America's Got Problems
“The evil was not in bread and circuses, per se, but in the willingness of the people 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.” - Marcus Tullius Cicero.
Democracy is only as successful as the citizens of the country that initiated it. If the citizens do not maintain a level of individual responsibility, democracy fails. The term “bread and circuses” was created to describe the power balance of ancient Greece- if the masses of the population had the bare necessities to survive (represented by bread) and entertainment (represented by circuses), they would not think for themselves, they would not resist evil. Now anyone can argue what the most pressing issue in America is, though I’d argue it is one that we have yet to hear from either of the candidates. It’s the resurgence of bread and circuses.
Though there were plenty of reasons for the fall of Rome, the emergence of bread and circuses was prevalent shortly leading up to both the fall of Rome and the burning of the Library of Alexandria. Bread and circuses are used by those in power, either in government or by those in the media, to quell the power of the masses. There is proof of the ancient Roman government doing so, thehill.com writer John Demaggio finding that in the timeline to the fall of Rome, the Roman government supplied free food and free entertainment, in the hope of appeasing the masses of the Roman population, despite the government’s mistreatment of the masses. It worked- citizens often concerned themselves more with the Roman gladiator battles rather than the politics of the country or the ongoing wars that were occurring around them. This proved to be extremely problematic- in many instances political corruption would run rampant but would largely be overlooked in Roman society- the bread and circuses of the average Roman’s life were discussed instead.
Part of the need for bread and circuses in ancient Rome was the disparity of wealth between the rich and the poor, which is also a growing problem today. Pewresearch found that “over the past 50 years, the highest-earning 20% of U.S. households have steadily brought in a larger share of the country’s total income.” (Schaffer). The same study also found that the wealth gap between the highest and lowest of America has doubled since 1989. (Schaffer). Such a disparity between the classes was a serious factor for the fall of Rome, and it is currently a serious problem in the social unrest we are facing now. While America has yet to hand out free food to appease the masses, the use of “circuses” (entertainment) has become quite prevalent, especially through social media and “news” organizations that prioritize website views and ad time on their cable channels. It has become ever more difficult to find unbiased news, especially on television for this reason. We, as a collective, “opt out” of truly educating ourselves or escaping the “circuses” of society. We hide in the shadow of “I don’t like politics” but in reality, we simply are choosing not to involve ourselves in the progress of our country.
But there is an outlier to this saying, and it is an outlier we have only started to understand- the COVID-19 quarantine. In quarantine, we have seen a rise in social unrest, in political participation and in skepticism. With the growing controversy regarding the 2020 election and the possible situations stemming from that, skepticism regarding the legitimacy of voting and the growing acknowledgement of racial issues in America, we’ve begun to see the population break free from the bread and circuses that have long shackled the nation. With most major sports postponed or limited, movies and television shows halted and with an excess of free time (because of quarantine), we’ve begun to see that when we have time, it becomes harder and harder to ignore the problems in our country. While social media has persisted, we’ve seen high-profile, problematic celebrities being “canceled” or de-platformed and irrelevant in the public eye. All of these celebrities (Shane Dawson, for example) have been notable for years- so the “cancellation” of these celebrities could be a sign that the masses of America’s population is freeing itself from the bread and circuses that have shackled it for so long. This progress could very well reach a breaking point in just a few months- with the 2020 election. If we are not truly educated on the issues, we could disregard real problems but hyper-focus on problems that have no basis in reality.
So how do we avoid the toxins that poisoned the all-powerful Roman Empire? How do we prove progress created in the period of time between the Roman Empire and the United States of America? The truth is, we must fundamentally change the way we understand our own Democracy. We seem to have blurred the line between participating in Democracy and actually contributing to it. We must learn to understand the true, legitimate facts of proposals- we must stop the toxic common practice of relying on others' interpretations instead of forming our own. We must learn to separate fact from fiction, while meshing logic and empathy. Logic, by itself, is useful but not perfect. Empathy, by itself, is beneficial but not effective. Combined, logic and empathy must drive our decision making. We must free ourselves from party politics that allow us to identify with preset ideas instead of thinking for ourselves. We must embrace challenges and overcome them with immense drive. We must not allow universal problems like COVID-19 to become political. We must work for a society that is more free, more intellectual and more unified. We must value the individual but encourage a culture that is philanthropic to others. We must respect the past, and learn from it, but embrace the future and the potential it holds. Only then will we truly be free from the bread and circuses of our society.
Schaeffer, K. (2020, May 31). 6 facts about economic inequality in the U.S. Retrieved September 02, 2020, from https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2020/02/07/6-facts-about-economic-inequality-in-the-u-s/
Jsager99, Renxkyoko, Meeker, D., Noah, Miller, M., Obama, B., . . . Simplyscriptshorts. (2013, November 21). Bread, Circus, and the Complacency Before the Collapse. Retrieved September 02, 2020, from https://theprogressivecynic.com/2013/11/21/bread-circus-and-the-complacency-before-the-collapse/
John M. DeMaggio, O. (2017, November 24). 'Bread and circuses' could strike down America like it did Rome. Retrieved September 02, 2020, from https://thehill.com/opinion/white-house/361674-bread-and-circuses-could-strike-down-america-like-rome