Friday 18 January 2019

A lesson in hope

This article first appeared in Malta Today  

It is very easy to look back at this year and think, what is the point? What is the point of rallying against big business, unscrupulous landlords and greedy developers who have been handed public land for a pittance and are now eyeing the seashore for ‘land reclamation’? They will do what they want to anyway because they are too powerful and our voices are being consistently ignored.   

However, falling into the trap of pessimism and a me ne frega attitude is bound to lead to even worse consequences because the problems being caused to our quality of life will not just go away just because we keep our eyes averted and stop caring. Eventually, everyone is going to end up living next door to a building site. It is us who will have to deal with the fallout because rest assured that those who have caused the environmental ruin of this country have already feathered their nests and will piss off to some remote hideaway when things go pear-shaped. 

Of course, I can understand how much easier it is to shut down, stop reading the news and immerse one’s self in binge-watching escapist TV series which are in such abundance that you would probably have to quit your job in order to watch them all. I can completely relate because I like to mentally flee, if only for a few hours, from the constant stream of bad news which represents another nail in the coffin of what was once Malta’s (already sparse) countryside. Sometimes I feel I cannot take one more announcement that yet another pristine stretch of land is being earmarked for development. 

It’s not just the rape of the environment which can get you down. It is difficult to stomach that there are many living on the poverty line at the same time as staunch party loyalists are being handed lucrative direct orders, or being bestowed with some ridiculously made-up title and awarded obscene lumps of money for doing God knows what. When you read of the 500 people turning up for the Caritas Christmas lunch because they were alone, and that an Adopt-a-Granny scheme has been introduced for elderly people who have been dumped in a home but whose children don’t visit them, it is hard to juxtapose this with the 7 million Euro raised for L-Istrina. Do we find it easier to donate money than to actually spend time with others?  And what a slap in the face to see the DB group donating thousands when it is set to ruin the lives of so many residents with its towers.

The alternative to giving up, however, is to search around for beacons of hope.  In Malta, there are many genuine, indefatigable, activists who have no other agenda but to put the country before any political party; they have no interest in being elected themselves or seeing their party in power because political power is not their end game. They work tirelessly for often little to no remuneration to stop the big guns from just mowing us down and they are the ones who have managed to stop some monstrous projects from going forward.  It is a thankless job, but they need to be publicly thanked especially those who are involved with Flimkien Ghal Ambjent Aħjar and Movement Graffiti, who are always at the forefront, doing the actual work, rather than just talking about it.  There are also other grassroots activists who are working hard at local council level in their communities who have stood up to be counted to stop unnecessary development in their area: Mgarr, Sliema, Pembroke, Rabat, Zonqor, the list is, unfortunately, endless.  

If only more people woke up to the fact that a united, legitimate, justified protest gives us more power than any mere politician who, after all, will not be there forever.  

It is within this context of true activism that I recently watched a few interviews given by the youngest woman to ever be elected to the US Congress, 29-year-old Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Describing herself as a Democratic Socialist, she is quickly becoming another one of my heroes.  She ran on a pledge that she would not accept any corporate money for her campaign and that she would not compromise on any of her core values, such as demanding a living wage and working tirelessly on behalf of the working class.  Some of her statements really struck a chord with me: “You cannot leave anyone behind and still have a fair democracy”, “When you allow any group of people to live in the shadows, those are the group of people that will be targeted and marginalized in the ascent of fascism”, “I’m very idealistic and optimistic about my values and my goals and where I think we should be heading, but am very pragmatic about how to get there.” 

In an interview she gave to Trevor Noah prior to winning the Congressional seat, he told her, “You are very pro the idea of people earning enough to earn a living”, to which she retorted back with a smile, “I know, shocking!”. As she constantly points out, no person should be too poor to live, and working a 40-hour week should be enough to live on. However, she adds, America has become a nation of working poor; of people who cannot make ends meet unless they work more than one job. It has become a country of ordinary people vs big money.

Are any of these statements ringing a bell? Well, they should because we have many of the same concerns here. In fact, the parallels with Malta were uncanny. And if you think money has corrupted Maltese politics, just multiply that by a gazillion times to get an idea of how it has affected US politics. 

For example, Trevor Noah homed in on an issue we are all too familiar with: “once elected how are you going to avoid being sucked into accepting corporate money and becoming part of the political machine in Washington?” She was quick to reply that she had managed to get elected without any corporate PAC money from powerful lobby groups, despite challenging the “elite Democratic establishment”, so she had already shown that it was possible. She also makes compelling arguments about what she stands for, which explain how she managed to clinch her seat: Living wages, access to good education, making sure the wealthy pay their fair share, carbon tax, saving the planet – all these, she added, go beyond party political labels.  Watching her campaign video, it is easy to see why this second-generation Puerto Rican raised by a single mother after her Dad passed away, managed to connect with her community in the Bronx, New York: a predominately working class demographic made up of immigrants and ethnic minorities. 

She advocates for a lot of things which in Malta we take for granted, thanks to a generous welfare state, such as free health care and free university, but which in the States are viewed with alarm because they are considered too ‘Socialist’. “But how are you going to pay for all this?”, is one of the most frequent questions which are fired at her. She fires back with, “well where do we get the money for the military, when they do are not even asking for more weapons?  If the wealthy and corporations pay what they should do, that’s $2 trillion right there”.

Again, I have to point to the parallels with what is happening here ever since big money and corporations have taken over the way the country is being run.  How, for example, will we pay for the completely unnecessary White Elephant which is the Gozo tunnel, when we cannot find enough money for social housing and raising the minimum wage? 

When Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was mocked by Fox News for not being able to afford the rent for an apartment in DC until she starts receiving her Congressional salary in January, she Tweeted: 

“There is no reason to be ashamed or embarrassed. Mocking lower incomes is exactly how those who benefit from + promote wealth inequality the most keep everyday people silent about 1 of the worst threats to American society: that the rich are getting richer and the poor, poorer.”

And, as if to prove her point even further, the news of how much Trump’s infamous wall would cost, led to the following observation:

And just like that, GOP discovers $US5.7 billion for a wall. $US5.7 billion,” Ocasio-Cortez tweeted. “What if we instead added $US5.7B in teacher pay? Or replacing water pipes? Or college tuition/prescription refill subsidies? Or green jobs? But notice how no one’s asking the GOP how they’re paying for it.

Inevitably, there are those who pour scorn on her beliefs in social justice, even within the Democratic party itself. The very word ‘Socialism’ still triggers an irrational fear in many older Americans who still associate it with Communism. Many deride her for her naiveté, claiming she is out of her depth.  When I listen to her, however, she instils hope, because she is trying to change the status quo. She has already made a difference, bringing out the vote among Millennials who had not bothered to vote in the 2016 elections because of their disillusionment when Bernie Sanders was pushed aside and they were left to choose between Trump and Hillary.  On behalf of her community, she is currently fighting against Amazon relocating to her district because it will bring about homelessness and rising rents – she is at liberty to do this because she did not accept any corporate dollars.

I only wish that we had more local politicians who are not willing to compromise their values, and who are ready to be the voice of the real people, and not simply the puppets of those who fund their campaigns.  That person would certainly get my vote.  As we approach 2019, we can only hope. 

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