The Costanza defence

Anglu Farrugia: serial verbicidal maniac or humanity’s last hope against Google Translate?

I’m still conducting a magisterial inquiry but I’ll tell you what I know for sure. Whatever his personal distinction, Farrugia is a recognisable figure in Euro-American history.

It was over 200 years ago, referring to one of Farrugia’s French precursors, that Madame de Staël observed that speech just wasn’t his language. Casting Farrugia as Mr Speaker was Joseph Muscat’s way of proving he does, after all, have a British sense of humour.

In recent British politics, Farrugia’s counterpart was John Prescott, Tony Blair’s deputy prime minister, whose malapropisms were legend. In the US Senate, during a long career, it was Joe Biden. See, even in the real world the counterparts get promoted.

As for the recent unfunny matter — how Farrugia came to Minister Carmelo Abela’s rescue and abstained on a critical vote on whether the minister should be censured for a financial ethics breach — there are good reasons to deplore the Speaker’s dodge and the dangerous precedent he’s set. In a democracy, it’s a rare Speaker who shrinks from asserting parliament’s authority and, indeed, weakens it.

But the reason Farrugia offered, which echoed Abela’s own defence — there are no explicit rules — is a familiar one. In the US it’s called, and ridiculed as, the Costanza defence.

The name refers to a 1992 episode of the hit TV comedy, Seinfeld, when George Costanza (the sitcom’s resident loser) is confronted by his boss: It had come to his attention that George had had sex with the cleaning lady on his office desk.

George’s epic reply, star of a thousand YouTube clips: “Was that wrong? Should I not have done that?… If anyone had said anything at all when I first started that that sort of thing was frowned upon — because I’ve worked in a lot of offices and I can tell ya: people do that all the time.”

Since then, the Costanza defence — pleading ignorance or lack of clear guidance that something was ethically wrong — has turned up repeatedly.

In 1998, Bill Clinton notoriously queried whether oral sex with an intern in the Oval Office counts as “sexual relations”. In 2014, an engineer at an automaker planted listening devices in meeting rooms, ostensibly to take notes later. When caught, she raised the Costanza defence… as did, in 2016, the unscrupulous protagonists of a shady energy deal.

The point is not that, since it happens frequently, then it’s not that clear or bad. (That would be a Costanza defence in its own right.) It’s simply to say that invoking lack of clear rules is a standard excuse everywhere of those caught in serious ethical breaches.

It’s missing the point to pin it, as some do, on some persistent, specifically Maltese (or “Mediterranean”) cultural perversity. Given that it’s a mistaken diagnosis of a real problem, it’s even counterproductive.

The sleaze-splattered Boris Johnson has just done well in Thursday’s local council elections; his Tories won a parliamentary seat that has been Labour for almost half a century. No critic, however, is trying to explain this by reference to some ancient northern cultural mentality, some atavistic amoralism or indifference to corruption, on the back of some controversial theory that most anthropologists don’t endorse.

On the contrary. Johnson’s centre-left critics recognise that the vote says something about how cut off the British Labour Party is from the people it was set up to serve.

They know that Johnson isn’t the first populist to persuade the working classes to pay for those more fortunate than themselves. And the capture of government to pursue the greatest happiness for the smallest number is a mark of our neoliberal times.

Faced with the challenge, there are two options. They could diagnose the voters as being benighted. Or they can assume the responsibility of understanding why Labour isn’t trusted: why what Labour says isn’t what many of its former voters hear.

Obviously there are particular British factors, including Brexit. But there are also more universal ones. No Opposition can tear itself apart and win a general election. All campaign strategists agree that a candidate can’t succeed if he or she speaks like a victim or as though motivated by revenge. And you can’t stir public opinion with a teaspoon.

Back to Malta. None of this means we don’t need to reform the political system we do have. But reform includes the way we try to understand our problems — with imaginative sympathy, rather than dismissive sneers.


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Henry s Pace
Henry s Pace
1 year ago

‘ Bill Clinton notoriously queried whether oral sex with an intern in the Oval Office counts as “sexual relations”.
At the time of the impeachment being discussed in the US House of representatives and the impeachment was nearing its end, a deputy stood up to say his views. This deputy asked a simple question – Whoever did not do what Clinton did do stand up and say so.
The result was that all representatives remained seated !

Simon Oosterman
Simon Oosterman
1 year ago

Our problems are that we have a thoroughly corrupt PL and a fatally divided and half corrupt PN. We have to create the possibility of another party to grow, like the greens in Germany. To achieve that we have to do away with the electoral district system, which makes clientelism a necessity, by the way.

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