Bread and Circuses in Rome and America

gladiator 4
Games are hell

W.J. Astore

Back in June 2013, I wrote the following article on “Bread and Circuses in Rome and America.”  It flashed through my mind this morning because of Robert Lipsyte’s post today at TomDispatch.com on Trump, the NFL, violence, race, brain injuries, and patriotism.  I urge you to read it as well as Tom Engelhardt’s introduction, which cites the bread and circuses of the Roman Empire.

A key insight in my article below came from a correspondent, Amy Scanlon, who keenly observed that the Roman Imperium saw compassion, not violence, as a vice.  The gladiatorial games were meant to keep Romans at a fever pitch for war (with the bloody, murderous games being the next best thing to war).  It’s not much of a stretch to think of NFL violence as keeping Americans at a similar feverish pitch; and, not just the NFL, but the commercials during the games, which are often saturated with guns and violence and war.

Here’s my article, unchanged from 2013:

Bread and Circuses in Rome and America

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?

Trump Tackles the NFL!

When it Comes to the NFL, Trump Should be Flagged and Ejected for Unnecessary Roughness

taking a knee
Taking a stand by taking a knee: NFL players, including Colin Kaepernick (#7)

W,J. Astore

President Trump has once again attacked the NFL for exactly the wrong reasons.  He wants NFL owners to fire players who take a knee during the national anthem.  Their sin, according to Trump, is disrespecting the American flag.  Trump also complains that the game has gotten soft, that big and exciting hits of the past are now penalized, so much so that today’s game is boring precisely because it’s insufficiently violent.

Nonsense.  First, few players dare to use the game as a platform for protest, perhaps because they fear being blackballed like Colin Kaepernick, the talented quarterback who can’t find a job because he took a knee in protest against racism.  Second, the NFL is awash in patriotic displays, everything from gigantic flags and military flyovers to special events to honor the troops.  Just one example: During the opening game of this season, uniformed troops waving flags ran out on the field ahead of the New England Patriots as the team emerged from the tunnel.  What are troops in camouflaged combat uniforms doing on the field of play?

With respect to violence, the NFL has only lately begun haltingly to address crippling injuries, especially brain abnormalities due to recurrent hits and concussions.  Watching an NFL game is often an exercise in medical triage, as players are carted off the field with various injuries.  A new feature this season is a tent on the sidelines that injured players may now enter to be treated away from the incessantly probing eyes of sideline cameras.  Careers in the NFL are often cut short by crippling injuries, yet Trump claims the game is going down the tubes because it’s not violent enough.

Trump represents a minority view (I believe), but nevertheless a vocal one.  Given his narcissism and the grudges he carries, one wonders if he attacks the NFL because of his failed bid to acquire the Buffalo Bills team back in 2014.

Football is the most popular sport in America.  It speaks volumes about our culture.  That Trump sees it as insufficiently violent and insufficiently patriotic — and that he’s cheered for making these claims — points to the gladiatorial nature of America’s imperial moment. Bread and circuses at home, wars abroad.  And U.S. politicians who fiddle while the world burns.

Update: Trump’s comments have drawn a response during the first NFL game today (played in England).  Here’s the headline at the Washington Post:  NFL Week 3: Ravens, Jaguars respond to President Trump’s comments by linking arms, kneeling during anthem.  It will be interesting to see how other teams respond today and during Monday night football.

Put ESPN in Charge of the War on Terror

draft
Our wars are games and our games are wars

W.J. Astore

This weekend, I watched a few minutes of NFL draft coverage on ESPN.  If you’re not familiar with NFL football or ESPN coverage of the same in the USA, you should be, because it says much about the American moment.  The first round of the draft kicks off on Thursday night in prime time, followed by the second and third rounds on Friday night in prime time.  The draft concludes on Saturday with rounds four through seven, roughly 250 total picks if you include “supplemental” picks.

