“The people are only anxious for two things: bread and circuses.” — Juvenal, Roman poet
When the Roman Empire began to collapse, elaborate public spectacle in the Colosseum became an overwhelming part of the citizen’s life. The Plebs took part in watching the grand gladiator matches, were enraptured by the spilling of blood and innards at the sword, and through these performances were fed grand delusions of Rome’s history. By these means, the emperors kept the people ignorant and entertained while their nation crumbled around them.
American life is saturated by elaborate spectacle such as Nero could never have dreamed. Our lives are filled with brainless tasks, repetitive routines, and mindless drudgery — then, after scraping the grimy bottom of the fiscal barrel, we retreat to our homes, where for hours we sit alone in front of screens. Slack-jawed and drooling we watch the television, channel-flipping from sights of brilliant violence, to maudlin ‘reality’ shows, to soap operas, to grand sporting events, to dressed-up heads spouting cliches, ridicule and lies. Or we are hooked to the Internet, scrolling through meme-plastered Facebook walls, playing video games, watching cat videos on Youtube, or glutting the eyes on an endless supply of pornography. Perhaps we are nursing a can of beer at our side, a glass of whiskey, or another illicit substance that will steep us deeper into sedation. In these virtual worlds, we participate in a massive and powerful community, and yet remain anonymous and isolated. Meanwhile, our bodies take root into the couch, vegetate, and rot away.
This is how modern man fills the appalling void of his inner life. This is the harlot who comforts our inescapable loneliness. The screen is the household altar before which we pray five times a day, whose images we believe in with proto-religious fervor, and whose slogans we babble at one another. This is what millions of years of biological evolution has led up to — the illusion of the progress of science and morality is shattered. This is it it, folks. The end of history.
I do not own a television. As a child, I rarely watched television. Only recently did I install internet in my home, albeit with painful reluctance and consideration. My dwelling is horded by books, artwork and memorabilia. People ask me what I do with my life. I tell them I read and write, and then just try to survive. Even while I wrote this column, I trailed away multiple times to surf the internet. Mine is a constant battle against humanity’s infinite capacity for distractions.
There is a church down my street. I have not attended in nearly a year. A Sunday service is the furthest most humans will reach out for a supreme meaning, grant it a shallow one. Two hours of hymns and mantras, a platitude from the pulpit, topped off with coffee and donuts, and we fashion ourselves the harbingers of humanity’s redemption. Another spectacle. Another meaningless distraction.
If it is not a god, then it is a lover we seek. Again, our virtual realm of screens betrays us. We desire only the longest of legs, the flashiest of cars, or the smoothest of talkers. Perpetual flattery, endless mind-altering lust. We are not content with mere compatibility. So we suffer alone, pleasuring ourselves in the dark.
Through the rest of the week, human existence is reduced to a simple pattern — episodes of trivial toil and aggravations, followed by pursuits of diversions. From birth until death, we act upon and are acted upon by unconscious forces. Those brave few who have surfaced from the depths are treading water, crying out for rescue from a litany of unknowable saviors. Only the stars and the wind can hear them.
Ray Bradbury, a science fiction writer, feared a world that would ban books and burn them. I fear a world where no books are banned, because nobody wants to read them. George Orwell, another writer, feared a world that would control everything people think. I fear a world that does not need to control thought, because nobody thinks at all.
In a world where an internet video about baking cheesy bread will receive 10 million views, while a video of Bernie Sanders explaining how the corporate state is dismantling our liberties receives barely 1 million views, you know there is something wrong. You know the end is near. It is not a matter of if. But when.