On my morning walks through the neighborhood over the past few weeks, I’ve watched various homes get dressed up for Halloween. I can well imagine the fun children (and adults!) are having as they come up with the scariest, funniest, and most unusual decorations. But even as I’ve enjoyed all this creativity, I’ve found myself thinking of that old saying from the Roman satirical poet Juvenal about “bread and circuses.”
In his poem, Juvenal was pointing out how the Roman government had done an excellent job of appeasing the populace, providing them with bread and circus performances in order to lull them into complacency. By making sure they were fed and entertained, the oligarchy of Roman rulers appeased and distracted the people. As a result, the average citizen was less likely to bother with getting involved in politics and upsetting or overthrowing the current regime.
Recognize any correlations? I see them—and it goes beyond the government, to the oligarchy of business leaders as well. With everything from mass-produced Halloween decorations to the latest television “reality” shows, the entertainment juggernaut is doing an excellent job of creating distracted Americans that don’t focus on meaningful political participation. Speaking of bread and circuses, did you know that the Food Network has transformed American views on food? Back in 2011, more people watched the Food Network than CNN—although that has changed since the 2016 election (you can find more recent data here).
You see, while news outlets are ranking high, that’s really entertainment (in a perverse form), to my way of thinking. There’s not much you can do about the news that shows up on national network or cable channels. You can get angry about it or cheer when your “side” claims a victory, but that’s not meaningful involvement in the democratic process. That’s being distracted by the oligarchy.
However, there is a lot you can do about the contests and issues on your local ballot. For example, on my ballot, in addition to the national senate and congressional races, there are nine contested statewide seats, two contested county seats, a city election, sixteen judicial retentions, and six ballot propositions. I can have an impact on all of these, when I choose to vote, and I will vote (actually, since I participate in Arizona’s robust early voting initiative, I already did vote).
Furthermore, by educating myself on my ballot and the issues found there, I am able to engage in dialogue with people in my community about issues that matter to me. There is one issue in particular that could have a direct impact on my work. Proposition 126 seeks to prohibit state and local governments in Arizona from taxing services (those governments do not do so now, but have the authority to do so in the future, should they choose). I have definite opinions on this, based on my experience of the taxation of services when I lived in New Mexico. (Because this is a spiritually focused blog, I will not get into the details. Instead, if you’re curious—and especially if you reside in Arizona—I encourage you to learn about this initiative and talk with me about it if you wish.)
My point is this: There is much that you cannot do about the state of affairs in your country. But do not be distracted from what you can do. If you live in America, you have more than a week left to learn about the people and issues on your ballot. (If you live elsewhere, pay attention to your own upcoming opportunities to participate in the political process.) Participate in the election—not just by voting the party line, but by engaging with the issues and making a difference. Beyond voting yourself, perhaps you can drive others to the polls on election day. Call your family and text your friends and tell them to vote. At this point, participation matters so much more than party. If we opt not to participate, the oligarchs win—whichever party they belong to.
When the oligarchs win, democracy dies. Once democracy dies, the bread and circuses will stop because the oligarchs don’t need them anymore. (If you pay attention, that’s already happening in America, in terms of various cutbacks in government services.) Is this what you want for future generations?
Do you think Jesus would vote, if he were given the chance? I believe so. Go and do likewise.
Thank you, Shirin, for highlighting the need to vote, to keep our nation from becoming an oligarchy. I’m encouraged by how engaged people have become during this election cycle. It has taken a lot to wake up many in America. As of last week, my state of Vermont had a record 92.5% voter registration, and as people here may register right through Election Day, that number may go higher. I will be working at the polls and helping to count the vote. I hope I go home completely exhausted by the turnout!!
You’re welcome, June, and thank you for working at the polls! Yes, I pray that this will be the beginning of a turnaround, a return to the true democracy that our nation’s founders dreamed of…in their own limited ways, but still…may we improve upon it rather than destroying it!