Yet this quick summary vastly understates the coverage devoted to the draft.  From the end of the Super Bowl early in February to the draft itself at the end of April, coverage of the draft on ESPN is virtually non-stop, with innumerable “mock” drafts for each team and a parade of “experts” speculating about the prospects of each player and team. Exhaustive (and exhausting) is the word to describe this coverage.  Interminable is another one.

When Round One finally kicks off, it’s essentially a parade of soon-to-be millionaires. These players, selected from various college football teams, can count on multi-year contracts and signing bonuses in the millions of dollars.  ESPN and the NFL stage manages the selection process, turning it into an extravaganza complete with musicians, cheering (or booing) fans, and plenty of past NFL greats, along with the draftees and their families and friends. Coverage also includes shots of the “war rooms” of the various NFL teams as they decide which players to pick, which draft picks to trade, and so on.  The war room — isn’t that a telling phrase?

Indeed, let’s push that further.  Most red-blooded NFL fans would be hard-pressed to find Iraq or Afghanistan on a map, but they can tell you all about their team’s draft picks, rattling off statistics such as times in the 40-yard dash, vertical leap, even the size of a player’s hands (considered especially pertinent if he’s a quarterback or wide receiver). What always astonishes me is the sheer wealth of detail gathered about each player, the human intelligence (or HUMINT in military terms).  Players, especially those projected to go in the first few rounds, are scrutinized from every angle: physical, mental, emotional, you name it.

With millions of dollars at stake, such an exhaustive approach is not terribly surprising. Yet even with a wealth of data, each year there are major draft busts (e.g. Ryan Leaf, selected #2 overall in the first round and a flop) and major surprises (e.g. Tom Brady, selected late in the 6th round as the 199th pick, meaning that not much was expected from him, after which he won four Super Bowls).  Results from the NFL draft should teach us something about the limits of data-driven “intelligence” in “wars,” yet our various military intelligence agencies continue to believe they can quantify, predict, and control events.

But again what wows me is the extent as well as the slickness of ESPN’s coverage of the draft.  As soon as a player is selected, ESPN instantly has video of that player’s college highlights, together with his vital statistics (height, weight, performance at the draft combine in various drills, and so on).  Video and stats are backed up by interviews with a draftee’s previous coaches, who extol his virtues, along with interviews with those “war rooms” again as to why they decided to draft that particular player and not another.  Once the draft is completed, teams are then awarded “grades” by various commentators, even though these players have yet to play a snap in the NFL.  (Imagine if your kid received an instant grade in college — before he attended a single class or completed a single assignment — based upon his performance in high school.)

But you have to hand it to ESPN: their coverage of the draft is an exercise in total information awareness.  It’s blanket coverage, an exercise in full-spectrum  dominance. It’s slick, professional, and driven by a relentless pursuit of victory by each team (and a relentless pursuit of ratings by ESPN).

So, a modest proposal: To win the war on terror, let’s put ESPN in charge of intelligence gathering and coverage.  Just imagine if your average red-blooded American devoted as much attention to foreign wars as they do to their favorite NFL team!  Just imagine if America’s leaders were held accountable for poor results as NFL coaches and staffs are! America still might not win its wars, but at least we’d squarely face the fact that we’re continuing to lose at incredibly high cost.  Indeed, someone high-up in the government might actually be held accountable for these losses.

I know: It’s a frivolous suggestion to treat war like a sport.  But is it?  After all, America currently treats the NFL draft with all the seriousness of a life-and-death struggle, even as it treats wars with comparative frivolity.

Our wars are games and our games are wars.  Small wonder America continues to lose its wars while fielding some winning NFL teams.

NFL, NASCAR, and U.S. Foreign Policy: Quick Hits

And another American chariot crashes and burns
And another American chariot crashes and burns

W.J. Astore

During the Roman Empire, chariot races and gladiatorial games served to entertain the people. The U.S. empire’s equivalent, of course, is NASCAR and the NFL. Serve up some bread to go with the circuses and you have a surefire way to keep most people satisfied and distracted.

