Bread and Circuses

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As long as ancient Rome was a city state, its government worked, but as the Empire grew, the influence of its citizens crumbled. To prevent them revolting, the emperors made sure of providing free wheat to the poor, impressive circus performances for everyone and an ocean of celebratory and holy days throughout the year, so nobody cared about politics. "Bread and circuses," as the satirist Juvenal wrote around the year 100.

In the middle of the 19th century, the kings of Europe were fearful of riots and revolution more than anything else. In Denmark, an enterprising project promoter by the name of Georg Carstensen got an idea for an amusement park and, when in 1842 he sought King Christian VIII's permission to establish his "Tivoli Gardens", it happened with the famous words: "When the people are having fun, they forget about politics." That was just what the king wanted to hear! However, Denmark got both the amusement park and democracy - from the same king.

There is a direct line from the Romans through the Copenhagen Tivoli to modern entertainment and media, especially the commercial media. There is in fact a whole genre which, in the TV industry, goes under the title "tittytainment". Characteristic of the genre is that it goes after the absolute lowest common denominator and doesn't have a shadow of artistic, cultural or substantive intention, other than to entertain and attract as large an audience as possible - for the sake of the advertising revenue. Moreover, it has no great sensitivity in relation to abusing or exhibiting the people involved.

Is this then a threat to democracy? Yes, it is, because it is exploiting people and making them a means to something else, namely, other people's entertainment. Furthermore, an erosion of our educational ideal is an erosion of ourselves. The shallowest programmes make it a socially acceptable norm to be ignorant and stupid. Stupidity is one of the greatest threats to democracy, amongst other things because there are always intelligent people who want to exploit others' ignorance to their own advantage.

There is nothing wrong with nonsense, pop and entertainment, and of course there should be time to enjoy ourselves and have fun without having to think too much. Countries where entertainment is not allowed - for example, on religious grounds - are not democratic either. But when the front pages of newspapers are decorated with amateurs who have won a singing competition on TV, and people can't be bothered to be interested in anything other than nonsense and pop, it's nonsense and pop we get and then we forget the things that make democracy work.


Next chapter: Superficial and Shallow Media