‘Serene’ was the de rigueur buzzword that would be deployed every time some PR catastrophe would torpedo Joseph Muscat’s forced projection of infallibility. Famously, Michelle Muscat was ‘serene’ with the allegation that a million-dollar bung owed to her husband by the tyrant of Azerbaijan was paid into an account in her name. Chris Cardona expressed post-coital serenity after he was discovered naked but for a towel to cover his shrinkage which he blamed on a very cold shower. Konrad Mizzi said he was serene as he fought and lost his political life. Keith Schembri never said much. Presumably he told the police he had an acute attack of serenity.
It seems that now they’ve run out of whatever they used to be smoking and in this twilight of partial sobriety they are confessing insensitivity. It’s a degree of understatement which is resorted to when one can’t keep a straight face while saying they’re serene. Like ‘serenity’ before it, ‘insensitivity’ is intended to defuse the consequences of the objective truth. It is meant to gloss over reality. In other words, it’s a lie meant to excuse wrongdoing.
Consider these examples by exaggeration. I see you crossing the street, press down on the pedal and run you over, using my car to inflict life-threatening wounds. When I’m questioned, I say I’m serene I did nothing wrong. A puerile defence which should rightly offend you. But let’s now ask the judge what he thinks. The judge says I was insensitive to push down on the pedal and run you over. This should hurt you more.
It’s insensitive to challenge a short man to stand up when they’re already standing. It’s insensitive not to offer vegetarian options at a dinner party. It’s insensitive to buy a leather bag to a lifetime Greenpeace subscriber. It’s insensitive to call out your date’s halitosis within the first 5 minutes of a romantic encounter.
Branding Angela Merkel as the fulfilment of Adolf Hitler’s dreams is not insensitive, especially if you’re an ambassador. In a diplomatic context ‘insensitivity’ is a brutal honesty which is unambassadorial, where a kind lie would have helped preserve relations between states. A diplomat is ‘insensitive’ when they drink wine at table during an official dinner with Muslims or when they insist on a cheese course when they’re invited over by the Chinese ambassador.
When ambassadors charge a German chancellor with the crimes committed by the Nazis 70 years ago, they are indulging racist prejudices, they are committing the worst possible slander, they are seeking to cause offence and hurt and they are driving a dispute to a point from which they can never crawl down to compromise.
They are also showing crass ignorance of the first order. They show they are completely unprepared for their job, they have never read a history book in their life, and they do not have even a basic understanding of politics, international relations and diplomacy.
They are incompetent in an unbelievably visible manner. This is not about having the knowledge and the inclination to set a proper table and to have the courtesy to articulate a government’s position respectfully and clearly. This is about not plastering your country on the world news, as Michael Zammit Tabona did yesterday, because of your eye-wateringly rhapsodic asininity.
You see, the BBC headline last night was not that Michael Zammit Tabona, Labour Party donor, swindler of planning permits, owner of rickety boats, and privatised gaoler of illegally detained victims of racial prejudice, is a crass idiot. That would have been his problem. The headline is that Malta’s ambassador spoke offensively, hurtfully, cruelly and stupidly striking at the heart of European identity, post-war reconciliation and fraternity with prejudices Europe outgrew hours after Adolf Hitler killed his dog, his wife and himself.
By calling his statement ‘insensitive’, our foreign affairs minister implicitly certified Michael Zammit Tabona’s oral flatulence as preferably unspoken truth. The minister said an apology for the insensitivity would be sent to the German embassy this morning. But no disassociation with what Michael Zammit Tabona actually said would be served. We will not be saying that we think Angela Merkel is not conducting a hostile take-over of Europe on the lines of Adolf Hitler’s blitzkrieg.
Evarist Bartolo does not express regret Michael Zammit Tabona thought what he said. He expresses regret that he said it. And he expressed no regret that he retained such a superbly unqualified ignoramus as his ambassador. If he did, he’d have to recall his bluff from a couple of weeks ago and resign as a token of appropriate and proportionate regret for such a diplomatic train crash.
This has been the worst insult conducted by a diplomat acting for Malta since Jean de Valette sent Mustapha Pasha the decapitated heads of his prisoners in a cross-harbour volley shot from canons.
If you look close enough you can see why Evarist Bartolo did not resign. As we did after 1971 Malta is – by official but undeclared policy – tying up its fate with tyrants against democrats, with despots against Europe. As Dominic Mintoff argued when he came to power after independence, Robert Abela’s government is portraying our traditional European partners as tired, ineffective and decadent. Like Mintoff did with Moammar Ghaddafi in the 1970s, we are cutting our ties with France, with Germany, with Italy, with Spain and so on and hunting for the easy cash-in-a-suitcase alliances with tyrants unaccountable to their people.
Robert Abela’s Helsinki moment seems to be this genius idea of disabling European policy to prevent the supply of arms to the rebels in Libya, collaborating instead with Turkey’s deadly meddling in the Libyan conflict.
We’re upgrading from Ilham Aliyev to Recep Tayyip Erdogan all the while gravitating towards the invisible but irresistible pull of Russian interests. We are serving those interests by undermining the European project, by fomenting prejudices against Europe, by suggesting the viability of leaving the EU and by wielding the veto we have been trusted with to block Europe’s ability to work for stability just across from Europe’s borders.
That is not insensitivity. It is an act of self-inflicted sabotage grounded in an ideological hostility to an integrated Europe that only a dyed in the wool Soviet nostalgist like Evarist Bartolo could be entrusted to devise. Robert Abela is, as a solid graduate of the school of Joseph Muscat, ideologically ambivalent. His only religion is the renewal of his own power which faithful journey to nirvana this awakening of a sleeping KGB cell inside Palazzo Parisio serves nicely.
Acting responsibly, as Angela Merkel did when she opened the doors to a million Syrian refugees who walked to the border of the EU with the blood and the mud of civil war in their country caked to their feet, is rarely popular. It rarely attracts the hysterical applause that Adolf Hitler bathed in at party rallies, the surviving reflection of which in our time can best be found at an average Malta Labour Party rally.
What gets the crowds to shout Sieg Heil in unison is a policy of hate and collective punishment. Black people in their imaginary hundreds of thousands are blamed for anything from the coronavirus pandemic, to deaths of nonagenarians in retirement homes, to a freeze on the tourism industry, to high rent prices, to the impending economic holocaust.
Which is why Michael Zammit Tabona is really projecting. His boats are being used like Hitler’s trains east before the Wannsee Conference. That nuance about the Wannsee Conference might whoosh over Michael Zammit Tabona’s head so I should clarify for his benefit that I’m not referring to mass murder here.
I am referring to the illegal detention of people without access to rights afforded to everyone else, rounding them up and keeping them far enough from the general community so that they’re forgotten about, the deprivations they are forced into unseen, their cries for freedom unheard, their sicknesses untreated, their fate drawn-out but definitively sealed.
That’s while the owner of the boats they’re penned in makes up for a slowdown in the tourism business and then some, cashing back many times over his investment in political cash contributions.
It does not matter too much after all. Even if Michael Zammit Tabona may not claim to be feeling all that serene today, all he’s ever going to be accused of is a little peppering of insensitivity.