Bread and Circuses

A number of theorists have drawn interesting parallels between Rome and contemporary America. With one eye on Rome the founders of this nation feared the dissolution of our Republic from within as people lost their sense of civic virtue and went off on tangents into self-indulgence and the seeking of unnecessary wealth. Aldous Huxley later warned Western civilization about its urge to satisfy endless pleasures. I doubt, however, that any of these people could have foreseen the sort of incident that happened in Florida recently.

It is certainly the case that our nation can no longer brag about its commitment to the common good and its practice of public virtue which puts the good of all above one’s  own self-interest. The pursuit of wealth has become synonymous in the minds of many with democracy and freedom. In this regard we do resemble the ancient Romans. But one of the most compelling parallel between today’s Republic and the Roman Republic is our love of diversions. The Romans loved their bread and circuses. Clearly there need to be some diversions, especially at a time when there are pressures from all directions on nearly everyone in this country. But as Aristotle warned, “everything in moderation.”  The love of diversions in this country has reached absurd limits when events like Nathan’s hot dog eating contest takes center stage — only to be upstaged recently by the eating of worms and cockroaches. A recent story tells the sad results:

MIAMI (AP) — The winner of a roach-eating contest in South Florida died shortly after downing dozens of the live bugs as well as worms, authorities said Monday.

About 30 contestants ate the insects during Friday night’s contest at Ben Siegel Reptile Store in Deerfield Beach about 40 miles north of Miami. The grand prize was a python.

If it weren’t so sad it would be positively funny — shades of Monty Python (sorry, ‘had to go there). But one must ask, really, where are we headed in this culture? How does this sort of absurd spectacle pass as entertainment? Even if the man had not died — and he may have died for a number of reasons having nothing whatever to do with his latest meal — what’s with 30 people standing around watching idiots wolf down bugs and worms to see who would win a snake? The sponsors of the “event” thought it fitting to donate the python to the family of the man who died. As the story tells us, “The Miami Herald reported the grand prize has been put aside in Archbold’s [the diseased] name and will be given to his estate.” If we knew how to laugh at a person’s untimely death (as Mary Tyler Moore did)  this, too would be funny. What on earth will this man’s grieving family do with a python?

Twenty years after writing Brave New World Aldous Huxley revisited a number of the themes he had raised in that novel and collected his essays in a book titled Brave New World Revisited. It is a fascinating take on events in the late 50s in light of Huxley’s own predictions in the 1930s. I quoted him in a previous blog as he notes “mankind’s almost limitless appetite for distractions.” Never were truer words spoken and this should make us take seriously his many other warnings about the future of a people who seek nothing more in life than the satisfaction of their own pleasures. But eating bugs and worms? You must be kidding! Surely this is the reductio ad absurdum of our love of distractions and invites another long look at ancient Rome.

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19 thoughts on “Bread and Circuses

  1. Wow. That is unbelievable. Huxley’s follow up sounds fascinating. Another to add to my list. Obviously reality television and by extension the debates fit neatly into this theory as well. Great post!

    • Yeah. Huxley’s BNW Revisited is outstanding. I recommend it highly and used to assign it to my honors students. It raises a great many profound questions. What else can you ask of a writer??

      ________________________________

  2. I am one of those who believes that the US is on the long slide down, mostly because the oligarchy still insists that we remain the world’s policeman but refuses to tax for it. I certainly never believed that I was voting to become the word’s policeman and I daresay that a majority of Americans would agree with me. However, that is of no moment, given the oligarchic realty. As far as bread and circuses are concerned, one should keep in mind that the slaughter in the arenas of the Roman Empire went on for a thousand years and were never completely abandoned until the 5th century AD.

  3. Roaches? Why on earth….Well never mind. I have seen the line for the second time today which seems to be the governing rule – “common sense is not that common.” Being from the south, it reminds me of the joke about the last words said by a redneck before he dies – “watch this.” BTG

