Spectacles, pleasure and tribalism | Immanuel Mifsud

It’s not every day that author Immanuel Mifsud is asked to share his thoughts about the Malta that he portrays in his exceptional fictional and semi-fictional works.

Immanuel Mifsud
Immanuel Mifsud

If you've had the privilege of reading Immanuel Mifsud, you are privy to his intimate readings of life during the political violence and turmoil of the eighties as he witnessed Malta's political development over the years through his unique, profound insight into the lives of the characters he has created. So it seems fitting that we ask this celebrated author what he thinks of this latest chapter, where yesterday Malta voted in what many perceive to be a sort of epochal clash between the island's two main parties.

Starting with the PN's campaign, Mifsud says that it was characterised by one flop after the other.

"The PN campaign was very negative, especially at the start of the campaign. I am not a PN insider but I suspect that the PN realised the tactic was not working and tried to change tack at the very end of the campaign, but by then it was too late."

He imagines that had he been in charge of the Nationalist campaign he would have been more positive than Labour. "To their credit, they claimed to have achieved many things for the country but instead of reminding the people of these achievements, they chose to scare the people by telling them that all could be lost.

"Fear might have worked with people my age or slightly older persons who lived throughout the 1980s. However, Labour admitted their own mistakes in the eighties, and Labour leader Joseph Muscat himself, irrelevant whether he was genuine or not, praised former PN leader Eddie Fenech Adami's tenure, meaning that Labour had burst the PN's bubble."

He then underlines that younger generations who did not experience the violence, corruption and turmoil of the eighties, are completely dethatched from such talk.

"I experienced it myself when I was growing up, when people would talk to me about the 1961 Church Interdiction. I had read about it and formed an opinion but I could never emotionally identify with what happened during the Interdiction because I did not live it," Mifsud explains.

"Such scaremongering does not work with the younger generations," Mifsud says, drawing a parallel with former Soviet countries where young people could not relate to the past because there was no direct involvement.

"Ironically, people forget what they have and what they do not have. If some people have a number of luxuries, which they rightly believe are theirs by right, they forget whether this right was given to them by 'Cikku' or 'Peppu'... it is a right which they have and now take for granted."

Even the PN's attempt to compare Malta's economic success to other countries which faced catastrophic economic woes, was not enough to heighten the PN's positive track record. "When you have a country which is only interested in itself, like all other countries are after all, it is useless telling people that there is unemployment in Greece or students protesting in Spain while students in Malta run around with their iPads. They will not identify with this. Scaremongering tactics failed."

The novelist, who also happens to be a lecturer at the Junior College, says that he was very disappointed by what happened during the leaders' debate at Mcast, where scores of students turned the college into a partisan battleground, and exposed the inherent tribalism of the debate.

"I was very annoyed, not because they booed Lawrence Gonzi, but because in a post-secondary institution, I expect a discussion and interventions of a certain level. I was not only annoyed by the booing but also by the reverence reserved for Gonzi and Muscat before and after the debate. Too much idolatry of politicians. The younger generations do not question politicians, they do not scrutinise whether what politicians are saying makes sense, or whether they are saying the truth. If you are a PN supporter you will clap and boo according to who is speaking, and the same applies to Labourites come what may. This annoyed me greatly, because it reminded me of the past which I hoped would perish."

Mifsud confesses that he was also greatly irritated by the Labour and PN leaders' visits at the Junior College and the Higher Secondary. Pointing out that the vast majority of students at these institutions are not of legal age and have no right to vote, Mifsud says that the big parties did not visit the students to fish for votes but to stage a for a show of force. "The visits were nothing but a propaganda exercise. Educational institutions were used by the parties for their own ends."

The novelist and poet also expresses his bother at the use of children during the campaign and blames the lack of critical thought on the exposure of children to partisan politics from a tender age.

"Seeing children at mass meetings wrapped in flags, scarves, body paint and what have you annoys me. This is something which deeply concerns me. Three-year-olds taken to mass meetings, witnessing the euphoria of adults... it's hard for people to be critical if you are being fed such a culture from such a tender age."

He adds that the allure of mass activities all rests in what seems to be a culture of shouting and pleasure.

"This comes from the herd instinct and pleasure, with partying happening before and after the leaders' addresses. This is no coincidence, it's a well thought strategy by organisers who know all too well what attracts persons and what drums up enthusiasm. This is not far off from what happens at village feast band marches, the element of pleasure, and it could be the sign of a bored generation seeking pleasure irrespective of its nature."

Political parties are on an equal footing with religion, Mifsud tells me when asked why Maltese people feel so attached to parties.

"Parties are a religion. In the same way football teams could turn into a religion, here we are talking about mass activities, where you feel part of a crowd. Yet, this is not enough: it has to be a mass event peppered with spectacle, massive stages, big screens, light systems, perfect organisation, symbols such as logos, flags, jackets, Facebook banners and the rest. Politics has become a spectacle and spectacles reduce the critical and intellectual elements expected in the political process."

Change has been one of the words which was used and abused in the electoral campaign, but Mifsud suspects that the biggest changes pledged are those which will affect people personally. "There is nothing new in the discourse on a change in political and cultural terms. If a party wants to replace another it has to talk of change, it's only logical. If I am your adversary and I promise same thing as you are, then I am not an adversary at all."

