Bread and Circuses

by Steve Bonta

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.

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-19th 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 … [and] to discriminate the spirit of liberty from that of licentiousness, cherishing the first, avoiding the last, and uniting a speedy, but temperate vigilance against encroachments, with an inviolable respect to the laws.

Those words formed part of George Washington’s very first State of the Union address, a comparatively brief but exquisitely worded gem of political thought. Washington was primarily concerned with the precious principles of liberty, in this case, the importance of knowledge and education to maintaining a free republic. In stark contrast, consider George W. Bush’s take on the same subject, in his first State of the Union address given in January 2001:

The highest percentage increase in our budget should go to our children’s education.... [E]ducation is my top priority and, by supporting this budget, you’ll make it yours, as well.

Reading is the foundation of all learning. So during the next five years, we triple spending, adding $5 billion to help every child in America learn to read. Values are important, so we’ve tripled funding for character education to teach our children not only reading and writing, but right from wrong.... When it comes to our schools, dollars alone do not always make the difference. Funding is important, and so is reform. So we must tie funding to higher standards and accountability for results.... Children should be tested on basic reading and math skills every year between grades three and eight. Measuring is the only way to know whether all our children are learning. And I want to know, because I refuse to leave any child behind in America.

In President Bush’s simple, patronizing prose and shallow materialist cant we recognize all the hallmarks of modern political discourse. Government leaders today, like President Bush, seem both unwilling and unable to discuss any issue deeper than spending taxpayer dollars on the latest nanny-state proposal.

What has so degraded our ability to reason and to communicate ideas (and not just about government) in the more than two centuries between the founding era and the present? Simply put, modern mass entertainment. Commented Postman:

Las Vegas is a city entirely devoted to the idea of entertainment, and as such proclaims the spirit of a culture in which all public discourse increasingly takes the form of entertainment. Our politics, religion, news, athletics, education and commerce have been transformed into congenial adjuncts of show business, largely without protest or even much popular notice. The result is that we are a people on the verge of amusing ourselves to death.

There is, of course, nothing wrong with entertainment per se. Good music, movies, and other forms of entertainment can enrich and give balance to our lives. Unfortunately, we have become addicted not only to entertainment for its own sake, but also to modes of entertainment that debase our morals and degrade our intelligence. Many Americans have become like the citizens of Huxley’s dystopia, who dissipated their energies in mindless games like Centrifugal Bumblepuppy and amoral, sensuous diversions like the feelies and the orgy-porgy. Too many of us tolerate and even welcome into our homes "entertainment" whose sole purpose is to titillate and debase. From Ozzie and Harriet Nelson we have descended to Ozzy and Sharon Osbourne, whose heavy-metal lifestyle is now held up as a model for emulation. From the smooth lyrics and refined rhythms of the crooners and the Big Bands, we’ve moved to the shouted obscenities and buzz-saw instrumentals of modern rap and heavy metal. And since the demise of Hollywood’s oft-maligned production code, we are now served mostly mindless erotica and computer-enhanced mayhem masquerading as cinema.

The mandarins of mass entertainment have a revolutionary agenda, and their methods aren’t hard to understand. They intend to destroy traditional Western culture, religion, and morals by using the power of the modern entertainment media. They know, and have known for decades, that sensory images are far more effective than words for mass manipulation because they have the power to elicit an involuntary response. Images force themselves on our minds whether we like it or not; it is impossible to see a violent image or an erotic picture and not react, however fleetingly. Thus, when we hear racy songs, see suggestive billboards and TV ads, or watch television shows with morally subversive themes and bawdy content, we are unavoidably being conditioned to tolerate and, eventually, embrace vice, that "monster of so fearful mien, as to be feared needs but to be seen" that Alexander Pope warned of.

With its base enticements, our modern mass entertainment media are every would-be revolutionary’s fondest dream. In the first place, modern electronic media conveniently encourage us to communicate, and to interpret ideas, in terms of sensory images rather than in words. As a result, popular opinion has confused the rapid-fire, media-produced images — which permeate our lives, constantly seeking to arouse us — with more traditional modes of communication, like speech. This is why inane claims seeking to elevate pornographic pictures and obscene song lyrics to the level of First Amendment-protected "free speech" are so widely accepted.

The Mass Man

Moreover, the mass media have helped to create the Mass Man, in philosopher Jacques Ellul’s pungent terminology. The modern Mass Man is an utter conformist who goes along to get along. He identifies with the crowd — a generation, ethnic group, or what have you — accepting and retailing its slogans, reveling in conformity and content with ignorance. The Mass Man is nothing new; he is merely the participant in the mobs of ancient Greece and revolutionary France, amplified by the mesmerizing power of modern mass entertainment. His habitat is the rock concert, the campus demonstration, the sports arena, or anywhere that he can be titillated by the adrenalin surge of mass participation.

