Most European political leaders campaign in poetry, then govern in prose. Not so Joseph Muscat. He campaigns in prose – permits, promotions, jobs, giveaways – and then governs in poetry. Take, for example, a widely reported remark he made at the mini-summit of south EU leaders a few days ago.
Protestors outside Castille had been drawing attention to the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia. Civil society organisation Repubblika, as well as seven international press freedom watchdogs, had written to the visiting leaders urging them to raise rule of law matters in their meetings with Muscat. And it was with this in mind, the media has assumed, that he turned to his fellow leaders at the end of the conference and said, “Here we’re open in everything, in the skies, and in freedom of speech”.
Reported that way, as prose, it seems absurd. Open in the skies? Try telling that to the people, in various parts of the country, whose walls or apartments have collapsed. No roof over their heads, they are open “in everything, in the skies…”
Try telling that to anyone with a crane or two swinging treacherously over their home, if not a cosmopolitan ‘proġett’ looming ominously in their future. Try telling that to the residents of Pembroke, with the prospect of living in the shadows of towering buildings.
Then there’s Muscat on being open to free speech. Understood as plain prose, it means that the protestors are his best witnesses that they’re wrong. Do they complain publicly about restrictions on free speech and declining press freedom? Doesn’t that show that they do, after all, enjoy free speech and press freedom?
Well, if your standard of no free speech is a gulag or a Chinese re-education camp, then yes. But that sets the bar pretty low.
Using that standard, even Hong Kong and Hungary have free speech and press freedom, despite the fact that the rest of the world agrees that in those countries those freedoms are in peril. Hong Kong has fallen 25 places in 10 years on the press freedom index published by Reporters Without Borders (RSF). Hungary’s government has moved to control the media in such a ruthless manner that the country has the worst press freedom ranking in the EU apart from Bulgaria’s – and it lies 16 places below Hong Kong.
But by Muscat’s yardstick, that can’t be right. Hong Kong has just seen more than a million people out in the streets, protesting against changes in the law that would give mainland China effective judicial power over Hong Kong citizens. And in Hungary, over the last couple of years, several thousand rallied in the streets to protest – on behalf of press freedom, education and free inquiry, and employment rights.
If you take Muscat literally, he’s suggesting that the more protestors fill the streets, the more they show they’re enjoying freedom.
A wicked tongue would say that he would say that, wouldn’t he? After all, if Hong Kong has tumbled 25 places over 10 years in the RSF press freedom index, Malta has tumbled 30 places in two years – and, indeed, lies four places below Hong Kong in the 2019 index.
And, while Muscat has passed no laws curtailing press freedom, the way Hungary’s Viktor Orbán has, Malta has seen a few rum things: from public broadcasting making no pretence of being impartial, to a Cabinet minister who tried to force a journalist to reveal her sources, to Allied Newspapers formally charging the government with using advertising revenues to pressure its editors.
But that’s what wicked tongues do. They cast aspersions and dark hints.
I suggest we don’t take Muscat literally. Think of him speaking in poetry. You’d notice that his remark has 17 syllables: “Here we’re open in everything, in the skies, and in freedom of speech.”
Seventeen syllables. Joseph was giving us his own Japanese haiku. Here it is in verse:
Here we’re open in
Everything, in the skies, and
In freedom of speech.
Don’t these words seem completely different now? The haiku is the vehicle of Zen Buddhism, the spirituality of feeling one with everything. One with the skies, one with birds migrating in the spring, one with cranes and machines, one with the nation, one with Joseph, one with ONE.
Zen is the mindful philosophy we need for our times. Have you been brainwashed into thinking Malta is being razed to the ground, into a state of perfect nothingness? Zen reminds you that the state of perfect nothingness is satori, bliss. It’s ‘l-Aqwa -Żmien’, the best of times, for bliss.
Of course, to enjoy the bliss you need to practise Zen properly. Life is illusion, and so is evidence of corruption. You need to live in the present. You must not dwell on the past, like assassinations and Panama companies. Above all, you must not think about the future.