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Saints, villains and shysters

Who are the custodians of freedom of expression?

They deserve each other. In their perverse and often cruel triangulation, they have been holding politics hostage for many decades.

I am speaking of those who claim to be saints, beatifying each other on any opportune moment; of the villains, who claim to be dumb when, as the Maltese adage goes, they avoid paying their dues; and then we have the shysters, who are spreading like wildfire in dry fields full of simmering manure.

These three kinds of political actors want us to believe their liberal credentials. Yet the more they claim to be democratic. The more they present themselves as the custodians of freedom of expression.

The more they believe that their idiom and pen are unmatched across all the four corners of the Anglophone world, the more they are seen for what they are: bullies and hypocrites who would sell their own grandmother to take political advantage for a personal vainglory that even comes before the interests of the Party they claim to represent.

For the case of liberalism, this could well mean that as in the past, any hope for a proper and measured approach to politics, is written off by the banality of its own claims—starting with the fake claim for liberalism itself, which as I have argued way back in August on this blog, is anything but what it historically had meant to be.

Walter BenjaminWalter Benjamin

In his well-known essay The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction (1936), Walter Benjamin famously asserts that “Fascism attempts to organize the newly created proletarian masses without affecting the property structure which the masses strive to eliminate. Fascism sees its salvation in giving these masses not their right, but instead a chance to express themselves.”

The latter sentence seems to be more poignant than the former, in that while the assumption of a state that protects the property of the moneyed elites could ring a bell to many who are all too ready to attribute such an ideology to the party they love to hate, not many would expect a claim that in effect fascism is saved by giving the masses the chance to express themselves.

We are told that fascism comes in black shirts and jackboots. We are told that fascism shuts our mouths and keeps us at home. Yet here Benjamin is not only attributing the means of expression to fascism’s salvation, but to the use of beauty and pageantry by which fascism is known to give expression to the masses when they are led to believe that they are speaking truth to power.

Though we know very well that the power the masses thought they had in their expressive freedom, was nothing but a means of oppressing the weak and preserving the proprietary and financial privileges that the few always kept for themselves.

One could see this happening under our nose, on our iPhone, on social media, in slick campaigns organised on the claim of the right to expression and the assumed impact that it has upon speaking truth to power. We all do it and we all find a way of claiming such an expression.

The aesthetic assumptions made on the politics which we want to impress on people is there, and the messiah complex by which a notorious few have now convinced themselves that them and only them have the right form of expression—and with it the only right to express themselves—is now palpable in how some seem to think that it is OK to use every possible means to intimidate, bully, and shut up anyone who does not agree with them.

Voltaire’s test was hardest on those who would still respect and give space to those who do not agree with them, even when their disagreement may well appear wrong and disrespectful.

In one of my recent Maltese blog entries on Newsbook, I wrote an extensive essay on what I call Voltaire’s test. There I reminded my readers that Voltaire’s test was hardest on those who would still respect and give space to those who do not agree with them, even when their disagreement may well appear wrong and disrespectful.

Since the tragedy that occurred four weeks ago which shook the Maltese moral imaginary to its foundations, we have witnessed a patent failure to even approach anywhere near Voltaire’s test. Overall, many failed pathetically, and this is seen and felt in how some have taken to social media in ways which friends of mine who are not Maltese find astonishing.

Undoubtedly, I am not alone in having to waste my time making sure that my own friends are not hit by other supposed friends who, by some trope of “tagging” they bring along their political buddies to hit at those who disagree with them—and all this, not on their page, but on someone else’s like mine.

I recently had to put up with this nonsense, where all of a sudden, I found myself trying to keep a discussion civil, but failed hopelessly and had to resort to deleting all shared entries and where I had to unfriend a number of friends, and friends of friends, who seem to have been carried away by the frenzy of this absolute right to express themselves at all costs and without any ethical let alone moral consideration towards me and others.

In this microcosm, I see the expression of which Benjamin speaks very clearly back in the 1930s. Those who know Benjamin also know that he was not simply speaking of fascists but mostly those who helped fascism grown through their own pseudo-radical and pseudo-revolutionary politicking. The aesthetization of politics may well be attributed directly to certain historical groups, but Benjamin casts a wider net and he begins to examine also those who appear to be on the side of the people.

Benjamin’s beef was with the mechanisation of the image, which in reproducing itself on end, it loses art’s aura. He speaks of how photographs “stir the viewer; he feels challenged by them in a new way. At the same time picture magazines begin to put up signposts for him, right ones or wrong ones, no matter. For the first time, captions have become obligatory. And it is clear that they have an altogether different character than the title of a painting.”

With film, Benjamin explains how “the conventional is uncritically enjoyed, and the truly new is criticized with aversion.” In this he sees a manipulation of what appears to be new and progressive, when in effect it produces the opposite effect.

Some wrongly attribute Benjamin’s critique to the medium. Yet on a closer look he is not speaking of the medium but of the opportunity by which many have used the medium to deceive and to oppress others under the veneer and impression of a liberal and free society.”

Benjamin’s punchline should be memorized by all students of political science: “Mankind, which in Homer’s time was an object of contemplation for the Olympian gods, now is one for itself. Its self-alienation has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order.”

Maybe, reading this closely and perhaps repeating it to ourselves until we learn it by heart, we would realise why after 80 years since Benjamin wrote his famous essay, we remain at the bullying mercy of saints, villains and shysters, who with all the cheek they could muster, they present themselves as Messiahs intent on liberating us from oppression. Hardly do these Messiahs realize that the more they shout, the less we want to listen.

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