Bread and Circuses

If the proposition is correct that compassion is biological, that we feel an "animal pity" looking upon the suffering of our fellow, then our civilization, in order to accomplish cruel or immoral goals, must find a way to counter pity.

In the previous essay, I quoted Zygmunt Bauman for the proposition that bureaucracy overcomes pity by distancing the human subject and by spreading responsibility across the organization and diffusing it down the hierarchy. The distancing is accomplished in two ways: the human affected by our actions is redefined as an "animal", as "the other"; and technology permits us to act upon humans who are at such a distance that we cannot directly observe what we have done to them. This last point--that the psychological consequences are less when technology permits us to act at a distance-- is supported by studies comparing the post-Vietnam war suffering of infantry, who had shot people at close range, and of pilots who had dropped bombs on them from higher altitudes. Bauman says that animal pity is inspired by the proximity of the sufferer, and it seems contradictory but true that it is harder to kill one person with one's hands than a million by pressing a button.

However, there is another technique civilization uses which Bauman does not discuss; this is the narcotization of the public via mass entertainments, which procedurally ensure that we are distracted and daydreaming and substantively counteract compassion by encouraging our cruelty. In The Movies of Our Misfortune I examined the impact of our entertainments upon us, and in the essay Gun Play in particular I compared the movie of unrelieved violence to Roland Barthes' analysis of wrestling as primitive moral drama. The line of inheritance from the Roman circus to the cruel cinema spectacle of today seems particularly direct.

The implication was, as Juvenal's famous quote implies, that the masses put off democracy and substituted spectacles:

Now that no one buys our votes, the public has long since cast off its cares; 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.

Jerome Carcopino notes in Daily Life in Ancient Rome that at the time of the Emperor Claudius, the Roman calendar contained 159 holidays, of which 93 were devoted to games given at public expense. In addition, there were games given on special occasions, and others paid for by private citizens; Carcopino concludes that "in the epoch we are studying Rome enjoyed at least one day of holiday for every working day." The games, he says:

formed a barrier for autocracy against revolution. In the city there were 150,000 complete idlers supported by the generosity of the public assistance, and perhaps an equal number of workers who from one year's end to the other had no occupation after the hour of noon and yet were deprived of the right to devote their spare time to politics. The shows occupied the time of these people, provided a safety valve for their passions, distorted their instincts and diverted their activity. A people that yawns is ripe for revolt. The Caesars saw to it that the Roman plebs suffered neither from hunger or ennui.

"Spectacles," said Fronto, "are necessary for the contentment of the masses." As everyone knows, the spectacles of the Roman circus were of extreme cruelty. Many involved armed gladiators fighting to the death; some involved armed men killing unarmed ones; in others, criminals or Christians were thrown to wild animals to be devoured. Carcopino says:

By the first century B.C., the populace had grown so greedy for these sights that candidates sought to win votes by inviting the people to witness spectacular scenes of carnage. In order to put an end to corrupt practices the Senate in 63 B.C. passed a law disqualifying for election any magistrate who had financed such shows for the two years preceding the voting.

Carcopino concludes that "The thousands of Romans who day after day, from morning until night, could take pleasure in this slaughter and not spare a tear for those whose sacrifice multiplied their stakes, were learning nothing but contempt for human life and dignity."

In his book Bread and Circuses, Patrick Brantlinger analyzes the idea of "bread and circuses" as a narcotic for the masses throughout history. Though he never mentions Richard Dawkin's theory of memetics, the book is the history of a meme, a collection of related ideas replicating through history. Brantlinger defines as "negative classicism" the idea that Rome was decadent and that our society is sliding downhill to a Roman-style decadence. "The shade of Rome," says Brantlinger, "looms up to suggest the fate of societies that fail to elevate their masses to something better than welfare checks and mass entertainments."

