The expression "bread and circuses" captures a certain cynical political view that the masses can be kept happy with fast food (think Cartman's "Cheesy Poofs" on South Park) and faster entertainment (NASCAR races, NFL games, and the like). In the Roman Empire, it was bread and chariot races and gladiatorial games that filled the belly and distracted the mind, allowing emperors to rule as they saw fit.
There's truth to the view that people can be kept tractable as long as you fill their bellies and give them violent spectacles to fill their free time. Heck, Americans are meekly compliant even when their government invades their privacy and spies upon them. But there's a deeper, more ominous, sense to bread and circuses that is rarely mentioned in American discourse. It was pointed out to me by Amy Scanlon.
In her words:
Basically ancient Rome was a society that completely revolved around war, and where compassion was considered a vice rather than a virtue... [The] Romans saw gladiatorial contests not as a form of decadence but as a cure for decadence. And decadence to the Romans had little to do with sexual behavior or lack of a decent work ethic, but a lack of military-style honor and soldierly virtues. To a Roman compassion was a detestable vice, which was considered both decadent and feminine. Watching people and animals slaughtered brutally [in the arena] was seen as a way to keep the civilian population from this 'weakness' because they didn't see combat...
Scanlon then provocatively asks, "Could our society be sliding towards those Roman attitudes in a bizarre sort of way?"
I often think that America suffers from an empathy gap. We are simply not encouraged to put ourselves in the place of others. For example, how many Americans fancy the idea of a foreign power operating drones in our sovereign skies, launching missiles at gun-toting Americans suspected by this foreign power of being "militants"? Yet we operate drones in places like Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen, killing suspected militants with total impunity. Even when innocent women and children are killed, our emperors and our media don't encourage us to have compassion for them. We are basically told to think of them as collateral damage, regrettable, perhaps, but otherwise inconsequential.
Certainly, our military in the last two decades has put new stress on American troops as "warriors" and "warfighters," a view more consistent with the hardened professionals of the Roman Empire than with the citizen-soldiers of the Roman Republic. Without thinking too much about it, we've come to see our troops as an imperial guard, ever active on the ramparts of our empire. War, meanwhile, is seen not as a last course of defense but as a first course to preempt the evil designs of the many hidden enemies of America. Our troops, therefore, are our protectors, our heroes, the defenders of America, even though that "defense" treats the entire globe as a potential killing field.
Scanlon's view of the Roman use of bread and circuses -- as a way to kill compassion to ensure the brutalization of Roman civilians and thus their compliance (or at least their complacency) vis-à-vis Imperial expansion and domestic policing -- is powerful and sobering.
At the same time, the Obama administration is increasingly couching violent military intervention in humanitarian terms. Deploying troops and tipping wars in our favor is done in the name of defeating petty tyrants (e.g. Khadafy in Libya; Is Assad of Syria next?). Think of it as our latest expression of "compassion."
All things considered, perhaps our new national motto should be: When in America, do as the Roman Empire would do. Eat to your fill of food and violence, cheer on the warfighters, and dismiss expressions of doubt or dismay about military interventions and drone killings as "feminine" and "weak."
At least we can applaud ourselves that we no longer torture and kill animals in the arena like the Romans did. See how civilized we've become?