Bread and Circuses

We must arouse ourselves from the pleasant dream that everything is, basically, alright. We must disabuse ourselves of the fallacy that as long as we don't see stormtroopers in the streets our freedoms must still be intact.
This post was published on the now-closed HuffPost Contributor platform. Contributors control their own work and posted freely to our site. If you need to flag this entry as abusive, send us an email.

The reason most totalitarian governments have regular military parades is to inspire constant fear and awe in a populous that, without reminders of the terrible power of the government, might rise to challenge it. However another, much less noisy, way to quiet the masses is to lull them with luxuries. "Bread and circuses," as the Roman poet Juvenal said, using cheap food and trivialities to distract the citizens from the real political and economic questions of the day.

For a long time the "circuses" in America were televised sports. People let the excitement of the action and allegiance to a local team distract them from the erosion of the Constitution. And while admittedly more people will still tattoo the face of a second-rate wide receiver on their bicep than would raise their voice in defense of the First Amendment, as media companies charge increasing fees to watch sports on television the modern circus has shifted to the constant feed of celebrity lifestyles. Today we are inundated with the spectacle of every aspect of the goings-on of the rich and famous, given daily updates of the tiniest aspect of their lives, loves, losses, and fashions. So when government officials admit to spying on us, or say "the president had the constitutional authority, no matter what the law actually says, to order domestic spying without warrants" rather than "Freedom!" being the rallying call for the citizens to take back government Of, By, and For the People the announced introduction of the Surveillance State is gladly lost in the noise of tabloid static for a citizenry bewitched into believing the worst part of the news flash announcing of their loss of civil rights is that it might pre-empt Dancing with the Stars. The Police State did not stomp in with heavy boots, but news-crawled in at the bottom of a story about Kim Kardashian.

We have been hypnotized by the notion of Aristocracy. We've been massaged into believing that the highest form of citizenship is Celebrity, and that listening to the day-to-day drivelings of someone who is famous for something rather trivial is much more important than paying attention to someone of intellectual note defending our essential needs or rights. And as for standing up for ourselves we are more likely than not to be met with "Who do you think you are?", implying that we've forgotten that our lack of celebrity equals utter powerlessness. This Aristo-philia serves two interwoven purposes: One, to distract us from news of our dwindling freedom, and Two, to make us despise our own situation in comparison to the glittering image of those with nothing more productive to do than sip champagne on a yacht. More on that later.

And as for our Bread, it is no longer food, but gadgets. Our actual food has had its nutritive qualities bred out, has become the unnatural selection of bizarre choices created for greatest profit rather than health by corporations which have so far bet correctly that Americans will choose colorful, tangy poisons over things that are simply grown in dirt . No, our Bread is now dazzling electronics, provided to us at low, low prices -- prices subsidized by low, low wages for the workers and terrible, terrible environmental degradation -- so that now even the poorest, most impoverished and starving among us can check up on their Fantasy Football team instantly on their newest of new smartphones. We've been bamboozled into believing healthcare, a secure home, good food are the true luxuries which only elitists/socialists the can afford or insist on, and that the minute-by-minute wizardry of technology in your palm is the necessity. We have been provided with a tool that in the main serves as a constant distraction to the actual degradation of our situation.

And, most importantly, as a political release valve. So much easier to anonymously tweet "That sucks!" when informed that elected representatives voted to allow domestic spying. Political Involvement Lite, thanks to technology. In Egypt, and most recently Turkey, we've seen how powerful a tool this technology can be in the fight for economic and environmental justice, and even in a surveillance state such as our it could be very useful weapon for organizing . But only if we see it as such, and not simply rely on it as a perpetual, shiny, gee-whiz distraction. Only if we know that online political participation is not a substitution for physical political participation will the device in our pocket be more than a toy, or a way for the boss or the government to check up on us. Tweets may tell you where the protest is, but don't take the place of showing up.

First and foremost we must arouse ourselves from the pleasant dream that everything is, basically, alright. We must distract ourselves from our distractions, from our Bread and Circuses. We must disabuse ourselves of the fallacy that as long as we don't see stormtroopers in the streets our freedoms must still be intact. This is an illusion. What need of streets full of jackbooted thugs when the government has given itself the right to track your every communication and move? Governmental violence is only needed when the citizens rebel against their loss of freedom, and so far Americans have shown little interest in that. Our great-grandparents would have been outraged at the trampling of their rights, and the government would have had to call in troops to try and quell the righteous anger of a populous aroused. But unless the intrusion of rights has to do with gun registration the common American response to something as essential as our elected officials voting to suspend our rights is muffled. Instead we watch paid television pundits battle it out, as if their in-studio Punch and Judy show will have any impact on our actual freedom, or can take the place of our own participation in fighting for that freedom. Being a citizen has always meant more than treating politics as a spectator sport, or at best voting periodically when an issue touches one personally. Citizenship in a democracy is really the constant demand for two things -- Power and Respect.

First: The Power of the individual voter, who's single vote should count as much as the single vote of the most corrupt aristocrat in the country. (And that not being not the case it is as much credited to their greed for influence as to our refusing to treat them as the enemies of democracy that they clearly are.)

And secondly: The Respect that is due to those who actually built -- and continue to build -- this country: Citizen Workers. Every time someone refuses to admit, despite that fact that they work hard, that they are members of the Working Class they are disrespecting themselves. If -- no matter how much they live paycheck to paycheck, no matter how often they come home from work covered in dirt or tangled in debt or just looking for that next intoxicant to diffuse their desperation -- if, no matter all that they cannot admit that they are Workers they are operating under a delusion propagated by The Owning Class that being a worker is something to be ashamed of. And so, rather than demanding Respect for their honorable work, many workers cling to the idea of a mystical Middle Class, a stepping stone to riches, a place where if you work hard and play by the rules you too can join the elite... or at least be better than your neighbors. A conveyor belt that takes you from a place where you work to a place where you live off the work of others.

Being an economic parasite is not something to which a sane, kind person should aspire. And pride in being a Worker is not a step down from that lofty perch of the corporate-invented delusion of Middle Class membership, but an elevation to a position of demanding respect for the work actually done, and an insistence of the recognition of that work's actual importance. Workers are the muscle and brains of any nation, whereas the Rich more often than not simply live off the blood and sweat of those who actually do.

To be fair some of the wealthy have worked hard to get where they are, and some have used their wealth and position for philanthropic causes. But let's face it -- despite what their wholly-owned media beats into our heads every day philanthropic citizens of wealth are very few and extremely far between -- which is why we are repeatedly told about the same few. Even those few frequently reveal themselves to be no less rapacious than the affluent gangsters that live in the mansion next-door. And the moment they demand special access to our elected officials, insist tax breaks for themselves or their companies benefit anyone but themselves and their stockholders, or act as if any application of Worker's rights and power are a threat to their wealth and position they should be treated not as the objects of envy and adoration, but as traitors to civil society, and Enemies of the People.

All of us, from baristas to firefighters, from doctors and teachers to garbage collector and software engineers, from soldiers and police to environmental activists and Occupy poster artists -- we are all the Working Class. When we can all, all of us, happily acknowledge our membership in that only essential element of any society, and accept the power of our position, then we will have an activated citizenry, we will be able to demand and get more than Bread and Circuses. We will regain our civil rights because we won't be asking some faceless power to please give them to us, we will be demanding them from ourselves, in a nation truly Of, By, and For the People.

Go To Homepage

Popular in the Community