It’s impossible to shut out mass entertainment entirely. Even if we eliminate television and the Internet from our homes, we still hear the obscene bawling of the latest top 40 bands in most public places. We still see the pornographic front covers of popular magazines on display at the grocery checkout counter. We can’t escape the billboards, the media-anointed superstars, and the teenagers with their tee-shirts bearing the alphanumeric names of the latest rap stars. We are fast approaching the society of omnipresent entertainment and universal indulgence that Huxley depicted.

Entertainment as a propaganda vehicle is often far more effective than more traditional modes of indoctrination, such as disinformation disguised as news broadcasts. This is partly because people tend to lower their guard when presented with material marketed as entertaining or aesthetically satisfying, rather than informative. America’s entertainment industry has propagandized on behalf of morally and politically subversive themes for decades. As producer David Victor, whose projects included TV medical dramas like Marcus Welby, M.D. and Dr. Kildare, once boasted:

With varying success we did the story of homosexual rape, an unwed father, unwed mothers, abortions, drug addiction, indecent exposure.... I’m proud of that. I think I educate as well as entertain.

Gary Marshall, creator of Happy Days and Mork and Mindy, let the cat out of the bag when he confided:

You take it from Pogo better than from a man in a suit. I deal with what society’s negative images are, and then try to change them to be positive.... The tag on "Mork" is almost like the sermon of the week. But it doesn’t look like that. It’s very cleverly disguised to look like something else, but that’s what it is.... Because sitcoms reach so many people, we might as well try to put some issues in them.

Little wonder that, after decades of having pro-abortion, pro-homosexuality, pro-sexual promiscuity, and anti-religion messages, among others, dinned into them on prime-time TV, in movies, and in popular music, Americans have largely acquiesced, and in many cases openly embraced, conduct and beliefs that were taboo a couple of generations ago.

Because of its power, because of its omnipresence, and above all, because of its depravity, modern mass entertainment is one of the greatest threats to our freedom that we have ever faced. We are dangerously close to losing the ability to sustain free republican government, because so many, under the influence of the entertainment media, have largely abandoned morality and self-restraint. The newly minted age of the Internet has hastened the process, by giving virtually every home ready access to pornography, that basest of all entertainment, with its devastating influences.

Ben Franklin warned that "only a virtuous people are capable of freedom. As nations become more corrupt and vicious, they have more need of masters." Great republics die like aging trees, from the inside out. By the time of Juvenal, Rome was at the height of her imperial splendor, seen from the outside. But within, the Rome that had produced men like Cicero and Scipio was already gone. The hollow shell of empire persisted for centuries thereafter, but its demise had already been largely determined, because the Roman citizenry had come to prefer diversion over virtue.

There Is Still Hope

The comparison between ancient Rome and modern America should not be overdrawn. The original Roman republic, enlightened as it was in its day, was still a far cry from the American republic. For one thing, Rome was an aristocratic republic, and was therefore always more vulnerable to the pull of oligarchy than the United States. For another, Rome was, by virtue of its geography, in perpetual conflict with encroaching powers like the Carthaginians, a factor which hastened Rome’s descent into militarism. Finally, for all her enlightened policies, Rome was not a product of the Judeo-Christian tradition, but was essentially a refinement of earlier pagan Greek models of the state.

America, by contrast, retains much of her fundamental religious and cultural heritage, especially outside the decrepit urban zones of the east and west coasts. While the unsavory influence of mass entertainment now reaches into the remotest villages and farmhouses, our addiction to bread and circuses has not so neutralized our citizens that they "meddle no more" in the affairs of the state. A certain portion of our citizenry, dismayed at the direction that the entertainment industry is trying to lead us, is actively working to resist the slide into barbarism. The growing homeschooling movement, for example, is evidence that many do not wish their children to be propelled into the mindless, amoral lifestyle promoted, not just by the media, but by the public school system as well. Children taught at home may still feel some of the effects of our culture, but at least parents can more easily monitor what they see and read, thereby better preparing them for the outside world.

In sum, we would do well to rediscover the Empire of Reason, if we are to place ourselves beyond the deadening influence of venal popular entertainment. The best personal antidote for mindless rock ’n’ roll is cultivating an active interest in classical and other forms of elevating music. The best defense against the smog of propaganda-as-entertainment is immersion in the great books of the past. And the surest way to escape the rip tide of media-promoted immorality is to recommit ourselves to the moral virtues and family values of a more civilized age, an age that may yet be revived if we do not entertain ourselves into oblivion.