The whisky priest is a fictional figure, full of vices (usually including alcoholism) but teaching a higher moral standard. The whisky priest is not a straightforward hypocrite. He is aware of his fallen nature and is genuinely moved by higher moral vision. A hypocrite is full of airs; a whisky priest is full of pathos.
Our political discourse is full of mutual accusations of hypocrisy. But I sometimes wonder if we are not a nation of whisky priests.
Hear me out. Yes, hypocrisy is rife. Politicians preach one thing, do another, and accuse opponents of the sins they are themselves committing. Voters invoke principle but act opportunistically.
And yet, it is also true that many of us, perhaps most, truly wish we could govern, be governed and act according to a higher standard. If only we could summon a better self.
All authorities 'in crisis'
The matter is being raised with increasing urgency because all authorities – clerical, political and civil – are in crisis. We are facing problems that cannot be solved using the standard methods of political patronage. Environmental blight, for example, strikes all of us, irrespective of class or vote.
On their own, even the standard denunciations don’t quite work. Calling out the partisan duopoly as the ‘PLPN hegemony’ is not mistaken in itself. It truly is hegemonic in that it colours even the way we think about values.
Justice becomes a matter of making sure the scales are balanced between Nationalists and Labour. Our idea of representativeness is to begin by scanning appointees for partisan sympathies; other markers like gender, age and professional formation are considered subsets. Geography is political – with regions and towns being red, blue or purple.
The partisan hegemony affects even how we rebel against it. Our understanding of being independent is less about addressing issues on their own terms, more about making sure that everyone knows we’re neutral, not just independent of both parties of government. Different independents suspect each other of being closet reds or blues.
We reject the hegemony, say we’re different but continue to apply its yardstick to everyone else. That has the ironic result of making the blue/red filters seem uniquely realistic as a way of thinking about the world. What other way is there?
It’s a vicious circle of thought and action. It cannot be ended by protest alone. In such situations, a new vocabulary is needed that challenges what we take to be normal.
A new vocabulary is needed that challenges what we take to be normal
Pete Buttigieg, the candidate for the Democratic nomination to challenge Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential election, is someone who believes a change of vocabulary is necessary to break the culture wars that blue/red partisanship in the US has normalised, with intense effect under Trump.
We don’t have to go to the US for examples. In an earlier era of Maltese political polarisation, Eddie Fenech Adami introduced a new vocabulary – terms like dialogue and solidarity. They were at first ridiculed as unrealistic or unnecessary, but over time they came to stand for a way of doing politics that dispersed power.
Eventually, of course, the words were so stretched and abused that their meaning was hollowed out. Dialogue came to mean, “What can I do for you?” Solidarity came to mean, “I’m not going to lift a finger to help you but I will express my sympathy.”
What kind of new vocabulary do we need? Let me propose one value that will give a name to our collective pain on so many issues: spatial justice.
The term might be unfamiliar but the issues are old as well as current. In the run-up to the 2013 election, Joseph Muscat said the country’s south had been politically abandoned. Saddled with power stations and a recycling plant, he said, it was the dumping ground of the centre and the north, and vulnerable to pollution-induced illnesses.
Put to one side whether he was right or simply opportunistic. He was not just saying that those things were wrong. He was saying they were unjust because the necessary burden was not equitably distributed. We had spatial injustice.
The same point is made today by those protesting against the most prominent of public and private development projects. Protests about perpetual traffic gridlock are not merely complaints about inconvenience. They raise issues about the right to connectivity and mobility.
Accusations about pavements being commandeered by cars are a charge of injustice against pedestrians; some of whom, like many elderly residents and the pram- and wheelchair-bound, have no alternative. Lack of access to pavements is less freedom.
Those anxious that new tower blocks will condemn them (literally) to a life in the shadows, with their life-savings in jeopardy because of the drop in value of their home: these are not Nimbys, they’re people who have found they invested in property under conditions that have been broken.
Robbing the less well-off
They’re people who have been cheated. What is more, there’s a fair chance that the new development was approved by systemic cheating on the plans submitted for approval, sometimes with the apparent connivance of the authorities. That’s not flexibility. That’s a system of stealing from the less well-off to give to the rich.
All these individual injustices add up to a geography of injustice. The iniquity of the system is inscribed in the landscape, which becomes a living monument of punishment for some and ill-gotten rewards for others. Injustice is etched in stone.
It’s time not just to reject the individual injustices but to argue for a value: spatial justice.
Does a name make a difference? Yes. Once we talk about a geography of justice, it’s clear that the approach must be holistic. Ad hoc measures are unjust.
And the talk of justice has to be part of the cure to the idea that a wheeling-and-dealing approach to spatial planning is a virtue: “a listening government”. No, it’s a government deaf to justice.
Spatial justice is the political value that captures so much that underlies environmental issues today. We should demand functional spatial planning and transparent, rule-bound decision-making of all government, the way we demand functioning law courts.
Then, finally, we might begin to see the lifting of the hangover from our days as whisky priests.