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Bread and Circuses


As a species, humans tend to be easily distracted. This isn’t a new fact; even the ancient Romans knew that if you gave the people bread and circuses, they would pretty much be satisfied with anything, no matter how despotic.

We are in much the same boat today my friends, except we’re getting Big Macs and digital entertainment. Our lives have been made so easy with gadgets and devices mean to give us instant gratification that we have become complacent and lazy. In the meantime, we have abrogated our rights to special interests, corporate lobbyists and other unscrupulous sorts.

From time to time we’re aroused from our stupor, particularly when our pocketbooks are impacted. Taxes go up? We take notice. The economy takes a header? We demand change. Yet we sit idly by while the financial institutions that we entrust our money to act irresponsibly in the name of chasing profits, while our climate is done irreparable harm and while our rights are eroded with legislation that on the surface is meant to “protect us.”

Most of us probably couldn’t name our congresspersons or local representatives. Only a very few of us are probably more than peripherally aware of their voting records. Fewer still are aware of any legislation out there other than the most controversial bills. A surprising number of the people who live in the United States are more than generally aware of how their government works.

It’s understandable why we got to the place we are. We have to work harder and harder to make ends meet; it takes energy and commitment to keep up with politics and the things that affect us. Energy and commitment are largely limited to young people, which is why the vast majority of political activists are under 40. After all, you can’t feed your family on a volunteer’s salary.

At one time, the newspapers (and to a certain extent radio, newsreels and television) were watchdogs on Washington and our local state capitals (and Ottawa and our local provincial capitals – insert your nation here). As the media has largely become corporate-owned, the media began to swing more in the direction of protecting corporate interests. Today it’s very rare for the mainstream media to do any investigation into things that don’t sell advertising.

The Internet is, in many ways, the last great hope for keeping the citizenry informed but unfortunately it has devolved into something of a shouting match where people on both sides of the aisle promulgate dubious facts which eventually begin getting circulation as gospel truth. How many people actually believed that Obama’s Health Care Reform would include death panels whose only job was to weed out the elderly?

Our political knowledge tends to be informed by 60-second soundbites we see on CNN or in political ads. Conservatives worship at the altar of Sarah Palin and her teabagging cronies; Liberals get their marching orders from Jon Stewart and Bill Maher. It’s like nobody has a mind of their own anymore.

And yet we all have our own causes. Some of us are passionate about animal cruelty; others are pro-life to the core. Some people are big supporters of gay marriage while others think that our borders should be protected more vigorously. Left, right and center, we all have opinions on things that matter to us.

We rarely do anything about them however, beyond voting on bills that support or threaten those causes near and dear to us and even that only when we feel motivated to. Until 2008, more people voted for the American Idol than for the American President in any given election year. Somewhere along the line, our priorities went haywire.

That’s because it’s far easier on our psyches to spend our energy on things that don’t require much thought. Thinking is really hard work. It’s much easier to navigate the headwaters of celebrity gossip rather than the often conflicting arguments behind financial reform. It’s easier to have our opinions handed to us rather than to formulate one of our own; if your family has always voted for one political party, you’re going to tend to believe in the precepts that party espouses.

I was like that too. My father was a staunch Republican and so was I, for quite awhile. However, there was always a niggling feeling in the back of my mind that I was fighting for the wrong team, and after my father passed away I did some soul searching and figured out that what I really felt strongly about were of a more liberal nature than the Republicans believed in. For the longest time, my political philosophy had been not to argue with my Dad, which was a shocker to someone who had always thought of himself as relatively intelligent. Like most human beings, I was prone to dancing to the tune that was being played for me.

At one point, it became obvious that following the herd was not as preferable as following my heart, so I broke with my dad’s beliefs and followed my own. We all do that to a certain extent – how many times have you said to yourself “I am not my parents”? – But we usually do that when we’re young. It’s much harder as we get older to change our way of thinking, particularly if it’s the way we’ve done things since we were young. Once you’re comfortable in your own skin, changing it is a tall order.

But you can teach an old dog new tricks, contrary to belief. Change is a matter of will, and we all have at least a dollop of willpower. It comes down to how badly we want things to change, and how willing we are to make that change happen, for change often involves sacrifice.

Sacrifice is sorely missing from our lives, the willingness to give up something we want for the betterment of others. My parent’s generation had it. My grandparent’s generation had it. Even the Flower Power generation had it. Somewhere between Woodstock and Live-Aid we lost that crucial element of our make-up. We’re far too busy texting and playing Mafia Wars on Facebook to take a look at the things that truly affect our lives. We act as if we’re living in a hotel, and whatever mess we make will be cleaned up by the housekeeping service.

Except it is our children who will have to be housekeepers and the mess we’re making may soon become too much for anyone to clean up. We have a responsibility to our kids – even if we don’t have any yet – to be caretakers for our planet and our society. I’m very anxious that the freedoms that I have always taken for granted be passed on to my son and his children someday; there’s a very real possibility that he won’t have the same rights and privileges that his mom and I have now.

We have to get off of the couch and switch off the television. We need to step away from the laptop and turn off our cell phones. We need to open our eyes and look around us. We have been seduced by bread and circuses. The trouble with that is that it only worked for a short while in Rome, and then Rome fell. I don’t want my children or grandchildren to see our civilization fall as well.

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2 Responses

  1. While I am guessing that I would disagree with you on many policy positions (I am libertarian), I agree with your points regarding how nobody does their own thinking anymore and are satisfied with the distractions and pre-chewed thought offered by the bread and circus providers. Well written and argued post!

  2. Reblogged this on Termites And Leeches and commented:
    Well written and argued post regarding how nobody does their own thinking anymore and are satisfied with the distractions and pre-chewed thought offered by the bread and circus providers.

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