Of Bread and Circuses
Updated: Jan 9
We are increasingly tired of the circus-like nature that has infected our political and economic institutions. Our leaders need to grow up.
Last month, I joined the more than one billion people who watched the final match of the FIFA World Cup between Argentina and France. The contest lasted two extended periods over more than two hours of play before Argentina emerged victorious in a penalty shootout. Argentina superstar Lionel Messi, arguably the best football player in the history of the sport, was able to secure the last remaining championship trophy of his storied playing career. Following the game, footage of elated crowds that had filled the streets of Argentina’s cities was viewed by almost as many people who had watched the game itself. It’s hard to remember an outpouring of relief and joy following a sports contest as widespread as this one.
After the game, I laced up my own boots to play in a Sunday soccer game that has become a ritual for me. When I arrived at the field, I congratulated one of my teammates who is Argentinian. He smiled with appreciation. And then he paused. “You know,” he said, “my country is still very poor.” Here was a man who was able to soak in the pride of winning the World Cup and, at the same time, not forget that his country and its people remained mired in a set of political, economic, and social problems that no sports contest could cure.
I have reflected on that moment quite a bit over the last few weeks. The idea that a ruling class can use a public spectacle to distract the citizenry from general concerns isn’t a new one. The early second-century Roman poet Juvenal wrote: “Already long ago, from when we sold our vote to no man, the People have abdicated our duties; for the People who once upon a time handed out military command, high civil office, legions — everything, now restrains itself and anxiously hopes for just two things: bread and circuses.”
The bread and circuses of Juvenal’s time are still with us, albeit in a different flavor and form. The actors in the show are no longer hired gladiators or charioteers. They are the ruling class themselves who have assumed the central role of the circus itself – the ringmaster. We have a former President who continues to treat the Constitution like a children’s book, a Representative-elect who has admitted fabricating his entire resume, and a CEO who seems more interested in tweeting and playing corporate puppeteer than leading the extraordinary companies he has so admirably created.
My Argentinian friend’s comment perfectly captured the current sentiment. We are increasingly tired of the circus-like nature that has infected our political and economic institutions. Our leaders need to grow up. We want our CEOs and politicians to dream big, take risks, innovate, and lead. But this must not come at the expense of decency, maturity, and seriousness. There will always be a time and place for public spectacle and celebration. But we can and must demand more from those who are privileged to call themselves leaders.
There is a terrific long-form article in this weekend’s New York Times Magazine on Dr. Jim O’Connell, a Boston-based doctor who has devoted his entire career to caring for the homeless or “rough sleepers” as he calls them.
This post makes an important distinction between content moderation and content amplification, the latter being a much more important but under-used tool in addressing social media-driven polarization.
A quote I came across this week: “His thoughts inhabit a different plane from those of ordinary men; the simplest interpretation is to call him crazy.” Juliet Marillier