Sunday, May 3, 2020

Why I love Malta but not its flag

The display of Maltese flags on homes, particularly in the poorer and less affluent neighborhoods, during Covid 19 times leaves me cold. Not just because this display of patriotism was contaminated by xenophobia and anti immigrant sentiment stemming from Robert Abela's attempt to project himself as a strongman during a medical emergency, but also because it reminds of the emptiness of this signifier.
Sure enough I feel human more than Maltese or European, but I love Malta, its landscapes, the way the sun illuminates the contours of its rocks, the noise and clutter of its people, the beauty of the Maltese language, the townscapes and the mixture of Mediterranean and other influences. My love for Malta has little to do with it being a nation state, something which was mostly a historical coincidence and far from some manifest destiny. But am proud of some aspects of our history. For example I am proud of our heroic role in resisting fascism in the second world war. I am also proud of the national awakening after the second world war, which saw women and workers winning the right to vote and the election of a Labour government. I am also proud of our robust national health service whose effectiveness spared Malta from the worst ravages of Covid experienced by richer countries. I am also proud of my country's late transformation from a laggard in LGBTIQ issues to a global trailblazer.
So I do not belong to that segment of the population which denigrates Malta, its language and its working classes.
For identity is Malta is intimately connected to class and segregation in education. The segregation of Maltese elites in private schools curtails the evolution of vibrant national culture. Even the media landscape is one where Maltese newspapers are mostly partisan, while the independent media is associated with English.
But surely I can't be proud of many other aspects of manufactured Maltese identity. Sure I can't stand Maltese exceptionalism, so evident in the rhetoric of the anti abortion brigade, who celebrate Malta's uniqueness where motherhood is not a choice but an imposition. I can't stand the eight pointed cross cherished by the far right as a substitute for the swastika. Neither do I stand the way nationalism has replaced class consciousness especially among Labour party supporters. In this new dominant ideology workers are not expected to struggle for their rights but are expected to fulfill their duties to state and party, both of which subservient to capitalism.
Neither am impressed by those who identify themselves as Europeans in order to deny their Maltese roots. In many cases their attitudes are reminiscent of the Maltese elite's identification first with Italianita than with British imperialism, in a bid to be treated as equals by colonial masters. And while I am a firm believer in European integration, the idea of a fortress Europe worries me as much as right wing nationalism.
In many ways the idea of Maltese identity frustrates me because it lacks the confidence and vitality to evolve, absorb and change. I love the rhythm of Maltese ghana but it lacks political and social relevance and failed to blend with other genres like hip hop, punk or reggae. Even our flea markets are lacking in character. We even managed to turn a food market in to a food court serviced by a few local chains. I love the language but there is a general reluctance to coin new words and popularise their use. We are even reluctant to name our children in Maltese. Our TV no longer features high quality drama as was the case in the 1970s and 1980s. Our lack of confidence in our culture probably is one factor contributing to our fear of the others. We are not sufficiently rooted in our culture to believe in our ability to absorb from others while also transmitting aspects of our culture to them.
So while rejecting nationalism as an ideology, I do see a great need for a celebration of Maltese and Mediterranean identities. My starting point is not the nation state but the regional influences which shaped our cultures for the past hundreds of years. Unlike nationalism regionalism can be progressive and inclusive. It offers food, music, beauty, poetry and feasts to all those willing to engage and participate. Rather than erecting fences, regionalism seeks to seduce by appealing to the senses. Unfortunately the drab Maltese flag hanging from balconies lacks sensuality. It is just a symbol representing the state and not the history and lives of its peoples. Ironically the only positive reinforcement in our flag is evoked by the George Cross, granted by the British King to acknowledge our bravery in fighting Nazi Fascism. But still we do not have our own equivalent of Bella Ciao to celebrate that heroic and popular struggle.

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