That’s true enough, but let’s dig deeper.  NASCAR features expensive, high-tech machinery, heavily promoted by corporate sponsors, with an emphasis on high speed and adrenaline rushes and risk-taking — and accidents, often spectacular in nature. Indeed, turn to the news and you see special features devoted to spectacular crashes, almost as if the final result of the race didn’t matter.

Turn to the NFL and you see it’s about kinetic action — big plays and bigger hits, with players often being carted off the field with concussions or season-ending injuries.  The game itself is constant stop and go, go and stop, with plenty of corporate sponsors again.

High-octane violence sponsored by corporations facilitated by high-tech machinery; big hits and repetitive stop-and-go action also sponsored by corporations; spectacular (and predictable) smash-ups and serious injuries, all enfolded in patriotic imagery, with the military along for the ride to do recruitment.  Yes, our leading spectator sports do say a lot about us, and a lot about our foreign policy as well.

It used to be said that the Romans fought as they trained: that their drills were bloodless battles, and their battles bloody drills. We conduct foreign policy as we play sports: lots of violence, driven by high technology, sponsored by corporations, with plenty of repetition and more than a few crash and burn events.

A good friend wrote to me to contrast rugby with American football (the NFL).  In rugby, he explained, the goal is ball control.  Big hits are less important than gaining the ball. The play is hard but is more continuous.  Playing as a team is essential.  In rugby, there’s far less physical specialization of the players (e.g. no lumbering 350-pound linemen as in the NFL); every player has to run long and hard.  There’s far more flow to the game and much less interference by coaches.

We could use more flow and patience to our foreign policy, more “ball control” rather than big hits and kinetic action and quick strikes.  Yet, much like NASCAR and the NFL, we prefer high-octane “shock and awe,” the throwing of “long bombs,” with a surfeit of spectacular crashes and collateral damage.  All brought to you by your corporate sponsors, naturally, where the bottom line –profit– truly is the bottom line.

Perhaps we should look for new sports.  Tennis, anyone?

Major Sporting Events and Air Shows: Too Corporatized, Too Controlling, Too Much

The New Yankee Stadium: The House that Corporations Built
The New Yankee Stadium: The House that Corporations Built

W.J. Astore

Back in 2010, I wrote the following article on American sports for Huffington Post.  With the end of “March Madness” and the beginning of baseball season, the time seems right to revive it.  I love watching my hometown teams and experiencing the vicarious thrill of victory (as well as the agony of defeat), and I’ll never give up sports and the fun of being a fan.  But professional sports in America sure make me want to stop watching at times, as you’ll read below:

Been to a major American sporting event lately? If not, consider yourself fortunate. The NFL and NASCAR are already over-the-top when it comes to manufactured noise, exaggerated pyrotechnics, and wall-to-wall corporate advertisements. Even my beloved sport of baseball has fallen victim to sensory saturation and techniques of crowd control that would make a dictator proud. The grace and spontaneity of America’s pastime is increasingly lost in Jumbotrons, overly loud and canned music, and choreographed cheering.

With all the Jumbotrons and other video screens everywhere, people are no longer focused on the game as it takes place on the field, and perhaps turning to their neighbor for an explanation if they miss a play or nuance. Instead, people look to the screens to follow the game. Indeed, sight lines at some seats at Yankee Stadium are so poor that the only way you can watch the action on the field is on video screens posted at strategic locations.

Speaking of Yankee Stadium, last month a friend of mine went to a game there and found the experience “shocking.” In his words:

“The new stadium is flooded with noise from constant speakers as well as screens everywhere. It was so loud that there was really not much independent reaction from the crowd. I got a feeling like I was in a scene from Triumph of the Will. The noise would come out of the speakers and people would chant. When it stopped so did the people. The entire experience left me dying to get out of there!”

Mediocre seats are $110 each, and an $11 beer only compounds the pain. Attending a Yankees game “used to be something of a social leveler, where people of all classes would come and meet to support the team… Although the place was packed for a Red Sox game, it was a largely white crowd, looking nothing like the mix of people who actually inhabit New York,” my friend concluded.

