The Malta Independent 22 July 2019, Monday

He was so close

Mark A. Sammut Sunday, 7 July 2019, 11:03 Last update: about 16 days ago

There was talk on the street, and it sounded so familiar. Great expectations, everybody was watching him. People he met, they all seemed to know him; even his old friends treated him like he was something new.

Everybody loved him, so he couldn’t let them down.

There’s talk on the street, ’twas there to remind him... doesn’t really matter which side he’s on. He’s walking away, and they’re talking behind him. They’ll never forget him ’til somebody new comes along.

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Shallow judgment

That he even thought he could make it betrays the shallowness of his judgment. How could he ever think he would be taken seriously when he simply ignored the obvious implications of pigheadedly (and big-headedly) protecting his closest aide who had created a tax-avoidance (if not even a tax-evasion) scheme? Others stepped down; he dug in his heels. His stubbornness demonstrated not resoluteness and strength of character in the face of strong criticism, but shallowness of judgment coupled with a serious character flaw.

Shallowness of judgment because he let others see that he is unable to extrapolate, to foresee the unavoidable future consequences of his present actions. He might be good when he’s playing in the local, amateur league; but as soon as he tried to prove his mettle in the overseas, professional league, he discovered he was out of his depth. As was inevitable, he was cut down to size.

And it was not only because he demonstrated a clear shallowness of judgment, not only because he displayed a telling inability to understand that non-locals (that is to say, people who do not depend on him for their business, careers, or what have you) would be evaluating his behaviour according to higher standards set by the exigencies of world-power status; he thought he could play the big-league game according to the rules of petty parochial power.

He was cut down to size because of a serious character flaw of his: he thinks that he is the perennial new kid in town. This deluded self-perception – possibly validated by small-scale communities but certainly derided in large-scale ones – could never bear the stress and strain of a different milieu, one where raw talent on the one hand and powerful, oft concealed political connections on the other, are the key factors that unlock a situation, not the herd-like support of blinkered supporters.

Yes, he was almost there. But that’s practically of no importance. What matters is that he is not there. The skeletons in his cupboard were too many. He had closed his eyes to the skeletons in the cupboard of some of his favourite acolytes, while believing that nobody had realised this or that his own skeletons in the cupboard would be similarly disregarded.

Instead, he was “punished” for breaking rules that are not written – because they are not legal – but are perhaps even stronger than written rules: the unwritten rules of civilisation. He was not aware that there’s more to civilisation than meets the eye, possibly because, whether one likes it or not, the truth is that the more subtle aspects of civilisation remain unseen by people who lack a certain background. Though this might sound elitist, it is not, for elitism is something else altogether. But the elite do partake of this civilisation. However, whereas all the elites partake of it, it is also shared by others who do not belong to the elite. He seems unable to read the unwritten rules of civilisation, and this is quite apparent to those who can actually read them. He was the small-town wonder boy who owed his success more to luck than talent, who went to the big city to audition for a part in the big show. They did not turn him down. They simply ignored him.

He massively misread civilisation. He reckoned that abortion is the in-thing in the civilised world. So he cajoled certain people to speak out. True, not all those who support abortion spoke out because of his cajoling – some of them simply joined the bandwagon when they realised that the climate was favourable. He aimed to be perceived as trying to civilise his own backward people. He thought that by distancing himself from pro-life retrogrades, he would score points with the civilised ones he so wished to impress.

But the game was too obvious to impress anybody with the very level of civilisation of those whom he wished to impress. Again, his shallowness of judgment made him think that playing according to local, amateur rules would secure victory in the game played according to professional rules. At the same time, his delusion – that he’s the perennial new kid in town – made him oblivious to the obvious fact that the people he wished to impress usually have unusually high IQs.

So he came back from the ground, his shirt hanging out, his trousers soiled, his overall appearance unkempt and shabby. When he played football with his classmates, he usually won; now he had played with the professionals of the Premier League, and just came back. Cut down to size, his head hanging.

His friends tried to cheer him up, ironically by emphasising that he had been very close to succeeding. They too displayed shallowness of judgment. Why highlight the near miss? The fact that he surrounded himself with people who, like him, display shallowness of judgment further confirms his own shallowness of judgment.

Once a friend told me that there are places, like India for instance, where bachelors place adverts in the papers to find a bride. Some of them advertise themselves as “Admitted to Oxford” or “Admitted to Cambridge”. Their selling point would be that they are so smart that they were admitted to top-notch universities. But they’re not as smart as they think. The classy girls whom these chaps try to impress would ask the obvious question. “Good, you were admitted. But did you finish the course?”

That cafone, again

There is a word in Italian which has somehow percolated into American English slang. I do not know how this happened – I can only guess that it was the Italo-Americans who brought it with them.

