Explaining myself: Panem et Circenses

Earlier today in an e-mail thread with some folks I (dismissively) used Juvenal’s famous phrase in response to a piece about the Super Bowl parade:

“Duas tantum rex anxius optat, panem et circenses.”

(“The people long anxiously for two things, bread and circuses.”)

This was not an insult against sports fans, nor sports in general. I think that there is a very legitimate place in life for joy, fun, competition, and even public spectacle. The grace and power of the Olympics and other great sporting traditions stand in support of this. Many athletes are great citizens (many are not) – many sports fans are, too. I will, however, concede that I have found it odd to come from a place that’s very civic-minded to one more sports-focused.

My comment was intended to reflect my dismay at how easy it is to rally a few hundred thousand people (or more) to celebrate something that has no direct impact on their lives, yet it is nearly impossible to rally even a few hundred people to take action on social issues that do directly impact them. When I walk around on a Sunday and every single human being I talk to wants to know if I know “the score”, or if I “saw that play” – it worries me, but only in comparison. I do not walk around on a day when the State is considering an important piece of legislation, or even on Election Day, and encounter the same levels of engagement and interpersonal inquiry. So, the things that bind us seem disproportionately circusy. It’s often perfectly acceptable to argue about sports, or ‘The Bachelorette’, but not public policy. The former two being fun and circusy, and the latter being (often) very serious business. Should they not at least command equal time?

Not only was Juvenal right, but I fear Aldous Huxley was, too.

I don’t believe there is a conscious conspiracy – we make these choices daily, they are not made against us. And we do so at our own peril. It is not just sports – it is entertainment, it is the odd subcultures around a lot of popular music, it is blind consumption, etc. As I told a colleague today, I think that going to a John Kerry rally and holding a sign and screaming at Bush supporters is every bit as “circusy” as going to a ball game – I realize there is equal merit (or lack thereof).

Because, there needs to be lots of room in life for love, fun, joy, relaxation, creativity, passion, mystery, mindlessness. These are the things that illuminate our spirit and help fuel the seriousness and responsibility and civic engagement when it’s right and proper. What I was trying to say is that our world, our nation-state, is in serious serious trouble, and our collective national social energy is, on many levels, being misspent. The things that bring us together may ironically and sadly be the ones that ultimately break us to bits.

So, sports fans – I’m not picking on you. I’m picking on all of us.

2 thoughts on “Explaining myself: Panem et Circenses”

  1. It’s not a conscious conspiracy, but it is a cultural collusion. I believe it comes from white fear of discord. Many Anglo white women fear voices raised or profanity, many white men fear blame and shame for things that they can’t do anything about. So discussion that generates opposition is either railroaded by mocking, or loudtalking – anything to end it, for we have not studied skills to talk things through.

    Check out Terrence Real’s new book: The New Rules for Marriage – VERY good at showing how folks can do better by talking as if the relationship mattered, not just the issues.

  2. It’s not a conscious conspiracy, but it is a cultural collusion. I believe it comes from white fear of discord. Many Anglo white women fear voices raised or profanity, many white men fear blame and shame for things that they can’t do anything about. So discussion that generates opposition is either railroaded by mocking, or loudtalking – anything to end it, for we have not studied skills to talk things through.

    Check out Terrence Real’s new book: The New Rules for Marriage – VERY good at showing how folks can do better by talking as if the relationship mattered, not just the issues.

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