February 24, 2007

Bread and Circuses, 21st Century Style

History has seen its cycles of societies that wax and wane, growing from obscurity into dominating their sphere of influence... and then fading to some lesser status. Any student could cite the examples of the Egyptians, the Greeks, the Romans, the British, and so on. Today we have the American Empire exercising hegemony over the whole world. And one thing that hasn't changed over the ages is the need for these empires to invent ways to amuse their masses and thereby maintain order and stability. For every imperial power soon learns that populations that enjoy the benefits of hegemony must not be allowed to become bored. A population with time on its hands and a measure of economic power is a threat to the governors of that nation. The people might start to contemplate the quality of their lives, of their leadership and its policies, at home and abroad... and they might come to recognize these policies as self-serving and designed for the aggrandizement of the governors and their entourage. This of course is never to be tolerated.

We don't know for certain about the Egyptians, but they were successful for several millennia, and seemed to provide their populace with an elaborate religious system combined with sophisticated mathematical and astronomical knowledge. It took the Greeks to really find the ideal means of keeping the people amused-- namely sports. Yep; they instituted the first Olympic Games... an obviously successful strategy since it was revived in the modern era and continues to command global attention on a regular, four-year schedule. The sums of money involved in the Olympics have assumed truly olympian proportions. And in turn, this is a measure of the amounts of efforts expended by most nations in preparing and competing in 'the Games.' So effective have the Olympics proved in generating vast quantities of money, that modern man has ingeniously found a clever way to retain our interest during the four year waiting period-- it's called 'the Winter Olympics,' and held every four years in between 'Summer Olympics.' Double the hype, double the money wasted on games, double the bureaucracy, the TV rights, the travel packages, and on and on-- marvellous invention! The Greeks obviously were clever indeed.

Then we have the Romans. Ah yes, the coliseum springs immediately to mind, with visions of gladiators, lions, and so on, engaged in battles to the death. Probably not all combats were pursued to death, but there's little doubt that the Romans loved violent entertainment almost as much as Americans love their TV violence. Taking cues from the Greeks, the Romans built impressive 'hippodromes'-- horse racing venues, and specifically chariot racing tracks. The grandest of these was the Circus Maximus in Rome, where generations of crazed race fans placed their bets, drank their booze, and cheered their favorites. Crashes were frequent, and almost certainly serious, given the lack of any semblance of safety consideration. These Roman stadiums could hold thousands, and were, we are told by contemporary writers, immensely popular. While the killing of Christians for sport was a relatively brief phase, chariot racing was carried on for many centuries and was a major source of entertainment for the masses.

When we get to the British, we find them more serious minded than the earlier imperialists. Was it the Protestant work ethic? For whatever reasons, the Brits amused themselves by pursuing the business of empire-building, which occupied them over several centuries, and took them right around the world in the process. Well, they did manage to develop cricket and polo along the way, but these pursuits were seen more as aristocratic pastimes than popular passions. Business and religious proselytizing seem to summarize British efforts at mass preoccupation. The onset of the industrial revolution kept the populace so enslaved to their occupations that there was no place or need for amusements for the masses. For the wealthy however, there were various ways to while away the idle hours. One could read, or perhaps even write, poetry and prose; study classical literature in original languages; play a musical instrument; study mathematics and 'natural science;' travel to exotic locales; and hold court with other bored aristocrats.

Now, in the era of American hegemony, the whole problem of mass amusement has been elevated exponentially in terms of variety, range, and depth. Never have so many types of amusement been available to so many people... you know what I mean. However, the main principles remain. Governments of all stripes prefer to see their populations kept diverted by harmless preoccupations that will prevent boredom and circumspection. With the invention of television, the ideal societal control mechanism had indeed been found. Here is a medium that allows a standard message to be truly 'broad-cast' into every home, to every citizen, to present a common experience. We rarely stop to ponder the evolution of modern, Western television broadcasting-- but it's instructive to do so. For example, we take it for granted that we're going to have commercial messages interspersed with our desired programming. And despite the 500-channel universe, many of those programs are simply repeats in different time-zones, and re-runs of old series or 'classic' shows. Television production is very expensive, and altho we have what appears to be many channels, in fact there are relatively few sources of news, of information. With the consolidation of networks and the absorption of many independent stations, it has become easier than ever, even in a big national market, to homogenize public attitudes and outlooks. The USA has only a handful of national, three-letter acronymed TV networks, and with their news programs all attempting to cover the same stories, lest they miss a good one, there is little difference in reporting or in viewpoint. You know all this; Chomsky has been saying it for years.

