Off the hinge

▪️ Off the hinge ▪️ The death of the EU ▪️ Not just any woman ▪️ Banning mobiles in schools

Conspiracy theories have always existed. In reality, conspiracy theories are morality tales based on archetypal narratives about right versus wrong, good versus evil.  They are imbued by “black and white” world views.  Their danger lies in the fact that they foster societal divisions between in-groups and out-groups, exacerbating intolerance against “the other” and delegitimising different voices as being part of the conspiracy.

Often, conspiracy propagandists form part of anti-government movements. They intentionally spread disinformation and deploy extensive misinformation about government institutions and officials.  But the target is not just government officialdom   ̶   the ideas they propagate are frequently rooted in racist, antisemitic, and sometimes nativist beliefs.

The more famous recent examples include the Holocaust, the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the Illuminati, flat-earthers, secret trips by aliens, QAnon, and more recently the Covid vaccine.  However, in the last three decades they have gained strength to become mainstream. Extremists continue peddling outrageous narratives to cast doubt on democratic processes.

Conspiracy theory is very much alive in Malta as well.  One-third of us believe that the Covid vaccine was invented by governments to control them; many others that there is a cure for cancer but pharmaceutical companies have blocked it from the market.  Now, we have a fringe MEP candidate from the far-right group Imperium Europa who has implied that Prime Minister Robert Abela and Opposition Leader Bernard Grech are the hench-men of unnamed enemies of the people who have “destroyed our ethnicity, dragging our race to racial extinction, and decimated our identity”. 

Terrence Portelli, who is as unhinged as his theory, says that “They see us as replaceable to feed their masters’ economic machines that enslaves the individual … If we are replaceable for you, so are you to us.”   He goes as far as declaring that those who disagree with his views should be massacred.  “We will round you up you *** traitors and we will hand you over to your enemy without the slightest doubts,” he wrote on Facebook.  The enemy, as far as Portelli is concerned, is Putin; whether Abela and Grech are more worried about being handed over to Putin, rather than being booted out by voters, is a moot point!

But, seriously, Portelli obviously suffers from paranoia. Like most conspiracy theorists. His narratives are a hotch-potch of claims which, though they might have some little truths here and there, are riddled with unfounded and unproven allegations.  They suffice, however, to advance radical agendas that exploit uncertainties, fears, socio-economic issues, and mental health disorders amongst vulnerable people.

In recent years, right-wing extremism has proven to be fertile ground for the dissemination of conspiracy theories aimed at targeting individuals or groups blamed to be responsible for the evil in society. The modern-day conspiracy propagandist is fuelled by the belief that ancient nation ideals are being eroded by liberal forces that aim to destroy the country from the inside out.

The issues faced by society today are depicted by conspiracy theorists like Norman Lowell and Terrence Portelli in apocalyptic terms that leave no room for compromise.  The two big parties and their machines are out to get us.  Not only   ̶   they intend to replace us by foreigners. 

What makes the emergent crop of extremists in Malta very dangerous is that, as it happens, a large section of the population currently seems to be in the grips of  uncertainty and angst.  The surveys are clear and explain why an unprecedented proportion of voters are saying they are uncertain whether they will vote, or even that they will abstain, in the upcoming elections.  Politicians are unwittingly reinforcing the narrative that institutions are self-serving and anti-people.  

I don’t have a ready anti-conspiracy campaign, but I sincerely believe that shielding people from the risk of being drawn into the conspiratorial labyrinth of extremist groups is crucial to protecting the democratic structure and reducing the risk of extremist action and violence.  Acting as if such threats are slim in Malta is very short-sighted.

The death of the EU

I wanted to have a provocative title for this piece.  No doubt, somebody will immediate conclude that I am anti-EU, still pining for ‘Switzerland in the Mediterranean’, even though I voted Yes to membership.  Of course, any criticism of the EU in Malta is immediately condemned as anti-European, but the death of the EU is now being talked about even by committed Europeans.

Politico took the issue up, when it said recently that now, more than ever, there is a risk that the far right will, for the first time, have a chance to threaten the EU’s sacred values on rule of law and human rights, and block or even overturn major green and climate laws.  It warned that we cannot bank on the prospect that the traditional centre-left and centre-right forces that built the EU will hold the radical parties at bay this time round

It’s not just Orbán in Hungary and Meloni in Italy, though I wouldn’t put them in the same boat.  Even if the far right itself might not win, the centre-right has taken on a lot of its rhetoric and policies.  Manfred Weber constantly assures us that the European People’s Party (EPP) will not work with the far right, but some members of the party are said to be open to working with right-wing parties even without striking official coalition deals.

Far-right Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni with EPP President Manfred Weber.

Whether the far right or centre-right will go as far as killing the EU is doubtful, but they could well eviscerate many of the policies and practices that have prevailed in the Union for long decades.  Euroscepticism will definitely increase and nationalism will carry more weight.  What kind of Union it would be is still very much unclear.

Not just any woman

Recently I was reading how Argentina’s President   ̶   the libertarian economist Javier Milei   ̶   constantly refers to his younger sister Karina, 52, as “the boss”.  Since her brother’s election four months ago, Karina Milei has been making good on the nickname.  

