A ques­tion of mean­ing

In pol­i­tics, there is thought and there is ac­tion. The lat­ter is more im­por­tant than the for­mer when it comes to achiev­ing re­sults, but the mean­ing of the ac­tion de­pends on the thought.

The Malta Independent on Sunday - - DEBATE & ANALYSIS - Mark A. Sam­mut

Our lit­tle coun­try is rel­a­tively young. Its in­sti­tu­tions have still not grown out of their in­fancy or, at best, their ado­les­cence. They have still not achieved full eman­ci­pa­tion from the colo­nial past. State-build­ing is still a work-in-progress.

At the same time, Mal­tese so­ci­ety, which is much older than the coun­try’s mod­ern sta­tus, has its needs – and they are press­ing needs. Not just in re­spect of the vul­ner­a­ble who need de­cent so­cial ac­com­mo­da­tion, but ev­ery­body else – from peo­ple who need less air pol­lu­tion be­cause they are in­creas­ingly suf­fer­ing from lung dis­ease, to stu­dents af­flicted with res­pi­ra­tory prob­lems on ac­count of mouldy class­rooms, to the over­all sen­sa­tion grip­ping the coun­try that there is no chance of sav­ing the en­vi­ron­ment for fu­ture gen­er­a­tions.

Ac­tion is re­quired on both fronts: state-build­ing is an im­por­tant pri­or­ity but so­cial needs are equally im­por­tant.

State-build­ing

The Prime Min­is­ter’s in­sis­tence on want­ing to pro­tect the MizziSchem­bri duo at all costs is a hu- mon­gous spoke in the wheel of the state-build­ing process. How can the Mal­tese state func­tion prop­erly when its ex­ec­u­tive branch’s top­most rep­re­sen­ta­tive fails to take the ac­tion ex­pected of him?

When state of­fi­cials see that clear mis­be­haviour is con­doned, they will ei­ther feel de­mor­alised or, worse, em­pow­ered to do like­wise. When the pop­u­la­tion sees all of this, its re­spect for the author­ity of the State will plum­met.

Benedetto Croce

In the in­ter-war pe­riod, the Ital­ian philoso­pher Benedetto Croce wrote that peo­ple treat politi­cians like doc­tors. When some­body needs a doc­tor to cure them, they don’t care whether the doc­tor is hon­est or dis­hon­est, moral or im­moral. All they care about is that the doc­tor can cure them. The same ap­plies to politi­cians. Peo­ple hardly care whether a politi­cian is hon­est or not; what they do care about is that the politi­cian can de­liver and cre­ate wealth, sta­bil­ity and well-be­ing.

Croce was writ­ing at the time when Italy started ex­per­i­ment­ing with the Fas­cist regime. Whether you like Mus­solini or not, the his­tor­i­cal truth is that for a num­ber of years, the regime en­joyed a high level of pop­u­lar sup­port. The Ital­ians call that pe­riod ‘ gli anni del con­senso’ (the years of pop­u­lar ap­proval). The regime cre­ated many struc­tures and en­ti­ties that are ei­ther still in place to­day or else served as the ba­sis for fur­ther de­vel­op­ment down the years. These had so­cial ob­jec­tives and proved pop­u­lar with the Ital­ians. Most im­por­tantly, the regime tried to im­pose or­der on a pop­u­la­tion and coun­try that had grown dis­or­derly.

So Mus­solini’s moral­ity was hardly im­por­tant. What was im­por­tant was that he was mak­ing some­thing great out of Italy (or at least, so the pro­pa­ganda said).

The ques­tion thus begs it­self: ‘Are Croce’s words still valid to­day?’

The moral­ity of politi­cians

I would say that they are only par­tially valid. Yes, so­cial needs are im­por­tant. But so too are mat­ters of state-build­ing. Cre­at­ing wealth is good. Distribut­ing it fairly is bet­ter. Hav­ing in­sti­tu­tions that work is good. Not abusing gov­ern­ment power is bet­ter.

The coun­try needs a healthy ver­sion of this two-pronged vi­sion: state-build­ing on the one hand, so­cial con­science on the other. De­spite all the talk about ‘the rule of law’ and ‘our in­sti­tu­tions are work­ing fine’ and so on, it seems to me that Joseph Mus­cat’s ad­min­is­tra­tion is fail­ing mis­er­ably on both counts. It seems to me that the more the Gov­ern­ment protests that there is the rule of law and all that, the less things are func­tion­ing as they should. The Gov­ern­ment doth protest too much, me­thinks.

Wealth is be­ing cre­ated but very badly dis­trib­uted, to the ex­tent that poverty is rais­ing its ugly head. State in­sti­tu­tions are treated like bal­last that hin­ders the rise of cer­tain peo­ple’s pri­vate air bal­loons.