However, it's worse than most of us think... (especially since most of us don't think about it). At the time of this writing, the US media are obsessed with two stories. These two stories are being analyzed in painstaking (or painful) detail by the tabloids, the TV news, the TV entertainment programs, and the magazines and newspapers. One concerns the unfortunate death of a woman who was mostly famous for being famous (Anna Nicole Smith). The other is a 'made-for-TV' tragedy involving NASA astronauts in a 'love triangle.' This one has all the ingredients loved by the media pundits-- astronauts, the new cowboys of the rocket age, sexual intrigues, jealousy, revenge... you get it. Perfect diversion for the bored yet harried masses of capitalist drones of the free-enterprise paradise that is modern America. If you tire of those stories, don't worry-- you can turn on the telly and watch your favorite 'reality' show. Like to watch ordinary people make fools of themselves trying to sing and then being humiliated by sarcastic judges? How about ordinary people becoming temporary celebrities by trying to answer inane 'trivia' questions to win pots of money dangled in front of their dazzled eyes? What about selected photogenic males and females arranged in variously concocted teams and struggling against each other in some isolated, exotic locale to gain the big million-dollar prize? Or fat people competing to lose weight? (Can you imagine trying to imagine that one, ten years ago?) And that's not to mention all kinds of 'situation comedies,' old movies, new pay-per-view movies, adult cartoons, and need I go on? We haven't even hit the sports channels; yes, the passion of the Greeks and Romans has been re-energized in the 21st century with dedicated channel, televised broadcasting. Probably the premier sporting extravaganza of our day is the modestly termed 'Superbowl' showdown between two football teams. There's no point rehashing the hype that surrounds this annual sporting orgasm, except to remind readers of the astonishing phenomenon that many viewers actually want to see the commercials for this event-- that's an indicator of how much human and financial capital go into filling every millisecond of this one-afternoon event.

Now the point I'm approaching is not simply that modern society spends huge quantities of time, money, and intellect on essentially valueless pursuits. (Sports fans get a hold on reality; they really are of negligible worth, face it.) No, it's more than that. It's the fact that in devoting all that energy on these activities, we are NOT spending any time on things that really matter! By filling their pages with 'Hollywood gossip,' the newspapers are not telling us about the lies our polliticians are telling us, or the true extent and potential consequences of global climate change, and so on. While we gape at gridiron heroes and fleeting celebrities, we expend time better spent on informing ourselves about what's going on in the outside world. Heaven knows, we might even start contemplating the state of the world and start recognizing the intellectual prison subtly erected around our mental territory. We might start to get in touch with our spirit, and take some personal responsibility. We might start thinking about death and God, and what really matters.

But that's not what the powers that be want or expect. No, they want to maintain a steady, soul-crushing flood of 'entertainment' coming at us from every sensory perception. They know the lesson of antiquity-- that to keep the masses in a hypnotic state of aquiesence, it is only necessary to keep them in a constant state of amusement. Those harmless pastimes are literal diversions-- they divert our attention away from things that matter towards things that are, in the big picture, worthless. From life... to death. And we, modern lotus-eaters, are happy to consume the mental pabulum, strained, processed mush that slides down our mental gullets effortlessly, requiring no chewing from our toothless gums. As Hosea laments in the Bible: "My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge". Today we are awash in so-called knowledge; the lament would be re-cast as 'My people are destroyed for lack of interest in knowledge... they just want amusements.'

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