Colouring the troops
It seems the campaign buffs at the Nationalist Party have misplaced their Yellow Pages. How else could they have got their billboards so wrong? The latest especially is a disaster. It pushes all the wrong buttons and plays into Labour’s hands with jaw-dropping dimness.
Thing is, tongue-in-cheek and Maltese political campaigning don’t mix terribly well, at least not unless it’s a Tal-Ajkla do.
In any case, I’m not even sure the basics are right. Somehow, Lawrence Gonzi’s blue face seems sillier than Joseph Muscat’s red one.
The blame probably rests squarely with Braveheart, or the Smurfs for that matter. Or maybe red just sits happily with Muscat’s complexion, what with an hour or two shifting weights at the gym.
But the wisdom or otherwise of billboard design is not my concern. Rather, I find it fascinating that colour should be ascribed negative moral connotations by so many people. Given the rich local cultural context of using colour to show allegiance, that’s certainly a first.
I have in mind things like festa for example, in which the use of colour is absolutely central. Festa radically alters the colour schemes of towns and villages from the honey, grey and white of tarmac and weathered stone to a gold and red which leave little to the imagination.
The third festa colour is usually that of the każin (club). Where the colour of the każin and that of the damask coincide, as at the feast of St Lawrence in Vittoriosa, the result is dramatic.
With respect to politics, it’s hard not to state the obvious. One might use colour to piece together the story of, say, the vicious polarisation of the 1980s.
The hazy images I have of that time include the tal-ġakketta l-blu squad, the chromatic experiments with the windows of Auberge de Castille, and of course the big question of the epoch, whether to buy red or blue packs of Du Maurier cigarettes.
Now, however, Muscat has taken a leaf out of the Greens’ (funnily enough) notebook and declared war on colour. Possibly egged on by his own colour blindness (I’m not being unkind, he has mentioned it many times), Muscat has – pardon the cliché – rebranded Labour as the party with no clear colour associations. There seem to be two rationales at work.
First, to blot out the red is to attempt to exorcise Labour of its fear factor. Someone once told me how he and his wife had drifted into a bar at Vittoriosa’s main square for a drink, and how their hearts stopped beating when they realised they were adrift in a sea of red. They had unwittingly walked into the Labour Party club, horror of horrors.
This particular gentleman was a true blue (there we go) Nationalist, truth be told. But I don’t think his reaction was a one-off. For many people over the age of 40 or so, red triggers fear of old Labour.
It probably helps that those generations grew up in the Cold War era when red spelled evil empire, and that in any case red is culturally associated with danger (red flags, red lights, to see red, and so on).
Second, the war on colour is also a deliberate negation of the cultural context I mentioned earlier. Muscat has decided, to considerable effect I think, that colour implies ‘tribalism’, social division and all sorts of nasty things that properly belong to the past. As he put it the other day: “Undecided voters should ask themselves whether the tribal message sent out by the PN’s latest billboard was what they wanted for their children ... [it was an] anachronistic message of division.”
Clearly, the whole thing dovetails with the Malta Tagħna lkoll slogan, with visions of Nationalists celebrating Jum il-Ħelsien and Labourites revelling on September 21, and such. The reason why I think the PN billboard was misguided is that it held Muscat’s hand nicely as he coloured inside the lines.
It also unwisely reminded us of Simon Busuttil’s comment that Deborah Schembri had a “Nationalist face”.
The implication there (again, a joke that misfired) was that there is some physical essence to being Nationalist or Labourite. That’s exactly what Muscat is always going on about.
The paradox is of course that his rhetoric is effective precisely because the colour-coded cultural context it is embedded in is so deep-rooted and ubiquitous. Malta Tagħna lkoll uses colour to disown colour, so to say.
There’s another paradox too. Fact is that the painted faces business was actually started by Labour’s red-and-white troops motif. What could be more heart-warming than a dose of good old colour-blind patriotism? As the wise Chrysander ‘Zoo’ Agius put it, the young people of Malta want a country where individuals suckle at the national teats (‘tieħu xi ħaġa’) in a fair order. Not exactly JFK but anyway.
It turns out there are problems with the red-and-white images. First, no matter how transcendent they might seem, the faces on the billboards represent Labour. The whole point of the billboards is to get us to vote Labour, not Malta. Which essentially means we’re looking at a party that is seeking to appropriate the nation and its symbols by making them its own. And one might argue that national symbols should be reserved for national, rather than partisan, occasions.
Second, I’m not sure that red-and-white faces are any more acceptable than blue or red ones. The reason is that nationalism is at least as political and partisan and boundary-obsessed as party allegiance, which means that the sinister implications of fleshing the colour apply.
As far as I’m concerned, painted faces are only acceptable when they’re tongue-in- cheek or playful, as with football supporters for example. Anything else and we’re talking virulent patriotism.
The funny thing in all this is that it is normally thought unacceptable to show one’s true colours after the event. I suspect the billboard people from the Yellow Pages would have recommended just that.