  4. Hugh, I would encourage you to have a little more hope in today’s American culture, and certainly the global culture. As strange as the roach-eating thing is, it’s not much different than the carnival freak shows of 100, 150 years ago. (See info on this infamous, but 4-star-rated movie “Freaks” from 1932: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0022913/) And I am not sure it is a sign the sky is falling. For every roach-eating death, there are hundreds of huge mobilizations for good, including some of the largest ongoing efforts we’ve ever seen (such as the “wear pink” breast cancer awareness program), and the 2010 encampment around the White House that, at least temporarily, put a stop to the oil pipeline through the Dakotas and Nebraska, etc. We always have to balance our views of history, as you know, of course. Germany is one of the richest wells of modern intellectualism and modern science, yet that same culture also gave the world some of its most horrid human behavior, including by people who came right out of those academies (Mengele, Goebbels, etc.). Yet, Germany has come back to be, again, the strongest nation in Europe, albeit in a different way. I’ve mentioned these examples to you before, but if ever there was a sign of cultural decay/human abasement in America, it came when an entire section country based its economy on human slavery, and when the Industrial Revolution’s growth — and thus, a good part of our current lifestyle — was fueled by the abuse of the bodies and minds of men, women and, most heinously, children immigrants. In broad terms, I think today’s America is more advanced morally and ethically than it was in the early days of my lifetime, the early days of your lifetime and certainly 100 or 150 years ago. It’s not perfect. Certainly, there is still bigotry, we still have the barbaric death penalty, and still idiots who get their jollies watching these cock-roach-eating contests, but perspective reminds us that in 1804 a small crowd watched as two of our leading political thinkers, not just mere rabble, (Burr and Hamilton) shot at each other in a duel, at a place in New Jersey that was a popular duelling site. And up until 1936, there were public hangings that drew massive crowds (see the photo on this site: http://www.executedtoday.com/2008/08/14/1936-rainey-bethea-last-public-hanging/). Yet from that period emerged America’s “greatest generation.”

    • Good comment. Thanks for the perspective. I haven’t lost mine entirely, but I wanted to try to have some fun with that incident. Apparently it didn’t work.

      • No, it worked, Hugh. I know you were having some fun, too! But I have seen a lot of things lately — or heard them — suggesting people think the world’s headed to hell in a hand-basket right now. You know me: I hold out faith in our young folks. But, yeah, something like cock-roach-eating pretty much begs to be had fun with!

      • I never miss the Nathan’s Hod Dog Competition. I look forward to the 4th of July just to see who wins the coveted “Mustard Belt” this year. I happen to be a card carrying member of the [IFOCE] and as such take great exception to your condemnation of the gustatory arts.

        Competitive eating has taught science much. Takeru Kobayashi, a skinny as a stick multiple winner, dumbfounded his MUCH larger fellow contestants by out eating them by a factor of 2…3…and 4 times. His ability to do this is known today as “The Kobayashi Effect”. It goes like this…… FAT DOESN’T STRETCH! Muscle stretches A LOT! Kobayashi has no abdominal fat, so, he always can eat more than a person who does can.

        Now, just in case you think Old Mrs. N. has gone mentally round the bend with this….. Consider this.

        Why do you think it is that Americans suffer from an epidemic of “Acid Reflux Disease”? Why can’t you turn on the TV without seeing an advertisement for relief from Heartburn? Because we are so damn fat our stomachs (made of muscle) can stretch, BUT, our abdominal fat can’t…. so, what we eat is forced back up the intake tube when we bend or sit down.

        We owe this knowledge to the brave men and women of Competitive Eating and I will thank you not to disrespect them. Eating bugs on the other hand is an entirely different kettle of fish. Don’t confuse the two.

  5. Short answer: The end of us may almost always seem like it’s here. But we’ve gone through worse and more stupid times in the past, although, yes, eating roaches is pretty darned dumb.

  6. Dear Hugh,
    Believe me, I have the deepest sympathy for the family of the bug-eater…..BUT. I have to tell you, it reminded me of the time my 3 year old girl dumped a bowl of jello over her head…and then cried because it was “GROSS!”…and she was THREE!
    #1…I do NOT understand snake people….even a little bit.
    #2…What kind of idiot eats roaches?
    #3…I don’t watch the news…but I bet this made the top story.
    🙂
    Love, LIs
    xoox

  7. Your posts remind me to be extra thankful that I live so far off the grid that I don’t have to witness much of that, but I witness equally-disgusting displays of “aren’t we cool?” cultural trends. Wow, haven’t we evolved as a species?!!!

    Thanks for sharing even the disgusting stories…what would prompt people to do that? surely not the prize of a python?!!! maybe it’s for the shock effect, or maybe for the laughs?

      • i have learned when i am around people that ‘trouble me’ to pull in my reins and remind myself to be thankful that i wasn’t born into that life, that i had great parents who gave me a sense of self without using a heavy rein, and that i have a lot to be grateful for. one of the workers nailed one board on the wall ‘backwards.’ one side of the board is painted white, and the other is natural. so there’s one bright white blotch along a stretch of dark on one side.. and on the other is one dark blotch along a stretch of white. i decided instead of nagging him today, that i would keep it there.. it’s high near the roof, and one out of fifty people might spot it. when i see it, i will always remember sweet juan, who often helped shovel the soil into the wheelbarrow while he was also cutting lumber… i will remember that he is sweet and thoughtful though not very quick minded.. and i will remember to be grateful of my many talents, and not to dwell on one board tacked in the wrong direction.

        many times when i see ‘idiots and ugly americans’i try to do the same thing,though it embarrasses me when they’re representing our country in a foreign land.

        thanks for listening!

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