Malta’s little political mental health problem

Clearly we have a nationwide anger-management problem, coupled with a deep-seated inability to ever actually argue

Felix Busuttil (Photo: Chris Mangion/MediaToday)
Felix Busuttil (Photo: Chris Mangion/MediaToday)

Don’t you just love elections? I mean, we all know that – not very far beneath our polished external veneer of saintliness – we’re just an embittered, angry nation seething with jealousy and hatred. But it takes an election to drag it all out into the open. It takes a pivotal choice between the two core sources of all this venom and spleen, to transform otherwise mild-mannered citizens into rabid, warlike berserker barbarians on both sides.

So it should be, too. Closing an eye at football and band club rivalries... I just don’t see any corresponding vehicle for animosity of such proportions, other than politics. Elections represent the crunch-time for political parties... their ‘be-all and end-all’. And in a country where so much still (archaically) depends on those parties... it is perfectly natural that their crunch-time moment would also be the entire country’s crunch-time moment. It is how this country has been cobbled together.

‘Natural’, please note. Not logical. Not rational. Not sensible. Not even particularly intelligent. But natural, all right. It is as though we are compelled to fight in this perpetual war, by the same force that inspires birds to migrate to Africa, or lions to spring on gazelles when hungry. It is literally like that little hammer-tap on your knee, that makes you kick the doctor in the nuts. A reflex action, with painful consequences...

But to come to the ‘dunque’, as the Italians say. Last week, two people I know privately (and independently of one another) decided to address the crowds at political mass rallies. The decision was identical, but the parties were different. Pia Zammit addressed a PN meeting one Sunday; Felix Busuttil, a PL meeting the following Sunday.

I have known the former socially for literally decades, and the latter was a colleague of mine (sharing the same office) for a number of years. They are, of course, vastly different from each other – if you don’t count a predilection for the performing arts – but in one respect they are the same. Neither is a ‘politician’ in any sense of the word. Both are civilians in this ‘war’. Both have chosen to speak out in favour of their ‘side’... as anyone would think is their uncontested right, in a democracy.

And both, of course, were instantly subjected to the usual barrage of insults, threats and hate speech of the most personal and inappropriate kinds imaginable. That reflex action, remember? The forces behind it are too strong to resist. The typical Maltese political commentator’s first response to any such phenomenon is to aggressively attack: to literally throw everything they’ve got (or think they’ve got) in one, spectacular blunderbuss barrage.

Personally – and in all seriousness – I consider it to be a dangerous case of neurosis on a national level: clearly we have a nationwide anger-management problem, coupled with a deep-seated inability to ever actually argue. Psychiatrists, therapists and counsellors can help with that sort of thing... though I’ve never heard of an entire country lying on the shrink’s couch at the same time.

But there is one line of criticism that rings consistently throughout all these varied personal insults and barbs. It has been directed at me by countless people – including a certain Nationalist candidate with a certain dog – and I now see it directed at Pia Zammit, Felix Busuttil, columnist Michela Spiteri and others. It goes along the lines that: ‘you are not singing from MY party’s hymn-book; therefore you are in the pocket of (or on the take, or being paid, or in cahoots with, or whatever) the other party.’

I will obviously leave the others fight their own battles, but I will not ignore the actual insult itself. Not so much because I feel compelled to answer it; but because it says so much more about the people making the claim. And what it says is directly relevant to the cause of all this hatred and recrimination.

Fortunately for me, I have already lost my temper over similar accusations in this campaign. At one point I was so angered that I actually dashed my keyboard to a million pieces on my desk. And almost instantly my anger multiplied exponentially... reaching near-heart attack levels when it dawned on me that – by smashing my keyboard – I could no longer actually respond to the accusations online. (Oh, how suddenly the tragic price of ire was made apparent!)

