgotten at the click of a television remote control… just by putting on a few party hats, and participating in some televised ‘fun and games’ here and there (and even then, only for the duration of the festive season. Come January 2, it will be back to no-holds barred antagonism in a flash, and we all know it).

Likewise, the PN is right to point out that ‘these are not normal times’. But then again… when have times ever been ‘normal’, in this politics-potty country of ours? Has there ever been a point, in living memory, when the PN’s participation in such an obvious farce would not have belied the equally-induced tribal hatred it has manifested towards all things Labour for decades?

Just like the drive towards charity at Christmastime, programmes like these are both contrived and misplaced. If politicians really did intend to strive for national unity… there is no reason under the sun why they shouldn’t do it all other times of the year, too. (Note: at the risk of over-labouring the point: if they were as consistent about this as Scrooge was with his avarice, we wouldn’t need Hadd Ghalik’s Christmas capers in the first place).

But there are other indications that Malta is an abnormal country in all seasons, not just at Christmastime. Last Friday, a certain Dr Mario Thomas Vassallo (no relation, at least that I am aware) addressed the PN’s extraordinary general conference… where he spelt out a whole list of abnormalities within our political system: some of them dating back decades.

I won’t get bogged down with the details of ‘who introduced what’, or ‘which party is more to blame for the current state of affairs’; but the fact remains that, over the years, we have all simply accepted a whole variety of political realities that would be considered bizarre – if not downright unacceptable – in any other European context.

Like ‘persons of trust’, for instance. It might be considered ‘normal’ for governments to occasionally appoint trusted people to occupy certain strategic positions… but the extent to which the idea was first implemented under Lawrence Gonzi between 2008 and 2013; and even more so, the outrageous extents to which it was taken under Joseph Muscat ever since, have cemented a system that is as far from normal as it is possible to be.

Politically-owned media was another example cited by Dr Vassallo. Or an electoral system which limits coalition to pre-declared political alliances: precluding any form of coalition-forming after an election has been held, as happened pretty much everywhere else in the democratic world…

These and other anomalies did not exactly need Christmas – or even the present political crisis – to become visible to us all. We have lived and breathed them every single day, of every single year, for as long as most of us can remember.

Yet it is only now – and only because of the present crisis – that they are even viewed as ‘abnormal’; and even then, only for long enough to get a fleeting mention at a political conference.

So tell you what: let’s try the approach that seemed to have worked so well for Ebenezer Scrooge, shall we?

It would start with a visit by the ‘Spirit of Abnormalities Past’: who would painstakingly guide us through all the various points upon which our political system has parted company with ‘normality’ over the years.

Next would come the ‘Spirit of Abnormalities Present’: who would remind us of the many ways we have failed to ever address those issues of the past, leaving us in the situation we are in today.

And it would have to end with the (truly terrifying) ‘Spirit of Abnormalities Yet to Come’… which would point its skeletal fingers in the direction of a single tombstone in a misty churchyard, emblazoned with the words: ‘Here Lies Malta; would have been a great place to live in, if it weren’t for all the political abnormalities that poisoned its spirit, and ultimately condemned it to a violent, untimely death…’

Ah, but will our story end with the same final twist that makes Dickens’ fable such an immensely satisfying Christmas story, for all ages and all times? Will Malta, like Ebenezer Scrooge, take on the spirits’ message, and cry out at the last: “I am not the man I was! […] I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach. Oh, tell me I may sponge away the writing on this stone..!”

What, you weren’t really expecting me to give away the ending, were you? No, no… you’ll just have to be a good little boy or girl all year round, and wait till next year’s abnormal Christmas television offerings, like everyone else…

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