The artful dodger

It was obvious that Sweeney got his information from people who depict Muscat in the darkest hues and who push the theory that whatever he does is wrong or tainted with impropriety

The Maltese Prime Minister, Joseph Muscat, had to  reply to difficult and probing questions during the BBC interview
The Maltese Prime Minister, Joseph Muscat, had to reply to difficult and probing questions during the BBC interview

A recent BBC programme sparked by the brutal assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia included BBC Newsnight’s James Sweeney interviewing Prime Minister Joseph Muscat who had to reply to difficult and probing questions in which he was described as the “Artful Dodger of Europe” and the “passport-seller-in-chief”.

Jack Dawkins, better known as the Artful Dodger, is a character in the Charles Dickens novel Oliver Twist. Dodger is a pickpocket, so called for his skill and cunning in that respect. As a result he has become the leader of the gang of child criminals, trained by the elderly Fagin. He becomes Oliver’s closest friend and he tries to make him a pickpocket. Ultimately the Dodger is caught stealing and punished.

The even more interesting effect of the depiction of the Charles Dickens character is that despite everything else, people tend to empathise with the artful dodger for his clever but cheeky way of stealing. The Maltese expression, which at the moment I find untranslatable, implies that people see him in a somewhat positive light and in Maltese jargon would: jarawh gustuż. Readers of the Dickens novel or people following any of its film versions somehow empathise with him, in spite of the fact that they do not approve of theft, fully knowing that it is immoral and antisocial.

This feeling is even stronger in the case of the musical that makes the audience giggle at the cheekiness of the artful dodger, rather than condemning him outright.

I wonder from where Sweeney got his information about Malta, but it was obvious that he got it from people who depict Muscat in the darkest hues and who push the theory that whatever he does is wrong or tainted with impropriety.

Perhaps when James Sweeney implied that our Prime Minister is a kind of ‘artful dodger’ he was only considering the Dickens character as a bad and mischievous person that should repulse everybody and subsequently be condemned, with no holds barred.

Even more interesting is the effect of Sweeney’s interview on the Maltese. It is obvious that no one seemed to be able to reach a conclusion in the form of an objective opinion about the interview. Those who are politically opposed to Muscat saw Sweeney savaging him and concentrated on the cunning – and somewhat vicious – questions without giving a toss to the Prime Minister’s reply. Those who are supporters of Muscat, on the other hand, concentrated on Muscat’s clever answers without giving a toss as to whether his replies to Sweeney’s questions made sense or were just an exercise in beating about the bush.

In a way, this is a sad reflection of Malta’s tribal mentality – a mentality that we will never manage to shake off. Or so, unfortunately, it seems.

Empathising with cunning and clever criminals is not an unknown phenomenon anywhere in the world, but the adoption of this human psychological posture in Malta’s political milieu is an interesting local variety.

Add to this the fact that there are people who even openly say that as long as the going is good for them, they do not mind politicians dipping their fingers in the pie and you end up with a human foible that Simon Busuttil could never understand.

Two weeks ago, I wrote about the Vitals story – how the privatisation of the management of some of Malta’s hospitals has turned out to be a veritable ‘whodunit’. The more I think about it, and of the subsequent media reports of what is – or is not – going on in connection with this contract, the more I conclude that this privatisation process was tainted with a cleverly camouflaged and cunning side effect to the benefit of unknown persons. Yet the cleverness involved makes me empathise with the cunningness of the plot... while at the same time vehemently objecting to the illicit gain that was the real reason why the plot was hatched in the manner it developed.

Perhaps the real artful dodger behind the scenes is not actually the Prime Minister himself! This does not extenuate the Prime Minister’s responsibility in any way, of course.


Going too far (back)

A few days ago, French Actress Catherine Deneuve joined more than 100 other Frenchwomen in entertainment, publishing and academic fields who published a letter in ‘Le Monde’ and on its website arguing that the #MeToo movement, in which women and men have used social media as a forum to describe sexual misconduct, has gone too far by publicly prosecuting private experiences. Moreover they insisted that this has created a totalitarian climate.

This has followed the recent growing list of men who have been suspended, fired or forced to resign in the last several months after having been accused of sexual misconduct - some of it of a ‘historical’ nature.

“Rape is a crime. But insistent or clumsy flirting is not a crime, nor is gallantry a chauvinist aggression,” the letter, begins. “As a result of the Weinstein affair, there has been a legitimate realisation of the sexual violence women experience, particularly in the workplace, where some men abuse their power. It was necessary. But now this liberation of speech has been turned on its head.”

They contend that the #MeToo movement has led to a campaign of public accusations that have placed undeserving people in the same category as sex offenders without giving them a chance to defend themselves. “This expedited justice already has its victims, men prevented from practising their profession as punishment, forced to resign, etc., while the only thing they did wrong was touching a knee, trying to steal a kiss, or speaking about ‘intimate’ things at a work dinner, or sending messages with sexual connotations to a woman whose feelings were not mutual,” they wrote.

Deneuve and her co-writers insist that the #MeToo movement serves the interests of “the enemies of sexual freedom, of religious extremists, of the worst reactionaries.”

The letter has provoked a backlash against Catherine Deneuve, but in a sense, she is right. Many sexual liaisons on the place of work end up with marriage but whoever makes the first move now seems to be playing with fire.

No one seems to know where courting ends and sexual misconduct starts.

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