The word is cafone. Originally, in the dialects of southern Italy, it had a neutral meaning: a poor peasant. Those my age who studied Italian at A-Level will remember Ignazio Silone’s Fontamara. In that beautiful novel, there is a description of the structure of early 20th-century rural Italian society given by one of the characters: “God is at the head of everything. He commands in Heaven.  Everybody knows that. Then comes Prince Torlonia, ruler of the earth. Then come his guards. Then come his guards’ dogs. Then nothing. Then more nothing. Then still more nothing. Then come the peasants (i cafoni). That’s all.”

But over time, the Italian word came to mean an uncouth, boorish, ill-mannered person. A mid-20th century dictionary has entries such as scafonizzare, meaning “to civilise a barbarian or primitive people”. One also finds motocafone, meaning “a rude driver”. And one finds the hilarious anglocàfoni – the accent has to follow the model of anglosàssoni. The anglocàfoni are “Italo-Americans that are more attached to Italian culture than their Americanised fellow Italo-Americans”. But the primary meaning in Italian is “boorish, uncouth, ill-mannered” and it is with this meaning that “cafone” has managed to insinuate itself into American English slang.

It came to my mind while watching Salvu Balzan’s latest videoblog. The man is, unfortunately for this little country of ours, a wonderful specimen of one particular subspecies of the species Cafone. There are different subspecies, I believe: Cafonis italicus meridionalis, Cafonis italicus septentrionalis, Cafonis americanus septentrionalis... and, for our sins, Cafonis melitensis. Yes, Salvu Balzan is a museum-quality specimen of Cafonis melitensis.

He did speak of how he would like to be remembered when he goes to the next world (“if a next world there is”, he hurried to console us). He would like to be remembered for both his good and not-so-good qualities.

He shared this profound thought while denigrating the memory of Daphne Caruana Galizia and the BBC for airing a drama about her. He said a lot of things about her which I will not repeat. But one thing struck me of what he said, and I’ll to refer to here; it actually drove me to write about our cafone. It betrays a profound lack of self-awareness, the unmistakable characteristic of the true cafone. This gentleman spoke of the truth, of the devotion journalists should show toward the Truth. He seems to delude himself that he’s a Servant of the Goddess Truth, probably even the Chief High Priest of the Roman Goddess Veritas, or her Greek counterpart, Aletheia.

Salvu Balzan repeatedly tried to enter the Temple of Aletheia; each time he was solemnly kicked out and told in no uncertain terms not to trespass again. Or else.

Imagine a Monty-Python-like movie peppered with elements from The Exorcist in which Salvu Balzan approaches the Temple of Truth, and the High Priests – a hybrid between the Knights Who Say Nee and the monks of the Holy Hand-Grenade of Antioch – warn him that if he dare approach the Temple, they would throw the Holy Water of Truth in his general direction and it would first burn his skin, then him.

Salvu Balzan for the Truth. That sentence promises to collapse like those walls whose foundations were excavated by the greedy developer building a block of flats where the house next door once stood. Such are the fragile foundations of such a sentence.

(Not to mention the shriek sounds that came out of his throat in the first part of the videoblog when he was talking about people who earn high salaries. He could not contain his emotions.)

My Personal Library (56)

My attention was recently caught by a book called Decadence, radicalism, and the early modern French nobility: the enlightened and depraved by Chad Denton (2017). The author proposes the thesis that sodomy and adultery played a primary role in the decline of the French nobility. He argues that, impressed by the ideas of the Enlightenment, the nobles “evolved” from a warrior class into an educated class. They embraced libertinism, as a pragmatic and secular ethic of sexuality, and sceptically rejected Catholic moral orthodoxy. They saw it as a means to reassert their privilege: only the educated high nobility could practise[1] sodomy and adultery and not risk either the death penalty or ostracism.  

The French nobility thus acquired the image of being parasitic and corrupt, rendering the entire class obsolete in the eyes of contemporaries. In Denton’s opinion, this led to the political and social decline of the French nobility.

The book makes fascinating reading, even though one has to ask whether Denton’s thesis – which seems to exclude other causes – can be accepted in its entirety.

PS: Non-rhetorical question

Professor Edward Mallia left a comment under the online version of my piece of last Sunday. I saw it when it was too late to post a reaction.

In my piece of last week, I expressed my opinion that climate change is due partly to industrialisation and partly to natural causes. I said that I base my opinion on the fact that there have been numerous ice ages in the past. This necessarily implies that the earth’s surface was covered by varying amounts of ice in different times, otherwise we would not refer to “ice ages”.

Professor Mallia urged me to read more (for which I thank him), instead of sharing his knowledge with readers and tell us what caused different ice ages in the past.

If ice did recede in the past when industrialisation (and the burning of fossil fuels) coupled with vast human-caused deforestation were still things of the future, it follows that those episodes were caused by non-human factors. So, why exclude non-human causes for the current predicament?

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