Raphael Vassallo

Not ‘traitors’, but certainly not ‘patriots’ either

By taking this idiotic partisan pique to the highest European levels, we have exposed the sheer non-existence of anything resembling a Maltese sense of ‘nationhood’

Raphael Vassallo
27 June 2017, 7:30am
There are few more overtly ‘treacherous’ actions one can contemplate, than marching on your own capital at the head of an army, with the sole intent of overthrowing your government and replacing it with yourself
There are few more overtly ‘treacherous’ actions one can contemplate, than marching on your own capital at the head of an army, with the sole intent of overthrowing your government and replacing it with yourself
It might sound like a bald assertion to make, at a time when the word is being flung about like so many well-aimed ‘perlini’ at a wedding... but in fact, there is no such thing in the world as a ‘traitor’. Nor has there ever been one.

To me, this is self-evident: for the simple reason that there is not, and cannot ever be, such a thing as a commonly-agreed definition of ‘the national interest’ or ‘the good of the country’. Nobody is entitled to simply draw a line in the sand, and declare that whoever finds himself on the ‘wrong’ side is automatically acting against his or her own nation. Not, at least, without swapping ‘the nation’ for ‘the person who drew the line in the sand’... and that would be a dangerous thing to do. 

Admittedly, however, it is also how the history of the entire world has progressed these past few thousand years or so (trust me: I was there, I saw it all happen). Just think of any historical personality who might have been labelled a ‘traitor’ during or after his lifetime. Retrospectively, you will find that the label only ever fits when viewed from the perspective of the accuser. 

Take Guy Fawkes, for instance. He tried to blow up London’s House of Parliament in 1605. Had he tried to do it in 2017, he would have probably been a labelled a ‘terrorist’, and arrested on anti-terror charges. But those appellations were largely meaningless 500 years ago; so instead, he was condemned to death for ‘high treason’... and went down in history as the archetypal ‘traitor’.

Now, a quick word before any of this is misunderstood. I have absolutely no intention of accidentally reigniting the War of the Roses, or anything like that. At a glance, I would say the UK has enough problems of its own already. But just because one particular faction had successfully fought its way to the throne, at the expense of all the others who also claimed the legitimacy of succession... it doesn’t mean they were automatically right, you know. 

So if the Stuarts were on the throne at all, when Guy Fawkes tried to put a rocket under it in 1605... it was only because James I had inherited it from Elizabeth I... whose grandfather happened to be the last man standing, after the Houses of York and Lancaster practically annihilated each other in the War of the Roses. Things could have worked out very differently, though. Indeed, just a few decades later it was the Stuarts’ turn to be displaced. 

As for Guy Fawkes... well, he evidently had his own ideas of who should, and should not, be King or Queen of England at the time. He reckoned it should be a Catholic; and... well, who’s to say he was wrong, anyway? 

Herein lies the cruel irony. Had his plot succeeded, the answer would be ‘no one’. If anyone declared otherwise, it would be that person’s effigy – and not Guy Fawkes’ – that the (presumably Catholic) Brits would now be burning each year during a fireworks display.

Other historical examples illustrate the same paradox. Like Julius Caesar. There are few more overtly ‘treacherous’ actions one can contemplate, than marching on your own capital at the head of an army, with the sole intent of overthrowing your government and replacing it with yourself. 

I won’t contest that he had his own very good reasons... but if you pretend for a second that you have no idea how the whole Civil War was going to pan out: and if you look at things from the point of view of any Roman on Pompey’s side... that moment when he crossed the Rubicon would certainly qualify as an act of ‘treachery’ in the highest degree.

But oh look: Caesar duly won his civil war, and it was eventually his own assassins who would be labelled ‘traitors’ (though again, by the winning side... and that view has been challenged and contested ever since.)

For a less historically resonant example – but one that is much closer to home – there is also Carmelo Borg Pisani. He was hanged here for treason during World War Two, and the case has since been dramatised by Francis Ebejer and (separately) the 1956 movie ‘The Malta Story’. It is easy to see why it would lend itself so well to stage and screen adaptation. It is really the stuff of Greek tragedy.

