Forty years ago Roger Waters was writing the lyrics of Comfortably Numb from Pink Floyd’s cult album The Wall. There are many versions of what inspired the lyrics, from childhood illness to the effects of medication. But it has now become the world-wide anthem for alienation, for withdrawing from a reality that becomes too absurd to handle or even to contemplate.

Malta is currently passing through a schizophrenic period in its public life. On the one hand, the economy is surging ahead and the construction and ancillary industries are roaring, although it is not clear how much of all this is sustainable growth or simply a precarious bubble due to questionable policies and revenue streams. The government’s narrative is that we never had it so good in terms of material wealth.

On the other hand, the Daphne Project is uncovering increasingly serious evidence of systematic corruption in high places.

Konrad Mizzi and Keith Schembri’s previous justifications for their financial arrangements in New Zealand, Panama and the British Virgin Islands, which at best were weak, contradictory and illogical to begin with, have now been blown out of the water. There can be no reasonable doubt that the new revelations merit national outrage, new police investigations, and the ultimate political price.

And yet, none of this is happening. Why is this so? Why have the Daphne Project revelations hardly made a ripple except among those who have already for long been outraged? Is it simply lack of interest, or partisan rejection of anything that has to do with ‘that’ woman? Perhaps, but there is more to this stupor than meets the eye.

It is clear that the government is intent on hermetically sealing whatever outrage there is and limiting it to ‘the usual suspects’ in civil society and the fringes of the Nationalist Party that are still clamouring, a little hoarsely, for truth and justice.

‘The usual suspects’ is one of the catch-phrases of the 1942 film noir classic Casablanca. It was actually used recently by Prime Minister Muscat to delegitimise all those who oppose the IVF Bill as the anti-progressive fringe that is hopelessly out of touch with modern society. But on a wider scale, ‘the usual suspects’ delegitimisation discourse is but one component of a systematic strategy the government is using to contain and neutralise the fallout from the Daphne Project.

Another is reframing the public discourse. This was again on display a few days ago on Xarabank: Alfred Sant took umbrage not at the fact that a threatening letter had been sent to Daphne Caruana Galizia as a direct result of her investigative reporting, but that the leaking of this letter was a sign of the lack of patriotism of the ‘usual suspects’. 

In this topsy-turvy narrative, which the government has resorted to many times before, it is the leaking of suppressed documents that undermines the rule of law, not the suppression of the documents itself to justify the lack of institutional action. This obvious piece of sophistry is presented as self-evident fact to a bemused public that is left to question what is truth and fiction.

When faced with these strategies, the temptation is to say “a curse on both your houses”, wash one’s hands of this absurd situation, ignore all the doomsayers and get on with day-to-day living. Every time someone does so, the alienation strategy wins.

But it would be wrong to say that the government’s containment strategy is solely responsible for the alienation of public opinion. It would not have been so successful if it did not resonate with a deep malaise in Maltese society and tap its deepest fears. We are, first and foremost, a tiny island nation with few natural resources. Our national consciousness was forged hundreds of years ago under the eternal threat of poverty, hunger, slavery and migration. Our relative sense of security is barely two generations old. Many of the old fears are still within living memory. Democracy is still a sapling.

Given a choice between immediate personal gain and the rigour of equity and rule of law that might diminish such gains, too many choose the former. It is the tragedy of our nation, and the shame of the Labour Party in government, that we are consenting to pay for our current prosperity with the sap of our fledging democratic institutions. We are becoming numb to the values of truth and justice.

Our country will pay a bitter price for this folly.

This is a Times of Malta print editorial


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