Tuesday 07 April 2020

Is it justified anger or Schadenfreude?

This column first appeared in Malta Today

As we approach 2020, and the photos of ironic Christmas sweaters, happy families and beautifully laid out tables disappear from our newsfeeds, the tempo of political posts is already being stepped up again. Even as we celebrated the festive season, we were still reeling from the full impact of what happened in the last few months of 2019 and I am sure many a Christmas lunch included full-blown discussions about the current political crisis.

Some even persisted in relentlessly posting about the situation on FB throughout Christmas day, going so far as to claim that there was nothing to celebrate and that they wanted to remain angry. Obviously this was their choice and their anger is fully justified. No one can force you to be cheerful if you are just not feeling it and there was plenty to be depressed about with every new story. But it also has to be pointed out that you simply cannot dictate what others should do or feel by trying to dampen the spirits of those who still wanted to enjoy Christmas with their loved ones like they do each year.

The attempt to sabotage the charity fundraising marathon L-Istrina was also ill-advised. The recipients of the donations collected are people in need at the worst point in their lives, so by not donating the only ones being hurt are those who are already suffering. Images of a smiling PM answering the phones in the midst of this crisis was, for many, a galling thing to see, but one could easily donate without having to sit and watch the telethon.

There are those who have also tried to justify boycotting L-Istrina by pointing accusing fingers at the President for “not doing anything” – but anyone who paid attention during their social studies lessons will know that Malta’s President has very limited Constitutional powers. The only scenario where he could “do something” is if the PM has lost the majority of the House through a no-confidence vote and that is not going to happen. As we saw when all hell broke loose in November, despite a few anonymous Labour MPs speaking about their “fury” to the press, when it came to the crunch, they all backed Muscat.

Another miscalculation which is being made by those who have always vehemently opposed Muscat is the turn the vitriol has taken. There is a certain vindictiveness and spiteful revenge in some of the comments which does not point towards wanting a clean Government or any form of real justice, but simply a thrilling Schadenfreude at seeing the once mighty Muscat being booted out and everything around him falling apart. Again, everyone is entitled to despise a politician for what he has done or what he represents but when I read certain remarks I do wonder what place they are coming from. Some of them sound so petty and childish, so full of vengeful malice that my radar picks up on it and I have to question what is really behind this loathing.

I realise that one part of the country could never swallow the fact that Malta was being led by a Labour Government and that Muscat and especially Michelle have always been sneered at for being upstarts and social climbers. The whole social class issue still sticks in the craw of many and judging from the tone of some of these posts, I have to question whether that is the real issue for some people. “Let’s drag those plebs out of Castille by their hair and give it back to whom it rightfully belongs (us)” is the unspoken but very real sentiment running through a lot of threads.

What is being conveniently glossed over of course is that a substantial chunk of those who “put him there” not once, but twice were, in fact, erstwhile PN supporters.

Here I want to emphasise (lest I be misunderstood and be accused of “supporting corruption” or worse, murder) that the events of the last few months have been appalling and unacceptable. However, when I read posts which go for the jugular by bringing up completely irrelevant side issues while descending into gossipy bitchiness, I feel it is detracting from what is really at stake. It also has the opposite counter-effect by repulsing those who were agreeing with the protests because they have been disillusioned by Muscat, as these remarks tend to drag us back into the quicksand of classism, which has always been a bone of contention for Labour Party supporters.

There is no question, of course, that as Prime Minister, Muscat not only let down those who voted for him, those who gave him a chance even though it went against their usual politics, and those who defended him at every turn, but more unforgivably: he has also let down the whole country. Many believe he should be made to pay, preferably by going to jail, for letting the situation unravel to the extent that it has and for allegedly protecting those who seem to be implicated. But to date, at least, there is no unequivocal evidence of him being directly involved in a cover up. Indeed, the atmosphere at the moment is such that I debated whether to even write that last sentence because it seems that choosing to stick to absolute facts, rather than conjecture or assumptions, also tends to brand you as being complicit.

Moral and political responsibility, of course, are other matters and about this there is no question. One is not only the PM to receive accolades and pats on the back when things go right, but to shoulder the full burden of responsibility when things go terribly wrong.

US President Harry Truman famously had a sign on his desk which read ‘the buck stops here’ which means that he made the decisions and accepted the ultimate responsibility for them. This is in direct contrast to that other expression of ‘passing the buck’, which so many politicians and public figures are good at, where they point fingers at everyone else while absolving themselves of all blame. A Prime Minister, however, should also bear in mind that he is responsible for creating a certain type of society through the way he governs. The acceptance of lavish gifts by politicians, for example, breaches the code of ethics for MPs, but because so much of the country has been conditioned to look at material gain as something to aspire to (if not the ONLY thing to aspire to), the expected shock factor at these latest revelations has been muted.

But while Muscat may try to go on with his life as if nothing momentous has happened, he also has to deal with the fact that he stepped down, not in a blaze of glory as he was hoping, but in a blaze of probably the worst accusations ever levelled at a sitting Prime Minster.

The same questions, as I write, are still swirling. Did he know? How much did he know? And if he didn’t know what was going on, that points to either utter stupidity or an alarming naïveté which are arguably as dangerous as knowing and being complicit. Knowing and doing nothing about it also points to having placed himself in a further precarious position – that he could not speak up because he owed Keith Schembri for handing him landslide election victories (as Schembri so arrogantly told the media while leaving Court). Some claim he could not speak up because Schembri had him in his hold for other more devious reasons, although that claim just takes us back into conjecture territory once again.

I do not remember Malta ever having welcomed a New Year in such uncertain circumstances, and the fallout of these last few weeks will continue with each new bit of testimony and every Court sitting. If I were to hazard a guess at the general mood of the country as we usher in 2020, it is one of restlessness and impatience to get the PL leadership race done and dusted and a new PM at the helm, so that things can get back to normal. Whether this constant state of flux is the new normal remains to be the seen.

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