Bread and Circuses Pt. 2 or Finnegan Begin Again

5 weeks in and this staying home stuff is getting challenging. I have nothing to complain about, really. Lots of space in the house, tiny little green space out back (and the hope of some sun and warmth tomorrow), cats, food, music, books… more than enough to keep on keeping on as things remain dire in the outside world.

I’ve had to turn off the tv for the most part. I can’t take the broadcast news – the constant sound-bite-and-click-seeking asinine questions from (many) reporters following every press conference and the increasing dramatic dialoguing from some of our elected leaders is wearying – and I’m already exhausted. Don’t even get me started on the abrogation of responsibility of much of the media in the US – failing to hold the mass murderer-in-charge to any level of responsibility.

(I realize that last paragraph makes me seem anti-journalist. I’m not. Really, I’m not. Almost became one, myself. And I could list many who are doing a great job weeding through the bullshit and constant changes of the past month and a bit – some close friends among them. But too many are nothing more than ‘content creators’ looking for ‘gotcha’ moments, when they aren’t intentionally selling an anti-science narrative and I’m just done with that level of bullshit. Done.)

I can’t watch the updated statistics anymore, or hear about those still refusing to do the right thing and put aside their personal wants for the benefit of us all – and especially for the safety of those who have no choice but to be out there making sure we come through this thing.

I’ve made the conscious decision to avoid getting caught up in any of the myriad streaming services and the shows on offer. I’m spending way too much time sitting in front of a screen – what with the working from home and trying to catch up on some writing projects – as it is. So if it’s on, it’s in the background (now that Schitt’s Creek has run its course). I’m hearing second-hand accounts of some interesting-sounding programming – coming to us from the creators we are all relying on to entertain and distract and comfort us in our current circumstances.

But there’s some weird-ass stuff out in the ether as well, and, like all those people who flocked to Florida’s foolishly (unintentional alliteration there, but I’m keeping it anyway) reopened beaches today, it’s causing me to question some aspects of our shared humanity and alleged capacity for rational and civilized thought.

I admit that I’ve been hoping that this crisis will prove to be a wake-up call – shining lights on inequity and inanity, both, and showing us that need the one and should disdain the other. I was really looking forward to a new world order that consigned reality tv stars to the trash heap of irrelevance where they have always belonged. All of them – even if they are, somehow, Leader of the (formerly) Free World.

Given the inexplicable popularity of a show about the revolting abuse of big cats (the most apt description I head likened watching it to licking a subway pole), I’m significantly less certain about the positive strides we might be making in deciding what is worthwhile and what is detritus without which we are better off.

This dispiriting realization called to mind a post I wrote in 2015 about the Juvenalian concept of bread and circuses. Back then we were in the lead-up to a federal election, and the behaviours of the people running for office and those who fell on one side of the electorate equation in particular, were spouting a whole lot of nonsense and generally pissing me off. Juvenal used ‘bread and circuses’ to denounce what he saw as the self-involved nature of the ‘common people’ and their willful ignorance regarding wider concerns and matters pertaining to things like civic duty. Not one to pull punches, was Juvenal.

Master of satire that he was, he employed the metonym to describe the unwillingness of 2nd century CE Romans to understand, or even acknowledge, their history and the need for their political involvement in order to ensure the health and well-being of the system. He said, essentially, that the people have abdicated their duties, in favour of sitting on their butts hoping that they will be handed bread and invited to circuses – state-provided food and entertainment.

Were the people culpable for their anomie and disengagement? You betcha. But the fact of the matter is that even wayway back in Ancient Rome (one of the cornerstones of the democratic/republican – using both terms in their original senses – systems that we hold in such vaunted esteem), leaders opted to give the people what the people thought they wanted as a means of garnering support. The federal Cons were doing a whole lot of that in the summer of 2015. Sure, the election that happened the following year to the south of us would make their attempts at propagandizing and displacement and outright lying seem, well, juvenile in comparison.

But.

Plus ça change. I recycled bits of that earlier post, here, because it is resonating with me really strongly right now. And I’m all about the connections.

The satisfaction of shallow desires – for free refreshments and hollow entertainment – remains the biggest tool in the kits of contemporary politicians. And the owners of media conglomerates. And heads of national and multi-national corporations. That buffoon in the States has made a career – and managed to win the Presidency – based on these principles, such as they are.

Bread and circuses generate support that is not based in silly things like exemplary service or concern for the good of society in its entirety, and serve to distract us and take our attention away from what is really going on. Large corporations and banks and politicians and religious institutions and media groups – anyone, really, who has been given power under the social structures that these groups have contributed to building – continue to throw shadows to disguise their underlying intent of self-promotion and the furtherance of personal agendas.

