Wisdom Of The Ancients


When I was just a boy of tender years, I was fascinated by Egypt. Cleopatra, the pyramids, Abbott and Costello — everything about this mysterious, exotic land captivated me. I longed to go there, to breathe the air of the pharaohs, to stand where once Moses himself had stood, and perhaps, like Moses himself, to one day commit murder and flee the country. Egypt to me represented all that was most exciting and wondrous about history.

It therefore saddened me last week to discover that apparently Egypt has undergone some changes in the last couple of thousand years. No longer a mighty empire leading the world in art, culture and science, Egypt has become, frankly, a mess. There is no point in trying to sugarcoat it any longer, no use trying to gloss over the facts in the normal, advisable way. Denial, as they say, is not just a river in Egypt, a joke that makes little sense in a print-only context, and the time for both denial and jokes has passed. The Egyptians are in trouble, and as rational, mature, white people, it is up to us to wrestle with all the pertinent issues and decide just how best to patronise them.

The real tragedy is, we always thought Egypt was the good one. Oh yes, we may worry about Iran and Iraq and Libya and Palestine and occasionally even Saudi Arabia when they do something nasty like setting fire to schoolgirls or raising their prices; but we didn’t think we had to worry about Egypt, did we? Egypt was always so nice, so friendly, so well turned-out and full of fun things to see and do. And yet now we discover that all along they had a dictator. Were you aware of that? I, personally, had no idea, and I am one who prides himself on his deep and intimate knowledge of geopolitics. I feel sure that if there really had been a dictator in Egypt, I would have heard about it. They would have put it in Lonely Planet, wouldn’t they?

So yes, I am a little dubious on this whole "dictator" business. Was Cleopatra a dictator? Was Ramses? Was Mussolini? After all, as they say, one man’s dictator is another man’s unelected autocratic tyrant; it’s all a matter of perspective. And from my perspective, Egypt was doing all right before all this "Mubarak must go" rubbish. I mean, they weren’t bothering anyone, were they? They weren’t kicking up a fuss. They weren’t invading anyone. They weren’t playing their music too loud. Oh sure, perhaps there was a teensy bit of oppression, a smidgen of corruption here and there, but that’s the price you pay for living in a thriving modern kleptocracy — swings and roundabouts. It seems these "revolutionaries" are being a little bit churlish in refusing to mention the good points of living under Mubarak’s rule. What are these good points? Well I don’t know, because they refuse to mention them: see how churlish they’re being?

Naturally, the events in Egypt have divided the commentariat, which is not surprising since the whole purpose of the commentariat is to be divided at moments like these. If the commentariat were ever united, it’d be even more useless than it is now. But at the moment, the commentariat is divided between those who think we should wait and see, and those who think it’s too early to tell. Then there’s well-known Egyptologist Andrew Bolt, who points out that the demonstrations in Egypt prove George W. Bush correct. Which I think means we need to invade Egypt. And that’s probably fair enough. After all, Arabs want democracy, but they can hardly be expected to manage it by themselves, can they, poor little darlings? Iraq proved that as it proved so many other things of various sorts.

On the other hand, prominent Muslim-watcher and man-about-town Alan Howe notes that Mubarak, having bravely and selflessly accepted the burden of leadership out of a sense of duty, kept the peace in Egypt, and without his calm, avuncular presence, Egypt will quickly degenerate into a lawless land of Marxist Islam and jazz will be illegal. Or something, I don’t know, I find it hard to get to the end of Alan Howe’s articles, but that doesn’t mean he’s wrong, does it? Does it? Does anyone know?

So there are competing views here. Are the protests caused by a people yearning to be free, rising to cast off their shackles and live complete lives free from oppression and degradation? Or are they caused by sinister, jazz-hating Muslim Brothers, plotting their tyrannical plots under a thin veneer of freedom-propaganda, just waiting for Mubarak’s exit in order to unleash a firestorm of religious intolerance and invade Israel?

Well, as it happens, I am here going to continue my solid record of disagreeing with everyone, and say "neither". There is only one insidious factor at play here, and it is one that currently plagues the earth: lack of respect for our elders.

Look at Hosni Mubarak. 82 years old. You’d think he’d be entitled to a bit of respect, wouldn’t you? But no, all he gets are marches and placards and "Mubarak OUT!" Is that any way to treat an elderly gent of this kind? Let me tell you, young whippersnappers, Mubarak has probably forgotten more than you’ll ever know about repressing a population to serve the interests of himself and his cronies: perhaps instead of protesting, you could just listen, and learn. I mean, the pyramids are bloody old, and you’re willing to keep them, even though that space could be really usefully converted into flats.

It’s the same on the other side of the Mediterranean, where Silvio Berlusconi finds himself beset on all sides by whingers. Here is a man who has risen through sheer pluck to the highest office in the land, whose intelligence and acumen have seen him likewise ascend the pinnacle of the business world. You’d think people would say, "well, he’s lived a life — surely we can learn from his success. Let us revere this great man." Yet you almost never hear that. All you hear is "Ooh, he had s*x with underage prostitutes!" The man is in his seventies. Imagine if he was your granddad. Having worked so hard his whole life, would you really begrudge your granddad a few underage prostitutes? I know I wouldn’t. I am not as selfish as some of my generation. I have no desire to keep all the underage prostitutes to myself. I want to give the older generation their fair share. It’s not like there’s a shortage — share the wealth! Let’s not get all Tony Abbott about this: everyone deserves an underage prostitute once in a…

What was I saying again?

Oh yes, respect for our elders. There is none. See how people mock poor old Bob Katter. There was a time when the most respected man in town was the grizzled old bush philosopher, with a hat-brim as broad as his philosophies on life, who the rest of the community would gather around for wisdom and advice on all sorts of issues. There was a time when, if a man of experience and sagacity warned us that putting crocodiles on your roof was not an effective way to block out the sun, we would pay close attention and take notes. Today we just laugh at him — why? Is what he says so ridiculous? Of course not, it’s just that he says it in that weird way where he sounds like he’s having a stroke after every word. But so what? Old people talk funny — big deal. Get over it. Mubarak talks funny too — I heard him addressing his people and I couldn’t understand a word, it was compete gibberish, so much so he actually needed an interpreter.

But it was STILL WORTH HEARING. Because here’s a man who’s seen it all. He’s lived through historic events. He’s travelled the world, he’s walked the corridors of power, and he’s attended the University of Life. Let’s not chuck him out. Let’s absorb his knowledge, let’s drink it up, like a cool glass of water on a hot Cairo day.

Perhaps we can even use what he knows to make our own lives better. For example, I think we’d all feel a lot safer if we had a Secret Police of our own. That’s just for starters.

But the main thing is, we have to start respecting our elders again. Not protesting against them, not overthrowing them, not giving them token parts in hit musicals. Respecting them. Because if we don’t understand where we’ve come from, how will we know where we’re going? And if we don’t have the old guard around to explain things, how will the previous sentence make any sense? We need the old people to make sense of the world. To lead us, to guide us, and to smell a bit funny.

Don’t toss Mubarak aside like an old rag doll, Egypt. He still has so much to contribute. Remember, "first they came for the dictators, and I did not speak up, for I was not a dictator…"

Well you know the rest.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.