Unity: the new opiate of the people

The news that President George Vella has announced a Conference for National Unity to be held at the end of February barely made the headlines. In a press conference sparsely attended by members of the press, the President of the Republic outlined the reasons why he felt that such a conference was necessary.

Watching the 30-minute press conference I could not help but think that the President did have a point to make, yet whatever point it is was lost in the miasma of the very partisan thinking that this conference is supposed to tackle. Sure, there was the talk about increased divisiveness and lack of respect – talk that described a nation menaced by fratricidal implosion, much like Trump’s USA.

In the DOI press release, the President’s office stresses that the conference should steer clear from partisan politics. There it was again, the phrase “partisan politics” used in an implied contradiction to the nobler form of politics presumably engaged in by our politicians.

Bang in the middle of the press release came this wonderful phrase: “The need for… giving space to citizens and to an analysis by those who are detached from the political dimension, which sometimes stifles or extinguishes a change of thoughts of a much broader nature”.

This highfalutin, self-righteous rhetoric is typical of what I call the ‘Istrina’ moments of PLPNtalk. They are brief illusory references to an armistice of some kind when the proverbial hatchet is temporarily buried for what is supposed to be the greater good.

Inadvertently, whoever drafted the President’s press release let slip the admission that the greatest curse to the Maltese political scene is in fact the eternal exchange between the self-serving duopoly of parties. In fact, what we have is a conference that will “steer clear from partisan politics” while at the same time admitting that the same partisan politics is what often stifles or extinguishes a mature exchange of thoughts (and so presumably must be tackled).

George Vella seemed to dangerously veer into the perilous territory frequently navigated by Robert Abela – the patriotic, nationalistic language where national unity means not criticising your own country or government. Yes, that last refuge of scoundrels hovered menacingly on the whole presentation and a particular admonition was reserved for the Fourth Estate.

The President was asked whether he would agree that partisan media contribute to the fouling of national discourse and the best he could answer was that such a discussion could be entertained by the national conference. What he failed to mention was that the list of ‘personalities’ (sic) who will contribute to the national conference was replete with Labour veterans of the partisan scene, no doubt prepared to imbue the proceedings with the neutral, anaesthetised logic Vella hopes to obtain.

A former Labour think-tank chairperson (now Labour’s choice for chairing PBS), the editor of Labour’s favourite Sunday propaganda rag and a couple of Labour-leaning programme hosts stand out in the list of stars selected to push this initiative. Remember all that talk of steering clear from partisan politics? Steer again.

The problem, however, does not lie in the blatantly Labour slant being given to proceedings. That is par for the course in this kind of event. Also, stuffing the panel of ‘personalities’ with an equal number of Nationalists would make absolutely no difference. My concern has much more to do with the very aim of the conference.

What unity can Maltese society aspire to? Better still, what purpose will such unity serve?

Beyond the rhetoric of respectful conviviality lies a greater challenge that does not require an opiated public but rather a questioning one. The national unity spin is useful only for those who thrive on the current system and who would like to preserve its vacuous nature. It is a system where politics as a social tool has been eliminated completely and replaced by a self-serving, all-devouring behemoth.

The choice we are given is not whether we are united or not but rather whether we will continue to not only accept but also to blindly endorse this system of alternation that serves only the few. The President’s office got it all wrong. We do not need a conference for national unity. We need a conference for national awakening – one where the citizen stands up to the empty rhetoric, the propagandistic spin and the lies.


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