Of course, all these ‘leaders’, public and corporate alike, will claim that the distractions are well-intended and meant to protect us and our best interests. Certainly, right now, we need all the entertainment and distraction we can get. It is keeping us inside and safe. But there is so much that is better out there than that trailer park trash fire that is making the rounds.

In my favourite book by my favourite Canadian author, one of the primary characters, a military leader and soldier (among other things) entertains two small children in his care by casting shadow hand puppets on a wall. The show is meant to divert the children’s attention from the assassins that have been sent to their house to kill them – and to cover up the sounds as the men under his command dispatch the ‘bad men’ and keep them safe.

As in Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, the shadows on the wall are meant to distract from the reality of circumstances. In the situation in Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Lions of Al-Rassan, the attempt is well-intentioned – they were protecting children from political machinations, after all – but ultimately doomed to failure. Though young, one of the children understood the puppet show for what it was – and asks, at its end, if the bad men have gone.

We are not children – and yet we seem to be more than willing to let our leaders distract us with shadows on the wall, with bread and with circuses, rather than to pay close attention to the irrevocable damage that they’re doing and attempt to free ourselves from the cave of superficial perception.

The light of the fire that is the source of the shadows may be hard, and uncomfortable, to look at, but we need to stop shying away from those things that are ‘hard’. We have to accept our responsibility, as citizens who participate in the structuring and furtherance of our societies, to weather the discomfort of escaping the cave and the pain of the initial exposure to the sun and its light, in order to clearly see it in all its truth – and to take that truth back to those who remain entranced by the shadows on the wall. They will resist – Plato had that much right (and how little has changed) – since the journey is full of challenges and inconveniences and we have become intellectually lazy-beyond-belief. But we still have to try. Once we are freed from our actual ‘caves’ we need to work on getting the hell out of the figurative ones.

In the background as I write this the local sports channel is showing Game 5 of the 2015 ALDS (seems to be a 2015 sort of a night). For those who might not remember (if you’re not from Toronto) it’s the game with the craziest 53-minute 7th inning in the history of the sport. A game that lives in the hearts and minds of every fan Jays fan. The game that featured the bat flip heard ’round the world – and solidified my abject hatred of Texas’ 2nd baseman (I really hate that Odor asshole). Our Canadian catcher-man was behind the plate, and that weird dude (he was our weird dude, though) who would go on to be MVP that year was on third. Out in right field was the guy who hit the run (and flipped the bat) that took us to the next level – and who had kept baseball a thing through too many years of mediocrity in Toronto, and in centre was a fielder who was well on his way to earning his cape. Our DH DH’d and tied the game in the sixth – running the parrot around those bases. And then that 7th…

When it was happening in real time, I was a bag of nerves and tension. Sudden death for the Jays in their first post-season in a thousand or so years (felt that way, anyway) was a Big Deal. Watching it tonight is a different type of distraction – it’s nostalgia and comfort and excitement and remembrances of a great group of guys whoo held the city captive for a season (or two). It is real entertainment seeing it now – not the potential end of a run that brought this town together for a time – a warm memory made more poignant as we are all forced to be separate right now (I’m choosing to ignore the shameful 18+ minutes during which people threw stuff on the field. I maintain that they weren’t real fans. Probably not really Torontonians. They certainly don’t know how to behave). I know the good guys are going to win. I need that sort of thing right now. We all do.

Other than spending time with my boys of summer in repeats, I’m spending a lot of time listening to music – and watching some of my favourite artists sing and talk to other favourite artists from their living rooms – and reading. The value of creators and what they bring to our lives has never been more apparent to me than it is now. Those same creators are paying a heavy toll – as tv shows can’t be produced, theatre and music cannot be performed live, visual artists can’t have showings of their art, craftspeople of all kinds are unable to share their work, writers can’t support new releases by touring and doing book shows and signings. We need to support the ones providing the talent – not the conglomerates that benefit from their gifts. They need to be supported to the extent of the support they provide to us at the least especially now when we are desperate for their creations.

I wrote about calliopes right around the same time I was thinking about old Romans and their take on society. Interestingly, that post remains one of my most frequently read (people searching for the Boss and ending up with me). Calliopes – with their associations with the liminality that has always been a feature of the carnival and sideshow – can draw us to things better left unvisited. Stray tunes, carried on the wind – or drawn from memory – can be harbingers of a great deal of trouble. Figuring out which song is safe to follow can be dangerous business. The value of distinguishing the art from the purposefully-designed chaff is something we all need to keep in mind as we look for distraction to fill all this time we have to hand.

