Wednesday 24 February 2021

The Pete Buttigieg phenomenon: feeling proud by association 

This article first appeared in Malta Today

At the last count no less than 14 Democrats have announced their intention to run for US President in the 2020 elections, and Joe Biden, while in the running, still has to formally announce his candidacy. Out of these, the Mayor of South Bend, Indiana, Pete Buttigieg, has already been embraced by most of the media, has done the rounds of the most influential talk shows, and is currently at number three in the polls after Bernie Sanders and Biden.  Meanwhile, I have been trying to examine my own feelings as to why I feel so proud that Pete Buttigieg is being considered as a serious contender to be the Democratic candidate.

Setting aside my affinity for the US where I grew up and which I consider my second home, I think it is much more than that. The connection which I and many others have with this young man who has burst onto the scene started with his (for Americans) unpronounceable surname as one host after another stumbled and fumbled until they got it approximately right.   Many of us have had our Maltese surnames butchered abroad so we can relate (ours was invariably pronounced Caesar).   

But his campaign team took what could have been a negative and cleverly turned it into a gimmick, printing T-shirts and placards with the phonetically-spelled Boot-Edge-Edge.   As one speaker at his official campaign launch pointed out, even Barack Obama was worried that his name would never get him elected President …little did he know. 

Mostly, however, it is rather amazing that someone of Maltese extraction is suddenly everywhere, in the news and on the world stage.  That does not happen often for such a tiny island, so feeling proud about the Maltese connection is, I think, quite understandable.  Mayor Pete, as he is affectionately known, is definitely going places and it all started with his parents. His late father was a distinguished academic, Prof Joseph Buttigieg who emigrated to the States in the 70s where he met Anne Montgomery (herself a professor), the woman who would become his wife.  Both of his parents taught at Notre Dame University and Prof Buttigieg continued to be a visiting lecturer and examiner at the University of Malta where he was also held in high esteem.  

Should the fact that Pete’s DNA links him to Malta be such a big deal? Well, I don’t see why it shouldn’t , especially when national pride is something we see every day, not in the bigoted ‘nationalistic’ sense, but purely in the sense of being proud to see someone who has roots with one’s own country making a name for him or herself.  Those who sneer at us for feeling proud of someone by association seem to forget how often this happens at other, albeit perhaps not such lofty, levels. And no, this is not an example of, but a trait which repeats itself worldwide. 

Look at the unabashed patriotism we witness in sports events, which is particularly exemplified by the fierce pride of supporting one’s home team during league matches or the World Cup.  On the rare occasion I watch a televised football match, I am mostly transfixed by the passion, loyalty and sheer outpouring of love which fans exhibit towards the players on the pitch.  They are there in their thousands, united by something inexplicable, intangible, but also very real, as they chant and hold up scarves and banners, no matter the weather, no matter how cold or rainy it is. Many are there with their children, passing on the baton of unswerving loyalty to one’s team to the next generation, which will be indelibly imprinted in the child’s mind as they move on to adulthood.   It’s like the very soul of their city or country is symbolized by those 11 footballers even if many players may not actually be from that city or country at all, but have simply made it their home.  To this day, Neapolitans worship their ‘god’ Maradona, who is from Argentina, because he made their Serie A dreams come true.    

Football fans often speak of how acutely they suffer when their team loses, and how their whole being bursts with joy and pride after a win (followed by the inevitable taunting of their adversaries)  Even though it is all vicarious and they are experiencing the wins or losses second-hand, the emotions felt by diehard supporters for ‘their’ team cannot be dismissed.  It is an amazing thing to witness, in fact.  We all need someone to root for, to make us dream, to take us out of our humdrum lives and feel inexplicably happy, even though it may simply be a feeling of pride by association. With no chance of our own national team ever making it to the big leagues, it is no wonder that so many Maltese people support an Italian or English team, to feel part of ‘something’ which is bigger than themselves, if only for a few hours when they turn on their TV sets to watch the football. Even though it took me a while to understand it, I think I now finally get it.  

The fervour of the village festa and the friendly (or not so friendly) competition between band clubs and fireworks factories also have their roots in this need to connect and feel proud of the community where we were born and raised, in a way which goes deeper than we can explain.  The human being innately craves this sense of identity and belonging.  It is no wonder that as emigrants who left Malta long ago reach their twilight years, they are overcome by a yearning to reconnect and revisit their country of birth, even though they would have also established a sense of identity with the country they now call home.  The thing is that it is very possible to be culturally connected to several countries at the same time, depending on one’s parents and one’s upbringing.  And while Pete Buttigieg was born and raised as an American, the fact that his father was Maltese has ‘allowed’ us to feel a frisson of pride at his achievements.  I don’t see anything wrong with that.

After all, what is our nationwide obsession with Eurovision but a further extension of this pride by association, with all our fervent hopes to see Malta winning at something (anything!) embodied in a three minute song?  The same holds true whenever anyone who has even one drop of Maltese blood does well in any field – we feel happy, it uplifts us, and God knows we need more of that.

At a time when things in Malta are going more pear-shaped by the second and I have lost faith in so many (if not most) politicians, I look at the Pete Buttigieg phenomenon sweeping the US and it gives me hope in moments when this country fills me with despair.  He may not be the best candidate to beat Trump (in fact there are several others who might be even better), and he may not even make it through the Primaries, but at least when I hear him speak I feel that he represents something which is currently lacking on the political front, and that is a sense of purpose which does not pander to either big corporations nor the lowest common denominator.  Of course, compared to Trump, anyone who can string two coherent sentences together would be considered a genius, but it is still a pleasure to see Pete’s unassuming intelligence shine through in every interview. 

The fact that he is half-Maltese is just a bonus which will make the whole Presidential race more interesting, and even if he does not make the cut, at least anyone traveling to the US whose surname is Buttigieg will find that people have learned how to (just about) pronounce their name. 

Powered by