This article appears in today’s edition of The Malta Independent on Sunday.
A Very Public Affair
“Will the real Joe Public please stand up?” A lot is done and said in the name of Mr Joe Public nowadays. This abstract entity is the modern representation of the society with a commonality of aims, values and (sometimes) vaguely defined aspirations. We speak of the public good, public morality and public decency among other things and apart from a few nostalgic countries who keep a Queen or King as an additional touristic attraction, the order of the day in most states is run by and for the republic.
As José Herrera is prone to remind us every now and then in his journalistic contributions, the word republic finds its origins in the Latin words “Res Publica” (one b though) which can be loosely translated as “public matters”. And in the republic the public matters are supposed to be a very public matter indeed. Taken from another perspective, we can also think of the modern “democratic” society or rule by the “demos” which is just a Greek word for “people”. In matters public it is supposed to be all about the people – which is why politics, politicians and policy are meant to be a very public affair.
Most times we are involved in finding out “what people want” and “what people need” while politicians have developed an art in transforming “what the party believes is best for being re-elected” into a package that convinces the people that “this is what the people really would choose”. The analysis involves having theories about people in order to understand what their needs are… and as that great philosopher, Dr Gregory House, likes to point out: “people hate people who have theories about people”.
We’ve all figured out the fact that our society has a wish list of priorities that is molded in order to best cater for the “public good”. Whether it is an extreme nanny state or a laissez-faire philosophy that underlies this set of values, the basic building block remains the individual whose general welfare is important for the improvement of the public state of affairs. In other words if every individual’s needs are catered for as much as possible then the resulting equation would be the maximum benefit for the maximum number of people: hence public good.
Take education for example. You would think that the reasoning should not be too complicated: the better education for all, the more educated the public is. When you have a public that has formed on a rock without too many natural resources at hand it does not take a genius with a Ph.D. to recognise that money spent on education is more than well spent. More so when it comes to tertiary education that goes beyond forming a foundation of individuals capable of spelling right and shooting off the four times table.
The balance of considerations for the “public good” should be self-evident. No? Not really. Because as those individuals who purport to represent wide swathes of the public realm by posting sweeping statements on net fora seem to prove, even a matter as seemingly self-evident as education can generate conflicting opinions as to what is best for the public. In Malta in 2008 we have the lecturing staff still negotiating with government to get a pay package that approximates a level of decency and incentive that lecturing the future assets of the state might deserve. Some sections of the general public claim that if and when the government should reach into its pockets for some money this should be taken from the purse labelled “Stipends to Incentivise Students to Stick to Studying for an Extra Five to Seven Years”.
Ok. I have to declare a bias. I have formed part of both the lecturing staff and the student population. If that bias is not enough there’s more – I was nominated on the first committee of UMASA just before leaving for Luxembourg and I was on the University Student’s Council during a period when they were renegotiating the stipend package with the government. That renegotiation kicked off on the basic premise: “Education costs money, but then so does ignorance”. Take stipends: Joe Public tends to see them as free dishing out of booze money to a mass of spoilt students. In my time at KSU we considered them as an economic incentive that alleviates the burden of parents whose offspring do the sensible thing and opt for extra years of study. With stipend in their pocket they do not burden the work market excessively (if they did then the stipend would be reduced proportionally) and concentrate on improving their state in society. Remember the equation? Maximise the potential of one individual and you are maximising the potential of the general public.
Now well-educated students do not grow on trees and it takes a motivated Professor with the right structures and support system to be able to really make sure that Joe Public is getting its worth out of this very important investment. This is not about pampering. Its about proper staffing, research and protection from brain drain of the professorial kind. It’s about a University that can take itself seriously once again and stand proudly amongst its peers. They are not crazy or greedy. Like their Italian counterparts they are fast realising that unless attention of Joe Public is drawn to the dire state of affairs we risk becoming fairly stupid fairly quickly. It’s the education, stupid!
Ad maiorem popoli commoditatem. For the greater comfort (service) of the people are the words inscribed on the Porte des Bombes. It’s very Latin, very Republican, oddly enough considering it’s an inheritance from an old Empire that was republican in all but name. The concept of serving the public is intrinsic in the running of the republic. A politician’s motto is supposed to be very much like that of the Prince of Wales: “Ich Dien” which is German for “I Serve”. Unlike the Prince of Wales, the politician’s motto was not stolen off some blind Bohemian king back in 1346 but is a direct consequence of the organisation of the republic.
