MaltaToday | 18 May 2008 | How to create an instant myth

OPINION | Sunday, 18 May 2008

How to create an instant myth

Raphael Vassallo

Close your eyes. Think really hard about something you genuinely and sincerely believe. Now ask yourself: why, oh why, oh why, oh why do you so genuinely and sincerely believe in whatever it is you are thinking about? And after answering that question, ask yourself another: do you, do you, do you, do you still believe in it, to the same degree as you did before?

To the ordinary, unassuming and non-superstitious sceptic, the above is a simple exercise performed for its own sake every so often, much like a PC user would routinely defrag his computer. But to some people it is a difficult, possibly even dangerous experiment, as it will sooner or later force them to confront the fact that their most cherished beliefs, in many cases, are actually built on very little, if anything at all.
To give one simple (and noncontroversial) example, I once met a man who genuinely believed that a black cat brings instant bad luck if it crosses one’s path… regardless of direction, and oblivious to the fact that many people just as genuinely believe the same black cat to be a harbinger of good fortune instead of bad.

Strange as it seems to me, superstitions such as these are still going strong. And talking to this person, I quickly discovered that it was no use whatsoever to argue that the colour of a cat’s fur is determined by nothing more sinister than its genes; and that it would be every bit as rational to fear people with black hair, or blue eyes, or freckles, or hairy chests… all of which are the result of the exact same biological factors at work.
And yet, when I asked this person why he was so scared of black cats, I did not get a straight answer. It was almost as though he was fully aware of the supreme ridiculousness of his position, but had grown so comfortable with it that any attempt to question his beliefs would only provoke irritability and even anger.
And this, to my mind, means only one thing: that no matter how intelligent, the human animal is not really a rational creature at all. For this reason, a substantial portion of our everyday behaviour is ruled by deep-seated convictions and genuine beliefs which, when examined in any depth or detail, will invariably turn out to be delusional.

Which brings me squarely to the Labour Party leadership race. Fairly recently I found myself sitting in a group of people, all aged 35 and upwards, and the talk soon turned to the subject of how seriously screwed up the Malta Labour Party actually is. The people involved were by and large from the same general background – pale blue, veering here and there towards the pale green – and they all shared a number of common experiences: for instance, unpleasant memories of the 1970s and 1980s; jubilation at the 1987 election result; keen approval of EU accession; etc.
I listened to the conversation as it unfolded, and what soon emerged was that they all shared, albeit to different degrees, an identical set of opinions regarding the present state of Labour.
These can be summed up as follows:
a) George Abela is by far the best of the five contestants to have come forward, but he obviously will never make it because the contest has been a priori rigged to favour Joseph Muscat;
b) The motion to extend voting rights to party members was the best thing since sliced bread; but again, the evil, anti-democratic clique that has hijacked the Labour Party shot it down before it could germinate;
c) George Abela would have steered Malta into the European Union between 1998 and 2001, and we would all have lived happily ever after, were it not for the foibles of Alfred Sant, and finally;
d) The Malta Labour Party has yet to evolve from its Cro-Magnon phase, but it won’t be allowed to do this any time soon for reasons outlined in (a),(b) and (c)… which is a pity, the argument goes, because the Nationalist Party needs a serious Opposition to keep it in check.

Hmm. I don’t know, but something, somehow, somewhere, doesn’t feel quite right. So let’s take them one by one, shall we?

a) George Abela rocks.
For all I know this could very easily be true. But… why do so many people – invariably Nationalists – subliminally accept this as a statement of fact? Interestingly enough, I didn’t get a straight answer when I asked. Although all present seemed to automatically warm to the man, none could readily identify a single policy associated with George Abela (except that he was “pro-EU” – more of this important point later); none had read his personal manifesto, published a couple of weeks earlier; and only one had read an article written that same week by Abela in a newspaper… but couldn’t remember what the article was about.

b) Members should be allowed to vote.
I find this line of argument intensely revealing, for it turned out that none present was aware that the Nationalist Party had done exactly the same thing in 1975, when the statute was changed to deny members the “right” to vote in a leadership election. This was done deliberately to disadvantage Gorg Borg Olivier, and the net beneficiary turned out to be Eddie Fenech Adami… and yet, the same people who tut-tutted about the Labour Party’s refusal to “open up to the masses”, had nothing whatsoever to say about the Nationalist Party failure to do precisely the same thing. And when I pressed the point home, guess what happened? They all got irritable and even angry, for all the world as though… well, work it out for yourselves.

c) George Abela was pro-EU.
Was he? Strange, for I seem to recall that back in 1998, the same Abela had argued against going for an early election in September. Consider for a second the implications. Had he got his way, Alfred Sant would have remained Prime Minister until 2001, and the EU application would never have been defrosted at all. Admittedly there is now (but only now) some talk about the possibility of an eventual U-turn, had Labour stayed on after 1998… but I for one remain unconvinced, for the simple reason that even if George Abela succeeded in persuading the party not to go for that fatal election, the Prime Minister would have remained Alfred Sant, and not George Abela at all.
And yet, it is now universally acknowledged that Abela would somehow have got us safely into the EU, while at the same time steering the boat in the complete opposite direction. I don’t know, but if you ask me it just doesn’t add up.

For what it’s worth, my reading of the massive contradictions inherent in (a), (b) and (c) is simple. People may believe that their political opinions are the products of their own rational thought processes, just as they no doubt think their dress sense or consumer habits are somehow unique to themselves. But in actual fact they are mistaken. In the above scenario, it is clear as daylight that these convictions have actually been inculcated subliminally over a decade’s worth of exposure to subtle propaganda, all of which was designed to hammer home the single point that the Malta Labour Party can never be trusted to govern the country, because it cannot be trusted take the right decision at the right time.
This is why it became important to portray Abela as having always been right, where Alfred Sant was always wrong; that he was always pro-EU, when Alfred Sant was selling “Partnership”; and that the MLP always had a chance to elect him leader... which they repeatedly blew.

Which leaves us inexorably to draw the only possible conclusion, (d)… by which time, of course, the myth will have long taken over from reality.

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