Sunday, March 20, 2011

Keeping Canadians Passive With Bread and Circuses

I attended the Rally for Democracy yesterday in Kingston, and one of the organizers was Dianne Dowling, the driving force behind the Save the Prison Farms campaign. She mentioned a quote that she uses often when discussing Canada's eroding democracy. Paraphrased it speaks to a nation being pacified with "bread and circuses". Keep us fed and entertained and we will allow you to get away with anything.

Dowling was surprised to learn that the concept came from ancient Rome, and contributed to the fall of the Roman Empire.

This is also known as "escapism and distraction", social tools used "to keep the underprivileged poor people quiet". (1) In modern times, these tools can also be "employed by a governing body to hide inadequacies or divert attention from themes that can cause malcontent among the populace." 2)

This description fits us the best, because our nation is not being properly fed. But we are being entertained and Circus Maximus-ed into a stupor.

In October of 2009, Colin Horgan wrote a piece for the UK Guardian: Canada's frozen political waste. In it he discusses the unusual phenomenon that had taken hold in Canada, where "down is the new up". (3)

At a time when the Conservatives were playing fast and loose with our tax dollars for self-promotion, pork-barrelling, handing out big cardboard cheques, and pounding away at our democracy, the big news was that Stephen Harper had played piano at the National Arts Centre.

We were entertained and his poll numbers spiked. In Roman terms we were Circus Maximus-ed in the gluteus maximus.
Emperors expressed the wish that the "potentially unruly and dangerous city population" be "amused", also adding the idea that this would keep them "quiet". (2)
And when Harper should have been speaking at the UN, he was sipping coffee at Tim Hortons, and we smiled. He was one of us, or at least had successfully personified himself as one of us. Horgan concludes: "Harper's popularity might be on the rise, but it's not because of his piano playing or aw-shucks coffee shop patriotism. It's because he allows us to be apathetic. And the less we care, the better he'll look."

Renowned Canadian artist Mendelson Joe agrees: “I don’t blame Stephen Harper,” he says. “I loathe what he stands for – his only ambition is to rule – but I don’t blame him. I blame the people of Canada.” (4)

He spoke those words before the G-20 in Toronto, urging Canadians to protest against the Harper regime. We did and look where it got us. The message was clear. I will entertain you, but cross me and you're going down.

We would rather be entertained.

This is why he's gambling on the $100 million re-enactment of the War of 1812, keeping us amused with gladiators, in all their splendour. And if our veterans and seniors continue to suffer, our working poor struggle, and our children go to bed hungry, that's OK. The colourful uniforms and shining clash of rifles and bayonets will make it all go away.
The comradery of sitting amongst their peers, the historical stories that some of the spectacles told, and the opportunity to wrap oneself up in the glory of Rome, provided the ideal escape from issues of war, disease, political unrest that may have otherwise had a more detrimental affect on the psychology of the population. (2)
Rome fell in part because "the Empire became a dictatorship and the people were less involved in government."

Canadians couldn't be less involved in government as they are today; the apathy fuelled by the neoconservative goal of making Parliament so toxic, we tune out.

In one of the latest taxpayer funded self-promotion TV ads, Stephen Harper claims that Canada is walking tall, clearly a distraction. The fact is that Canada's reputation has tanked under this regime. We went from first to eighth place as the best country to live. From seventh to 25th in gender equality. From near the top to sixtieth place in peacekeeping. And even more alarming, from sixth to 24th place in infant mortality, out of 26 nations (5).

In a country with our wealth, our infants are dying at a faster rate than many poorer nations. We should be ashamed. And yet somehow we're not. We're being kept entertained.

The new border security perimeter and EU trade deals, if allowed to proceed, will mean that Canadians no longer own any of their country. Our water, healthcare and public services, will all be controlled by multi-national corporations. So why aren't we angry? Because we're being kept entertained.

I'm reminded of the Merovingian Dynasty, the once powerful rulers of the Frankish Empire. Toward the end, all decisions were made by others, but once a year, the long-haired king would be paraded before the people, and they rejoiced, unaware of the fact that the man had no power.

And once the Mayors of the Palace with the help of the Church gained complete control, the "long-haired" ruler had his head shaved and was locked away in a monastery.

I see Canadians rejoicing every July 1, singing 'O Canada' and waving our flags, unaware that the entire celebration is meaningless. A re-enactment of a bygone time. An amusement.

Because at the end of the day it won't matter whether we are now 'Harper'. There will be nothing left to fight for. Our country will no longer be ours. We are just that shaven head locked away in a monastery.

But now and then we'll be entertained.

1. The Hidden History Of The Roman Empire, Discovery

2. Escapism & Distraction As a Social Control During the Roman Empire, By Peter Benjamin Bisset, Ezine

3. Canada's frozen political waste: With Barack Obama, anything seems like it might be possible. With Canada's Stephen Harper, barely anything does, By Colin Horgan, UK Guardian, October 24, 2009

4. A master of the art calls on Canadians to protest, By Roy MacGregor, Globe and Mail, June 16, 2010

5. Inequality -- thy name is revolution, By: Frances Russell, Winnipeg Free Press, March 2, 2011


  1. Orwell warns we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley's vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history.

    As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.

    Huxley v. Orwell: comic strip where you can actually read everything

    Huxley v. Orwell: comic strip put to cool music ala video

    Foreward to Neil Postman's 1985 book, Amusing Ourselves to Death.

    We were keeping our eye on 1984. When the year came and the prophecy didn't, thoughtful Americans sang softly in praise of themselves. The roots of liberal democracy had held. Wherever else the terror had happened, we, at least, had not been visited by Orwellian nightmares.

    But we had forgotten that alongside Orwell's dark vision, there was another - slightly older, slightly less well known, equally chilling: Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. Contrary to common belief even among the educated, Huxley and Orwell did not prophesy the same thing. Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley's vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.

    What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny "failed to take into account man's almost infinite appetite for distractions". In 1984, Huxley added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.

    This book is about the possibility that Huxley, not Orwell, was right.

    -- Neil Postman
    Foreward to the book, Amusing Ourselves to Death


    No one cares.

    Three simple words that encompass the smug, assuming and proudly non-contrite response of Conservatives to a string of recently revealed abuses of power, the public purse and Parliament. Three simple words that are repeated by observers, media and analysts as though that justifies an end to the conversation. Three simple words that seem to pose an impenetrable shield between this government and the voter backlash that Opposition politicians keep praying will arise.

    Four senior counsellors to the prime minister — including two Senators — charged with offenses so serious they could go to prison? No one cares.

    The apparent manufacture of invoices to propel their illegal scheme forward? No one cares.

    Scott Reid Scott Reid is a former senior adviser and director of communications to Prime Minister Paul Martin who appears regularly in Point of Order on CBC's Power & Politics with Evan Solomon.
    A minister plainly lying to the House of Commons? No one cares.

    Not one but two rulings that suggest contempt of Parliament in a single day — for a total of three such rulings this year, a mark unmatched in history? No one cares.

  2. I have Huxley's book. I haven't read it in a while, but I may do that tonight. Thanks Nadine.

  3. We need to teach Civics in Elementary & Secondary Schools.
    Teach Rights & Responsibilities - how Parliament is supposed to function,the role of citizens,how to write a petition,how to appear before a Parliamentary Committee etc.