I share my friend’s concerns. I hate being coerced by screens and speakers telling me when to cheer and what to say. Even at my local Single-A baseball games, the post-game fireworks are set to music, usually of a patriotic tenor. I’ve got nothing against music, but why can’t I just enjoy the fireworks? I don’t need “Proud to be an American” blaring to make me proud to be an American.

But it seems like many fans are happy being told when to cheer, what to say, even what to feel. Or they’ve simply become accustomed to being controlled, which has the added benefit to owners of suppressing any inconvenient spontaneity.

More and more, our senses are saturated so we cannot pause to converse or even to think. If the game grows tiresome, people turn to cell phones, palm pilots, and other personal technologies for stimulation. And the phenomenon is hardly limited to sporting events. Today’s version of “Sesame Street” is an exercise in frenetic action and hyperkinetic stimulation; one wonders whether it’s designed for ADHD kids, or to create ADHD kids.

More and more, we’re surrounded by and immersed in near-total sensory saturation; the stifling effect such an environment has on individual spontaneity and thought can’t be disregarded (nor can it be accidental).

And it appears in the most unlikely of places. I used to watch air shows at the U.S. Air Force Academy. Few things are more viscerally thrilling (or chilling) than a formation of F-16s screaming overhead. But that effect apparently wasn’t enough. The powers-that-be “augmented” the air show with loud rock music (call it the “Top Gun” effect) along with an especially annoying (and superfluous) narrator. There was even a proposal to add huge video screens and even bigger speakers to the performance until it got shot down due to charges of contractual cronyism.

In a way, it’s sad to compare today’s thunderingly loud yet sterile air shows to their Depression-era counterparts. The latter, as another friend reminded me, had in his words:

“No concrete runways, no visitor stands, just grass in a field on the edge of town. I loved planes so much that as an eleven year old I would take the two streetcars … then walk a mile to the airport. There was always one or two old biplanes and the small crowd would wait expectantly for the pilots and the daredevils to appear. What excitement just to see those little planes taxing across the grass and getting into position to take off. Gunning their little engines and racing along into the wind. Loops, upside down and then the big thrill, the ‘wing walkers.’ Try that on a jet.”

Bigger, faster, louder doesn’t always mean “better.” Whether it’s an air show or ball game today, we seem saturated by noise, video images, and other sensory distractions, often advertised as “necessary” to broaden the appeal to non-fans or casual spectators who simply want to feel that they’ve witnessed a spectacle, whatever its meaning.

It’s hard to develop an inner life when you’re constantly plugged-in and distracted. It’s also hard to take independent political stances when you’re constantly bombarded by infotainment, not just in the mainstream media but in the sports world as well. I don’t care about off-field shenanigans or contract disputes or manufactured grudges between teams, nor do I want to watch pre-game and post-game shows that last longer than the games: I just want to watch the game and marvel at the accomplishments of world-class athletes while cheering for my home team.

Sports have always been a form of entertainment, of course, but today’s events are being packaged as life-consuming pursuits, e.g. fantasy football leagues. And if we’re spending most of our free time picking and tracking “our” players and teams, it leaves us a lot less time to criticize our leaders and political elites for their exploitation of the public treasury – and betrayal of the public trust. I wonder, at times, if we’re heading in the direction of “Rollerball” (the original movie version with James Caan), in which a few corporations dominate the world and keep the little people (you and me) distracted with ultra-violent sports and hedonistic consumption, so much so that people can’t recognize their own powerlessness and the empty misery of their lives.

Until our sporting events and air shows return to a time when players and fans and enthusiasts collectively showed up simply for the love of the game and the purity of it all (and I can hear my brother mischievously singing, “Until the twelfth of never”), count me out. I can be more spontaneous in my living room with friends — and the beer sure is cheaper.

Update (4/1/2015):  Chicago’s Wrigley Field is a vintage ballpark with a lot of character.  So how do you ruin some of that?  By installing a massive Jumbotron.

Now this makes me proud to be an American
Now this makes me proud to be an American

They still haven’t finished the bleachers, but they have the humongous TV glaring and dominating the skyline in left field.  Error, Cubs.