“Panem et Cirenses” — or Bread and Circuses — describes a government that keeps its populace docile by providing them with palliatives for the body and mind.
So long as the masses have access to the basics to maintain their physical well being — food, drink, shelter — as well as sensational entertainments to keep them diverted, then they’ll remain easily controlled. That’s the idea. The government will then have license to do what it wants. The theory is that neither the bodies nor the minds of citizens will rebel when sated.
Our votes can be swindled away by the clever use of Bread and Circuses.
Already long ago, from when we sold our vote to no man, the People have abdicated our duties; for the People who once upon a time handed out military command, high civil office, legions — everything, now restrains itself and anxiously hopes for just two things: bread and circuses. — Juvenal
It’s a scathing view; Juvenal is essentially expressing disgust for “The Great Unwashed” who don’t take their civic duties seriously. Perhaps it’s time to think about this again given the results of this election.
Two Lessons about our Civic Duties
The first lesson to take here is that “Bread and Circuses” don’t work without the bread. Populist movements occur as a reaction to the struggle between the working class and the ruling factions. It should be obvious, then, that when working people are struggling to survive and the ruling class pays them no mind, populism is the result.
But the second lesson to remember is that even a government that provides both bread and circuses to the working class, it’s still not a healthy way to govern. Bread and circuses are offered as a way to get The People to shirk their civic duties, to let the government work without actual democratic input. It leaves the door open for demagogues and autocrats to step in.
Juvenal wasn’t the only person to have realized this was a danger.
In small areas, before small electorates, a first-rate [candidate] occasionally fights his way through, carrying even the mob with him by force of his personality. But when the field is nationwide, and the fight must be waged chiefly at second and third hand, and the force of personality cannot so readily make itself felt, then all the odds are on the man who is, intrinsically, the most devious and mediocre — the man who can most easily adeptly disperse the notion that his mind is a virtual vacuum.
The Presidency tends, year by year, to go to such men. As democracy is perfected, the office represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. We move toward a lofty ideal. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.
— H.L. Mencken
I’m not sure that I agree with Mencken that it’s the “heart’s desire” of regular folks to have a “moron” in office. I think it’s more likely that Juvenal’s panem is the heart’s desire… and that voters this year were left with the choice of Bread and Circuses without the Bread, or taking a risk that Trump was not the demogogue he appeared to be.
The voters chose.
Now we move on — because our duties have not changed. Unless the we fulfill our civic duties, seek the truth, become educated about our choices, and choose policies and candidates that will improve our society, the best we can hope for is someone who employs Bread and Circuses with passable sleight of hand… sufficient to fool enough of us to stay in power.
But let’s be clear, here: Juvenal and Mencken were talking about voters, about regular people, and about what happens when they become disengaged from their responsibilities. It cuts both ways, though: our political parties and our politicians are also disengaged from US.
On the other side of the aisle, establishment Democrats diligently worked against Sanders, their own populist candidate. The system of superdelegates — meant to serve as a check to make certain they had a candidate who could win in a general election — was instead used to create a narrative and bludgeon in the establishment choice, despite the actual situation.
Let’s not pretend that politicians don’t have civic duties, too. And those duties have been ignored for far too long in favor of the Bread and Circuses being showered on them by their own rulers. RIGHT NOW a corporation called Energy Transfer Partners is using mercenaries and violence against water protectors in North Dakota. They are committing atrocities. There has been deafening silence from people who should be standing against these abuses.
Have you been following this story? If you haven’t, yet, please start doing so NOW, as a part of your civic duty. The mainstream media has been looking the other way for months and months. They have been giving you some circuses instead. Start with the link in this paragraph.
The treatment of these protectors — and keep in mind, they are on their own land — has been called inhumane by the U.N. They have been harassed by corporate thugs with guns. Physicians have called for “‘the immediate cessation of use of water cannons’ over concerns of hypothermia [due to] the ‘potentially lethal use of these confrontational methods against people peacefully assembled.'”
This corporation has desecrated grave sites, and used attack dogs on people protecting their land. Veterans are even making the trip to help the water protectors; they regard this corporation with its employment of military force as a domestic enemy against which we should be protected.
“This country is repressing our people. If we’re going to be heroes, if we’re really going to be those veterans that this country praises, well, then we need to do the things that we actually said we’re going to do when we took the oath to defend the Constitution from enemies foreign and domestic.”
Our government is not stepping in and few politicians are speaking out because they are disengaged from voters when they’re able to accept compensation from corporations.
Here’s the thing about Bread and Circuses, though, Citizens: voters aren’t the only ones who can find themselves in the grip. Right now, it’s our politicians who are being lulled to docility by the panem et circenses provided by the Corporate Oligarchs.
What’s happening in the Dakotas is important because it sets a precedent of what these corporate oligarchs can do to us, and what they can’t, everywhere in this country.
How much anti-constitutional violence against people will the government stand for before speaking out? And how much will you stand for?
- Should corporations be allowed to use violence against peaceful citizens?
- Should corporations be able to take a military force onto your property if they decide your property could be a profit center for them?
The answer, of course, is no. That violates our Constitution. We have rights to peacefully protest, and we also have rights to our own property. The Fifth Amendment has a “Takings” or “Just Compensation” clause that ensures that private property cannot be taken “for public use without just compensation.”
Well, this property is not being taken for public use; it’s being taken for private gain. And just compensation has not been provided. Is there even such a thing as just compensation for the destruction of sacred sites? I’m not sure there is… but even if just compensation can be found, it’s certainly not going to be administered by water cannon and rubber bullet.
So what are you, personally, doing to make sure our government represents the people?
Because as I’ve said before, we have to do more than just vote.
I get that we can’t all make the trip to the Dakotas. We can’t all camp out, and be on-the-ground with the Sioux. If you can, please do get out there. But if you can’t, that doesn’t mean you should stay silent, either. You have a civic duty; we all do. If you have been disturbed by this election, don’t just close your eyes now that the election is over.
Open your eyes. Raise your voice. Holler.
Take a Stand for Standing Rock
- Can you donate $10 to help the water protectors?
- Can you phone your Senators and tell them that corporations must not be permitted to use force on people exercising their constitutional rights?
- Can you call the White House and demand a denunciation of the corporate violence–both physical and financial violence?
What are YOU doing, Citizen? Because we have a duty to do more than just vote.
We have to let our politicians know that we’re not just worthless rabble to be swept out of the way of Corporate Oligarchs. And we have to make sure we stop electing the sort of riffraff that thinks this way . We can’t vote for people like Manchin and then ignore all the hypocritical, self-serving madness of them, whether or not they realize they’re being distracted by the panem et circenses for the political class: campaign donations, self enrichment and party maneuvering without end.
In between elections, we should be discussing policies. Getting educated. Paying attention. Holding our elected officials to account, waking them from the panhandling, Bread and Circuses dream of being in power.
They should not be in power; they should be in service — public service.