‘First, Let’s Kill All the Lawyers’. Let that thought sink in. It’s an exciting thought…. a rabble-rousing one.
The phrase comes to us straight from the middle of an exciting trilogy of Shakespearean plays dealing with the life and times of King Henry VI. The play speaks of the power struggles in a very difficult time in the Kingdom of England – a bit like Brexit but in the past. The moment the phrase is uttered comes right at the point when a character called Jack Cade is rousing the multitudes of commoners against the powers that be. It is a populist moment.
In the event of a successful rebellion, Cade promises cheaper food and cheaper beer and is then cheered on by the rabble as the new King. He goes on to promise that there shall be no more money, all shall eat and drink as he pleases, and they will all dress well – they will agree like brothers and will worship Jack Cade as the lord. The moment he finishes his promises someone from the crowd yells out, “the first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.”
Shakespeare knew that this line would get its fair share of laughs. It still does. The sentiment expressed so clearly is not simply one against lawyers but rather against the whole legal structure around which society operates. The honouring of contracts, the payment of debts and the fulfilment of obligations are all the targets of this call.
Cade rides the moment masterfully and urges the mobs to pull down the law schools and the Courts – better still, henceforth all laws shall come straight from his mouth. Cade is the hero of the moment. His followers are prepared to accept a system that renders institutional representation worthless even though they know that he is a consummate liar. They would opt for his dream promise any day: “Henceforward all things shall be in common”. L-Ingilterra Tagħna Lkoll.
Cade convinces the rabble that the enemies are the literate and knowledgeable. It is not long before they are being urged to hang a scribe “with his pen and ink-horn about his neck”. Traitors to the cause will all be brought to justice – not before real judges but before the mob.
I could go on with further illustrations from this historical masterpiece. What we need to bear in mind is that Shakespeare, writing in times when stories and illustration of rebellion were censored heavily by the Master of Revels, is baring the elements of a particular facet of the slide to tyranny. His Jack Cade is but a puppet in the hand of an aristocrat pulling the strings and making use of the power of the people without any care for their needs.
The Bard’s illustration of a call to destroy justice and knowledge is a fine warning that applies through the ages to this very day. Twenty-five months ago, a journalist, a writer was at the receiving end of an order – not to be hung with pen and ink around her neck but to be blown up barbarically. That order came during a time when the very battle against justice, the battle against logic and reason had already begun. Make no mistake, Daphne Caruana Galizia, is a victim of the rabble rousers who con the people into wanting to destroy institutional accountability, who lull you into a sense of disillusion, who lead you to abetting or ignoring systemic breakdown, who sell you the lie that these are the best of times. L-Aqwa Żmien.
The warning signs had been there for a long time. But technical explanations of institutional weaknesses, of lack of representation, of the absence of accountability, of the gradual breakdown of the State – even when explained in the single phrase of ‘the breakdown of the Rule of Law’ – fare badly against wave upon wave of populism and demagoguery.
Our institutions have been captured. The people are still in a state of duped acquiescence. The scales have not yet been tipped. The challenge that we face today is to continue to persevere and stand behind the truths that people like Caruana Galizia were brave enough to try to uncover. As the understanding of the great deception spreads, so will the anger for change grow.
Two years on, we have had to reluctantly accept the sad, pathetic reality that an assassination was not enough of an atrocious slur on our society to stir the people into real concrete action. We have had to swallow the bitter pill that seeing institutions being captured one by one, seeing all forms of representation polluted by partisan power-mongering, seeing the watchdogs neutered gradually, has still not been enough to stir a movement of change into action.
The ugly heads of doubt and distrust are raised every time we think the movement of change is about to stir. The same doubt and distrust fragment the voices of change and strengthen the usurpers of power.
Yet there is still hope. The growing movement of angry citizens moved by environmental rape and unhappy with the social and economic disparities are a sign that something might be stirring. The rapid reactivity against the desperate attempts by the old guard politicians to tap the winds of racism, xenophobia and fear of the foreigner is another positive sign. We might be discovering newfound aspirations to a European Malta with a strong European dimension aspiring to be among the changers for a better future Europe.
All this in spite of, and not thanks to, many of our supposed representatives. The people are in search of a voice, a new beginning that sheds the old ways and brings in a new project for our commonwealth of citizens. People like Caruana Galizia worked hard to uncover the truths that are necessary for this kind of battle. Hers was not a futile bravery. Her husband, Peter Caruana Galizia, put it so well: “Bravery alone has little value without a sense of purpose. Without a sense of justice.”
It is time to behead the monsters of doubt and mistrust. It is time to rekindle that purpose. We met in Valletta on Saturday to reaffirm our belief in justice. It is time to commit to the pursuit of truth, to the battle for justice, and to the rebirth of a Republic that has already seen too much pain and suffered too much damage.
First, let’s bring them all to justice.