Malta was a British possession at the time; and Britain was at war with Italy. In a sense, it’s just the sort of rotten luck that can befall a little territory when it gets snapped up by a much larger military power than itself. There is a certain inevitability about the circumstances: Malta found itself at war, without the luxury of ever being asked what it actually thought about the whole affair in the first place.

We can reasonably assume how Malta might have answered at the time. As with all other things, we were divided into two main schools of thought: a substantial majority aligned itself naturally with the British; but a not-insubstantial minority felt closer affinity to Italy.

Anyway: I won’t dig up all the old grievances (suffice it to say that, during the 2005 CHOGM, there were calls for the Queen to apologise for the Deportation Order of 1942), otherwise we’ll be here all day. But it is self-evident that some Maltese citizens felt that Malta’s allegiance should be to Italy, not Great Britain. (To what degree and extent varies considerably, etc.).

Carmelo Borg Pisani was clearly one of those who felt rather strongly about it. He was in Italy when the war broke out (studying art in Rome, I believe); so he enrolled in the military, and was eventually sent on an ill-fated (and spectacularly poorly-planned) espionage mission to Malta.   

Does that make him a ‘traitor’ – for which he was hanged – or a ‘patriot’, as he would almost certainly have argued himself? Interestingly, all these years later he still seems to be considered both. There is even a monument to him somewhere in Italy, where his death was regarded as a military form of martyrdom. 

Whatever your own opinion, it is evident that all this binary talk of ‘traitors’ and ‘patriots’ is unhelpful and counter-productive.  History is, after all, an ongoing process. Old views are constantly revisited; our perspective of the past is in perpetual motion.

Which brings us to the somewhat liberal usage of this troublesome term today. Are Nationalist MEPs ‘traitors’, when they use their position to inflict maximum damage on the present government of Malta: to the extent of undermining its position, during a Parliamentary debate which ultimately aims at forcing us to change our tax legislation? 

To me, the answer is very obvious. Clearly not, for all the reasons outlined above. ‘Malta’ and ‘the Muscat administration’ are not exactly synonymous. If that were the case, to contradict the present government in any way, and in any forum, would constitute an automatic act of treason. That is a singularly Fascist way of looking at things. Or if you want to extend the historical analogy further in time... it is indistinguishable from the motto of the House of Stuart, which ‘Ruled by Right Divine’. (And just look how things worked out for that particular line of Kings in the end...)

But by the same token, it doesn’t follow that the MEPs’ actions are motivated out of genuine concern for the national interest, either. That’s the problem with drawing lines in the sand... it automatically creates a dual perspective – you’re either on one side of the line, or the other – and both perspectives become equally absurd, when you realise that the line should never have been drawn in the first place.

What we are witnessing in this ongoing war of words is the ultimate perversion of the entire ‘good of the country’ argument. By now it should be painstakingly clear that Nationalist MEPs have only one allegiance... and that is to the Nationalist Party. I’m not even being critical in pointing that out; it is just their perspective on things. They seriously believe that the country can only ever benefit when their own party is in power... so to promote that ideal, at every level, is in their own view an act of ‘patriotism’. 

I need hardly add that the antithetical perspective is just as real and visceral. The ones shouting ‘traitor’ the loudest are steadfast in their belief that a Labour government – and ONLY a Labour government – can ever be good for Malta. To criticise Labour is therefore automatically (at best) ‘misguided’. To do so persistently before a foreign audience becomes the inevitable act of a ‘traitor’.

Both sides are equally absurd in equating their own perspective with the ‘good of the country’; neither has a monopoly on the ‘national interest’. More disturbingly still... neither seems to have a very clear concept of what ‘the nation’ even is. If they did, they would baulk at the idea of their ‘nation’ being consigned forever to the rule of only one party. They would value the principle of alternation of power, instead of trying to sabotage it at every turn.

At the end of the day, by taking this idiotic partisan pique to the highest European levels, we have achieved only one thing, really. We have exposed the sheer non-existence of anything resembling a Maltese sense of ‘nationhood’, and proudly put it out on display for the rest of the world to gawk at. 

And as I said in another article: personally, I find it painful to watch.