Sunday, February 6, 2011

Panem et Circenses

On last week's radio show, Will and I were talking about the unrest in Egypt.  We acknowledged that there were probably many causes such as unemployment, lack of democracy etc.  But the precipitating factor is commonly believed to be food inflation.  You can have an angry and restive population for years without it boiling over into violence and a call for the government's downfall.  But when food prices start to rise, and people start questioning whether they can afford to feed their family any longer, well that tends to concentrate the mind.  That can be the difference between action and inaction.

As one Egyptian commentator put it in a round table discussion on ABC's This Week this morning, and I'm paraphrasing, "We all know there is corruption in government.  We accept it because that's the way it's always been.  But now when we can hardly afford to feed ourselves, and you're still stealing from us?  That's too much."

I can't help but draw the parallel to the conditions in the US.  They're certainly not as bad here as they are in the third world, but I see some striking similarities.  We have growing numbers of unemployed.  Over 43 million people are on food stamps.  That's roughly 14% of the population.  Young people are graduating from college with mountains of debt who can't find a job.  If they do find work, they'll be taxed at crippling rates to pay entitlements to the profligate generation that preceded them.  Millions are struggling to pay off a mortgage which is larger than the value of their house.  We have a bloated government that panders to an ill informed electorate while shoveling money and favors to powerful banking interests in return for campaign contributions and lucrative private sector jobs upon retirement from "public service."  The stench of government corruption in this country is as bad as in any banana republic.  It's only made worse by lying politicians, peddling false promises of recovery, supported by manipulated government statistics.  And those same politicians won't hesitate to wrap themselves in the sacred aura of our country's noble beginnings. 

We are a country in decline, desperately in need of leadership equal to that with which we were blessed in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century.  But I see few leaders of that caliber on the horizon.  Instead, what we have is a pack of weasels, whose only qualification for office seems to be an over sized ego and a willingness to tell people what they want to hear.

Rome's decline was characterized by the Latin phrase panem et circenses, or bread and circuses.  To quote Wikipedia,

...the phrase is used to describe the creation of public approval, not through exemplary or excellent public service or public policy, but through the mere satisfaction of the immediate, shallow requirements of a populace... it connotes the triviality and frivolity that in popular culture is supposed to have characterized the Roman Empire prior to its decline.
How fitting that today is Super Bowl Sunday.  I'll be watching, just like millions of other Americans.  I don't care much about football, but it is the major American holiday in February, unless you old fashioned traditionalists want to count President's Day.  And besides, the commercials are usually pretty entertaining.  43 million Americans on food stamps is kind of a big deal, but most of them will probably be watching the Super Bowl too, so why shouldn't I?  Panem et Circenses?  I wonder how many years until English is a dead language.