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Hope in Wasteland?

I am publishing some e-mails between myself and Oliver Friggieri. I have known Oliver since 1969. This is not to say that we communicated regularly for 43 years. If only I had maintained an on­going conversation with this leading Maltese man of letters who is more than a ‘man of letters’! This is not a vain attempt to salvage lost time. It is only an exchange of signals across what a pessimist would describe as a deafening cultural wasteland, an exchange driven by what has been referred to as the ‘optimism of hope’.

Traditional leaders accustomed to march at the head of their people suddenly discover that their people are marching ahead of them
- Mario Vella

1. Vella to Friggieri

Dear Oliver, 2012 has been decisive for Malta. For many, enough of them to make a difference in terms of who we are and where we are going, it has been a year during which they metabolised the results of the divorce referendum of May 2011. Perhaps 19 months have been insufficient for all those that seek to lead us, to come to terms with the message sent to them by 122,547 men and women. And the referendum was not the only such message.

The thrust of these messages is that most Maltese will no longer be bullied or sweet-talked into unquestioning obedience. They will not allow others to think for them. The lesson for all those that seek to lead us – be they political, religious or other leaders – is that their own continued relevance requires them to listen to and understand these messages. I am not convinced that all are listening and even less that all have understood.

2. Friggieri to Vella

Dear Mario, I agree that Malta is finally acting the way Europe has been for quite a long time now. The modernist movement goes back at least to the times of the French Illuminists. An appointment our forefathers sorely missed because Napoleon said the right things in the worst way.

Humankind being, however, much deeper than national identity, one can safely state that the Maltese do not differ in any way from any other self-contained community, but have traditionally adopted a slower speed. They were free to go slow.

Due to globalisation – a sort of collective agreement/disagreement for the whole planet attained through the predominance of technology – Malta, like all other small spots on the map, is now no longer free to ignore the freedom of the bigger countries. Freedom seems to be a political and cultural measure, which it necessarily is, but the question is much deeper: to what extent can civil humankind be free?

The divorce referendum came late, formally, only to achieve what many Maltese had already achieved, though many others, for various reasons, could not. In the era of Mintoff and Fenech Adami the people expected initiatives to be taken by their leaders through Parliament; today they are reaching their goal much before by following the European trend.

It has somehow become easier to do than to say: easier done than said. It is all due to the fact that the capital city of Malta is Brussels, as it is for all the other member states forming the European Union, which Union will soon have to change its name to what it had been before unification, namely just Europe. Ernest Renan, long ago, doubted whether nations are there to stay forever.

The distance between Malta and any other extra-Maltese space can be covered through the sea or through the air. But a boat and an airplane actually cover the same distance covered by a car and a train. In other terms, Malta is closer to Naples, than Naples is to Genova or Torino.

Is the distinction due to the sea separating a place from another? In specific terms, small island states have been more effective in deciding their own mode of being than the bigger ones. Now that the planet is becoming one whole global village, choice is a specific step to be taken in due course.

The divorce referendum has shown once more what our post-modern pattern of behaviour is: people adopt their European way of life in complete detachment from what the official code of behaviour expects. Whereas people like Mintoff had to go through the trouble of introducing certain measures at a certain time, now it is the other way round: parties have to update themselves so as to cope with the speed adopted by the people.

3. Vella to Friggieri

Oliver, we seem to agree that the institutions are lagging behind society. Traditional leaders accustomed to march at the head of their people suddenly discover that their people are marching ahead of them. Whereas this country’s post-WWII historic leaders set the agenda for change, we now witness a crisis of traditional leadership – and not only in politics – whereby it is people that set the agenda of modernisation.

Responding to this sea-change, the PL has bravely reinvented its leadership. Weighed down by the baggage of incumbency, the party in government has yet to draw the inevitable conclusion. What do you think?

• This conversation continues on this page on January 14.

Mario Vella blogs at http://watersbroken.wordpress.com .

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