Open your tablet and google ‘4'33" London Symphony Orchestra’. Now listen to it. Or should I say ‘unlisten’ to it?
The title of the piece – 4'33" – refers to the total length, in minutes and seconds, of the orchestral performance. The piece itself is, well, ‘played’ in silence. Composer John Cage, who wrote the score in 1952, wanted the audience to tune in to the sounds of the environment for four minutes and 33 seconds for the duration of its performance.
Sometimes I think that the whole of Malta is a theatre in which 4'33" is being played. Only, our performance is a bit longer than that; ours could be called 4,383 hrs, 19 min and 59 sec. That’s a total of six months.
Tomorrow at 3pm it will be exactly six months since journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia was blown up – in the most graphic of ways – while she was working on stories uncovering rampant corruption on this island. In other countries, when similar things happened, people roared in anger, and roared so much that they toppled the Prime Minister. In contrast, here we were, and still are, consumed by silence – silence so loud that at times it’s painful.
We try and drown this absence of sound with cacophony. Like, for example, by shouting merrily and emphatically “Oh My Malta!” But deep down in our hearts, we all know that in truth, we should be whispering a sombre “Oh… my Malta, what is happening to you?”
We should be whispering a sombre ‘Oh… my Malta, what is happening to you?’
What is this silence in the face of the rampant corruption and impunity? Is it fear? Is it lethargy? Is it denial? Or is it simply, contentment?
“Good is he who sees and is silent,” a friend of mine told me the other day when we were discussing the issue. “It’s an old mafia saying. Have you never watched The Godfather?”
Pftt, what does the mafia have to do with silence?
Turns out, a lot. According to a North Carolina University study by Adriana Cerami, any mafia thrives through a system of silence in communication, film and literature. Cerami gives an example of the tactics of southern Italy’s Camorra, which works an intricate web of favours done in exchange for other favours among people of all class, “from the humblest to the highest”, all held together by omertà, silence.
The “system of silence”, Cerami says, is so dominating that it even overpowers the original structures of a free market economy and freedom of speech. “The local newspaper headlines tend to present stories from the Camorra’s point of view, glorifying its crime and arrests while ignoring or manipulating the stories of victims of violence in order to sympathise with the camorrists,” she writes.
She explains how the mafia maintains power by controlling how stories are written and publicised, even though the audience of that media knows perfectly well what is going on and fully understand that they are being dominated. It is a vicious circle of silence.
Author Pietro Grasso, in Per non morire di Mafia, was even more direct. He says that “silence is the oxygen” by which the criminal system organises itself, and gets a hold on economy and power.
“I silenzi di oggi siamo destinati a pagarli duramente domani” (tomorrow we will be talking of the silences of today, and pay for them) Grasso says in his book, encouraging people to react, to talk and discuss. “Unless we talk about it, will have a stronger Mafia, and our citizens will be less free,” he insists.
This culture of silence is, of course, not something that sprouts out of nowhere one fine day. It would be something innate in a culture, due to its geography, its history and the character make-up of the inhabitants. Malta, like Sicily, has the perfect setting for a mafia set-up. We even have an age-old apt saying for it: “Ħokkli dahri ħa nħokklok tiegħek” (You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours). It’s such a visual expression, and for some reason I always imagine hairy backs.
It does not help that the education system has been, let’s face it, a total failure. Politicians over the years have only been interested in numbers and in marks, and did not give a hoot about the nurturing of active citizens. This means that for generations we’ve been raising children without any social conscience and without any civic sense. This is the reason why our students are so different from, say, French, Slovak or Scottish students – they have protesting in their blood because their sense of citizenship comes before anything else. Instead, here, we’ve been pushing the what’s-in-it-for-me ideal, and made money as the end-all goal.
I am hopeful that we can reverse that, today, if we put our minds to it. Ovid, the ever passionate Roman poet, who always has an answer to everything, says that “dripping water hollows out stone, not through force but through persistence”.
If we do it together it would not take much to notch up the volume from the symphony of silence to a symphony of droplets, eating away a corrupt system.
Let’s start by joining the symbolic activities organised by civil society in Valletta tomorrow at 6pm.
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