Politicians have an uneasy relationship with the truth. It comes with the job. Fundamentally honest politicians are afflicted because their job often requires them to exaggerate or minimise the truth. Habitual liars are afflicted because, sooner or later, they’re caught out: they need to choose their lies carefully.
That’s why in the garden of political truths and lies we find a hothouse of varieties: speeches that help create the reality which the politician is supposed to be merely describing (Churchill saying “We shall never be defeated”); truths overtaken by crises; and that fine spectrum running all the way from mere hype to brazen lie, via white lies, misleading truths, bluff, malicious insinuation and plausible deniability (“catch me if you can”).
The point of this catalogue is not to say politicians are all the same. Nor is it even to say that, in thousands of years, politics has never changed. On the contrary.
It’s a special political regime, a tyranny, that routinely relies on brazen lies. When Vladimir Putin’s Russia or Mohammed bin Salman’s Saudi Arabia deny responsibility for a gruesome assassination, they don’t expect to fool anyone. The brazen lie is actually a test of truth for the courtiers: defend the ridiculous lie to prove your loyalty.
And all politicians, if they reign long enough, are overcome by crisis and have to eat their words. However, it’s a sign of chronic instability of an entire political system if politicians routinely have to break promises they made honestly.
Awareness of the range of lies helps us notice important changes. If the balance between different kinds of lies changes, it’s likely that something more fundamental is changing too. More brazen lies point to a new relationship between leaders and the governed; more broken promises suggest power is slipping through leaders’ fingers.
These distinctions help us make sense of what’s usual and unusual about Maltese politics today. When Robert Abela says he sees the economy returning to “business as usual” by May, he’s not lying and he’s not mad. He’s just hyping things up (a bit ineptly) to create business confidence.
It’s routine politics, just like the parliamentary skirmish this week between Abela and Bernard Grech over a new divorce law: bluffs by the two of them, having little to do with the people affected by the law, everything with point scoring.
Moving from the routine to the unusual crisis, we know our politics are broken when we note the flourishing of big lies and of widespread belief, by supporters of all sides, that we are being lied to on crucial matters.
Joseph Muscat lied about several issues concerning Panamagate. In his turn, he says he was the victim of a diabolical lie when it comes to Egrant and many believe him. Konrad Mizzi lied brazenly when he said he had answered all our questions and so did Keith Schembri about losing his phone. And, after the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia, we saw a greater prominence of “unspoken lies”: malicious insinuations about her “missing laptop” (actually in the custody of German police and available to Maltese investigators), etc.
But now something new is emerging with the Rosianne Cutajar case. With lies, usually, we know what a politician means, even if we don’t believe him. What he wants us to believe makes sense.
Liars usually care about the truth [if only to manipulate it]- Ranier Fsadni
In the Cutajar case, however, she and her boss, Abela, are asking us to believe nonsense. They’re spouting words with no connection to the real world.
Abela says that Cutajar’s resignation shows the government takes ‘rule of law’ seriously. But rule of law means that all lawbreakers are brought to justice. Is Abela saying Cutajar broke the law? No. So what does he mean?
Nothing. Witches throw lizards’ eyeballs and bats’ wings into cauldrons to change reality. Abela throws in phrases like ‘serious’ and ‘rule of law’ together with Cutajar’s resignation: he needs to say something, anything, as long as it doesn’t commit him to saying something facts can contradict. Only nonsense can’t be contradicted.
As for her, she informs us that she stopped all contact with Yorgen Fenech the moment it emerged he was accused of being the mastermind of Caruana Galizia’s assassination. But wasn’t he accused at the same time that he was arrested?
How could she have maintained contact with him if she had even wanted to? He was under arrest, his contacts dependent on police permission. (Even gang members break all contact the moment one of them is arrested.)
Besides, try completing her argument: “I broke off all contact the moment he was accused of murder. Breaking off all contact the moment he was accused (internationally and in parliament) of being a money launderer and corrupt – that would have been premature.”
In this case, Cutajar is only reiterating Abela’s own standard, which is currently saving the job of another cabinet member, Edward Zammit Lewis. It’s a standard that is not only wrong; it’s meaningless.
Once more, we have a bunch of words thrown together which are, literally, nonsense. Liars usually care about the truth (if only to manipulate it). Here, no such care is shown. The emphasis is on talking as though it’s a game, divorced from reality.
Philosophers have a technical term for this: bullshit (see the recent Oxford Handbook of Lying). What does it say about a political system when the haze of bull dust (to use the Australian term) begins to envelop government?
It suggests a government that’s increasingly more like a used car salesman. All it wants is to make an impression on listeners. Alas, for all of us, any international monitor trying to see if Malta is making progress on rule of law is unlikely to be favourably impressed by a prime minister who seems not to understand what it means. Or even care if we notice.