If you ‘shame them’... you can’t ‘beat them’

The ‘anti-Delia faction’ – for want of a better description – is now turning its guns onto what little remains of its own, shattered party

‘If you can’t beat them, shame them’. No, they’re not my words: it was the headline of an article penned by Nationalist MP Karol Aquilina
‘If you can’t beat them, shame them’. No, they’re not my words: it was the headline of an article penned by Nationalist MP Karol Aquilina

‘If you can’t beat them, shame them’. No, they’re not my words; and I’m not repeating them because I share the sentiment, either. In case you’re wondering: that is actually the headline of an article penned this week by Karol Aquilina: Nationalist MP, and Opposition spokesman for ‘Reforms, Citizenship and Simplification’.

To be fair, at least he’s taking the last part of his shadow portfolio seriously. Hard to imagine a lazier oversimplification than that in any context, really. It’s the equivalent of a typical classroom dimwit reasoning to himself that: ‘if I can’t get better grades than all the clever kids... I’ll just call them names instead...’

Well, no prizes for guessing what sort of grade a child like that would receive at the end of the scholastic year. Mrs Baldacchino, who was my head teacher in Year Six, would probably have described it as: “a big... fat... ZERO” (note: believe it or not, the entire class – myself included – thought that was incredibly witty at the time; in fact, we all shouted out the ’ZERO’ part in chorus).

After all, it doesn’t take very much intelligence to ‘shame’ others. It does, however, require something called ‘a brain’ to study for, and pass, an exam.

There is no reason under the sun why it should work out any different for a political party. Replace ‘exams’ with ‘elections’, and ‘grades’ with ‘electoral results’, and... well, there you have it. No difference at all. With that one headline, Karol Aquilina has very helpfully pinpointed exactly why the Nationalist Party has not passed a single electoral test since 2008... and even then, it barely scraped through by the skin of its teeth.

Not only that, but Aquilina’s article also explains why the PN’s ‘results’ have just kept worsening and worsening, finally reaching the sorry state it languishes in today: with various polls suggesting it will lose its next electoral appointments by anywhere up to 100,000 votes.

Paradoxically, however, the very person who so squarely put his finger on the crux of the matter, seems incapable of making that connection himself. Karol Aquilina didn’t write those words as an acknowledgement of the unmitigated failure of the Nationalist Party’s entire strategy since (circa) 2008. There was no ‘mea culpa’ – still less ‘nostra culpa’ – anywhere to be discerned in the article itself. On the contrary, his entire argument is rooted in the ‘firm belief that the Nationalist way of doing politics was the right way.’

All of which raises the inevitable question: if the PN’s was all along really the ‘right way’ of doing politics... why have the results to date been so consistently abysmal for the PN? Why has the Nationalist tactic of ‘shaming the adversary’ only ever served to strengthen that adversary – to the point that it now threatens to command a staggering two-thirds majority in parliament after the next election – while simultaneously truncating the same PN into two internecine and utterly irreconcilable factions?

Seeing as a connection with ‘schools’ and ‘exams’ has already been made: let us treat that as an examination question, and see what sort of grade we’d all get. For an average pass-mark – let’s say, a ‘C-’ – all a student would really have to do is point out the basic flaw in the premise. “Because it isn’t ‘the right way of doing politics’ – Duh!”

That, alone, would be enough to inform the examiner that our fictitious student possesses enough grey matter to at least understand the root cause of the problem, thereby earning an entry-level pass-mark. But it would be nowhere near enough to get an ‘A’.

For that, you’d have to also spell out, in painstaking detail, WHY the Nationalist Party’s strategy was all along so evidently doomed to fail. Interestingly enough, Karol Aquilina himself comes close to what might have been a straight-‘A’... if only he didn’t correctly join all the dots, and yet somehow still manage to draw all the wrong conclusions.

This is an excerpt from said article (remember: under the headline, ‘if you can’t beat them, shame them’): “Historically the Nationalist Party has always been a broad-church of ideas, interests and personalities. Nevertheless, the PN has always managed to find common ground on which to garner support from its traditional base and society in general: the gaining of Independence, freedom and democracy, membership of the European Union, the adoption of the Euro and more recently the fight against corruption...”

Closing an eye at that last (preposterous) observation – the PN could not claim the ‘fight against corruption’ as its own in 2013, after its government collapsed immediately following a corruption scandal... still less today, when it is embroiled in multiple counts of fraud and perjury – it can be seen that Aquilina at least understands the causes of the PN’s hegemony between 1987 and (roughly) 2004. What’s missing from his analysis is an explanation for why everything went so perfectly pear-shaped since then. So it falls to us to fill in the blanks.

