The Mintoff metamorphosis

“The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.”

Genius though he undeniably was, William Shakespeare was nonetheless not always entirely correct. The above line, lifted from Marc Antony's speech at Caesar's funeral, is a classic case in point... even if (to be fair to the Bard) it was deliberately placed in the context of an essentially political funerary oration, and cannot therefore be taken at face value.

Still, in all but the rarest of exceptions, the process tends to work in reverse. It is by far more common for the 'evil that men do, to be instantly forgotten upon their passing.

What good they may have done, on the other hand, will not only survive their death, but will often be amplified and misrepresented beyond all reasonable proportion.

This is particularly true of Dom Mintoff: an enigmatic figure at the best of times, who has in death been reinvented almost to the point of apotheosis.

Epithets such as 'Salvatur ta' Malta' and 'Missier Malta Repubblika' - which had very specific nuances when they were first coined in the 1970s - have now been resuscitated and imbued with a whole new dimension of meaning... as though Mintoff, at the height of his power, somehow emblemized the nation as a whole.

And yet, we all know that this was not and could not have been true. In life, Mintoff may have been viewed as a 'saviour' or a 'father figure' by roughly half the country; but that same country is of its very nature fractured and inherently divided... and if history is ever honest in its reappraisal of Mintoff, it shall have to concede that he retired from politics in 1998 to leave a country as inveterately polarised (if not more) as it was when he first became Prime Minister in 1955.

Naturally, this has not stopped thousands of his admirers from conveniently overlooking all aspects to Mintoff's character that may otherwise detract from their heavily diluted post-mortem reinvention of who he really was. And at moments, this 'transfiguration' (Biblical connotations intended) also illustrates an inescapable paradox.

Mintoff, a man formerly interdicted by the Church and literally demonised by half the population, has now been elevated almost to the status of a Catholic saint, of all things.

Even the fact that he was given a full Church funeral, officiated by none other than the Archbishop himself, represents a curious reversal of roles. Bearing in mind how many of his own close supporters were once buried in unconsecrated ground, it seems incongruous that the man at the centre of those distant battles should now be claimed so utterly by the same Church against which he once waged all-out war.

Nor is this metamorphosis limited only to the Church. Even Mintoff's former political adversaries appear to have come together in an external show of respect and admiration for the man they once (not so long ago) demonised and abjured.

This includes not only direct antagonists such as former PN leader Eddie Fenech Adami; but also some among his own political grouping - for instance, those Labour supporters who gathered in Bormla in 1998 to call Mintoff a 'traitor'.

It may appear odd that all such people should now join forces for an overwhelming display of national mourning at the same man's passing. And yet the apparent volte-face is not in itself surprising: Dom Mintoff is hardly the first statesman to have been reinvented immediately after his death... and he will certainly not be the last, either.

There are very good reasons for such historical reconstructive surgery - and invariably, these reasons will have little to do with the historical accuracy of the image they struggle to project.

In Mintoff's case, there are very clear and unambiguous reasons why the Labour Party would like us all to forget its recent internecine clashes with its own erstwhile 'salvatur'. With an election that cannot now be more than a few months away, the image of a party unified through the death of its 'founding father' (a description that is more symbolic than historically accurate) pays immediate dividends that can be appreciated even at a glance.

Likewise, the political party that disrespects the dead - even those among the dead who were veritable thorns in its own side while they were alive - risks paying an exorbitant political price for what will almost certainly be perceived as the height of bad political form.

But on a deeper level, there is another factor to take into account. Mintoff's reinvention is also motivated by a uniquely Maltese trait: the need to believe (however superficially) that our national political divide is ultimately only skin deep... that lurking beneath an external veneer of political aggression and hostility, there is an ultimately peaceful and amicable country which agrees on all the important issues.

Like all such images, however, it is nothing but an illusion. Once Mintoff is duly buried, and his funerary rites follow him into the past, this show of unity and camaraderie will likewise dissipate and be forgotten.

Worst of all, with him will also be buried a unique opportunity to finally reassess the nature of this artificial divide that so often keeps our country from moving forward.

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