May 2008


                                 Sy Schechtman  


        Bread and Circuses was a term  of  derision  that the Roman satirist, Juvenal, used  to decry the debasement of the citizenry  of the time of  the first and second century A.D.  They were impoverished and bored, if not rebellious,  as the bygone days of the Roman Republic were replaced by the overweening  growth of the Roman Empire  and the increasing disconnect between the distant  bureaucratic regime in Rome  and the vast subjugated   territories.   Several hundred years of relatively stable rule were  successfully accomplished,  but as Juvenal lamented “the  people that once bestowed commands, consulships, legions, and all else, now meddle no more and longs eagerly for just two things---bread and circuses.”  This policy of government “handouts”  at first was limited  to  celebratory events  related to Roman triumphs in their seemingly ever  increasing empire  but as the  tide of victories began receding,  bread and circuses,  while still an entertainment distraction  for the lower classes  became  a scornful  condition—as least in Juvenal’s opinion.   No longer were  a significant segment of the populace  not interested  or incapable of   assuming some of the burdens and responsibilities of citizenry.   They were not interested   in Juvenal’s disenchanted  view of the call of their country to greatness.  No longer capable  of the heroic response  that we have continued to make in modern times to the international demands of our foreign involvements--- our own putative empire.   As we have responded in the last hundred years of three world wars (including the cold war with Soviet Russia) and the inconclusive and dubious Korean and current very dubious Iraqi encounters.   Not at all like our truly positive—indeed heroic—response to the late President Kennedy’s stirring challenge  “Ask not what your country can do for you,  but what you can do for your country!”

        But, as we fast forward again to modern times and  the inevitable dilemmas that life brings forth,  I can not help but see a serious distortion of reality, a frivolous  and perhaps  malignant emphasis  on our own  political  path.   While I believe profoundly in “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”  a la Thomas Jefferson   I  also see Juvenal’s dark vision of Bread and Circuses  now     

 glowering down on us in the  massive communications congestion  of our unending political maneuvering.    And how it threatens  to make a travesty  of our free speech conventions.   In England, Canada, France, Israel and other modern countries  national elections  are often called, run and concluded within six weeks or so.  In the United States they seemingly go on forever.   First, the last year of a presidents four year term was considered  his ”lame duck” year,  when political jockeying for the next four year presidential  cycle  was considered acceptable, when “jaw, jaw replaced  law, law” now that has been extended to at least the last two years of the presidential   term,  and the pages of the press start  revealing all sorts of bizarre possibilities of foibles of  possible notable contenders  for the highest office.  And these pot shots continue and even exacerbate.    Only someone with great “fire in his ( or her)  belly”  can withstand this  gauntlet of fact and fancy  which become the prime speculative  entertainment of  the reading public.     The grist of the bread and circuses of the present.

        Along   with the time  stretching of campaign  length is the  enormous   concomitant increase  of necessary funds needed,  now estimated to be about a billion dollars.    Most of this  is allotted to television,  with countless spot ads to alert the harassed, or spellbound viewer,  with ingenuous or alarming messages.   And television, most of us now know,  can distort the reality  of the person,   emphasizing   and distracting.    Nixon almost lost the election because of his five o’clock  shadow of a beard,  while Kennedy  seemed  bright and ever alert,    while Nixon seemed to ponder over a question.    But the same stance did not seem to favor Kerry who had detailed prescriptions for every problem posed  but the second Bush seemed  more relaxed  and friendly and was the sort of person you would invite into one’s home for a chat.   And now we have Hilary and Obama  who have almost identical programs  but are of different race and gender,  which which is the  provocative ingredient in their  political encounters and  almost  endless debates.   The resolution  of which  will be part of    the  great unwinding    and ultimate  accommodation  between white and  black and the uneasiness of gender tension.    Perhaps with Obama being our first black leader  in the not too distant future,  and so    also with Hilary Clinton playing a role somewhere along the way. (They are both still relatively young!)   And even with John McCain as the current leaven in the slowly  rising ferment of the  of the political dough,  the intermediate necessary  ingredient  as we slowly embrace our cultural destiny  with universal health care,  and the gender and race problem.    The lion and lamb finally  lying side by side,  and the timid lamb sleeping peaceably  because of mutual respect and trust,  and much legislation  to implement this compact.  (Jaw, jaw leading to wise and practical law!)

        This aspect of our almost eternal politicking  also serves to demystify our would be president,  who is the most powerful individual on the face  of the earth.   Who ever he or she is  and whatever  color,  a significant majority of us must feel comfortable with the possibility of inviting one of them into our living rooms and relating to us in a sincere and concerned way.   But our way is with due deliberation  and the soothing balm of  time to accomplish the  possibility of  this ultimate fantasy,   and one more election cycle may be the answer.   And our current Bread and Circuses  will have not have been in vain,  merely a  slower introduction to our next phase of still being the greatest country in world history.   

        One of the most fratricidal wars in history was our Civil War---well before the current atrocities  in Darfur. Brotherly and sisterly love can  now still be our consummate product with our somewhat indirect  but still sincere approach----one nation under law (and God) with more equal opportunity and justice for more people  than ever before in history.