Sunday, November 4, 2012 by Mark Anthony Falzon
I remember reading some years ago an interview with David Bowie in which he talked about his wild days as a young superstar whose experiments and adventures went beyond the musical. Among other things he said he couldn’t remember a single instance when it was only two people in bed.
Bowie’s history in Malta takes us to the 1960s, when he was still an unknown. I’m told he busked and gigged here and he was also wont to hang out at the Valletta home of one of his mates and sample the cooking. He didn’t, unfortunately, take time off to compare pillow notes with our politicians.
Thing is that, unlike Bowie, these last tend to take the term ‘double bed’ literally. They are square and staid and prudish and will simply not make space. I’m talking about the way Alternattiva Demokratika are systematically excluded, marginalised, and rendered very hard to spot at all.
A disclaimer is probably in order. I am not linked to and have never rowed for AD in any position whatsoever. Michael Briguglio happens to be a colleague of mine but I don’t owe him anything. There is no hidden agenda in what follows and being a party hack – no matter how green and alternative – is not, in the parlance of the times, on my personal road map.
AD is currently in the midst of a bit of a tiff with the Broadcasting Authority. Their grievance is that they feel they are being excluded from discussion programmes on PBS. As they put it, this is “unacceptable and results in a parody of what democratic and informative public broadcasting should be all about”.
I don’t think they’re playing the martyr card here. I rather think they’re right, for four reasons. The argument holds whether or not one buys what AD stand for.
First, to deprive the public sphere of different and sensible ways of seeing things is also to impoverish it. I say ‘sensible’ because AD has been just that on a number of things. On same-sex marriage for example, they’ve been the most logically-consistent and open-minded party. I also rather like their uncompromising position on the land-grab otherwise known as ‘boathouses’. It’s clear they’ve been structuring their thoughts and choosing their words carefully. Our deafness is our loss.
The second effect follows. An impoverished and wooden public sphere tends eventually towards the banalisation of politics itself. What that means is that political discourse descends into mindless sparring and point-scoring.
A regular reader wrote to me the other week to complain about the silliness of some of the billboards being put up by the two parties. I rather agree that looking at doctored pictures of the Prime Minister covering his ears and Joseph Muscat his mouth isn’t exactly the pinnacle of intellectual stimulation.
I’m not saying it’s entirely down to the forced invisibility of Alternattiva Demokratika. I am saying that when two parties systematically stifle viewpoints that are different from their own, they tend to relax into a cynical tit for tat.
The third consequence is what one might call the cultivation of dualism. One of the first things the inquisitive visitor to Malta is told is that Maltese politics – and social life in general for that matter – is pathologically dualistic. What follows is usually some elaborate explanation as to why that might be so.
The theories are various. Some hold that what appears to be a nation is actually two tribes that have been at one another’s throats since the dwarf elephants began to thin out, others that dualism is what you get in a small Mediterranean island, still others that the harsh sun-and-shade contrasts of the place induce a certain way of seeing things.
Be that as it may, the point is that dualism tends to be naturalised and/or ascribed to causes that are primordial and hard-wired. It’s rather like swearing that women have it in their nature to spend time in front of the mirror, or that black people tend to have badly-paid jobs because of their lower intelligence.
These explanations are not just bonkers, they also mask the power games by which women are kept fretting about their appearance and black people in underpaid work.
Likewise, there is nothing natural about the current political see-saw. It is not connected to prehistoric temples or the light that bounces off them. Nor has scientific research confirmed that we are what’s left of two powerful factions that once lorded it over Atlantis.
The mundane truth is that political dualism is a creature of history and power. It is produced and kept in place by the two big parties in various ways that include the systematic stifling and marginalisation of a potential third.
The fourth casualty is the media landscape itself, madly enough. My generation was brought up on a rather heartwarming narrative which goes so: Local television and radio were the monolithic pits until the early 1990s, when pluralisation transformed them into the thrilling kaleidoscope they are today.
There is some truth to that, but only some. The plural bit is that we have an endless list of radio and television stations, which is a good thing. But I honestly wonder to what extent that translates into a plurality of ideas.
I’d say the reality is that while we seem to find time for straight-faced debates on such inanities as the evil or otherwise of Halloween, we really couldn’t tweak the clock a little to let a small but sensible party speak its mind. Assuming variety and promiscuity of thought are desirable attributes of a democracy, that reality is bad for us.