If fast-food consumption and scary clowns aren’t the very definition of “bread and circuses,” I don’t know what would qualify.
Soon, I expect, I’ll go to my Internet news sources and read that police have shot and killed an unarmed clown. (My advice to the cops: don’t mess with clowns; these people are already living on a mental precipice, and a clown death could push them over the edge, into even more extreme behavior.)
Where was I? Oh, yeah, bread and circuses. Diversions from reality.
So we’ve got the perfect combination of satiety and sadism at work. Corn and beef. Plus, fear galore. Corn and beef are self-explanatory. But fear? It’s the crux of our anxiety-and-entertainment culture. If I were Dave Berry, I’d come up with an alternative phrase for it, some hilarious juxtaposition of mental images that would make everyone fall-off-your-chair/run-for-your-life/laugh-your-ass-off happy-scared.
We’ve always been susceptible to easy fright. Clowns are just a modern incarnation of witches. (Admittedly, the food is better now. Or more plentiful, at least.) And while I, personally, have never been afraid of clowns, I have always felt uneasy around them—and I don’t care how many orange-haired, red-nosed, floppy-shod clowns can cram themselves into a clown car. People who camouflage their faces with Picasso paintings and their bodies with Clarabelle costumes are people with “issues”.
Someday, a historian with a sense of humor (it’s possible) may coin a term for our age that perfectly reflects our over-sized anxieties while living in the midst of unprecedented luxury. This is an age, remember, when even the sight of homeless people sets our nerves a-jangling. An era beset by news reports of deaths from mysterious diseases, foreign diseases that menace our very existence. we fear. When we’re bombarded with car recalls, foreign and domestic. What could be more discomfiting in this car-obsessed culture than betrayal by car?
In such an era, no one is safe. Quick! Build a wall! Don gas masks! Pass the ammunition!
Maybe that future historian will call our era The Period of Paranoia and Plenty. Or, more prosaically, The Age of the Perpetual War of Nerves. Or something far worse: The Death of American Democracy.
* * *
It’s not as if we don’t have plenty of things to fear: climate change, deranged political leaders, rough justice in the streets, hungry children, income disparity, mass surveillance, warrantless wiretaps and arrests, the destruction of habeas corpus and an oligarchy bent on recreating the Dark Ages.
But if our inaction on these fronts is any indication, we’re not particularly concerned. Perhaps because the mainstream news media don’t find any of these issues of sufficient entertainment value to include in their news programs.
Could it be because these issues are based in reality? Too close to home? Like the ancient Romans, no doubt, our attention is constantly diverted from the barbarians at the gate– except as a theoretical justification for our military legions’ bottomless need for more entertaining toys of war. (Some people are also afraid of the browning of America, but that’s their problem. I’m talking here about real threats to our existence.)
But really, nobody but the French took Existentialism very seriously. We know that because our on-camera experts now use the phrase “existential threat” without having to worry that anyone in the viewing audience has the least comprehension of this term’s historical significance. Per Wikipedia, existentialists “shared the belief that philosophical thinking begins with the human subject—not merely the thinking subject, but the acting, feeling, living human individual.”
Odd, that. The individual and freedom as core values. Even as we use the term solely to describe the threat from so-called terrorists and terrorism. Originally, an existential threat might have meant the Uncertainty Principle: the world is unpredictable, experience itself following no firm guidelines, our world a topsy-turvy place where anything can and does happen. Never mind. We Americans eat philosophers for lunch. And spit them out. Pah! I sometimes wonder if we haven’t undergone some genetic mutation. One of those alterations that has no survival value for the species. In fact, one that urges us toward extinction.
Think of a near-future Congress in session, members wading across the flooded Senate chamber to the podium, to declare once again that climate change is a hoax. Or approving by a lopsided majority a multi-trillion-dollar “defense” budget, while outside an army of homeless, hungry, sick-and-tired folk agitate for change. For them, things are really bad: they can’t even find shelter because all the bridges are crumbling, so now they’ve lost a place to bed down for the night.
Meanwhile, the Perpetual War must be fed. So those future political hacks, like senators Jeff Sessions (R) of Alabama, Trey Gowdy (R) of South Carolina, Ted Cruz (R) of Texas, Tom Cotton (R) of Arkansas—or any other senator, Republican or Democrat, whose re-election rests on the jobs produced by the local installation of Defense, Inc.–will continue to ensure fresh infusions of federal tax dollars by raising the specter of Imminent Threat, Terrorism, “Nucular” Missiles or Dirty Bombs.