Pointing out that the PN had used similar arguments of change when Labour held power for 16 years pre-1987, Mifsud notes that while he is no great believer of change triggered by a natural process, "if people are aware that things could change, change does happen."

But will it be a cosmetic change? "Fundamental and radical changes happened in the past, if there was one big change it was the eradication of violence, which was synonymous with Labour, although at times unjustly. It was a process started by Alfred Sant and continued by Joseph Muscat. I have absolutely no fear that violence will return, because the country maturated and we have developed since 1987. It would be an error to think that we have not changed."

However, other things did not change, Mifsud says, with tribalism at the top of the list, followed by nepotism. "This country cannot claim that all that was wrong in the past has been removed."

One of Mifsud's main concerns remains the state of broadcasting. "I am very sceptical on the way pluralism was introduced. If by pluralism we meant that the PN and Labour would have their own stations, that's not pluralism, but it was another way of strengthening tribalism. I still hope the parties wake up one morning and close their stations. If there is one change I would like to see, among many others, it is this. I would like to see the people become free to think.

"If I am part of a political party I would want the people to vote for me because they believe in me, not because of subliminal and less subliminal messages I feed them to shape their mind. That is a big difference between us and other countries, apart from Italy which is an exception and should not be used as a model. But if we get to a point where parties renounce their stations, we would be facilitating the faculty for people to think freely."

Mifsud says such a change will have to come from above, because the only other alternative, national broadcasting, is not impartial. "If you switch off NET and One, all you are left with is PBS and other stations which are nothing but jukeboxes. PBS needs a complete overhaul, not only in regards to partiality."

Asked why intellectuals do not participate in the public debate concerning political parties and singular issues, Mifsud admits that he personally suffered the brunt of bipartisanship, with one side using what he could say for their own ends. He recounts that after being invited to appear on a programme on NET television on the murder of PN activist Raymond Caruana in 1986, his comments were "butchered and edited in a way which made me sound like I was backing the PN. I will never set foot in there again. I could have made this public and made a protest about it but I feared the dualist system, that if I protest, the other side would capitalise on it."

However he says that a phenomenon which came afloat this year was the relatively large number of artists who took a political stand, namely Labour's courting of these personages. "I must admit I am no fan of the confessionalism in which this took place, but it was their choice, they wanted to do it and did it."

He adds that the intellectual class which takes a stand while remaining critical, even if romanticised, are conditioned by this fear of being taken used by one side or another. Which takes us to the issue of bipartisanship.

"If there is a big change, which I hope for, although I must admit my bias, then it must be a much needed change in our political system. If there was to be a third, forth or fifth presence in Parliament, I believe that the way we look at politics would be calmer and more poised. I do not think it is a coincidence that all other countries with the sole exception of Malta have more than two parties in Parliament."

While noting that most other European countries are older democracies he adds that others, even former Soviet countries, have multiparty systems.

"I think this change would help the country rather then hinder its progress because the fear of being used by on side or the other would end. Take Alternattiva Demokratika, as soon as it speaks up on an issue. It sometimes feels obliged to criticise the other side, because rightly so, as soon as Michael Briguglio criticises Joseph Muscat, he would be accused of being a PN satellite and vice-versa. AD still speaks its mind but others do not want to be used because I am certain that one side would capitalise on your stand, not because it wishes me well or respects my opinion but because they wants to castigate its opponent."

When will this change happen, I ask? "I have been asking this question for a very long time. At one point I thought this was ingrained in us, where you have two band clubs in the village and two football teams but on the other hand, although this thought crosses my mind, it annoys me because if I take that attitude then I might as well give up, do nothing and accept that we are a tribe and it will stay as it is."

He adds that Labour's 'I'm in' slogan symbolises the pop culture, which churns catchy phrases which do not inspire people to think. "It's catchy and it does not make you think, just two short words and your done and dusted, you're in."

Pointing out that Labour's idea of widening the middle class does not exactly fit in the academic meaning of the term, the party's transformation, including its imagery, has completely banished the working class.

"Look at the people sitting behind Muscat in PL activities, they're all made up, dressed well... the working class culture has disappeared."

Is this the result of the post-ideological world we live in? Mifsud says that the concept is an ideology in itself.

"The parties are so close to each other nowadays. Labour verbally approved the PN budget. It is one of the biggest ironies of the recent past: Labour voted against the budget for political reasons not ideological. Ideologically the two main parties are on the same level."

While being aware that the working class can no longer be symbolised by men in boiler suits, Mifsud admits that it would be an anomaly if Labour presents the working classes with such imagery, and wonders what has happened of the working class. "It would make a very interesting study. It is a grave mistake to think that the class does not exist, since the class is no longer promoted in jargon and does not appear on the political agenda as it once did. That is certainly not the case."

Mifsud mulls over the message in Labour's 'Courage to Vote' advert, which seems to witness Labour's transformation. "It merits a study. I was born and bred in Paola in a working class environment. I wonder what the people I knew back then, supporting infamous Labour ministers in the seventies and eighties, think of Labour's transformation, without going into the merit of whether it was for the better or worse."