Bread and Circuses

Let the hunger games begin!

“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.”


Related articles:

Beware of Silver-Tongued Villains
Choose Your President Like You’d Choose a Governess
Hail Caesar!
Requiem for a Once Great Nation

Hail Caesar!

Is America sliding toward dictatorship?

In response to my article ‘Requiem For a Once Great Nation,’ some people called me a scaremonger for suggesting the American Republic could break apart.

“It can’t happen here!”

I’m sure the citizens of the Roman Republic in 44 BC, those of the Italian Republic in 1804 and Germany’s Weimar Republic of the 1930s thought the same.

All that was needed to tear those republics apart was a little anarchy and a self-proclaimed “savior.”

Rome had emperor Julius Caesar, Italy was “rescued” by Napoleon Bonaparte, and Hitler promised to restore Germany to its previous glory. In all three cases, the result was greater anarchy and bloodshed.

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” — George Santayana

The American Republic is particularly vulnerable because its citizens no longer share a common story nor believe in the ideals which underpinned its foundation. Most don’t even know what those ideals are or what they stand for. Not even the military, it seems. Former Navy pilot Ken Harbaugh recently said that when he joined the Navy, he swore to support and defend the Constitution. But not once, in all of his training, did he receive meaningful instruction on the document to which he had pledged his life.

In ‘The Irony of Democracy,’ its authors state that “if the survival of the U.S. system depended on the active, informed, and enlightened citizenry, [it] would have disappeared long ago, for the many are apathetic and ill-informed about politics and exhibit a surprisingly weak commitment to democratic values.”

As it stands, the vast majority of Americans now get their ‘facts’ and ‘enlightenment’ through the venomous drip feed of caustic propaganda which masks itself under the deceptive guise of news. Like tarantula hawk wasps, our current-day peddlers of deception find the country asleep and deposit their lies in the minds of its citizens which slowly devour their capacity for independent thinking.

Writing for The Atlantic, Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld report the pernicious effects:

“Many progressives have turned against what were once sacrosanct American principles. Freedom of speech is [now considered] an instrument of the dehumanization of women and minorities. Religious liberty, an engine of discrimination. Property rights, a shield for structural injustice and white supremacy. In a recent poll, two-thirds of college-age Democrats said that a diverse and inclusive society is more important than protecting free speech. Only 30 percent of Americans born in the 1980s believe that living in a democracy is essential, compared with 72 percent of Americans born in the 1930s.

From the [extreme] right, there have been calls to define America’s national identity in racial, ethnic, or religious terms, whether as white, European, or Judeo-Christian. President Trump routinely calls the [press] “the enemy of the American people.” In a 2017 survey by the Pew Research Center, less than half of Republicans said that the freedom of the press to criticize politicians was very important to maintaining a strong democracy.”

“A house divided against itself cannot stand,” warned Abraham Lincoln.

No clearer proof of how far the nation has come apart than during — and right after — the recent impeachment trial. There were no victors, in my view. Just one more collective step down a dangerous slope to mayhem and authoritarianism.

So how vulnerable is American democracy?

In ‘How Democracies Die,’ authors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt say “extremist demagogues emerge from time to time in all societies, even in healthy democracies. An essential test of this kind of vulnerability isn’t whether such figures emerge, but whether political leaders, and especially political parties, work to prevent them from gaining power. When established parties opportunistically invite extremists into their ranks, they imperil democracy.”

“Once a would-be authoritarian makes it to power, democracies face a second critical test: Will the autocratic leader subvert democratic institutions or be constrained by them? Institutions alone are not enough to rein in elected autocrats. Constitutions must be defended — by political parties and organized citizens, but also by democratic norms, or unwritten rules of toleration and restraint. Without robust norms, constitutional checks and balances do not serve as the bulwarks of democracy we imagine them to be. Instead, institutions become political weapons, wielded forcefully by those who control them against those who do not. This is how elected autocrats subvert democracy — packing and “weaponizing” the courts and other neutral agencies, buying off the media and the private sector (or bullying them into silence), and rewriting the rules of politics to permanently disadvantage their rivals. The tragic paradox of the electoral route to authoritarianism is that democracy’s enemies use the very institutions of democracy — gradually, subtly, and even legally — to kill it.

If, 25 years ago, someone had described to you a country where candidates threatened to lock up their rivals, political opponents accused the government of election fraud, and parties used their legislative majorities to impeach presidents and steal Supreme Court seats, you might have thought of Ecuador or Romania. It wouldn’t have been the United States of America. — From ‘How Democracies Die.’

In the face of disorder and no common ground on which to stand, people panic and cower behind intolerant fortresses of tribalism making them easy prey for silver-tongued demagogues who promise to restore order and bring about a new era.

Caesar did it, so did Napoleon and Hitler.

Afraid, paranoid, stoked by hatred and willfully ignorant and powerless, millions saw these individuals as saviors and handed them absolute power.

The rest, as the say, is history.

But it can’t happen here, can it?