Just as local police agencies will continue to milk the kitty of public sympathy, based on any police officer’s death, even one thousands of miles away. Because “brothers in blue”. It’s relevant here to point out that while 42 police officers died in the line of duty in 2015, some 1146 civilians died at the hands of police last year. Moral equivalency? God forbid!
Since the day, post-WWII, when we discovered that surplus gunpowder could be transformed into fertilizer, the United States has been running a guns-and-butter economy. It seems we want to have it all. “All” being an insurmountable defense against any threat, foreign or domestic, and the entertainment equivalent of defense–e.g., TV shows such as “Friends” or “The Big Bang” or any current “reality” show you care to mention—all of it 24/7. Anything to prevent a gap that might reveal the sunshine of truth.
So . . .
All war, all the time. All circuses, all the time. The Guns & Butter political economy ramped up to a necessary emotional level we might call hysteria.
I failed to mention the rapid demise of education as one of those existential threats that we unfailingly fail to deal with. So what if our kids can’t qualify for our high-tech jobs? We can always import such people. (And some—quite a few, actually—will have skins several shades darker than any current senators, except for a couple of Black Republicans appointed to fill unexpired terms, like Dutch boys plugging the hole in the conservative dike.)
So, education. Even our system of higher education, once viewed worldwide as incomparable, is now being methodically stripped down to its non-essentials, such as schools of business, law, and dentistry. As for liberal arts, those departments are anathema to the ruling class, which wants the perpetual war scam to continue uninterrupted. It’s no coincidence that the liberal arts are where the young learn to question everything. Tsk, tsk! Can’t have that. Better to get those youngsters on a career track . . . before they can start wondering about things they have no business wondering about.
* * *
These days, the Pentagon is warning about the dangers of climate change. The danger, apparently, is that the world will no longer be a safe place for wars.
Recently, too, the Pentagon created a five-minute video warning that the military is unprepared for the coming dangers of extremism, terrorism, and bad manners in—I kid you not—the world’s largest cities. According to The Intercept’s Nick Turse,
“. . . the future of global cities will be an amalgam of the settings of ‘Escape from New York’ and ‘Robocop’—with dashes of the ‘Warriors’ and ‘Divergent’ thrown in. It will be a world of Robert Kaplan-esque urban hellscapes—brutal and anarchic supercities filled with gangs of youth-gone-wild, a restive underclass, criminal syndicates, and bands of malicious hackers.”
A second depiction of urban policing, the film “Do Not Resist,” takes us from the Pentagon’s fantasy world to the actual world of SWAT teams, the ne plus ultra of modern policing. One law enforcement trainer, specializing in lethal force and application of the “warrior mentality” as a law enforcement tool, notes that some cops he’s talked to tell him that a good on-the-job killing produced (post-kill) some of the greatest sex they’ve ever had. I can almost hear one asking his wife/or her husband, “Was it good for you?” And she/he responds, “Baby, kill me another one.”
Reviewing the film for The Intercept, reporter Ryan Devereaux gets to the heart of the film when he quotes the same police trainer, Dave Grossman:
“We are at war,” Grossman tells a group of law enforcement trainees, “and you are the frontline troops in this war.”
And there you have it in a nutshell: they have brought the war home and made us the enemy.
By 2030, it won’t be only foreign mega-cities like Rio de Janeiro, Lagos, or Dhaka that our military forces might be arrayed against. It also could be New York City, Chicago, Los Angeles. And as our military and our militarized police “talk up” the increasing dangers and centrality of their jobs, the rest of us will see the costs rise dramatically—and dearly.
The new investment in civil and foreign wars will have been justified by “sunken costs”—the money our government has already invested in these wars. As if to say, “We’ve gone this far. Can’t stop now. Otherwise, we could lose our war franchise.” Besides, the generals are creatures of habit (always fighting the last war). And this is a course they’ve charted since Truman and Eisenhower in the ’50s.
Personally, I wonder what kind of entertainment will be required by then to “pacify” the American village. My guess is, entertainment will take even more radical forms and those forms, too, will come at an exorbitant price. I won’t try to flesh out what those new entertainment options might be. I will, however, hazard a guess: they won’t bring back public executions. Americans much prefer the mythology of war to its reality. Besides, broadcast television is “family entertainment”. (This may prove to be a short-sighted view, given our ravenous appetite for violence. It all depends on how much “family values” have shifted by then.)
The staggering and unwarranted sums of money devoted to both war and entertainment aside . . . the biggest casualty of the “bread and circuses” political economy will be our democracy, or what is left of it by 2030. Not that Americans will be required to worry their little heads about that. All the system, the military-industrial complex, will require of them is that they vote for the approved candidates.
“Approved candidates”? Hmmm. That has a familiar ring.
# # #