Saturday 04 February 2023

We don’t need another hero

This article first appeared in Malta Today

I’ve never been one for idolatry and adulation of whoever is in Government. It makes me extremely uncomfortable when someone who is, after all, just another person made from flesh and blood just like you and I, is put on such a high pedestal that it makes one dizzy just looking up at the ivory tower to which he has been elevated. Admiration and praise for doing a good job at the helm, I can understand, but there comes a point when the gushing hyperbole and the lavish adjectives start veering into uneasy, dubious territory. That’s when I feel like turning to those who seem to be in the throes of the type of hysteria last seen during Beatlemania and telling them, “OK, get a grip and calm down.”

After all, time passes, administrations change, and people forget. As if I needed further confirmation of this, it was brought home to me recently in Valletta when I saw former Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi walking along Republic street, with hardly anyone paying attention to him, when, just a mere five years ago he would have been driven in an official black car right up to the door of his destination, guarded by bodyguards and treated with deference.

Yet, there he was, just walking by himself, you know, like a normal person, while passersby glanced with a flicker of recognition in his direction, but that’s about it. The same can be said for Alfred Sant (despite being an MEP), Eddie Fenech Adami and even Dom Mintoff, especially in the last years before he died.

Because after all, the politicians we exalt to towering heights today are really just ordinary people who, for a brief moment in time, are plucked out of relative obscurity and became THE most important people in the land. When they are voted out of office, however, and go back to living the lives they had before, it is almost astonishing to witness the speed with which everyone who used to gather around them quickly disperses. Because when it comes to political clout, that is the nature of the beast – those who are mouthwateringly hungry to be close to the seat of power will immediately sniff out the One who will be heading to the very top, and they will make sure to start schmoozing their way in, to be included in the inner circle.

The fact that former Prime Ministers fall back into their usual lifestyle so quickly is, undoubtedly a good thing, because that is the natural order of things (the last thing we need is continued reverence of former leaders). But it is also a salutary lesson for the man who is in charge now because (for all the heady adulation he is receiving at the moment), once he eventually steps down, Muscat will also realise how fleeting it all is.

Now, before Muscat supporters get their feathers all ruffled, this is not to take away from any of his achievements (although his critics will inevitably interject at this point with withering sarcasm to the tune of “yes, he managed to put Malta on the map for all the wrong reasons”). But this is not to weigh the plus points against the minus points of how Malta has turned out under Muscat, because such an appraisal usually needs to be carried out from a distance of time and perspective.

This is to examine why as a nation we find it so necessary to adulate our leaders, any leader, so much – I find that intriguing. Hero worship is something which is generally reserved for sports idols whom we admire for their amazing physical skills or a gifted musician whose sheer talent leaves us in awe or a movie star whose beauty almost seems supernatural. So why do we also transfer this kind of dumbstruck, fan girl, type of simpering to a man who has, after all, been elected to do a job, and is simply doing it? The more I think about it, the more it seems to me that the explanation for this is that politicians and especially heads of state, have become ‘celebrities’ themselves, encouraged by a well-oiled publicity and marketing machine which uses the same kind of pop cultural references used for pop stars.

When singer Jennifer Lopez’s name was shortened to JLo by the media, the trendy, hip abbreviation immediately took off and everyone started doing it. And whether it was intended or not, that is the association which popped immediately into my mind when I saw the hashtag #JM10 which has been splashed as a backdrop at all the recent Labour Party activities. It stands for “Joseph Muscat ten (years)” referring to how long he has been leader of the party. And the connotations of using such an abbreviation to celebrate the anniversary of when he took over from Alfred Sant are glaringly obvious; hashtags are mostly used by Labour’s target audience, the younger generation, and the glib, shorthand use of JM indicates that everyone will immediately know who is being referred to. (Unlike Adrian Delia’s initials which, through no fault of his own, always seem like someone is referring to Alternattiva Demokratika).

The ten years, of course, are significant and in a way startling, because it is hard to believe that so much time has passed since the impossibly-young looking ginger-haired man with a goatee became the PL leader. It seems like yesterday. And yet, on the other hand, it is also sometimes hard to believe that it was not so long ago that weary Nationalists would look at the shambles which was the PL, roll their eyes at and say, “but what can you do? They are hopeless and there is no alternative ey?” before casting their vote, yet again, for the PN.

With political events looking more and more like meticulously produced rock concerts, complete with the thumping music and crowds ready to party, it is no wonder that politicians have almost been turned into pop idols. As a nation I think many have this real need to look up to a political leader in the same way that they hero-worship their favourite footballer. He can do no wrong, he can lead their team to victory, and no criticism will be allowed against him, no matter what he does, or how often he is caught doing something he shouldn’t, because they will defend him to their last dying breath. When he wins, they win, by association, and they strut proudly as if they themselves were on the football pitch in front of thousands of jubilant fans (or on the podium in front of a cheering crowd of supporters). The typical diehard supporter often finds it impossible to detach emotionally and psychologically because he has invested so much of his very being in decades, a lifetime, of unconditional support for the party leader, which is why some react so violently to even the tiniest bit of criticism towards their hero..

Apart from Muscat, the only Prime Ministers who really achieved this kind of stratospheric cult status were Eddie and Mintoff (Gonzi achieved it to a lesser extent because he was hampered by too much internal rebellion), and I remember the same kind of blind, fanatic, unswerving loyalty which tolerated not even the slightest breathe of dissent. Each served at a different time in Malta’s turbulent political history but each, for different reasons, received the kind of accolades and unrestrained euphoria we are witnessing today towards Joseph Muscat. Of course, if you ask veteran party supporters of the opposing side they would be unable to explain or fathom how the Prime Minister they were brainwashed to hate from the time they were at their mother’s knee could conceivably be the same person who is revered like a saviour by their political opponents.

We saw this clearly this week when the statue of Mintoff was inaugurated, which once again unleashed all the ‘us vs. them’ vitriol which this decisive political figure has always elicited. Everyone’s memory is triggered by their own experience and perception of those times and much like Thatcher is still a sore point for the UK, so too, many of the adverse repercussions of the Mintoff years are still too fresh in everyone’s recollection for a cool-headed, historically truthful evaluation to be made.

It is for this reason that excessive hero worship is potentially risky: it does not allow you to see clearly and to filter and assess where a political leader is on the right track, as opposed to decisions which are detrimental to the country. After all, even those closest and dearest to us are not 100% perfect, and the healthiest, most honest relationships are those where faults and flaws can be openly discussed. If we can do this within our own family, surely we are able to take our blinkers off and be frank and honest with this person (who is just like us) who, for the time being, just happens to be leading the country.

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