Oc­cu­py­ing a State po­si­tion brings with it the obli­ga­tion to obey an un­writ­ten code of State moral­ity. The Mizzi-Schem­bri17-Black im­broglio is of such far-reach­ing sig­nif­i­cance that it could wreak un­told havoc on the State, its in­sti­tu­tions and the coun­try, to the ex­tent that we end up with only pieces scat­tered here and there in the shadow of in­creas­ingly higher high-rise build­ings.

Machi­avel­lian pol­i­tics

The Mizzi-Schem­bri im­broglio is his­tory in the mak­ing. Some­body re­cently wrote an opin­ion piece (pub­lished in an­other news­pa­per) crit­i­cis­ing Joseph Mus­cat for be­ing Machi­avel­lian. I dis­agree with the author of that piece, be­cause he seems to think that Machi­avelli pro­posed an amoral prince as an ab­stract model for real princes to fol­low.

Machi­avelli might be un­der­stood as hav­ing meant that the end jus­ti­fies the means, but the end it­self was highly moral – at least for Machi­avelli and those of his per­sua­sion. The uni­fi­ca­tion of Italy was such a high moral goal that some amoral be­hav­iour could be tol­er­ated.

Not so in the Mizzi-Schem­bri im­broglio, as the only goal is the lin­ing of cer­tain pock­ets through se­cret com­pa­nies and se­cret bank ac­counts in shady ju­ris­dic­tions: an ab­so­lutely im­moral (not amoral) ob­jec­tive. The mean­ing very much de­pends on the con­text.

Idiom not Idiot

A re­tired au­di­tor has been un­duly crit­i­cised for us­ing a Mal­tese ex­pres­sion which in­volves a pros­ti­tute. I think the crit­i­cism is stupid, and I shall say why. First, no­body in this coun­try thinks that there is any MP who works, or has worked, as a pros­ti­tute or es­cort!

Sec­ondly, id­ioms are what they are. One can­not change an idiom be­cause its lit­eral mean­ing can be at odds with its metaphor­i­cal mean­ing! This is non­sense. Id­ioms are meant to be un­der­stood metaphor­i­cally. If I say, ‘Let us take the bull by the horns”, I am not urg­ing any­body to go to a cor­rida in Spain and lit­er­ally take a bull by the horns! I am us­ing a metaphor.

When we use the ex­pres­sion, “The pros­ti­tute ( or chemist) gives you what they have” (lit­eral and there­fore ugly trans­la­tion, I must say), we are not say­ing that the per­son to whom the ex­pres­sion is ad­dressed is ei­ther a pros­ti­tute or a chemist. It is a metaphor.

Sim­i­larly, when that other idiom is used – that a par­tic­u­lar per­son is be­hav­ing like a pros­ti­tute in a xalata – it is clearly a metaphor. Hav­ing to ex­plain this is quite dis­heart­en­ing and sad.

Now, a cou­ple of words on xalata. The word is taken di­rectly from scialata which, ac­cord­ing to my Si­cil­ian et­y­mo­log­i­cal dic­tio­nary, means ‘re­cre­ation’ ( recrearsi, an­i­mum re­laxare) and de­rives from the Latin ex­halare. But I have found in a Neapoli­tan dic­tio­nary that it can be used as a by-word for ‘sex­ual act’. The dif­fer­ent shades of mean­ing are prob­a­bly all con­cealed in the word we Mal­tese use, in that highly in­ter­est­ing in­ter­sec­tion be­tween se­man­tics and the un­con­scious.

How­ever, I think it is this la­tent mean­ing which is found in this par­tic­u­lar idiom, rather than the more mun­dane mean­ing of out­ing or spree that we usu­ally re­serve for it. The idiom does not re­fer to a pros­ti­tute on an out­ing or dur­ing the tra­di­tional spree fol­low­ing the feast of the vil­lage pa­tron saint – it is re­fer­ring to a pros­ti­tute who is busy work­ing, pre­tend­ing to have fun but in re­al­ity count­ing ev­ery minute till she fi­nally gets to call it a day and go home.

The point is, id­ioms are metaphors and although ed­u­cated peo­ple know this, not ev­ery­body is ed­u­cated, and it is stupid to di­rect ha­tred at some­body who used a colour­ful idiom. It’s sad­den­ing too. (There is a Lu­cio Bat­tisti song, Anche Per Te, which del­i­cately re­counts the story of a pros­ti­tute who goes back to her pimp in the morn­ing and the singer would like, Christ-like, to also die for her, even though he does not know how.)

Wealth is be­ing cre­ated but very badly dis­trib­uted, to the ex­tent that poverty is rais­ing its ugly head. State in­sti­tu­tions are treated like bal­last that hin­ders the rise of cer­tain peo­ple’s pri­vate air bal­loons.

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