Bread and Circuses Awareness Week

It’s not often I agree with the Daily Mail (No, no, hear me out – it’s true!). This may come as a shock to you, but I do not share the paper’s er… particular politics. (No, really: I’ve had letters). But last week I had to agree with the Mail. It came as a nasty shock and I may write and complain, but when they compared our society to ancient Rome, I was shouting ‘here-here!’

TV section columnist Jill Parkin, in an excellent piece called Blood sport television – or why I can no longer watch the X Factor, expressed what I have thought for some time about shows like Simon Cowell’s singing contest: their primary appeal lies in laughing at the weak, the stupid, the talentless and the hopelessly naïve, specially chosen for our cruel amusement. It has nothing to do with music, talent or competition. It’s about judges crushing the fragile spirits of fat girls who can’t sing. About we, the smug middle-class viewers, too smart to put ourselves in humiliation’s way, watching with a mixture of one part pity and two parts pleasure as people we consider inferior are denuded of their dreams and self-deceptions.

Parkin compared it to throwing Christians to the lions in the Roman arena, a comparison of which Judge Alan Berg, who last week called the Jeremy Kyle Show ‘a form of human bear-baiting’, would no doubt have approved.  As in the Roman empire, where murder outside of an entertainment context was abhorrent, so today we denounce happy-slapping on mobile phones and bullying videos on YouTube, but if it has a budget, if it brings in advertising, if it makes us laugh… well then it’s just a bit of fun.

X-Factor and related television programmes that thrive on the thrill of public humiliation (and I count here the carefully calculated mental breakdowns of Big Brother; the ritualistic insults at the beginning of every Your House Is Ugly, You Dress Like A Pig And You’re Too Fat To Love programme – interestingly called ‘improvement’ shows; and every kitchen-sink talk-show involving a daytime audience booing) are thoroughly Roman. And in response, our society has also become one that has traded high-minded interests for what the Roman poet Juvenal called ‘bread and circuses’. Keep us supplied with cheap, low-quality food and keep us entertained and we are happy as the proverbial pigs. So happy, in fact, that we will cede control of our lives, our freedoms and our society to rapacious, profit-hungry corporations, the increasingly totalitarian governments in their pockets and the anarchy of general moral decline founded on the erosion of all that is true and good.

Yup, even if it is just one article in the TV section, I’ve been reading the Mail for too long. But look around. Last week we learned that all our phonecalls would now be monitored by the government. Our sudden interest in Burma after years of oppression there that stirred not even the desire to find it on a map (as opposed to Zimbabwe, where white farmers’ plight gave us a reason to care) and our continuing unconcern over the De Menezes case last week also highlighted how selective our non-circus concerns have become . The first week in October is temporal home to no less than 34 special awareness days, weeks and months, from which we may or may not pick and choose a few to care about (I’m thinking British Cheese week — like any Christian, I love Cheeses). And I was unaware of every one of them. So I admit it is silly and irresponsible to blame all our society’s accelerating descent into a hellish Rome or Babylon on the Daily Mail. Obviously it’s really Simon Cowell’s fault.



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