Editorial | Sunday, 08 March 2009

What a carnival

The news of the arraignment of nine individuals who wore “offensive” costumes at the Nadur Carnival couldn’t be timelier, just as the nation is still suffering from the mediaeval, oppressive censorship regime that has led to the outright ban of a play.
Indeed, the backdrop to all this is a senseless censorial and moral regime that is denying the Maltese public from viewing Anthony Nielson’s Stitching, as the law insists that someone, somewhere, gets to decide in our name what we should and should not be exposed to when we go to a theatre.
These actions put us alongside fundamentalist countries like Saudi Arabia, Iran and Afghanistan under the Taliban. Even worse and closer to home: it’s a throwback to exactly 50 years ago, when Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita created uproar from the conservative Christian hegemony.
Besides the disturbing news of the arraignments and the ensuing suspended prison sentences themselves, what’s really shocking is that the police have candidly admitted that they took action after Archbishop Paul Cremona and Gozo Bishop Mario Grech spoke out against these individuals, whose crime was, it seems, that of having dressed up as priests or nuns and of having ridiculed the figure of Christ.
Since when the police take their orders from the bishops? Since when is a homily, a pastoral letter or some ominously worded press statement regarded as a police report, or worse, an order to charge people in court?
The bishops have every right to take offence, to speak about their feelings on the issue, and to criticise whoever they disagree with. That is a freedom we defend, because it is a fundamental tenet of freedom of expression.
But they have no authority, no remit and no power to speak about rights, especially individual civil rights, when their requests are aimed at banishing them.
It’s already enough that the Church has its own uncontrolled carnival in every town and village feast, where unfettered debauchery takes place on the streets in the name of Christ and the saints. Not to mention the irony in having all this oppressive moral clampdown in what is arguably the most blasphemous nation on earth. We won’t even go into the privileged position of the Church, as opposed to all other denominations, religions and creeds, when it comes to public cult displays that dominate the lifeworld of believers and non-believers alike.
But of all the problems facing it, the Church is concerned about a bunch of irreverent individuals in Nadur.
The charge itself is preposterously ridiculous: that of having dressed as priests or military uniforms “without a permit”, as if anyone will ever seek a permit to wear a costume in Carnival, not to mention the ban on political satire which is more befitting of a totalitarian regime than a European democracy.
That all this happened in the famous Nadur Carnival, itself a unique, anthropologically rich event in the world and marketed with tourists for its wild spontaneity, should already serve as a cultural explanation to these transgressions.
This prohibitive, martial attitude to our basic freedom of expression, even more so within the context of Carnival and theatre, has gone on for so long unchallenged, that many of the Maltese might miss the absurdity of all this.
It’s one thing to ban incitement to hatred – be it racial, ethnic, religious, individual or whatever. It’s another to ban what might be subjectively offensive to individuals or even to institutions.
Ultimately, the reference point of anyone taking offence at anything remains the democratic framework in which our society has to exist. Offence can be articulated, protested, demonstrated in public, but it should never silence anyone else. That is the stuff of fascism.
The fact that there are laws that are directly antagonistic to the democratic spirit means they should only be scrapped for good, not resuscitated to somehow enforce them, albeit very selectively. Until then, we’re quickly gaining international reputation for being a centre of excellence in old-fashioned fundamentalism.

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What a carnival


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