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.

Devil’s Advocate

The other night, while out for dinner with friends, our discussion turned to television and the viewing patterns of people we know.  It got me thinking about cultural mores and how changeable they are- and how relatively quickly those changes can come about.

Not to sound like some ancient geezer who waxes philosophic about the good ol’ days, but the truth is that there is programming being broadcast over the airwaves (public, cable, pay-per-view and the interworld) that would not have been allowed to see the light of day even a very few years ago.

Between the voyeuristic idiocy that is most reality programming and the sex and extreme violence that is found on HBO and the like on a weekly basis (did you SEE that Red Wedding?!?  WTF was that?!?!), many of the shows that were once strongly criticized now seem incredibly innocent in comparison.

When The Simpsons first premiered on Fox way back in 1989 (!) it came under loudly-expressed fire for it’s presentation of ‘degraded’ ‘American family values’.  Then-U.S. President George H.W. Bush spoke against the show, suggesting that what America needed was a family ‘more like the Waltons than the Simpsons.’  Bart was widely criticized as being terrible role model for children.

Those who took the time to actually watch the show soon discovered that, along with solid, witty writing, the Simpsons and their neighbours offered up some of the best-natured, morally stable programming out there.  This is a family who, even with all the admitted dysfunction, stick it out and make it work while doing the best for their community.

There are certainly voices of institutionalized morality (Flanders, of course, and Reverend Lovejoy are the obvious examples) but generally religion is dealt with as being something that is present- and integral to the lives of the residents of Springfield- without it being preachy or judgemental in any way.

Apu frequently exhibits frustration as his neighbours refer to his religion as ‘other’, but Marge and Homer throw him a traditional Hindu wedding and adopt the personas of the avatars of his gods when he and his wife are dealing with marital stressors.  Krusty deals with the abandonment and rediscovery of his Jewish faith in an effort to reconnect with his Rabbi father.  Lisa struggles with concepts of belief, dabbles in Wicca and ultimately embraces Buddhism.

The microcosm of Springfield, USA exemplifies a community working the way one should work.  A town where those of different faiths, races and ethnicities get along and do their best at every turn.  Even with its myriad issues; the corruption of its mayor (although I’d take Quimby over our incumbent any day), the evil Republican power mongers (headed up by Mr. Burns), giant sinkholes, the eternal tire fire… Springfield really is a pretty  ideal town to call home.

Another show that got a very undeserved bum rap at its get-go was the sadly short-lived God, the Devil and Bob.  The animated sitcom showed up on NBC on March 9, 2000.  It was pulled March 28, 2000.  Only 4 episodes- out of the 13 that were produced- aired before it was removed from the line-up, largely as a result of pressure from religious activists.

Watching the show again recently I was struck by the complete innocence- and ‘niceness’, for lack of a better word- of the star-studded half-hour program.  God (James Garner) is charmingly laid back and reminiscent of Jerry Garcia.  He enjoys having a beer, playing a round of golf and generally being around and involved with his creatures.

That the state of his creation has driven him to consider getting rid of it all and starting over again is a function of humanity’s poor use of their collective free will, rather than any sort of unreasonable wrathfulness or vengeful tendencies (as he explains in the intro, he’s ‘not that kind of god’).

The Devil (voiced by Alan Cummings) encourages God to destroy this world and begin again- providing he still gets to play a role in the new creation (in which marsupials would be the dominant life-form this time ’round).  They have something of a dysfunctional and co-dependent- yet still respectful and reciprocal- relationship.

Lucifer’s feelings are hurt when God forgets his birthday, or a scheduled golf date, and reacts rather badly.  Like a sulky adolescent, actually.  One who just happens to have the resources of Hell at his disposal.  Yet there is no animosity between them- there is definite affection (and understanding) there- as God repeatedly mollifies the Devil, apologizing for hurting him and letting him know that he is, in fact, appreciated.

I imagine the criticisms about the show- likely led by those who never took the time to watch it but who were ‘offended’ by the title itself- were sourced in the ‘humanness’ of the portrayal of the deity and his ‘evil’ counterpart.

The trouble with that is the plot- and the interactions between God and the Devil, and God and Bob (who is a blue-collar, porno-watching, beer drinking, father of two who works on the assembly line of an auto plant in Detroit- played by French Stewart), and the Devil and Bob- are very much in keeping with the original mythology.

Think Job.

Or any of the Prophets.

The show is decidedly Old Testament (Jesus is nowhere to be found- except in very brief passing) and it is likely therein that the problem lies.

Those who have read the whole OT shebang (and not just in order to be able to cite random passages out of context to condemn various things that personally offend them) would certainly see that the story of the relationship between God and the Devil/Satan/Lucifer (certainly among the most unfairly maligned characters in mythology/literature/history) did not originate with wars in Heaven, or with falls from that same locale and eventual punishment in the abyss.

The satan began as an emissary- lackey/gofer/PA- of Yahweh, and one that fulfilled a vital role in the bureaucracy of Heaven.  The assumption of later cultural traditions saw the satans meshed with demons and/or vanquished gods to become beings that were set in opposition to the presiding deity.

The strict black and white dichotomy of good vs. evil is a later development in the mythology- one that very much leads to a lack of assumption of responsibility for one’s own actions- that is not at all in keeping with the foundational premise behind the earliest biblical myths.  What WE do- as individuals and collectively- matters.  Our actions and ideas affect us personally, our families, the larger community and the nation.  Every once in awhile, when we seem to be straying too far off the desired path, the deity sends a mouthpiece to guide us back to the straight and narrow.

IF we are willing to listen to said prophet.  Historically (according to the stories), we haven’t been much good at that.  As a result, the deity sends the appropriate punishment our way.  There was, initially, no emphasis on any sort of external being showing up to tempt us down the garden path.  Our deeds- and the results of those deeds- were completely our own look-out.

God, the Devil and Bob very much demonstrates the wisdom of this earliest message in the mythology as is can be applied to 21st century life.  The characters are funny, endearing and very human in their actions and reactions.  While the Devil does try to interfere with Bob’s attempts to make the world a better place (on behalf, and in defence, of ALL humanity), the characters on the show do the right thing- not out of fear of divine punishment (since no one- other than Bob’s six-year-old son, Andy- believes in his prophet-hood) but because they truly know right from wrong.

Compared to the sophomoric humour that is the norm in the crop of myriad animated shows out there now (looking at YOU Family Guy et al), and certainly when placed against some of the ridiculous ‘unscripted’ programming that crowds the tv listings, God, the Devil and Bob reflects basic values and morality in an entertaining and light-hearted manner, while acknowledging the realities of life in our particular cultural context.

Along with being ‘smarter’ than a great deal of the shows on offer these days, it is a very positive and responsible use of the mythology- with familiar characters made more sympathetic and less-vengeful- that reminds us that we humans need to be charting our own paths without constantly relying on any form of divine guidance or intervention.

It deserves a closer viewing.  One that isn’t dictated by the hysterical posturing of those with a literalist agenda- and no sense of humour.

If you’re interested, you can find the episodes on YouTube- or you might be able to find the whole 13-episode season on DVD.  I have it- it’s fun.