She’s not only general secretary of the Presidency but also gatekeeper to her brother’s agenda, together with a trusted tiny cadre of advisers.  Karina acts as her brother’s political general, holds the reins of his party, and hand-picks people for senior roles in government.

Who is she?  Her denigrators emphasise that she is a former baker and tarot card reader.  But she has been her unmarried brother’s closest confidant since their childhood.  Javier Milei, 53, who has called his middle-class parents “very toxic” and was estranged from them for more than a decade, says: “With Kari I won the lottery. There is no more marvellous person in the world.”

Karina Milei only started in politics three years ago when her brother   ̶   then a television commentator and private sector economist   ̶   ran for a lower house seat. She managed his successful campaign.  Since then, her growing power has raised eyebrows among politicians and business leaders.

This reminds me of the cliché that “behind every great man there is a woman”.  Other expressions that are used to describe such situations include “behind every great man there’s a woman rolling her eyes”, or “behind every great man there is a woman keeping him in line”.  Sometimes the woman is the man’s wife, at other times it could be his partner or a domineering mother.

Of course, these expressions are used mostly by men.  In reality, the accomplishments of many amazing women are concealed or misrepresented through society.   Michele Morano, a professor of English at DePaul University, Chicago, agrees that “great men often have strong women behind them”.  After all, traditionally men went out to work while women’s role was as mothers, wives, and homemakers.  This gender divide meant fewer opportunities for women to pursue art, literature, science, etc.

But there are plenty of women in the world who have accomplishments and journeys of their own, ones that should stand out and stand aside from the men in their lives and their own successes. Jackie Kennedy, Coretta King, Malala, Winnie Mandela, Christine Lagarde, and others have been recognised in their own right as inspirational and hard-working.  In our own way, on the local scene we too have had several trail-blazing women.

So, I think that while it may be true that where there is a man, there might be a woman, it is also true that where there is a great woman, there doesn’t have to be a man alongside her overshadowing all of her triumphs and impacts on our society.

Banning mobiles in schools

When Raymond Dolphin became assistant principal of a middle school in Connecticut two years ago, it was clear to him that the kids had a problem with cellphones. Students were using the devices in class, despite a rule against it. Social media was exacerbating nearly every conflict among students. He invariably saw heads bent over screens in classrooms and corridors. So Dolphin did something unusual: he banned them.

The experiment sparked objections from students and some parents, but it has already generated profound and unexpected results. Dolphin likened prohibiting cellphones to curbing consumption of sugary foods. “In a matter of months, you start feeling better,” he said. 

What unfolded at the school reflects a broader struggle underway in education as some administrators turn to increasingly drastic measures to limit the reach of a technology that is both ubiquitous and endlessly distracting. Scores of schools in many countries are taking similar steps to remove mobiles altogether rather than rely on rules around their use.

Illustration: Eamonn Fitzmaurice/The 74

France, Italy, Portugal, Finland, and the Netherlands have all introduced similar bans, or are planning to in the future.  According to the latest UNESCO report on global educational monitoring, one out of four countries has approved laws banning mobile phone use in classrooms. Malta has also done so.

Banning mobile phones in schools leads to better academic performance. This was confirmed in 2015 study by the London School of Economics.  It reported a 6.4% improvement in the test scores of 16-year-olds when schools in four English cities banned phones. Pupils from a lower-income or disadvantaged background experienced the biggest boost in marks.   A more recent study published in 2020 confirmed that students in Spain fared better academically. while levels of bullying dropped, after mobiles were banned in schools.  

Now, we even have campaigns to prohibit the use of smartphones by children under 13 and to ban access to conventional social media such as TikTok, Instagram, and Snapchat until they are 18.  French President Emmanuel Macron has asked scientists and experts to suggest screen use guidelines for children with a view to France taking unprecedented steps on limiting their exposure. The hard-hitting French report said that children needed to be protected from the tech industry’s profit-driven “strategy of capturing children’s attention, using all forms of cognitive bias to shut children away on their screens, control them, re-engage them, and monetise them”. 

In Malta, one would think that things are under control. Talk about some reasonable restrictions and all hell breaks loose, not least from many parents who thank God all day for the hours spent by their young children on cellphones and tablets and can therefore forget them. 

Some private schools have banned mobiles from classrooms, corridors, and playgrounds.  As usual, the reasonably well-off pay fees and can afford not to let their children become subject to harmful practices.  In State schools, less well-off students are allowed to waste precious educational time and impair their mental and emotional well-being.

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Terrence Portelli
Terrence Portelli
12 days ago

Your media is like the Times of Malta, you write lies and NOT the truth with full transparency! No wonder mainstream media is NO LONGER CREDIBLE and many are getting their actual news from Telegram and TikTok!

Editor’s note: This comment has been heavily edited to remove verbal abuse aimed at fellow journalists working with Times of Malta.

Terrence Portelli
Terrence Portelli
12 days ago

Why did you remove the evidence of what the journalist lied about?!?!

There was no verbal abuse, just the truth! And shame on your media for spreading lies and you refuse to share the actual truth to damage someone’s reputation based on LIES!!