‘I believe I can fly...’

It was lack of evidence that made me sceptical to begin with; and with evidence still lacking after the inquiry, it would take a heck of a lot more than ‘declarations of faith’ to convince me

It was lack of evidence that made me sceptical to begin with; and with evidence still lacking after the inquiry, it would take a heck of a lot more than ‘declarations of faith’ to convince me
It was lack of evidence that made me sceptical to begin with; and with evidence still lacking after the inquiry, it would take a heck of a lot more than ‘declarations of faith’ to convince me

As you probably already know, that is the title of a rather famous 1996 pop song by American artist R. Kelly, written for the soundtrack of the movie ‘Space Jam’.

Before proceeding any further: my sincere apologies for planting that insipid tune in your head, where it will no doubt keep playing all day and half the coming week. No, I can’t get it out of mine either… in fact, it reminds me of my reaction upon first hearing it more than 20 years ago: ‘So you ‘believe you can fly’, huh? That you can ‘touch the sky’? Well, shouldn’t be too hard to find out. See that really tall building over there? Why don’t you just take the lift to the top floor, flap your arms about a bit… and… um… maybe change the lyrics to: ‘I believe I can DIE...’)

Anyway: luckily for me (I’d hate to have anyone’s death on my conscience… no, not even R. Kelly’s) he never took me up on that challenge. But the same cannot be said for any number of seriously deluded individuals who – either under the influence of mind-altering drugs, or just because they were… um… plain old bonkers – really did hold down that particular belief, to the extent of trying it out for themselves.

Another film – ‘Kick-Ass’ – opens with an enactment of precisely such an occurrence. And there is even a classic limerick that goes: ‘There once was a man who averred, he had learnt how to fly like a bird…’ (I’ve forgotten the rest, where he tries out the test)… but: ‘His tomb states the date it occurred.’

Nor is this pattern limited only to irrational beliefs of the more aerodynamic variety. There was a story recently about a preacher somewhere in Africa who drowned – or was eaten by crocodiles, can’t remember now – during a public demonstration of his ability to ‘walk on water’. If you ask me, that poor sucker did not die in vain. His heroic act of self-sacrifice may not have supplied any ‘evidence’ of his presumed preternatural faculties; but it certainly provided a text-book lesson on just unreliable ‘faith’ can prove as an ally sometimes.

But while these are all extreme examples – with extreme repercussions – we see the same general pattern unfolding in all lesser spheres of blind belief. Those who jump off buildings, or try to stop speeding trains with their bodies, are (mercifully) few. But those who allow themselves to be enthralled to their own belief systems – no matter how irrational or incongruous – are more or less innumerable. And though less tragic, the consequences are rarely very pretty.

Take the ongoing spat in parliament over ‘who owns/ed Egrant’, for instance. It is pretty obvious to me that what started out as an exercise in pure, unadulterated ‘faith’ – we were all initially expected to ‘believe’ the allegations without any proof; and those of us who didn’t were treated like ‘heretics’ or ‘blasphemers’ – has spectacularly remained at that level almost a year and a half later: despite a magisterial enquiry that found no evidence to support those allegations at all.

It was lack of evidence that made me sceptical to begin with; and with evidence still lacking after the inquiry, it would take a heck of a lot more than ‘declarations of faith’ to convince me

In parliament this week, former Opposition leader Simon Busuttil regaled us with another declaration of his own, apparently unshakable belief that Egrant belongs/ed to the Prime Minister and his wife. And predictably, Joseph Muscat responded by reiterating his own ‘belief’: i.e., that Simon Busuttil was a ‘fraud’ who had falsified the documents himself.

The whole bizarre showdown was uncannily reminiscent of the first live campaign debate between the same two party leaders before the June 2017 election. Then as now, Busuttil affirmed his unswerving faith in the affirmations made on Daphne Caruana Galizia’s blog – including the transcript of ‘declaration of trust’ that nobody, not even Busuttil himself, had at that point actually seen; while Muscat insisted, equally as an article of faith, that the Egrant story was ‘the biggest lie in Malta’s political history.’ At one point, he even turned to the camera and said: ‘Believe me, before God’ (or words to that effect). From day one, this has been nothing but a clash between two titanic belief-systems; and not for one second were either of these dogmas ever debated on any other level than that of ‘faith’.

It is almost as though nothing happened at all between May 2017 and this week. Once again, we are expected to base our own opinions of the ‘beliefs’ of these two gentlemen: neither of whom can possibly be described as ‘impartial’ or ‘disinterested’ in this particular case.

