At some point over the last three years, a new kind of lie began to take centre-stage in Maltese politics.
Don’t get me wrong. Liars have always been with us. They came in various guises. To go by the complaints, the most frequent were hypocrites, who dissembled about their true character. There were also the propagandists and spinners, who fed you either bent truth or half-lies (truths in themselves but misleading, given what is left out). And we weren’t missing the sincere liars, either – those politicians whose faith in their own good intentions leads them to believe their own deceptions.
Nor am I saying that Maltese politics are distinguished by the levels of sheer mendacity. In living memory, American and British journalists have been complaining about rising levels of political lying since the 1980s.
Ronald Reagan preceded those two great sincere liars, Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, by over a decade. On the DC circuit, the joke was that George Washington couldn’t tell a lie, Richard Nixon couldn’t tell the truth, and Reagan couldn’t tell the difference. A book cataloguing Reagan’s lies in his first term – some 200 of them – was published in 1983, a year before he was re-elected in one of the greatest electoral landslides.
Nowadays, of course, 200 lies in three years look trivial. Donald Trump’s lies over three years amount to thousands. His likely Democrat opponent, Kamala Harris, is cut from the same opportunistic hypocritical cloth as his previous opponent, Hillary Clinton.
Meanwhile, across Europe, a tidal wave of lies is sweeping away established political parties. The rise of populism is both an uprising against the hypocrisy of elites and driven by campaigns based on false promises and fake news.
So my point about Malta is simply to note a distinct change and to reflect on its consequences.
What is this new kind of lie? It’s the lie that doesn’t even attempt to be believable. The brazenly implausible lie.
When Daphne Caruana Galizia first broke the news of Konrad Mizzi’s and Keith Schembri’s secret Panama companies, they both tried to persuade us that what she reported was not true. They tried to be plausible.
Today, they don’t even bother. They do deny they’re crooks. But they issue statements on 17 Black that are not only implausible but don’t even try to be otherwise. No one is deceived. You might even wonder if it counts as a lie, since deception doesn’t seem to be the aim.
Another example of the same kind of lie concerns the official explanations for Neville Gafà’s Libyan adventure and his work for government.
We’re told he’s not doing the work he’s officially listed as doing. We’re also told he’s doing good work. Plus we’re told he’s doing government work on a voluntary basis (as one does). We’re told he was in Libya on holiday. But we’re also told that he sat down to talk to a militia leader because in Libya it’s good to talk to everybody (so was it diplomacy after all?).
None of this makes sense. But it doesn’t look as though it’s meant to. I’m not going to try reading the minds of the people who come up with this stuff. But I can spell out some consequences.
The implausible lie is an outright challenge. Rather than recognise accountability to people who have a right to ask questions, it throws down a gauntlet: Contradict me if you dare.
Its effect is to flush out dissent. Another effect is to show dissenters just how few they are in number. Look, almost everyone else is conniving in the fiction. They’re not saying anything. The implausible lie is a display of sheer power: I can say things that go beyond the limit.
Some people might go along with it silently, biding their time. But even so, our behaviour changes.
Look at what’s happened with the Panama gang. The implausible lie – the fact they get away with it – shows that they’re not going away soon. This changes the calculations of those who are trying to find practical ways of clearing the cloud over Malta’s reputation for the sake of our financial services.
The most practical demand, ordinarily, would be to continue to demand the removal of Mizzi and Schembri. But since those two are so confident in their survival that they can act brazenly, it becomes counterproductive for the industry to mention their names loudly. All it does is attract unwelcome attention. So look away and criticise those unrealistic people whose demands will simply make things worse.
The brazen lie does deceive, after all. It invites collusion and self-deception. It gives us the illusion that we’re being practical, when we’re actually conniving in our own disempowerment.