Ethna Colm’s problem

I am an avid follower of Colm Regan, who often writes in The Times about Malta and its affairs, with nary a good word to have about them. Why, would you ask, would I then read his articles? Because, I always find it fascinating to note how certain people have a knack for hiding some good points and arguments which they may have under a mountain of malarkey.

Now Mr Colm is of Irish origins, that’s all I know about him. I know it from the last article he wrote under the title “voting decisions on a fantasy island”, where he referred to his late mother Ethna, God bless her. Mrs Colm happened to be a life-long supporter of Fianna Fáil, Ireland’s conservative Christian democratic party. She would vote for them no matter what.

Her son has informed us that he and her other children would find it inconceivable to vote for Fianna Fáil ever again, from which I deduce that they themselves might once have done so. He does not bother to inform us for whom they would vote now. Not that it matters for the purpose of my comments.

The point of Mr Colm’s background is that Fianna Fáil used to make “fantastical promises” before the elections, only to toss them aside after it. Just Fianna Fáil? I would challenge anybody to find me a political party anywhere in the world since time immemorial which didn’t make fantastical claims. I would even challenge them to find me a party which made no fantastical claims and ever won an election!

He then brings up the issue of fantastical claims by reference to the claim by Prime Minister Robert Abela that we are “living in heaven”. Of course, I would be highly sceptical of anybody making such a claim. But Mr Colm does not bother to inform his readers that PM Abela’s reference to heaven was in the narrow context of COVID. Of course, everybody knows that one could live in hell but still find a narrow corner of heaven, or vice versa. 

I always find it fascinating to note how certain people have a knack for hiding some good points and arguments which they may have under a mountain of malarkey.

Mr Colm’s views, from my readings, are that Malta is a hellish place, though I think that, if he were to go to Imtaħleb, he might find a piece of heaven there. Similarly, in this hellish land of criminality and plundering of public wealth for private gain, one might find a piece of heaven at Dar tal-Providenza or Dar il-Kaptan assisted by public-spirited people and by government itself. Again, in this hellish land ruled by a cabal of bad politicians and greedy businessmen, one might find quite a few thousand honest self-employed and businesses and call them heavenly. But to Mr Colm these are mere aberrations from the norm, that is that Malta is a den of thieves.

At least Mr Colm is realistic enough to admit that his native land of Ireland has its own set of fantasies and mirages. I am not aware whether he regularly writes in Irish newspapers about them and warns his fellow citizens not to fall victim to dishonest politicians, like his dear mum did. But he does ask Maltese voters, regularly, not to trust the Labour Party. I cannot recall he ever said a word about the other parties here. Should I, perhaps, suspect that he trusts them blind-fold not to make any fantastical claims?

All this prompts me to jump back 23 centuries to Plato’s time. What? How could he be relevant? Never underestimate Plato. He is as relevant today as he was back then. Let me give the background.   

In the early part of the sixth century B.C., Athens was disturbed by a great tension between two parties ─ the poor and the rich ─ and stood at the brink of a fierce civil war. On the one hand, because of an economic crisis, many poor Athenians were hopelessly falling into debt, and since their loans were often secured by their own persons, thousands of them were put into serfdom. On the other hand, lured by easy profits from loans, the rich stood firmly in defence of private property and their ancient privileges.

Sounds familiar? I would say, “plus plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose”. Though we are nowhere near a civil war in either Ireland or Malta, the tensions between the stinking rich and the dirth poor are still there  ─ a legacy from the financial crises of 2008 and the COVID-19 pandemic. Surely this has something to do with the fact that some one-fifth of the populations of both Ireland and Malta are at risk of poverty and social exclusion while levels of income inequality are the same in both countries. The fact that Ireland is heaven and Malta is hell does not seem to have affected these statistics, even though both heaven and earth happen to be tax havens. 

Mr Colm does not bother to inform his readers that PM Abela’s reference to heaven was in the narrow context of COVID.

Plato comes into it for the good reason that he was of the view that, making decisions about the right political order are the most important choices one can make in politics. Plato was very much exercised by the claims made by different factions and constituencies at the time. Because, you see, even then different people made different fantastical claims and promised mirages. 

Plato concluded from this that such decisions cannot be left solely to public opinion. He believed that in many cases the public does not have enough foresight and gets its lessons only post factum from disasters recorded in history. Thus, Mr Regan’s mum was fooled by an Irish politician planting trees and scrubs before the election but removing them soon after. Similarly, some Maltese mum was surely fooled by the PN promising heaven on earth in 2008, only to be struck by disaster and booting out the PN five years later; or another mum who was fooled by the PL promise that governance and transparency would be at the forefront of policy.

But I went back 23 centuries because there was also another chap, not as well known as Plato, but who should be remembered for what he did. It was Solon, who translated Plato’sideas of political order, leadership, and justice into facts on the ground. Solon addressed the social tensions of the time by lowering the rate of interest, ordering the cancellation of all debts, and giving freedom to serfs.

Further, by implementing new constitutional laws, Solon set up a “mighty shield against both parties and did not allow either to win an unjust victory” (Aristotle, The Athenian Constitution). He introduced a system of checks and balances which would not favour any side but took into consideration legitimate interests of all social groups. In his position, he could easily have become the tyrant over the city, but he did not seek power for himself.

Solon’s reform provided the ancient Greeks with a model of both political leadership and order based on impartiality and fairness. Justice for Solon was not an arithmetical equality ─ giving equal shares to all alike irrespective of merit, which represents the democratic concept of distributive justice, but it is equity or fairness based on difference ─ giving shares proportionate to the merit of those who receive them.

Solon’s story does not have a happy ending. Though he acted moderately and impartially, he became unpopular with both parties! The rich felt hurt by the reform. The poor, still unable to hold excess in check, demanded a complete redistribution of landed property and the dividing of it into equal shares, but did not get it. Solon left Athens. Another instance of déjà vu. Electorates are so ungrateful.

Disappointed by fantastical claims, Colm Regan invites the Maltese people to choose between fantasy and reality in the coming elections. He says that “it is well past the time that ‘trees and shrubs’, ‘metros and tunnels’ politicians were escorted to the exit.” A lofty sentiment, perhaps, but there’s a little detail he misses: both political parties are putting the emphasis on trees and shrubs, metros and tunnels. 

You see, the difference between fantasy and reality is not so clear-cut, nor is that between today’s modern political parties who can only win elections by pandering to many different constituencies, and nor that between the constituents themselves who flit between fantasy and reality in a virtual world were both appear to be the same.

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