Bread and Circuses?

  A number of events  of this summer have cast in stark relief the continued unraveling of civil society in the United States. These events raise a concern as to whether the majority of American citizens suffer from a kind of pervasive Attention Deficit Disorder that has rendered many of us unable to understand the implications of what we are seeing before our very eyes.


    While large parts of the country are consumed by wild fires, drought  and excessive heat, timid politicians on both sides of the aisle, fearful of offending corporate  interests and incurring the wrath of their Super PACS, continue to blithely ignore the unmistakable signs of global warming. As millions of acres of land in the States of Oklahoma, New Mexico and Colorado, to cite just three examples, have been consumed, most of their elected officials have insisted upon further reductions in state spending, including fire fighting, and decried federal spending while simultaneously demanding additional federal aide to help them combat the effects of a phenomenon that they continue to deny.          

    Within the past two weeks, the country has witnessed horrific two incidents involving the use of semi-automatic guns. After obligatory expressions of condolences from elected officials, and a moment of silence observed by the Congress in the wake of the Aurora tragedy, it is still virtually impossible to find any elected politician, whether Democrat or Republican, who will dare to suggest publicly - for fear of antagonizing the NRA and the gun-manufacturers' lobby -that there is something fundamentally deranged about a culture in which any virtually lunatic or white supremacist can purchase unlimited numbers of guns and thousands of rounds of ammunition anonymously at unregulated gun shows or over the internet. Sadly, the current incumbent at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, from whom we expect more, as well as the dauphin-in-waiting, from whom we expect nothing, have equally failed the test of leadership in refusing to address the need for a vigorous response to this unending mayhem.

    This collective insanity has been blessed by the imprimatur of the country's highest court. In District of Columbia v. Heller, 128 S. Ct. 2783 (2008), five linguistically-challenged, right-wing jurists, who enjoy life-tenure for good behavior, cavalierly disregarded the principle of stare decisis and set aside what had heretofore been the settled Second Amendment jurisprudence. In overturning United States v. Miller, 307 U.S. 174 (1939), Justice Scalia claimed to divine some constitutional right on the part of individuals to bear arms, and  piously intoned, "We are aware of the problem of handgun violence in this country, but the enshrinement of constitutional rights necessarily takes certain policy choices off the table."    

    A third ominous example involves the expenditure of hundreds of millions of dollars in states as varied as Massachusetts, Missouri, Kansas, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Michigan, among many others, where SuperPACs are determined, through the use of electronic media and negative ads, to control the election results and thus gain complete control of the machinery of government. The phenomenon was again sanctioned by the same five result-oriented jurists on the Supreme Courts who comprised the one-vote majority in the Heller case. In Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, 558 U. S. ____, 30 S. Ct, 876 (2010), these ideologues held that corporations were people within the meaning of the 14th Amendment and that, as such, expenditures of money by them to influence the outcomes of  political  elections were protected speech under the First Amendment.

    The journalist Eric Schlosser has predicted that,"The history of the twentieth century was dominated by the struggle against totalitarian systems of state power. The twenty-first will no doubt be marked by a struggle to curtail excessive corporate power." In a similar vein, Harvard political philosopher John Rawls warned that, "In constant pursuit of money to finance campaigns, the political system is simply unable to function. Its deliberative powers are paralyzed."

    Their concerns were recently echoed by U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders (VT) who in public comments observed that, "So far this year, 26 billionaires have donated more than $61 million to super PACs, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. And, that's only what has been publicly disclosed. This $61 million does not include about $100 million that Sheldon Adelson has said that he is willing to spend to defeat President Obama; or the $400 million that the Koch brothers have pledged to spend during the 2012 election season. These 26 billionaires have a combined net worth of $146 billion, which is more than the bottom 42.5 percent of American households (equal to nearly 50 million families in the United States.)"  Sanders added, "What the Supreme Court did in Citizens United is to say to these same billionaires and the corporations they control: 'You own and control the economy, you own Wall Street, you own the coal companies, you own the oil companies. Now, for a very small percentage of your wealth, we're going to give you the opportunity to own the United States government."    

      The response of ordinary citizens to these appalling developments is profoundly disheartening. In the second century A.D., the Roman poet Juvenal lamented the demise of the Roman Republic after it was corrupted into an oligarchy, largely, he believed, because of the indifference of its citizens: "Already long ago, from when we sold our vote to no man, the People have abdicated our duties; for the People who once upon a time handed out military command, high civil office, legions -- everything, now restrains itself and anxiously hopes for just two things: bread and circuses."(Juvenal, Satire 10.77-81)
      Will history be allowed to repeat itself? Have too many Americans opted to become merely passive spectators, content to surrender our rights and eschew our civic responsibilities, in return for an endless menu of NASCAR and 24 hour reruns of the Kardashians on cable television?    

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