“Quia noluistis vestrum ferre” inquit “bonum,
malum perferte”. ‘Vos quoque, o cives,’ ait
‘hoc sustinete, maius ne veniat, malum.’
He [Zeus] said:
“Since you didn’t want to put up with the good king you had.
go ahead and put up with this bad one you have now.”
He [Aesop] said:
‘So you too, my fellow citizens, deal with this bad situation
so as to avoid a worse one coming along.’
Phaedrus Fabulae Aesopiae 1.2.28-30
The West watched in fascinated disbelief this past year as the reporting and accounts of the so-called Arab Spring dominated the headlines of newspapers and colonized the opening minutes of television news programs. One after the other the fossilized regimes of north Africa and the Middle East crumbled under the relentless pressure of decades of discontent: No More! Syria may still be a work in progress (no doubt soon to be consummated), but in few places was the story more dramatic than in Egypt. Though Egypt has long been overtly supported by billions of American tax dollars (among which were probably one or two of my own), its president was out, and the young people so instrumental in effecting his departure thought not without reason that they could now look forward in the near future to an inauguration of something genuinely democratic.
Then the ‘free riders’ swooped in to gorge in appropriating mode on the bountiful repast prepared by the others who, now that the real cooking had been done, were relegated to the kitchen and kept out of the dining room.
I trust nobody will be nasty enough to suggest that I hold or held a brief for the likes of any of these former greedy and corrupt potentates and their myrmidons who now languish in jails or graves, but the wobbly and still problematic unfolding of subsequent events brings to mind one of the fables of the ancient Greek slave Aesop (late sixth-early fifth centuries B.C.E.), of fables fame.
Many of his droll pieces were translated into Latin by one Phaedrus under the reign of Augustus in the early first century C.E., including the famous one (1.2 in the standard collection) referred to as Ranae regem petunt ‘The frogs ask for a king.’ This one supposedly was told by Aesop to his fellow Athenians around mid-sixth century B.C.E. in connection with the usurpation of power by the dictator Peisistratus in favor of the lower classes.
A group of aristocratic frogs was generally unhappy with what they saw as their society’s gradual drift into dissolution, and so approached Zeus with a petition for a new king, one who could restore some ‘law and order’ among the aimless citizenry. The lord of gods and men gave them a kind of test by hurling a big log down into their swamp, and though at first frightened out of their wits, they realized that nothing had changed. Once more they petition Zeus – for a ‘real’ king this time. So Zeus sent them a water snake, who began to gobble them all up. In panic and desperately needing help, they approach Zeus through political back channels ( Furtim igitur dant Mercurio mandata ad Iovem – ‘And so in secret they have Mercury present Zeus with their demands’). Zeus was not amused, and in effect told them (as the epigraph indicates) that they should have thought of that beforehand and been more careful about what they wished for.
The contiguity I wish to underscore here is of course not that tyrants should be tolerated and endured, but that unless even warranted (which I personally believe the ones under discussion here were) revolutions have in place a plan for developments after the revolution has removed the tyrant, who is to say that the victorious revolutionaries will not be coöpted by even more sinister despots?
Thus, very recently Egypt (and the West) got its parliamentary ‘elections’ that, it now appears, will in the near future install as de facto government of the new Egypt a democratically elected majority that seems (as far as I understand the matter) to represent pretty much exactly the opposite of what the revolution was supposed to have been all about. As The Economist (“Who will benefit from the chaos?” [Nov 26 – Dec 2 2011 page 57]) observed: “This was not the revolution that many Egyptians feel they fought and suffered for.” And, predictably, one elated and not unreasonably self-satisfied spokesperson for a now legal and legitimately elected majority of Islamists piously crowed, “We abide by the rules of democracy, and accept the will of the people” (“Voting in Egypt Shows Mandate for Islamists”, The New York Times Thursday 1 December 2011, pages A1/A4). Yes, yes, of course, always vox populi vox dei [recall, for example, that Franco became Head of State por la gracia de Dios – ‘by the grace of God’] and sic semper tyrannis and so forth and so on – nil novi sub sole! (‘the voice of the people is the voice of god’; ‘ thus ever the fate of tyrants’; ‘nothing new under the sun’). There is perhaps cause for some trepidation over future prospects for this unfolding drama along the ancient, wearied banks of the eternal Nile.
And it isn’t just Egypt and the Peisitratids from over two and a half millennia ago in Greece that are in the spotlight here — headlines from our own era’s recent and contemporary history are littered with accounts of the unhappy and unintended consequences of just such well-intentioned and — in the eyes of many — fully justifiable political movements.
Think about the replacements – whether through bullets or ballots — of the tsar with Lenin and later with Stalin in Russia, of the Weimar Republic with Hitler in Germany, of the left wing Popular Front by Franco and the Falange in Spain, of Fumimaro Konoe with Hideki Tojo in Japan, of Chiang Kai-shek and the KMT (Kuomintang) with Mao Tse-tung and the CCP (Chinese Communist Party), of Batista with Castro in Cuba, of Sihanouk with Lon Nol and later with Pol Pot in Cambodia, of Reza Shah Pahlavi with Khomeini in Iran, of the Somozas with the Sandinistas and Ortega in Nicaragua, of Mobutu with Kabila in Congo, of Mubarak with the Brotherhood in Egypt, (soon?) of Assad with what or whom in Syria, of …
I offer here no solutions, no correctives, no remedies for the flawed design that genetically inheres in our human intractability. And, again, I am not making the argument that saints were replaced by monsters, but simply that across the millennia there is a disconcerting familiarity, a distressing timelessness and a disturbing ubiquity to these upheavals that affect hundreds of millions of human beings who would, I believe, rather just be getting on with their lives.
And through this little fable about those unhappy frogs Aesop (and Phaedrus) articulated an enduringly applicable moral that works just as well for parties and nations as it in fact does for you and for me: is the frying pan really that hot? Yes, sometimes it really is, but at other times maybe it really is not, and then again …