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.

Bread and Circuses

Sticking with thoughts about calliopes*- in particular, their ability to draw in the listener, their encouragement of us rubes to come and join the fun of the midway- and the chasing of said music machines, I’ve noticed a certain thematic recurrence featuring circuses and such like things ’round these parts.

It’s partly the time of the year. Any day now- with the summer spectacle of the Pan Am and ParaPan Am Games a fading memory (a hearty ‘well done’ to all the organizers, volunteers and athletes, by the way)- the ads for the CNE will begin to dominate the airwaves (if they haven’t done already- I’ve mainly avoided the airwaves lately. More on that later) marking the end of the summer.

It’s not feeling like the summer is anywhere near its end right now- we’ve had a stretch of crazy hot-and-humid sort of days (all fine with me)- but there is a shift in the type of energy- and a definite sense that back-to-school and the winding down of all things summery is in the air.

It’s hard not to get caught up in a new energy. My next door neighbours are creating quite the sensational fuss, what with being (currently) two games behind the Yanks in the AL East and turning up the heat as contenders for the first time in decades. There were 40+ thousand people down around my house every day last weekend as the Jays hosted those guys from NYC. That’s a whole lot of people creating a whole lot of buzz (I’ll refrain from stating the obvious- that more than a few were certainly ‘buzzed’- on expensive SkyDome beer…).

Please don’t think I’m hopping on a bandwagon here. I’ve never, really, jumped off. Not fully, anyway. Some of my fondest memories are of shivering in the cold at Exhibition Stadium in the days when the Jays first arrived in town- and before they moved to the Dome (sorry Rogers-types- it will ALWAYS be the SkyDome, as far as I’m concerned), with its ability to shield us from the elements somewhat.

1985, for example, was a banner year for the club- marking the first time we won the division championship- and the accomplishment was marked on the weekend with a celebration of the players that made that happen. The nostalgia was pretty phenomenal. Good to see all the faces that marked the shift to the Jays becoming contenders and welcome them back with some big love.

And then there was ’92 and ’93. I was in the early years of my exile in the Nation’s Capital (what was I thinking?!? Hindsight and 20/20 and all that), so I missed the electricity that powered the city as the Jays won back-to-back World Series- led by some of the greats of the game (Joe Carter remains a personal hero of mine- for reasons that go way beyond his ability to swing a bat and catch a ball- but, oh, that home run and that catch…). But I yelled and screamed my support from various couches and sports bars in Ottawa and cried with the rest of my hometown when the boys of our northern summer brought home the Canadian bacon (as I laughed at the ineptitude of the folk in Atlanta who hung the flag upside down. Ah, ‘Mericans. Gotta love ’em).

And I’ve attended a few less-than-stellar outings since I came home and moved in next door. Even bought a cap with their ‘new’ logo a few years ago (although I really like the one with the Maple Leaf a whole lot better).

I’m getting cautiously optimistic. Torontonians are wise to temper their sports enthusiasm with some caution- our teams are notorious for their shared ability to trounce all over our raised hopes and dreams. But I am getting a little caught up in the excitement- while yet holding on tight to my oft-broken heart.

I’m also a little distracted, and I’ve now distracted you with my talk of my local sports heroes… Let’s bring it back to the point, shall we?

The late-season surge in energy and hope for contention is also indicative of the fact that we will be setting aside our summer-dreaming (for those of us privileged enough to have been able to take breaks from the norms associated with ‘making a living’ and all that adulting-type stuff) as the cooler practicalities of the fall start to set in. A last hurrah, as it were.

Although I’m now five full years out of the classroom, I still feel that back-to-school pull- the nervous energy that comes from course set-up and the preparation to meet all the new minds that I might be permitted to influence. A new year- in a sense that is more real, somehow, than the changing of the calendar that we mark in the dead of Canadian winter.

As I’ve mentioned, I’ve been suffering from a significant pulling-back and sitting-out of late. Through an (on-going) process of introspection and general examination, I’ve isolated some of the reasons behind this ennui. One cause that keeps rearing its head is a need I’m feeling to distance myself as much as possible from the calculated distractions that are offered up everywhere we turn. It may seem a tad hyberbolic, but I really think that my recent avoidance of things of import is a reactionary and somewhat unconscious recoiling from the nonsense on television and elsewhere in the media these days.

The lead-up to the election is a big source of disgust disquiet- and I’m certain that our soon-to-be former PM is not unaware of the general public malaise that is sure to be the foregone result of a campaign lasting eleven freakin weeks.

Which calls to mind that wondrous old Juvenalian concept of ‘bread and circuses’. He used it to denounce what he saw as the self-involved nature of the ‘common people’ and their willful ignorance about 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 they think they wanted as a means of garnering support.

Plus ça change. 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.