Consider the gravity and consequence of all the PN’s battle-cries of yesteryear: Independence... ‘Xoghol, Gustizzja, Liberta’... EU accession, and everything that entailed... then compare all that to its chosen battle-cry over the past 10 or so years. There was only ever one to speak of: ‘We hate Joseph Muscat’. You could, of course, word the same sentiment in as many ways you like: but you will never get very far from something like: ‘Vote for us, because... erm... we’re not them.’

From the outset that was always doomed to be a self-defeating strategy. For one thing, it forces potential voters to cast their gaze, not on the PN itself... but on Joseph Muscat’s Labour Party. And once you’ve made the mistake of directing their gaze in that direction: who’s to say they’re not going to like what they see? Who’s to say they will not look from Muscat’s Labour, to the PN under Lawrence Gonzi, Simon Busuttil, Adrian Delia or whoever comes next... and not decide, on the spot, that Muscat’s Labour is actually the better of the two options? Especially when, at the end of the day, the PN is not actually telling us anything about itself at all... other than it is ‘not Labour’?

Karol Aquilina’s entire argument is rooted in the ‘firm belief that the Nationalist way of doing politics was the right way’

That brings me to a second, rather obvious flaw in the political strategy. How would you react if – in answer to the question, ‘Who are you?’ – I reply, “I’m not Arnold Schwarzenegger”?

Well, for starters, you couldn’t possibly accuse me of lying. I am very emphatically NOT Arnold Schwarzenegger... in fact, there probably isn’t even enough of me to fill out one of the smaller muscle-bulges in his pectorals.

But then again: what does my answer tell you about who I really am? What does it do to inspire confidence that I am not, for instance, ‘Jack the Ripper’ or ‘Hannibal Lecter’, either?

Nothing at all. I may as well declare that ‘I am not a glass of water’, or ‘I am not a lesser-spotted Polynesian gerbil’ (hang on, wait... maybe I am...). But you get the point: it is a perfect non-answer, of the kind that would certainly elicit ‘a big... fat... (all together now)... ZERO’ from Mrs Baldacchino in Year Six.

Still, however, we are far from achieving our desired ‘A+’. For there is another, altogether more sinister problem lurking in the slogan: ‘if you can’t beat them, shame them’. (Actually there are several, but I’m running out of space).

It starts with the ‘firm belief’ that one is ‘automatically right’... and continues with the ghastly deduction that “everyone who disagrees with me is automatically wrong, and therefore” – herein lies the rub – “a legitimate target for ‘shaming’.”

It doesn’t exactly take a star pupil to point out the glaring pitfall. By Karol Aquilina’s own admission, the PN can no longer identify with any major cause or policy, other than attempting to elevate itself by belittling others.

And having spectacularly failed to achieve that goal with Joseph Muscat, the ‘anti-Delia faction’ – for want of a better description – is now turning its guns onto what little remains of its own, shattered party.

Ultimately, the target of that headline was not Joseph Muscat at all, but Adrian Delia (whose great crime, incidentally, is being ‘another Joseph Muscat’... once again, reinforcing the negative self-identification of the PN as ‘anything but Joseph Muscat’). But the strategy itself remains the same: social ostracism, extending – as was the case with Muscat – to the PN leader’s children, extended family, friends, acquaintances, professional partners, etc.

At this point, it would be bootless to remind the PN that a strategy that failed so abysmally once, will definitely fail a second time.... and a third, and a fourth, etc.

But all the same: it must be pointed out that the only possible outcome is a gradual shrinking of the ‘inner circle’ of this self-styled party ‘elite’.

To ‘shame’ the political other is to ‘exclude’ the political other... really, it’s not that hard to understand... and when the ‘political other’ happens to represent roughly half your own party... well, what sort of result can you possibly expect?

You should have worked it out for yourselves long ago, but I’ll spell it out anyway. It results in an already tiny minority, ensconced within a larger (yet still tiny) minority – just getting smaller, and smaller, and smaller, and smaller... until it eventually disappears altogether.

And this, by the way, was all spelt out for us from the very start, in Aquilina’s choice of headline.

The reason the PN fails to ‘beat them’, is precisely because it knows no other strategy than to ‘shame them’... which, for all the reasons outlined above, is a losing strategy, in and of itself.

There: now, I think we’ve done enough to earn our ‘A’. (Unsurprisingly, seeing as we marked our own examination paper ourselves). See you all at prize day, folks...

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