Monday 06 April 2020

Forget about giving thanks, let’s just go straight to the sales

This article first appeared in Malta Today 

As a result of globalization, Malta, like the rest of the world, has been easily swept up by American customs and traditions.

Now I don’t consider this a necessarily bad thing, although some are horrified by it, even though, mysteriously, they seem to have absolutely no problem with enthusiastically embracing anything British or Italian. Take a stroll through Valletta’s streets and you can see a nation which is as equally at ease with eating chips with everything as they are with Italian-style coffee bars. On the other hand, on second thoughts, it’s not that mysterious at all. The Italians and even more so, the British, have a cultural and historical connection with these islands which over time has created as close a kinship as possible between peoples of such diverse lands.

And yet, through the proliferation of IPTV, Android boxes and satellite channels, the pervading American influence keeps seeping in and keeps growing stronger with each passing year, as it persists in blurring the edges between what is intrinsically ‘ours’ and what we have cheerfully adopted as our own. As I have said before, I have no problem with any of this, because it actually makes me feel quite at home. But what I always find amusing is how, even as we emulate US habits, we always manage to give them our own unique Maltese twist. Which means that in Malta, Halloween (loved and detested in equal measure by many for its ‘American-ness’) is celebrated not only on the one night of 31 October, as per tradition. No, that would be too boring. We have extended it to last for at least a week, if not more, as we try to cram in as many Halloween-themed activities as we possibly can.

Sometimes, the juxtaposition of all these diverse traditions are often unintentionally funny. One of the most incongruous sights I have ever seen was a shop window filled to the brim with witches and broomsticks, spooky ghosts and skeletons and right there, side by side, were the delicate figurines from the Nativity scene and life-size Baby Jesus statues in all their charming innocence, nestled in their manger.

And now, the latest fad to be adopted is Black Friday. But obviously, just the one day of sales will simply not do – no, we have to make it last longer, which explains why I saw advertisements for Black Weekend (making it sound rather like an ominous prophecy of a weekend which will be going horribly wrong). The thing with Black Friday is that it is an Americanism which came about because of another American tradition which precedes it, namely, Thanksgiving. The historical roots of Thanksgiving are traced back to the pilgrims who, after arriving from England to the New Land, sat down at a feast to give thanks for a good harvest. Since then, Americans have celebrated Thanksgiving as a day for family members to travel back to their childhood homes, so that everyone can come together and count their blessings.

Now there is a custom we really should copy, because I think we are at a point when Malta could do with even just one day when we stopped moaning about what is wrong and try to celebrate what we have to be thankful for. (Although I know that will not go down well with some people who insist we must all join in the Armageddon narrative). But of course, true to form, we have simply dispensed with giving thanks, and gone straight to the sales.

In the US, since the 1950s, the day after Thanksgiving officially marks the beginning of the Christmas shopping season, and is characterized by incredibly huge discounts to get people to go shopping. In fact, the reason it is called Black Friday is because, as a result of the slashed prices, it is the day shopkeepers’ balance sheets turned black (positive) from red (loss). Because the discounts are so tremendous it is not unheard of for stampedes to occur as the shopping malls open their doors and people make a dash to grab whatever they can get their hands on. The frenzy has often resulted in injuries and even deaths which led me to write a mere three years ago that I hope Black Friday doesn’t catch on here. Now that it is has, I need not have worried – our economies of scale make it difficult for discounts of 70 – 80%, so stampedes are unlikely, and apparently the only stress was in the late afternoon traffic as people flocked to grab some bargains.

What the adoption of Black Friday has brought home to me, however, is how Malta, like so much of the West, has become so consumed by consumerism. It is a pervasive, almost insidious culture which has been steadily spreading for a number of years, where the Euro is king and where we seem to be always on the lookout for how we can shop and spend our cash on the latest ‘thing’. It doesn’t seem that long ago that political billboards were showing us supermarket trolleys filled to the brim with groceries as a way to promote the party which promised us a booming, affluent economy. At the time it was Alfred Sant predicting gloom and doom and muttering about corruption everywhere he went, while the PN spoke only of a happy, shiny, prosperous future. How things have changed. And yet, I think the image of those billboards must have stuck with us, as you cannot turn a corner without bumping into yet another supermarket, which seem to be competing with petrol stations at the rate they are sprouting up.

Obviously, I don’t think anyone wants to go back to the days of austerity of bulk buying and market controls, when Flying Wheel luncheon meat was your one and only choice on the grocer’s shelves. But there seems to have been too much of a fast-forward rush to the other extreme, which has left our heads spinning and whirling, where we have so much stuff and yet keep wanting more, although we cannot really explain why. Where expensive mobile phones are casually handed over to toddlers as playthings, and we have a society which is too easily bored, too easily distracted, too easily dis-satisfied and much too self-absorbed to care about anything which doesn’t directly affect them. As we talk and tut-tut about corruption and greed and how Malta is “finished”, I think it is all too easy to point fingers without asking ourselves whether we have had a hand in perpetuating this materialism and lust for more and more money at any cost, ourselves.

Is it always someone else who has sold their old family home to a developer who, they very well know, will knock it down to build towering flats to the detriment of the rest of the neighbourhood? “They have every right to do what they like with their property, I hear you say”. Yes, of course they do.

Is it always other people who are renting their property at an exorbitant rate to some well-paid employee who works with a betting company (without declaring the rental income)? “Everyone else is doing it, why shouldn’t I?” Yes, of course they are.

Is it always some other lawyer or accountant or financial advisor or broker doing very well, thank you very much, as a result of the citizenship scheme? “Well, why should I be the only one not to profit from it?” No, why should you.

Perhaps inspired by those bursting-to-the brim supermarket trolleys, the Muscat Government was savvy enough to zoom in on exactly what makes human nature (and not just the Maltese) tick. As long as my life is going well and I have money to spend, nothing else really matters. And ironically the tables have turned and it is the PN which keeps predicting doom and gloom scenarios while it is the PL which keeps painting a shiny, happy alternative, where money is no problem.

I often wonder, though, how long this boom built on iGaming and construction and property speculation can last, or whether like the Black Friday frenzy, it is a stampede which will eventually end up with a lot of casualties?

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