George, Steve and Woody

I couldn’t sleep last night.  Not an unusual situation for a chronic night owl/insomniac and, in light of the events of the past week and a bit, perhaps even more understandable given my propensity to think and think and think until my brain circles upon itself so much there is no possibility of quieting it down enough for slumber.  I opted for my standard solution when sleeplessness rears its frustrating head but responsibilities the following day mean that I can’t just throw on a pot of coffee and try to get some work done.  I turned on the TV, hoping to find something that would lull me into sleep as quickly as possible so I could face the fast-approaching day.  Good plan, in theory, and one that usually works.  But I made the mistake of turning on the CBC and the time-shifting replay of the day’s ep. of Strombo just as he was introducing Steve Earle.

I have always loved Steve’s music, and followed his rise and fall and rise again, with interest and admiration.  He is a storyteller, fashioned in the mold of Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie, and his politics and opinions resonate strongly with my own.  In the interview he discussed how his latest tour across the States has brought him more understanding of the realities that informed Guthrie’s compositions.  He commented that the current state of the country reflects the same bleak reality that Woody witnessed and recorded for posterity in the 30’s Depression and Dustbowl, a bleakness to which those who came after him were not exposed.  Until now anyway.

I have my own experiences of the ‘economic downturn’, including watching friends, who have been without work or terribly underemployed for extended periods of time, struggle as they knock on doors without response or acknowledgement of any kind.  One such friend describes her experience in the same manner she described her divorce; employed friends backing off from communication and support as if the ‘condition’ of un/underemployment is contagious.  Another has told me quite definitively that if he hears ‘well, you’re lucky to have any job at all’ one more time (either out loud or implicitly), he cannot guarantee that his response will remain in the realm of socially acceptable behaviour or language.

While neither of these friends is riding the rails and doing chores for food and lodging in a convivial family’s barn, the depth of frustration and despair about the inability to support oneself and/or family is being felt on a larger scale than at any time since the Depression.  Steve Earle has written and spoken about the 99% movement, for example, in the same way that Woody Guthrie’s songs are concerned with the conditions of the working class people searching for work during the Depression.  Guthrie’s fight against complacency- as promoted by the government after the years of Depression- prompted him to write ‘This Land is Your Land’, and continue in his support of migrant workers and the production of a body of work that was as much about social commentary and change as it was about music for its own sake.

Both Steve Earle and Woody Guthrie use mythological language and themes in their songs, since poverty, wars of ideology and struggles with what is right are timeless.   And, sadly, recurrent, as those who don’t know their respective histories continue causing them to repeat.  Guthrie’s ‘Mean Things Happenin’ in this World’, about World War II, could have been written today.  The song is about soldiers being sent overseas without any knowledge or understanding of what it is they’re fighting for, while people are killed ‘for a greenback dollar bill.’  His ‘Jesus Christ’, completely in keeping with the biblical and extracanonical mythology, depicts Jesus standing in opposition to the wealthy and power-seeking and suggests that he would have been crucified for the same reasons today.

Likewise, Steve Earle employs themes of justice and story to respond to contemporary social issues.  I’ve always loved ‘Justice in Ontario’ with its juxtaposition of historical and contemporary stories of injustice here at home.  His album ‘Jerusalem’ employs biblical mythology throughout, discussing the tensions in the region as he hopes that ‘one fine day all the children of Abraham will lay down their swords forever.’  (From the song ‘Jerusalem’).  In ‘Ashes to Ashes’ Earle plays with the themes of the ‘giants in the earth’ (a personal favourite mytheme) and the science of evolution before reaching the conclusion that, with or without a god, humanity seems determined to persist in seeking power, and ultimately self-destruction, at the expense of others.

I spent most of the remainder of the night thinking about all these things and listening to songs that call our attention to matters of great and consistent importance.  Despite the caffeine headache and complete lack of concentration that I’m dealing with as a result, I don’t regret the lost sleep.  Great conversations, even those that are witnessed through the medium of television, should encourage thought and reflection as they prompt further dialogue that might lead us to solutions to the eternal issues that we address through the constant writing, reworking and revisiting of our collective myths.  Like great stories, such conversations demonstrate one of the best uses of the varieties of communication outlets and availability of information that we are privileged to have at our fingertips in the 21st century.  Thank you, George.  I hope the Americans appreciate your conversations (as we loan you out to CNN this summer) as much as we do here at home.