Personally, I would sooner base my opinion on the beliefs of R. Kelly. After all, his claimed ability to fly does not depend on a glaring political bias. You don’t have to be a ‘Kellyist’ or an ‘anti-Kellyist’ to accept or reject that claim; he either can fly, or he can’t…. and until he does jump off that building, we’ll never know for sure (instead, we’ll just keep hearing that song in our heads till we end up jumping off that bloody building ourselves…)

Well, the question regarding ownership of Egrant is (almost) no different: the Muscats either did or did not own that company; and to stamp one’s feet and simply recite ad nauseam an entirely personal ‘credo’ – ‘I believe, I do not believe’, etc. – does not even remotely add to the plausibility or implausibility of either scenario.

But there is a difference, too. Unlike the case with R.Kelly, the question of whom to believe, between those two political figures, does indeed depend on a glaring political bias. This is actually even more conspicuous with the (equally unshakable) belief in Muscat’s innocence, than in his guilt. Those who argue incessantly that he or Michelle were not the owners, tend overwhelmingly to couch that opinion in unmistakably fideistic terms: ‘He is my Prime Minister (here and there varying to ‘king’ or ‘demi-god’), therefore I choose to believe him and not Simon Busuttil’.

This is not to say that the same argument couldn’t be made a lot more convincingly – and without any appeal to emotive political attachment – by simply quoting from the conclusions of the enquiry report. But no: they are responding to an article of faith, so their own argument has to be formulated along identical lines… ‘I believe, you believe, so we will both fight each other’s beliefs with our own’.

I need hardly add that this is every bit as irrational as the argument on the other side. And just to prove, once and for all, there is no rational underpinning to his own argument, Simon Busuttil decided to dispense with logic altogether. His actual reasoning (such that it was) ran along the lines that: “…he [Busuttil] believed that the Prime Minister owned the company because the Panama Papers had revealed the companies of Schembri and Mizzi. ‘So, yes, I still believe that Egrant belongs to the Prime Minister’.”

Erm… how, exactly, does that premise reach the conclusion of Busuttil’s syllogism? The Panama Papers revealed that Mizzi and Schembri owned two companies in Panama, yes… but how does that also prove that a third company must perforce have been owned by Joseph Muscat? It would be absurd at the best of times: but at a time when so much of that allegation has already been exploded by the magisterial inquiry – which determined the declaration of trust to be a forgery, and which found no trace of any million-euro deposits into an apparently non-existent Egrant account – it almost borders on lunacy.

I say ‘almost’, because there is another crucial difference between this and the ‘I can fly’ scenario. People who enact such wacko beliefs tend, for obvious reasons, to genuinely believe their own absurd claims. In this case, however, we have another, altogether more rational explanation for the ‘blind faith’ expressed by both Busuttil and Muscat. To hell with what they ‘believe’ or ‘don’t believe’: there are obvious political motivations behind both fideistic assertions, and everybody knows it. This is something else that has been obvious from day one, though very few seem to have ever publicly made the connection.

Seeing as his own logic clearly does not hold water… why does Busuttil so dogmatically cling to his beliefs? Same reason as with Muscat. It is politically expedient for that version to be established as a fact: and in politics, expediency trumps reality every single time. Simon Busuttil had staked his entire PN leadership on that one claim: so to turn around now and admit he was wrong – which Muscat, somewhat naively, expected him to do – would be quite frankly impossible. Politically speaking, he may as well ‘jump off a building’: it would open him up to accusations of complicity in the crime… which, quite part from any criminal repercussions, would politically be nothing short of suicide.

No, Busuttil has no choice but to continue ‘believing’ that the Muscats were the ultimate beneficiary owners of Egrant: regardless what the inquiry does or does not say (and regardless, for that matter, of his own party’s position on that score). Which also means that – unlike all those uninvolved spectators who repeat the same allegation with the exact same unquestioning faith – he at least has an excuse to part company with logic for the duration of this controversy: self-preservation… which is also the most primordial natural instinct known to man.

What’s everyone else’s excuse? Apart, of course, from: ‘We believe Muscat is guilty because… that’s what we want to believe?’ But still: each to his own, I suppose. I’m much more comfortable basing my own ‘beliefs’ on the available evidence. It was lack of evidence that made me sceptical to begin with; and with evidence still lacking after the enquiry, it would take a heck of a lot more than ‘declarations of faith’ to convince me.

But that’s just me; and in any case, scepticism works both ways. Those who still hold on to such beliefs are more than welcome to prove them, instead of just repeating them like the Apostles’ Creed. Just test the water for any crocodiles first, that’s all…

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