OPINION | Sunday, 26 August 2007

An open letter to liberals

Raphael Vassallo

Dear liberals, I thought I’d write to you (yes, all three of you) to share some basic concerns about our country’s persistent refusal to accept even the most basic concepts of Western democracy. Such as the fact that minorities exist, even when the overwhelming majority doesn’t want them to; and above all, that this country belongs to these minorities as much as it does to everyone else.
In brief, a couple of hundred years have elapsed since the Enlightenment, but it seems the mantle of night is still firmly draped over the island of Malta. There are too many among us who simply can’t seem to distinguish between their own personal beliefs about how life should be lived, and the obligation of the state to provide a modicum of freedom to the rest of us.
At first I thought it was some form of national teething problem, which would eventually subside as Malta gets over the shock of Independence. Now I realise that this is not the case. The problem appears to be deepening with each passing year.
I won’t bore you with the details, because I am sure you will all have experienced some form of bigotry or prejudice yourselves. Let’s just say that an ultra-conservative and evidently anti-secular movement is organising itself and getting stronger by the day. The pattern is always the same. It is a case of seeking to impose a cultural hegemony on the entire country by means of refashioning the law in its own image and likeness. I need hardly add that the same principle can be applied to any ideology: especially the ones that appeal to mass populism, which are invariably the most dangerous.
Anyway: I have given a lot of thought to this phenomenon and these are my conclusions. I hasten to add that these are just my own observations, and not the definitive result of any proper research.

For the past century or so, only two social forces have ever managed to excite mass enthusiasm in Malta. These are religion and party politics. If we had a decent football team or won the Eurovision Song Contest there might be another, but for the time being those seem to be the only two.
As a consequence, we are living in a country where the only conceivable notion of “belonging”, on any level broader than immediate family, is to one or both of the above. This situation has in turn given rise to two entirely regrettable consequences: the first is the popular juxtaposition of religious and national allegiance; the second is an incredibly widespread conviction that politics is only a means to an end, and that the ultimate end is the victory of one’s own personal convictions over everyone else’s.
It is a vicious circle. One force drives political parties to converge at the Religious Right. The other demands an enemy to defeat in battle, and in a nation of bullies they invariably pick on the smallest and most unrepresented minorities. In turn, the frightened minority squeaks a little louder each time it is picked on, and this only gives the bullies an excuse to raise the alarm that the “radical left” is taking over.
In the process, all notions of individual liberties are entirely overlooked. So is any concept that the State has a moral obligation to protect minorities from precisely this kind of abuse.
For a while I thought that (for reasons outlined above) any form of liberal grouping to challenge this menace would be counterproductive. But circumstances have driven me to conclude that in reality, it is the other way round. The picture in my mind is this: had Malta possessed a political class which acknowledged its responsibility to prevent a tyranny of the majority, I would be quite content to let the growing obsessive “Christian values” brigade stamp their feet, blow their horns and clap their hands till the walls of Jericho come tumbling down. I would be snug in the knowledge that their collective prejudice would be contained within the rule of law, and that provisions to protect minorities would be eternally guaranteed. But this is of course fantasy.

In reality, a feverish, populist proposal, made for no other purpose than to criminalise an entire way of thinking, has been publicly and very aggressively championed by the present government. In reality, the President of Malta has publicly declared that he will overrule any law to make divorce available to Maltese citizens, simply because he himself is Catholic and is incapable of conceiving how other people might see things differently. In reality, extremist moral crusaders are perceived as perfectly normal, while ordinary decent liberals are portrayed as rabid fanatics who will never stop until the fabric of society is literally torn asunder.
This mentality, so deeply entrenched in the minds of the conservative ruling class, means one thing and one thing only: we cannot rely on the present political class to guarantee our individual and personal liberties. In fact, the longer they are left to their own devices, the more they will inevitably intrude upon our private lives. Therefore, appeasement is clearly not an option.

I don’t know about you, but I have now had enough of all this… of the ongoing campaign to slowly but inexorably absorb Malta into the fabric of the Vatican… of tin-pot Christian Democrat dictators who can’t seem to understand that some of us just don’t give a toss about their religious opinions… of the pious Santa Theresas who write endlessly to the papers to tell us all how to conduct our own sex lives… of ignorant, monist primates who publicly threaten anyone who happens to speak English as a first language with physical violence… the list is endless.
I would like to do something about all this, but I don’t quite know what. All I know is that the above scenario exists mainly because of the lack of any resounding liberal voice in the country. The liberal minority has not been anywhere near vocal enough, with results that are visible to all. So I can only conclude that what is really needed is some form of liberal pressure group that will serve as a much needed focal point for the articulation of liberal and secular principles.

If anyone is interested in helping me set one up, please write to this address: Thanks for listening.


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