“People are like chickens. It doesn’t matter how much pain you inflict on them, the moment you offer them what they need, they will still follow you and turn to you for their survival.” — Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin
In 1935, Stalin invited his senior advisors and some media henchmen to a meeting with the intent to make a point. When everyone had gathered at a barnyard, he called for a live chicken and forcefully seized it by the neck with one hand, and, with the other, began to rip the chicken’s feathers in handfuls. The poor bird squawked under the torment, but Stalin kept plucking away. Unfazed by the signs of disgust on the faces of those too afraid to stop the tyrant, Stalin continued until the chicken was completely unfeathered.
He then put the bird down by a small heap of grain and stood up to finish the last act while the people observed the chicken trudge towards the grain. As the chicken started pecking, Stalin put his hand into his jacket pocket and pulled out another fistful of grain, laying it out in front of the wounded bird. To the utter surprise of the transfixed spectators, the chicken managed a weak-kneed stagger back to Stalin and started to peck the fresh grain right out of the hand which just seconds before had inflicted such unbearable pain. Stalin had made his point — loud and clear.
For who can rule men if not he who holds their conscience and their bread in his hands? Give bread, and man will worship thee, for nothing is more certain than bread. — The Grand Inquisitor in ‘The Brothers Karamazov’ by Fyodor Dostoevsky
Having just received my Covid-19 relief check, I feel eerily whisked back to the times of the Roman Empire.
In the late first century AD, Roman poet Juvenal coined the phrase “Bread and Circuses,” which, in a political context, means to generate public approval, not by excellence in public service or public policy, but by diversion, distraction, or by satisfying the most immediate or base needs of a populace by offering a palliative — food (bread) or entertainment (gladiator games). This historical precedent partly inspired ‘The Hunger Games’ trilogy by author Suzanne Collins.
“The evil was not in the bread and circuses, per se,” said Roman philosopher Cicero, “but in people’s willingness to sell their rights as free men for full bellies and the excitement of the games which would serve to distract them from the other human hungers which bread and circuses can never appease.”
While the United States mourns the growing loss of so many of its brothers and sisters and many face food insecurity, its would-be emperor tosses chunks of red meat to his most slavish and fanatical minions to secure a second term in November.
And it’s not just money.
In a circus-like example with surreal parallels with Rome’s gladiator games, the Trump administration recently announced plans to open up an additional 2.3 million acres of wildlife refuges to hunting and fishing.
In praise, his henchmen hailed the proposal in stirring words:
“America’s hunters and anglers now have something significant to look forward to in the fall as we plan to open and expand hunting and fishing opportunities across more acreage nationwide than the entire state of Delaware.” — U.S. Secretary of the Interior David L. Bernhardt
“Once the Trump Administration’s effort to eliminate the threat of COVID-19 has been successful, there will be no better way to celebrate than to get out and enjoy increased access for hunting and fishing on our public lands.” — US Fish and Wildlife Service Director Aurelia Skipwith.
“This is a truly historic expansion and wonderful news. On behalf of NRA’s 5 million members, we wholeheartedly thank Secretary Bernhardt and Director Skipwith.” — Erica Tergenson, Director, National Rifle Association Institute for Legislative Action.
To be clear, I have nothing against hunting and fishing. In fact, I know many a hunter and angler who are staunch conservationists and better stewards of the wild than treehuggers. I am here, merely prosecuting the deceitful intent, not the policy.
Other examples of ‘Bread and Circuses’ are the easing of gas-mileage standards hard-won by the Obama administration, waiving EPA regulations, and Trump’s insistence on bailing out the oil industry from its own folly.
The president is not only the leader of a party, he is the president of the whole people. He must interpret the conscience of America [and] guide his conduct by the idealism of our people. — President Herbert Hoover
A people whose conscience places profit over principle makes easy pickings for demagogues and turn elections into nothing more than a spineless, desperate act to protect our toys, circuses, and wallets.
Come November, we will either prove ourselves but slavish, plucked chickens, or prove Jesus was right in saying “man does not live by bread alone.”