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Bread and Circuses

The ancient Roman satirist Juvenal was right when he suggested that leaders should just "...give them bread and circuses and they will obey."

As much as I abhor the increasingly nasty vitriol that has become the basic requirement for online commentary, sometimes I hear something and I just have to pause to say "Are you kidding me?".  Today just happens to be one of those days, so I beg your forgiveness for breaking one of my own rules.

While listening to the morning news on the radio, I stopped in my tracks in what can only be described as an audio double-take.  Today's astonishment is provided courtesy of Big Box commerce and a group of individuals who clearly have nothing better to contribute to society.  It is only the Monday before Thanksgiving (remember, that's always on Thursdays) and there are already lines forming and tents rising in an effort to be among the first to take advantage of irresistible bargains starting Friday morning at 12:01AM.  Really?

The ancient Roman satirist Juvenal first coined the phrase "bread and circuses" (well, an approximate translation thereof) to describe a populace so self-indulgent that controlling them is just a matter of government providing food and mindless distractions.  True, my example of the intrepid shoppers has nothing to do with government, but the point remains the same.  Are we so materialistic, commercially focused and, frankly, desperate, as to leave all common sense aside and camp out in front of a store for four full days to save $50 on a GPS or laptop?  Apparently the answer is "yes".

I'd love to be able to lay blame, but it would be shortsighted at best.  We all share accountability for this devolution of priorities and maturity.  We have made it commercially attractive to retailers to have them open at the stroke of midnight on "Black Friday".  This year, for the first time, a number of them are opening on Thanksgiving night!  So much for family togetherness and grateful reflection on all that your Creator has provided you.  We have all contributed to the economic carnival of stores open around the clock--encampments, long lines, short-tempers and bargain hunting that makes Filene's Basement a posh desitination.

Heresy though it may be, I'd support a return to some form of "blue laws" that limits the days and hours of commerce.  I know, I know; the loss of convenience would be devastating to us, not to mention all of those midnight shift retail jobs that might be lost.  Still, I must rhetorically ask "Do I need to stay up that late to go shopping for Christmas presents that I can't really afford for people I'm not sure will appreciate the effort?".

Watch out for the elephants, the circus is in town.

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John Linko November 19, 2012 at 07:48 PM
Great post, Jeff. Right with you on this. I was listening to the same broadcast (I think) on the way to work this morning. One guy interviewed was camped out in front of a Best Buy somewhere, and admitted that he really didn't know what was on sale, he was just there for the experience. Must be nice, I thought - no job to go to, no house to clean, let's just camp out and wait for Black Friday. This guy must be a Bishop or something in what I like to call The First Church of My Stuff - their highest holy day approaches. If I might be permitted to exercise some political license - we should always be wary of elephants :)
James Dale Barrington November 20, 2012 at 02:20 PM
Agreed Jeff and John... When confusion comes to how far capitalism will go you give a gift to the masses; 'bread and circuses' in the form of Black Friday. It works as a sugar high - until it gets old and out of fashion - then a new trick evolves. It's a materialistic culture we live in, - but when enough people discover that the pay off doesn't do very much for themselves maybe this fetish will end. If this much enthusiasm could be given to the ecological and environmental needs of the planet what a change we would have. If we could see the economy as a subset to the ecological structure/needs of the earth we would change our song from 'I am a narcissistic animal' to 'we are the world.' - But alas that cannot happen unless something tragic or great changes the character of our 24/7 mindset... Our leadership and ourselves are nearly helpless products of our times. I, too, would support 'acting out' on some of these self-serving enterprises by withdrawing my attention, time and money from their coffers... Good article and well written...
Pauline Donnelly November 27, 2012 at 12:00 AM
Oh, so true, Jeff, and oh, so funny. Sometimes I wonder if the polarization in this country is really political, or is it a difference between those who have common sense and those who seem, for want of a better word, insane. And what kind of economy do we have today, if for it to prosper, we must all bankrupt ourselves to "spend more"? Is this really how strong economies of the past worked? I'm seriously asking, since nursing is my field, not economics.
JS November 27, 2012 at 11:50 AM
Pauline - We have an economy that's based on growth - no growth = bad economy. I've always questioned the wisdom of this, unfettered growth in a finite world with finite resources and finite land to build on just doesn't make sense. One of the leading economic indicators used is new housing starts. Where are these new houses going to be built in 2050, 2080, 3000? Won't we run out of land? I'm no economist either, but it seems obvious that a consumer economy can't work over the long haul. Great commentary, Jeff. The only thing I'll disagree with you on is the line "We all share accountability for this devolution of priorities and maturity". I refuse to take any accountability for this. The blame lies on those who have such empty lives that they decide buying things, and spending days in anticipation of buying things, is the way to fill it up.

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