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Those of us who are not shouting

Polarisation has increased and the distinction between truth and opinion has vanished

Photo: Jonathan Borg

Photo: Jonathan Borg

On September 19, 2016, I wrote an article which I titled A leader’s gamble, where I dwelled on the Panama papers and the political choices made by the Prime Minister. I won’t regurgitate my words but in my concluding question I asked whether we are witnessing “the end of politics” as understood in their agonistic sense.

While stating that Maltese politics was stuck between a rock and a hard place where contradictions abound, I then hoped that “if the leaders of both parties are willing to reason things out, they could well resolve the current impasse, which in my opinion is increasing polarisation,” concluding that if matters degenerate it would be a nasty climate which could further distort our democracy over the coming years.

Here we are facing a very nasty climate, where polarisation has increased and the distinction between truth, truisms, and opinion has vanished.

I hasten to add that here I am not avoiding any issue. Nor am I making excuses. I wrote my articles when the Panama Papers came out, and I said clearly what I thought then, which still holds today.

So when asked by a Maltese language newspaper last Sunday (as reported online), I took great care in not contradicting what I have been saying all along, while I emphasised that more than ever before, in order to establish the truth, we need to use all the instruments of democracy that we have.

As we could read from President Coleiro Preca’s words about the limitations that the Head of State has overall, we realise that Malta is at high risk and that situations like these stand to ruin the country for ages to come. Irrespective of where one stands on this, I believe that ultimately, we need the law courts — not the media, nor the newspapers, blogs, Twitter or Facebook — to serve us in resolving such matters.

In Malta, we seem to never agree on how we should do politics. What are the rules of the contest? How could we distinguish arguments and facts within clear, mutually agreed, parameters? It’s as if we want to play football while there is still a serious dispute about the system of refereeing, and where some would dispute the rules which should be established prior to, rather than during, the match.

In liberal democracies, the first attempt to solve an impasse goes through the State’s independent instruments of power. President Trump was not pleased with how the Courts stopped him from implementing certain executive orders he signed, but he could not ignore the Courts. Likewise, in Britain, Theresa May could not sidestep the Courts nor the House of Lords over Brexit, even when she clearly tried. Ultimately, when she exhausted everything, she had to call an election, even after repeatedly denying that she ever would.

For all I know, tomorrow, or next week, or next month, in Malta there will be a call for early elections. Or things might well go in another direction. Frankly, my guess is as good as everyone else’s.

Polarisation is creating stalemate after stalemate

However, whichever way this goes, I know that polarisation is creating stalemate after stalemate. Clearly, more of this is not going to resolve anything.

Now I am sure that many have a toolkit of regurgitated arguments ready to rebut what I am saying. Some of my friends on social media have told me that the Panama papers are in themselves proof, though this reminded me of those who cite sacred texts to look into the future. Indeed, the Panama Papers have their own veracity and no one denies them. But the latest allegations go beyond that, even when the major point of dispute is exactly this alleged connection. (Which is why we keep going on in circles whenever there is a disagreement).

This dispute reminds me of a TV discussion between Dr Eddie Fenech Adami and Dr Karmenu Mifsud Bonnici in the 1980s. Fenech Adami accused Mifsud Bonnici of constructing false syllogisms—sophismata—where from true premises one draws a false conclusion.

As it happens, when I heard many making the connection between the Panama Papers and the accusations levelled at the Prime Minister and Mrs Muscat, I immediately recalled that discussion.

Fenech Adami’s words made an impression on me then. What I learnt from many years of engaging with politics helped me understand how many times things are not what they seem.

I remember when President Obama was first elected, people used to say that he never reacts immediately to news but he waits, sometimes for weeks, to weigh things and then decides what to do.

Yet many are impatient and prefer to draw quick conclusions. They are all too ready to accept what seems to be true enough for them to go out there, shout and protest.

Now I am told by many friends (who evidently do not agree with me) that people who decided not to shout and protest, are “sitting on the fence”. I would argue that as I did not shout and never intend to, I am neither sitting on a fence nor being indifferent. Far from it.

Some friends disagree. Most of them are respectful to me. But I have also sensed quite a hostility which if not directed to me, it was directed to friends of mine who disagree with those who chose to shout and protest.

Ultimately those like me who chose not to shout have, in their majority and beyond their political allegiance, commented and mostly agreed that after the Panama Papers, PEPs should take responsibility and resign. However, on this occasion, these people decided to stop, look closer … and wait. And I can reassure you that they are not all Labour supporters. Some have been very harsh on Labour and Dr Muscat — as indeed all those AD supporters who decided not to shout and protest, would confirm.

We might wait forever. We might never get an answer. But if this happens without any resolution, it means that we are all losers — whatever party we support and whatever ideas we might have. If we go to an election with nothing resolved in Court, any story over corruption will never be credible. Whoever wins will still have to govern with this cloud out there and this does not bode well for our young Republic.

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