The way we mold and choose our politicians says much about our concept of public good. I have recently had a mini-argument on J’accuse regarding the increasing tendency of our politicians to spring out of the particular school of “journalism” that is endemic to these islands. The path had been forged early in the nineties by the deceivingly pluralistic policy of the Nationalist parties. Licenses for various propaganda machines were issued and soon the structure was in place for the two behemoths that used to alternate the running of the country to develop a legion of “journalists” and “opinion formers” who were very much in the public eye.
These journalists were trained to spin, to harangue and harass the opposition with skewered reasonings and generally propagate the black or white concept of politics that make our lovely system tick. Of course radio stations and tv channels do not only produce journalists but also “talk-show hosts” who specialise in vitriolic barrages and provoking discussions with the not so mild members of Joe Public as well as general entertainers. Gradually, as the older generation of politicians (those that marshalled the country out of the Middle Ages into the nineties) faded away the new replacements began to be found from among this particular class of recruits.
It would not be bad of itself. A bit of variety from the doctors and lawyers of past might have been warranted. Who knows we might have even taken the opportunity to develop a class of specialist politicians beyond those who were forced by circumstance to be part-time politician and part-time professional. It was not to be. One minute one was a journalist of the biased and irritating kind and the next one could become an Honourable Member whose skewered opinion was now sacrosant (or opposition leader). A career as official haranguer of the opposition is fast becoming a pre-requisite to joining the ranks of the elect.
All of which does not mean that we do not get to congratulate Glenn Beddingfield and Gino Cauchi for getting where they wanted to. It does not mean that I am only referring to these particular gentlemen either. Parliament and representation is for all kinds of people and not for the graduate or the rich – definitely. What I am concerned about is the choice of the discerning public. Numbed as it is by the general propaganda of value that is churned out by the two parties, it is little wonder that Joe Public will end up ticking the box of a candidate merely because he has heard of his name on radio or tv. And J’accuse knows full well that sitting back and criticising the doings and undoings of politicians does not always translate into having one’s own plan on how to go about representing people. Which is why the name Jacques Rene’ Zammit will not be on the ballot of the forthcoming European Parliament elections (that, and the fact that running on a party list would require having a party to run for).
My dad’s been to Luxembourg for a short visit. During that time he had a day off from the Duchy and hopped onto the superfast TGV for a day in Paris. While there he got a chance to visit an exhibition at the Hotel Des Invalides called “Entre le Glaive et la Croix”. He tells me it’s an incredible exhibition of the military and artistic patrimony of the Maltese Islands related to the Knights of St John. It was inevitable that dad would take a photo of La Vallette’s sword and the accompanying description. Apparently La Vallette’s sword was “handed over” to Napoleon Bonaparte. That settles it then. No diplomatic incident in sight. There will be no mincing with words and we will never get to have the famed sword in one of our own museums.
Of course the fact that implied in the words “handed over” are the words “you had no choice did you?” and “spoils of war” has no bearing whatsoever on the sense of indignation one feels whenever the subject of the sword is brought up. Some consolation can be had in the fact that the exhibition gets full marks and pride of place in a magnificent setting. A good advert for Malta and its touristic industry since every visitor to Les Invalides will inevitably be overcome with an urge to book his flight to Malta and come and see the treasures with which our island is stocked. Well… whatever Bonaparte could not carry away anyway.
Since I mentioned Luxembourg and education it is inevitable that I make a public announcement as a form of public service from J’accuse. The European Personnel Selection Office (EPSO) has published a new call for lawyer linguists and conference interpreters. The call for lawyer linguists closes on the 27th November and budding legal minds intent on a career in the European institutions would do well to take note. It’s a well paid, satisfying career that opens up new avenues and exposes applicants to life in an international environment.
I feel the need to plug life in the Grand Duchy for prospective applicants. It’s good. It’s more than good it’s pleasantly international without the chaos and hustle and bustle of big cities. Ok – thanks to the conspiracy of a number of national airlines Luxembourg is still badly connected to Malta (where the hell is that route to Frankfurt-Hahn?) but the standard of living as well as the opportunities to move on and around are incredible. So if you are in possession of a law degree and have a good command of Maltese and a couple of community languages don’t forget to apply (online applications possible at http://www.europa.eu/epso).
This has been J’accuse… writing in public so you don’t have to.
Jacques has been wondering about political journalism on https://jaccuse.wordpress.com. Would you vote for a blogger who runs for parliament (no party attached)?