But I am growing fond in my middle age, and I now see that all the old clichés I used to sneer at have a kernel of truth. There is indeed a silver lining to every cloud. My cat, for instance, had cause to rejoice on account of my temper-loss. Two weeks later she is still discovering random keys and other bits of plastic that cascaded around the room in my explosive fit. (Note: I found her playing with the letter ‘Q’ on the floor the other day. At this rate, she’ll be learning to play Scrabble in no time at all...)

Moreover, there is something to be said for expunging one’s sentiments in a cataclysm of emotion. Shakespeare wrote a play about it called King Lear. There is a point where your ‘wits turn’ after the storm. Rationality gets the upper hand again. You start to dissect the reasons why you got so angry. You start to argue with yourself. After that, it becomes very difficult to get angry in the same way again.

Once you sift it all down to the fundamentals, there are only two things about that insult that bother me. The first (and easiest to wave away) concerns my actual financial circumstances... which would be very different if I had some form of undeclared revenue stream. Suffice it to say that after many long months I recently whittled down an unwieldy Enemalta bill to... ZERO. [Note: for some reason, the song ‘I GOT THE POWER’ just started playing in my head]. I now understand how Sir Edmund Hilary felt when raising his flag atop the pinnacle of Mt Everest... or “stout Cortez, when with eagle eyes he stared at the Pacific”... anyway, you know what I mean.

So like I said, that sort of reaction is easy to laugh away. Heck, maybe I should be on the take. Would make everything that much easier all round...

But that brings me to the second, more important consideration. The annoying thing is that the accusation assumes that one has to have a monetary motive behind all one’s decisions and actions in life. Sorry, but it’s not like that for all of us. And it has nothing to do with governance or ethical principles, either.

There are people out there – and I am one of them – who just don’t think about money in that way. We should, clearly... I should be springing out of bed each morning, determined to ‘seal the deal’ before midday (or whatever it is businesspeople think about first thing in the morning). But the reality is I don’t think about much beyond my first coffee at that point. And when the wheels do start turning, they will naturally focus on other things than money. 

I’ve even tried to divert a little of that mental energy towards conceiving ways to make money – legitimately, it goes without saying – so that hassles with ARMS Ltd become a thing of the past. But it’s like turning a tap in the middle of the Sahara desert. There’s a great big gurgle in the pipes...  a few gobs of brown rusty water suddenly spurt out in all directions... then nothing.

It would be more productive, even financially, to concentrate on writing articles like this one. I get paid for this (and pay taxes, etc.)

In an ideal world, money would not even exist and I’d be writing this for the pure joy of writing. Because all things considered: I still enjoy writing. I am enjoying writing this right now, even if it might not be apparent. I suspect that smashing my keyboard had something to do with it. It was a cathartic moment that reminded me how powerless I would feel if I didn’t actually have the ability to write at all. 

That makes me fortunate, as – whether I deserve it or not – I get paid to do something I enjoy. Being ‘on the take’ is not something I would enjoy. It would trouble me incessantly. I wouldn’t even want to think about spending the rest of my life anxious that somebody might find out about my cosy arrangement with this or that ministry... still less would I want to be at the mercy of a government or political party, which could remove the perk at any moment.

Much better not to have any perks at all, though you might struggle to pay your bills. And I am saying all this with deliberation and in great detail, because I know for a fact that it represents the mindset of many others. Clearly we are a minority in this country, because everyone else has this single-minded obsession that all things can be explained by ‘cupiditas’. Well, whatever other of the Seven Deadly Sins this minority can be accused of (I confess to ‘Ire’ myself)... gluttony, greed or avarice is not one of them.

Is it so hard to accept that such people do exist in the world? Is it so inconceivable, for instance, that someone like Pia Zammit or Felix Busuttil might stand on a podium and deliver a political speech, simply because they feel that way? Does there always have to be a sinister, ulterior motive?

At most times, the answer is ‘no’. But at election time, it becomes ‘yes’. Personally, I think that tells us everything we need to know about Malta’s political mental health problem at the moment. 

But hey, don’t forget: I might have been paid by a political party to write this article...

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