Pig asks for the beef

It’s taken 16 years but, on the eve of his retirement from Parliament, Adrian Vassallo (Labour) has finally made it. Still bristling at having been called a dinosaur, this week he called liberals “pigs” and, thus, joined the political mainstream. Not bad for a Styracosaurus.

It’s never been easy to get politicians to talk about the beef
- Ranier Fsadni

In a moment I’ll explain why, thanks to his invective, Vassallo has joined the mainstream.

First, since this column is asking for the beef, I should declare an interest. I probably qualify as a pig, at least on IVF, which was the context of Vassallo’s diatribe.

I will forswear the low road. We don’t have to wait for pigs to fly to rise above the oinks and the oiks. I take a nuanced view of pigs and their multiple contributions to representative democracy (pork barrels); quality of life (just by turning up, we bring home the bacon); and George Clooney’s domestic harmony – the late and much lamented brother pig, Max (1987-2006), gave George a snug relationship whose duration no other bedfellow has come anywhere close to matching.

We’re very sociable, highly intelligent, non-territorial (yes, we’re liberal), understand the Chinese, and Al-Qaeda avoids us.

I’m not complaining about being called a pig.

I must say, though, that I’m disappointed. One of Vassallo’s admirable features was his willingness to argue his position. He didn’t lack argument last Monday, either. But, by talking about pigs, he waved away what he said about the beef. By settling for the headline-stealing insult, Vassallo signed up to one of the least attractive, increasingly conspicuous features of the Euro-American mainstream. I don’t need to labour the point. We have just seen a US presidential election where, of the $2 billion spent on the rival campaigns, some 80 per cent of it was negative advertising.

We’re seeing something like that in Malta right now. True, we are in ‘pre-campaign’ mode, which is often negative for strategic reasons (to free up the official campaign period for positive messages). Yet, no pre-campaign has ever been as negative.

The European level isn’t any better – not in a week that saw all manner of insults directed at Tonio Borg, largely on the basis of highly inaccurate briefing, and all with the intent to shut down any open-ended conversation.

This pervasive negativity is a self-feeding, destructive process. The revolution in communications has not been kind to political substance. The sound bite, the tweet and the internet meme are designed to steal the limelight and cheer the troops not persuade the unconvinced or lead the faithful to new ground. It’s never been easy to get politicians to talk about the beef. When you add a crisis of communication to the economic and welfare crises, the result is the political mess Euro-America is in. Dominated by tribal politics, the fallback when there’s no beef.

Our politics are full of talk about nailing one’s colours to the mast and calling a spade a spade. But it’s all bluster arising from an identity crisis. Most political parties of government can no longer explain what they stand for, apart from fear of the markets. The token and the shibboleth take the place of core values. No wonder populist movements are making headway. It’s a mug’s game for the authentic tribalists.

Meanwhile, those mainstream politicians and parties that collude in the game are eroding their only possible base of success. They can only get necessary reforms passed – economic and welfare reform – by keeping alive ordinary people’s capacity to feel and practise universal solidarity. But it is difficult to feel unity with let alone responsibility for others if the only solidarity you are ever asked to show is framed in antagonistic tribal terms.

On Tuesday afternoon, those of us watching Borg’s performance in Brussels got a good look at how different things can be. Borg did not set out with a large fan base, in Malta or elsewhere. By the end, though, he had won wide respect even from people who continue to disagree with him.

It was, partly, respect for the skills he showed in well-judged rhetoric and the evident ability to absorb, in record time, a difficult, tangled portfolio with, as Mitt Romney might say, binders full of women and controversy.

He also blindsided his interrogators, who expected a US-style extreme social conservative and instead found a candidate steeped in European values and jurisprudence. They came to show him up as medieval and ended up themselves looking like the Inquisition.

But it’s striking that many Maltese were as surprised as anyone else. I don’t think it’s true, as some commentators have insinuated, that Borg has trimmed his fundamental positions. Over the years, I’ve had my dealings with him as well as one or two run-ins and it was the same man I saw in Tuesday’s hot seat.

However, if a man can be in Parliament for 20 years, in Cabinet for 15, Deputy Prime Minister for eight and still surprise us by what he stands for, we need the reasons. One is the unavoidable restrictions that Cabinet responsibility places on personal expression.

But another, no less important, has to do with the (surely) avoidable restrictions of time and tone of our political dialogue.

Call me a pig but I think we’d be better off with much larger portions of beef. Last Tuesday showed we don’t have to wait till the cows come home.

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