Bread and Circuses in Rome and America

Game On!
Game On!

W.J. Astore

Just posted a new article to Huffington Post.  Here’s the link and the article (pasted below):

The expression “bread and circuses” captures a certain cynical political view that the masses can be kept happy with fast food (think Cartman’s “Cheesy Poofs” on South Park) and faster entertainment (NASCAR races, NFL games, and the like). In the Roman Empire, it was bread and chariot races and gladiatorial games that filled the belly and distracted the mind, allowing emperors to rule as they saw fit.

There’s truth to the view that people can be kept tractable as long as you fill their bellies and give them violent spectacles to fill their free time. Heck, Americans are meekly compliant even when their government invades their privacy and spies upon them. But there’s a deeper, more ominous, sense to bread and circuses that is rarely mentioned in American discourse. It was pointed out to me by Amy Scanlon.

In her words:

Basically ancient Rome was a society that completely revolved around war, and where compassion was considered a vice rather than a virtue… [The] Romans saw gladiatorial contests not as a form of decadence but as a cure for decadence. And decadence to the Romans had little to do with sexual behavior or lack of a decent work ethic, but a lack of military-style honor and soldierly virtues. To a Roman compassion was a detestable vice, which was considered both decadent and feminine. Watching people and animals slaughtered brutally [in the arena] was seen as a way to keep the civilian population from this ‘weakness’ because they didn’t see combat…

 

Scanlon then provocatively asks, “Could our society be sliding towards those Roman attitudes in a bizarre sort of way?”

I often think that America suffers from an empathy gap. We are simply not encouraged to put ourselves in the place of others. For example, how many Americans fancy the idea of a foreign power operating drones in our sovereign skies, launching missiles at gun-toting Americans suspected by this foreign power of being “militants“? Yet we operate drones in places like Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen, killing suspected militants with total impunity. Even when innocent women and children are killed, our emperors and our media don’t encourage us to have compassion for them. We are basically told to think of them as collateral damage, regrettable, perhaps, but otherwise inconsequential.

Certainly, our military in the last two decades has put new stress on American troops as “warriors” and “warfighters,” a view more consistent with the hardened professionals of the Roman Empire than with the citizen-soldiers of the Roman Republic. Without thinking too much about it, we’ve come to see our troops as an imperial guard, ever active on the ramparts of our empire. War, meanwhile, is seen not as a last course of defense but as a first course to preempt the evil designs of the many hidden enemies of America. Our troops, therefore, are our protectors, our heroes, the defenders of America, even though that “defense” treats the entire globe as a potential killing field.

Scanlon’s view of the Roman use of bread and circuses — as a way to kill compassion to ensure the brutalization of Roman civilians and thus their compliance (or at least their complacency) vis-à-vis Imperial expansion and domestic policing — is powerful and sobering.

At the same time, the Obama administration is increasingly couching violent military intervention in humanitarian terms. Deploying troops and tipping wars in our favor is done in the name of defeating petty tyrants (e.g. Khadafy in Libya; Is Assad of Syria next?). Think of it as our latest expression of “compassion.”

All things considered, perhaps our new national motto should be: When in America, do as the Roman Empire would do. Eat to your fill of food and violence, cheer on the warfighters, and dismiss expressions of doubt or dismay about military interventions and drone killings as “feminine” and “weak.”

At least we can applaud ourselves that we no longer torture and kill animals in the arena like the Romans did. See how civilized we’ve become?

Astore writes regularly for TomDispatch.com and can be reached at wjastore@gmail.com.

Our Disneyland Approach to Empire

Iraqi theme park?Remember in 2011 after SEAL Team 6 killed Osama bin Laden and Disney wanted to trademark the unit’s name for a collection of toys and games and miscellanea?

It’s one of those blips on our collective cultural radar that seems insignificant, yet it points to our tendency to see war and empire as a game, as a form of entertainment, as a product.

This attitude is not confined to corporations like Disney.  Consider this telling passage from Kim Barker’s “The Taliban Shuffle,” which discusses the potential attractions to service in places like Afghanistan:

“It was a place to escape, to run away from marriages and mistakes, a place to forget your age, your responsibilities, your past, a country in which to reinvent yourself.  Not that there was anything wrong with that, but the motives of most people were not likely to help a fragile and corrupt country stuck somewhere between the seventh century and Vegas.”

Our tendency to view foreign lands and peoples as an opportunity for adventure and escape is hardly new, of course.  But it certainly says something about our failure to understand and confront the severity of the challenges once we intervened in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Recall President George W. Bush’s weirdly wistful comment in 2008 about Afghanistan being a sort of Wild West, a romantic adventure, a place of excitement and danger.  Bush said he envied our troops and their opportunity for Afghan romance.

I wonder why as a young buck he didn’t go to Vietnam in the 1960s for romance and danger.  And I gather he’d never heard of Rudyard Kipling’s take on the pleasures awaiting the young British soldier on the Afghan plains:

When you’re wounded and left on Afghanistan’s plains,
And the women come out to cut up what remains,
Jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains
An’ go to your Gawd like a soldier.
Go, go, go like a soldier,
Go, go, go like a soldier,
Go, go, go like a soldier,
So-oldier of the Queen! 

It was said about the British that they acquired an empire in a fit of absentmindedness.  Did we acquire our empire in a fit of pure escapism?

Wanton and wasteful imperial entanglements are only accelerating our national decline.  Yet we continue to treat foreign lands as a sort of Disney theme park.   Troops smile and pose under Saddam Hussein’s crossed swords (at least they used to) or in front of Predator drones and other exotic weaponry.  Everything overseas is a photo op and an opportunity to win a trophy (or a medal).

But even as we seek “romance” and “danger” in foreign lands, a place “to reinvent ourselves,” we paradoxically bring with us all the trappings of consumerist America, hence our steroidal bases with all the conveniences of home (well, in Muslim lands, maybe not liquor, at least openly).

And when we get fed up with the natives and roughing it, we know we can just leave.

But if Iraq and Afghanistan have taught us anything, it’s that the price of admission is far too high.  We should keep our theme parks and our fantasies where they belong: right here in America.

W.J. Astore