Bread and Circuses: Mass Entertainment Focusing on Emotional and Sensory Stimulation Has Put Americans in Danger of Suffering the Fate of the Romans, Who Entertained Themselves into Oblivion. (Mass Entertainment)
Bonta, Steve, The New American
The Roman satirist Juvenal, writing in the first century AD, lamented that "the people that once bestowed commands, consulships, legions, and all else, now meddles no more and longs eagerly for just two things --bread and circuses." Juvenal had the misfortune of living in a time when the civic virtues of the early Roman republic were a distant memory, when the moral dry rot, which eventually destroyed Rome from within, was already far advanced. Juvenal saw that the Roman citizenry had become so addicted to entertainment and pleasure that they had lost the capability of governing themselves. Juvenal's scornful term "panem et circenses" -- bread and circuses -- has become synonymous with mindless self-gratification.
Closer to our own time, novelist and futurist Aldous Huxley foresaw a "brave new world" where religious and moral restraints have been completely abandoned, in which the masses are kept in a permanent stupor with recreational drugs, carnal pleasures, and mindless entertainment. Huxley's novel is not so well known or gracefully written as Orwell's 1984. But with the benefit of decades of hindsight, we would do well to ponder whether Huxley's predictions, and not Orwell's, were closer to the mark.
What Huxley understood more acutely than Orwell is that it is easier to enslave a people by seduction than by coercion. In the words of social critic Neil Postman, "what Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one.... As Huxley remarked..., the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny 'failed to take into account man's almost infinite appetite for distractions.' In 1984, Huxley added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure."
From Thought to Thoughtless Stupor
In the past century, mass entertainment has become our defining cultural trope. With the advent of television, radio, cinema, phonographs, and, more recently, CDs and the Internet, we passed from a culture of the written word to a culture of the visual and aural electronic image. The shift has been subtle but devastating. We no longer rely on written texts to transmit ideas, but on pictures and sounds. As an unavoidable result, we have become conditioned to the use of sensory images rather than reasoned, verbal discourse characteristic of what Postman called the "Typographic Age." We base our opinions and value judgments, therefore, not on reason, but on sensory impressions and the emotions they trigger.
It is difficult for modern man to comprehend the vast gulf between what liberal historian Henry Steele Commager dubbed the "Empire of Reason" -- that is, 18th and 19th century America -- and the United States at the beginning of the 21st century. Early America was a society of words, when attention spans were (for us moderns) incomprehensibly long, and the ability to grasp complex clause structures and sophisticated reasoning was taken for granted among the elite and the middle class alike. Who today can imagine enduring the format of the Lincoln-Douglas debates of the mid-l9th century, when the candidates sparred for hours at a time, and were typically allotted an hour or more apiece to make opening statements? How many educated Americans today would be comfortable reading and discussing the likes of Blackstone and Plutarch, which early educated Americans were nearly as familiar with as the Bible? Finally, how many modern Americans would tolerate the following sample of late 18th-century political discourse, even if it were served up under klieg lights on network TV, and delivered by an impeccably groomed politician:
Knowledge is in every country the surest basis of public happiness.... To the security of a free Constitution it contributes in various ways: by convincing those who are entrusted with the public administration, that every valuable end of government is best answered by the enlightened confidence of the people; and by teaching the people themselves to know, and to value their own rights; to discern and provide against invasions of them; to distinguish between oppression and the necessary exercise of lawful authority . …