If they all, together and separately, keep us diverted by the next big show streaming on Netflix (or by a story about a wonderful show- one that was produced with the intent of making early education accessible to children from all socioeconomic backgrounds- moving from a publicly-funded broadcaster to a pay-for-service cable channel), encouraging support for the local college football team (as we funnel money into such programs while things like actual educational standards at the same college suffer from lack of funding), or just by being a buffoon that appeals, inexplicably, to the ‘real’ people, then we mightn’t be inclined to delve deeper into the issues that are driving the continued inequities and flat-out wrong directions in which they are attempting to take us.

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 to distract us and take our attention away from what is really going on. Large corporations and banks and politicians and religious institutions- anyone, really, who has been given power under the social structures that these groups have contributed to building- can continue to throw shadows to disguise their underlying intent of self-promotion and the furtherance of personal agendas.

The other day a friend posted a link to an article talking about how a developer is planning on building a hotel on the grounds of the CNE (former home of those Blue Jays). Jaded as I am by the state of development in this city, it didn’t really surprise- although it did appall more than a little since that place is sort of sacred ground for a lot of Toronto-folk. When I thought about it a little more, though, the symbolism of such a thing seemed insidiously apt- building towers so that the populace can actually stay overnight ON the circus grounds? Why didn’t someone think of this before?

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.

Sure.

In one of my favourite books by one of my favourite (Canadian) authors, 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 in Ammar’s 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 and 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.

I needed to re-learn that piece of Socratic/Platonic wisdom. When chatting with my wee sister on the way to Sunday dinner, I admitted that I have had to ‘unfollow’ certain friends on the facebook, what with the lead-up to the federal election. I’m having issues with seeing posts in support of certain soon-to-be-former PMs and the rest of his merry misfits.

Wee sister commented that she keeps such peeps around in her feeds- since she likes to examine arguments from all angles. Ouch. That one stung. I like to think that I am past-master of hearing all sides before deciding my own perspective, but I have to say that certain attack ads and the front-and-centre-ness of a whole lot of rhetoric on the parts of all of the federal political parties has made me want to turn off the tv and tune out of the written articles permanently.

That, combined with a little article I saw in the New York Times yesterday morning, have reminded me that the examination of the whole has to be taken in consideration, regardless of how obvious our own conclusions might seem to be. Overcoming confirmation bias- when we aren’t even aware of it- is a trickytricky thing, sometimes. It’s easy to see all those places in which we are right. Identifying the wrong bits… that involves looking at things from all sides- and in all lights.

Which means checking back in. I’ll have a look at and listen to all the posturing and politicking- whether or not it reinforces what I already think is the right answer- and re-engage in the process. Looking beyond the shadows on the wall isn’t always fun, or easy, but it beats becoming blindly subject to the bread and the circuses that they use to mollify us and keep us quiet. And maybe, just maybe, by doing so I might manage to drag a person or two out of the cave to join those of us who aren’t satisfied with what the mollifying shadows might be selling.

(Yes, it’s that Mike Oldfield guy again)

Treat me like I’m evil
Freeze me ’til I’m cold
Beat me ’til I’m feeble
Grab me ’til I’m old

Fry me ’til I’m tired
Push me ’til I fall 

Treat me like a criminal.
Just a shadow on the wall

The plan: ignore the shadows on the wall- flailing desperately, as they do- while they try to convince of their ‘truth’, and head back into the light, and reality. Pulling whomever I can grab along with me.

And what the hell. What’s life without a little hope?

Go Jays Go!

*Another indication- should you need more- about that whole interconnectedness thing about which I tend to go on and on and on… Having eschewed television (for the most part- baseball games don’t count- and they lost to the Phillies (!) last night- I popped on my rally cap and everything!- so I might have to rethink my optimism a little. Although it was an interleague game, so it doesn’t really count…) I’ve been reading a whole lot lately- and that reading has been focused on authors who create great characters.

Since Mr. Stephen King is pretty unmatched when it comes to introducing us to people who leap off of the pages, I decided to give ‘It’ a go. I thought I’d read that one- years ago, actually- so I was expecting a re-read (I definitely remember the cover of the novel- with Tim Curry as Pennywise) but this is my first immersed visit to the town and its folk. My memories of the story come from the miniseries- which starred EVERYBODY! What a cast that was!- so getting to know the characters through King’s written words has been excitingly brand new.

Anyhoo… one of the characters first encounters the big nasty that plagues the town of Derry after he follows the sound of a calliope playing ‘Camptown Races’. Fortunately, Stan manages to escape the manifestation of the festering source of all that is wrong in Derry, but the incident marks him for the rest of his life. 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. Mr. King is wise in his warnings. 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. Yet taking a risk has to be better than stasis and stagnation…