Television, as our courts recognize, is a pervasive entertainment; its broadcast waves enter the home uninvited. Harlan Ellison called it "the glass teat" in his book of the same name. Proving McLuhan's theorem that "the medium is the message", television favors the visual and fragmented, jumping jerkily from one dramatic image or scenario to another. It is a better medium for depicting the explosion of a volcano than discussing the merits of a budget proposal. The meme "bread and circuses" is almost, as Brantlinger discovers, worn out as a metaphor for television; it has become a truism, as Minow said, that TV is "an intellectual wasteland". Neil Postman sees in television the death of narrative, of the consistency and logic demanded by typography. By contrast to the Roman Emperors, who could only offer their subjects 93 days a year of games, contemporary Americans watch four or five hours of television almost every day of the year. The narcotic effect of television is correspondingly much greater than that of Roman circuses.

Television has both a procedural and a substantive effect on us. Procedurally speaking, generations--I was in the first one--which grew up with television think differently than those who came before. Years ago, I walked down a hill in Greece with a German girl, who laughed when I refused to climb a fence and enter a field because "there's a bull in it." "Its a cow," she said, "its hind legs are shackled together, and you have a television brain." She was right. I had seen scores of cartoons and movies in which snorting bulls chase, throw and even gore people, and was watching the world through that lens. Later, when I walked the Long Trail in Vermont, it took me ten days to clear my head of the ghouls, demons and monsters--acquired from television and movies--I expected to surge up in the middle of the night when I slept alone in the woods. Suddenly, after ten days alone in the woods, and without television, the poison all leached out and I realized I felt safer in the woods than I did in New York City.

Lawyers complain that juries' sense of justice has increasingly little to do with common sense, causation or traditional views of science. In other words, jurors have, like I did, acquired television brains. The wild claims of "A Current Affair" or The Oprah Winfrey Show are now the rules of everyday life. The fictional trial and the televised trial have merged. Both are pandered to the public as entertainment. It is impossible for an attorney, a defendant, a juror or even a judge not to play to a camera placed in the courtroom. The camera first warps our brains, then our behavior. The people who eagerly go on daytime talk shows to talk about their own idiocy or humiliation are no different than us. Both the camera and its product, the TV show, are a narcotic.

Substantively, television erases the "animal pity" of which Bauman spoke. The violence on television, real and fictional, merges; the fictional becomes real to us, while the real becomes fictional, so that the endlessly-replayed live video of the husband shooting his wife, or the newswoman committing suicide during the broadcast, are not more or less real to us than equivalent scenes on Miami Vice or NYPD Blue. This violence is no longer cathartic, but merely numbing. McLuhan said that the more a medium left to the imagination, the "hotter" it is. The more it shows, the "cooler" it becomes, because there is less work for the mind to do. Lear dying on a bare stage is hot, because the action, for example the murder of Cordelia or the death of Gloucester, is described to us. Even when it is portrayed onstage--for example, Gloucester's blinding--the details are left to the imagination. By contrast, the explosive squibs, blowing blood out of an actor's chest while his body flies five feet from the impact of the bullet, are "cool" portrayals, accustoming us to real violence and eventually making us complacent. Rather than being a horrible mystery, something we hope never to encounter in our lives, blood and violent death become acceptable everyday detail. If it happened in front of us--if our neighbor on the train was shot, and blood flew out while his body slammed against the wall-- we might not react to it any differently than a similar scene on television.

Allowing your TV to raise your child means that he too will have a television brain; be obsessed with images of violence and regard violent acts as an acceptable means of dispute resolution; and seek, as you do, the mesmerizing light of the set in lieu of human interaction. Studies that indicate we spend about eleven minutes a day talking to our children don't mean that we see them only eleven minutes; the rest of our hours are spent in communal silence, each of us a tabula rasa, catching a few narcotic rays from the TV set.

The implications for human progress are enormous. I realized a long time ago that I have only one fund of energy. It can be used for watching television, playing computer games, or writing The Ethical Spectacle, but not for all. If we did not spend our evenings before the set, imagine what we could do with ourselves and with this old world of ours. Thoreau said, "a tide rises and falls behind every man which can float the British Empire like a chip, if he should ever harbor it in his mind." That energy could be harnessed by our compassion (or by our anger or hatred equally). There are fishermen today who catch sharks, sever the fin, and throw the rest of the animal back into the sea to die. Our civilization uses no more of us than that fin, and fears the rest. Circuses or television are civilization's cure for energy--to draw it off so that we sleep, and threaten nobody.