The sanity of crowds

“What is there new to say?” asked Petra Caruana, as she began to address the crowd gathered yesterday evening in Valletta.

Her point, to the people protesting against corruption: We’ve known all the politically damning facts for some time. It’s not talk we need but for other people, who acknowledge what’s happening to the country, to decide not to remain spectators any more and to ask for their country back.

The country back. The country is not the government. As Mark Anthony Sammut underlined, the issue here is democracy for all, no matter your political persuasion.

It’s the environment for all, not just those whose clean air and pristine views will never be threatened. It’s fair energy bills for all, reflecting world prices. It’s proper hospitals for all, not a future darkened by the wishes of a shadowy new owner. And it’s dignity for all, without needing to bow to the ruling politicians as though they are masters, not public servants.

However, although there might be nothing new to say, there are new ways of saying it. And yesterday’s meeting had a brightness in the crowd, and a wit in the speakers, that represents an important development.

It’s not just grief that passes through various stages. So does political protest. An important transition is, obviously, when silent anger becomes vocal and visible. Another, however, is when anger begins to coexist with open humorous mockery. Anger can coexist with fear. Open mockery shows the fear is receding.

Yesterday, mockery was on display to a greater extent than I have so far seen it. People are not naturally witty, as any first-class comic, who labours over his jokes, will tell you. The easy wit we saw displayed yesterday is an indication of many private conversations in which corruption has been discussed. It is here, at office water-coolers and coffee machines, at chance meetings in the street, at family lunches, that the wit has been honed.

And not just of the speakers, mind you. Humour requires an attuned audience – ready to pick up the line and to laugh easily.

So, the growing eloquence of speakers is not, in my view, simply the result of a few speakers’ private practice, or the organisers’ inspired choices for the night. It is a symptom of a growing fluency in wider society. The narrative of corruption is spreading and displacing others. Fear has begun to be displaced by open jokes.

There’s a long road yet to travel. One milestone will be marked by cartoonists. We will know we have reached it when we open a leading newspaper whose backpage cartoon is captioned: ‘Crooks belong behind bars – not in them’.

And a step beyond would have been taken the day another cartoon appears, of Joseph Muscat running on a treadmill, shedding weight rapidly, to the point of disappearance, with the caption: ‘No stone left unburned’.

You might think, as I do, that Muscat’s weight loss is due to exercise and diet. But if the cartoon is unfair, that’s only a further marker of the public’s growing, unforgiving mood. Cartoonists reflect their audiences.

We are not there yet. There are many wrong turnings beckoning. Crowds are mistrusted. The madness of crowds is feared more than the cold reason of the corrupt politician. And the interests of leaders of crowds are, to civil society, as suspect as that of political parties.

Another important milestone will be marked when ‘the crowd’ gives way to the civic movement that is led by a plan, not leaders, that ordinary people can identify with. Not the detailed programme of a political party. But a kind of charter, written or unwritten, that transcends partisanship.

We had such a charter almost two decades ago, when the debate on European Union membership was heating up. There was a sense, then, that anything less than membership was going to rob us of a future that was about more than money and funds.

It was about dignity, rights and an entire way of life. There was no madness of crowds then. There was a social movement, spilling from business leaders to union members, from Nationalist to Labour. What was mad was not the pro-EU crowd but staying away from joining the debate.

It’s this realisation that will be decisive now. That the protests against corruption are not primarily about money, even if it’s offensive to see public wealth looted. It’s about seeing the prospects of our children’s health and economic freedom held hostage by robber barons. It’s seeing a moratorium on spatial justice for the sake of crony developers. It’s about seeing our children decide they can live a life of greater dignity elsewhere.

In other words, these protests are not really about who holds power. It’s about what kind of power we let any politician have.

If that ever sinks in, the decisive step would have been taken. Madness would not reside in the crowd. It would be madness to stay at home.


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