Panem et circenses (Latin for bread and circuses) was a term coined by the Roman poet and satirist, Juvenal, in the first century (C.E.) as a metaphor for the efforts by Roman politicians to appease discontent and essentially distract citizens from the present woes which resulted in their discontent in the first place.
It was not an uncommon practice around the turn of the millennium for Roman officials to give out free wheat to citizens and put on a spectacle to distract the populous and gain political power:
“… 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.”
Is there any other word that can be used to describe the George Zimmerman trial and other trials that have gained national attention over the years than circuses?
It’s all people see on cable news stations like CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC, even in a time of great economic uncertainty and concerns over the preservation of civil liberties. Is it not the job of the media to keep people informed and to serve the public good by holding the government accountable for its actions — or inaction?
How many Americans know that the NSA is currently exempt from Freedom of Information Act requirements? How many people know the full impact not preventing the federal subsidized student loan rate from doubling will have? And, further consequences if members of Congress don’t work together to lower them again? How many people know how many voters in states across America are disenfranchised and marginalized because of the current electoral systems in those states?
Americans are not getting the information they need, which raises the question: Who is holding the government and elected officials accountable? The short answer: no one.
The Zimmerman trial can certainly be entertaining to watch as the drama of the proceedings unfold. As HBO’s The Newsroom put is so accurately, the Casey Anthony trial was nothing more than “tragedy porn” for the masses. It is interesting when one thinks about it because the Casey Anthony trial went on during the major debt ceiling debate in Washington and the George Zimmerman trial is going on during a time when concerns over privacy and civil liberties are a hot topic.
These nationally-covered murder trials are a distraction and while Congress has its lowest approval ratings in modern U.S. history, there are very few who are actively working to hold officials in the federal government accountable.
It would be easy to blame only mainstream media sources for this. But, things are rarely so simple.
If the media is not holding the government accountable by providing the people with information they need, then it is up to the people to hold the media accountable. Many are content, however, to just watch the ongoing drama of a high profile murder case and it doesn’t take long before people just want to know where the bread is.