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Lessons from John McCain - Martin Scicluna

Cindy McCain lays her head on the casket of John McCain, during a burial service at the cemetery at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis. Photo: Reuters

Cindy McCain lays her head on the casket of John McCain, during a burial service at the cemetery at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis. Photo: Reuters

Senator John McCain, the veteran senator from Arizona, Republican Party candidate for the US presidency in 2008 and great supporter of the Atlantic Alliance, died of an aggressive form of brain cancer last week after a year-long battle.

In 1967, McCain was flying a US Navy bomber over Hanoi in Vietnam when his surface-to-air-missile alarm sounded. He did not roll and jink. He stayed on target and released his bombs. As he pulled to climb to a safer altitude, a Soviet-built missile destroyed the wing of his aircraft. After he was shot down, he was held in the so-called “Hanoi Hilton”, the North Vietnamese prison.

He had broken two arms and a leg after ejecting from his stricken bomber. He was denied proper medical treatment and was tortured. Less than a year after capture, he was offered early release as the son of an admiral. But he refused to be repatriated ahead of other American prisoners of war. He spent five more years in squalid conditions.

In the summer of 2015, early in his presidential campaign, Donald Trump derided McCain: “He’s a war hero because he was captured. I like people that weren’t captured.” A week before he died his family let it be known that, following his lying in state in the US capitol, he did not want Trump to speak at his funeral last Sunday.

Since the election of Trump he has been the commander-in-chief’s bete noir. As he entered the final act of his extraordinary life, McCain exhibited something like his focus and determination over Hanoi. Over recent months he attacked the “half-baked, spurious nationalism” he saw behind White House foreign policy.

He lamented the death of civility and cross-party cooperation in Washington. He chided Trump for discrediting the media, discounting human rights, demeaning refugees and praising tyrants, such as Putin.

About Trump’s admiration for strongmen, he wrote: “The President seems uninterested in the moral character of world leaders and their regimes. The appearance of toughness, or a reality-show facsimile of toughness, seems to matter more than any of our values. Flattery secures his friendship, criticism his enmity.” He described Trump’s belief of Putin’s word above that of the US intelligence service with the scathing put-down: “No president has ever abased himself more abjectly before a tyrant.”

His attacks became more pointed a fortnight ago when he called on the Senate to reject the President’s nomination to lead the CIA on the grounds that in the early 2000s the nominee oversaw torture for the agency at a secret prison in Thailand. She had refused to say that torture was immoral and McCain argued that this disqualified her from the role.

As his obituaries have highlighted, McCain was no saint. He was unfaithful to his first wife and was a lifelong gambler. Like all politicians, he made many bad decisions. But at a time when the US – and democratic countries all over the western world, including Malta – have descended into “tribal enmities” and an increasingly polarised political world, he will forever be remembered for championing the old-fashioned virtues of civility and political bipartisanship.

The current state of Maltese democracy is distinctly primeval. The common good means nothing. Winning is all. Mutual antagonism rules. This is the logic of Maltese politics today

He was a believer in a “country first” bipartisan approach on matters of international and constitutional importance, a fundamental respect for diverging viewpoints. He opposed factional battles over judicial nominations, believed in negotiated budget deals and worked with Democrats. In one of his last speeches in the Senate, soon after his cancer was diagnosed, he denounced the increasingly poisonous public discourse afflicting the US. His moral and physical courage will be his lasting legacy.

There are lessons for Malta from McCain’s lifetime of public service and his commitment to bipartisanship. When both the wife of the Prime Minister and of the leader of the Opposition get publicly criticised for complaining, justifiably, about the bullying, taunts and pressure to which their young children have been subjected in their schools – simply because they are the children of Joseph Muscat and Adrian Delia – there is something extremely wrong both with our values as a people and our politics.

Longstanding divisions in Maltese politics have been ratcheted up in the last two years. It has changed our view of what it is to be human. No longer able to fathom how their rivals think and say the things they do, many Maltese are increasingly liable to consider those who do not agree with their politics as lesser beings.

Research in the US by Alexander Theodoridis and James Martherus has found that 77 per cent of respondents considered their political rivals to be less evolved humans than members of their own side. Americans are prone, the survey suggests, to find their “sub-human opponents extremely disagreeable”. No wonder that Republicans and Democrats cannot bring themselves to make the compromises upon which the healthy functioning of democracy depends.

I shall be very surprised if a similar survey here did not elicit the same results to those in the US. Our Nationalist and Labour tribal politics is toxic. The problem is structural. The root of tribalism is human nature, and the current state of Maltese democracy is distinctly primeval. The common good means nothing. Winning is all. Mutual antagonism rules. This is the logic of Maltese politics today. 

In the spirit of McCain, how do we find ways of easing our partisan warring? For long-term solutions, we should start from the premise that there is a moral obligation to tolerate other people’s viewpoints: to permit, recognise and respect others’ beliefs without necessarily sharing them. And to be prepared to put up with someone of a different political colour while respecting the person in the process. In short, agreeing to disagree.

It is a step that starts – like so much else that is deficient in Malta – with our educational system. It is about learning civility and showing respect and an understanding that intolerance is divisive and impedes any search for truth.

Political maturity means we need to become tolerant enough of one another’s views to reach across the tribal divide, to achieve consensus where possible and to declare that the kind of inflammatory hate-speech we have heard used in the last few months is wrong and unacceptable. We need to spend time trying to engage in honest argument, while also understanding other people’s views.

This is the McCain legacy Malta should adopt. 

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