Panem et Circenses, and the failure of Critical thought

The Roman satirical poet Juvenal, around 100 AD, is reputed to have come up with the term panem et circenses, referring to the situation where a populace (in this case, Roman) no longer cares for its historical birthright of political involvement. Politicians took the opportunity to only aim for public appeasement in order to rise to power, knowing full well that they would not be held in check if ‘bread and circus’ are supplied. Indeed, the metaphor of Panem – an elite, dystopian society build on collective slavery shown in The Hunger Games series was named as such precisely with this saying in mind.

Twenty centuries later, we see this cynical situation being manifested on both the world and local stage. Democratic countries such as the US, often held as THE democratic country to look to, elected a reality TV star (and utter fool) such as Donald Trump – a walking and talking manifestation of narcissistic personality disorder writ large. Far-right nationalists, who offer us a diminished, impoverished and terrifying view of the world defined by paranoia and extreme forms of capitalism, are again on the rise (Austria is the latest victim). Worldwide, we see governments failing miserably to take care of the common good, and offering distractions instead – bread and circus – Panem et Circenses.

One need not look far from our shores. Last year, billboards trying to point out the disgrace of the Panama Papers scandal that was supposed to shake our island were cheerfully ignored by many, who looked at the accompanying billboards citing the GDP figures our country achieved. It seems indeed our population is only interested in filling our pockets – one needs only look around to see the signs of disdain towards the common good in favour of wealth, as fast as possible. At any cost.

It is easy to become cynical and fatalistic in this situation. Yet, we only have ourselves to blame for creating it. Those who so often scoff and vent their rage on Facebook, and then happily distract themselves without actually participating in the democratic problem (to the relief of politicians) are a part of the problem. Those who support the party line and, frankly, bleat like sheep with blue or red credos without even wanting to have their own opinion – they too, are part of the problem. Our politicians know this, and exploit it for their benefit. And, as we see every day – for the benefit of their friends and the elite.

We recently suffered a nasty shock that came in the form of Daphne Caruana Galizia’s brutal murder. Of course, the platitudes we expected from our government came in, but it was soon politicized by the opposition, which is weak and ineffective by any scale. Many people participated in the public protests, which inevitably drew complaints of it being highjacked by the opposition. In the meantime, Labour enthusiasts attempt to describe this as either ‘yet another murder’ to an attempt by the opposition to destroy the country’s reputation.

Blue and Red. Two colours that many are increasingly looking upon in disgust.
Blue and Red. Colours that represent the failure of governance thanks to amoral familism – Malta’s true political state.
Blue and Red. Two colours of political partisans that know their true enemy – critical thought – is easily kept in check in the Maltese people. After all, our education encouraged us to memorise and bleat, not to think freely.

One other point – what reputation of Malta are we talking about? What is being dragged in the mud by international media? I am baffled by this reaction by many in Malta. Are we talking about Malta’s reputation of being a centre for organised crime, which is hidden from most of us? Or about having the reputation of incompetence of our institutions (having 5 car bombs that rocked the country before October – none of which were solved)? The U ija ħallina naħdmu mantra that feeds and toxifies our country? The ongoing onslaught on our heritage and the distinguishing elements in our country as our failing institutions strive to destroy what’s left of our islands in the name of economic growth?

How much longer are we going to sit and stare while our country fades into its twilight? Our politicians – of all shades and colours, have failed us. We can only bring about change if as a people we decide to actively PARTICIPATE in our democracy. Sitting down and blaming others for failure is NOT an option. Likewise, pretending that all that is expected of us as a democratic people is voting – and that’s it – is NOT a solution. Every mature democracy demands transparency, independent institutions and governments constantly in check – after all, it is our taxes that they are using.

Are you worried?

Then, for God’s sake, stop being inactive. Start speaking out. Demand change. Stop letting political parties think for you. Think critically – and think for the common good. Individualism is what is destroying us as a nation, and as a civilization. The problems of our time can be solved – but only if we stop expecting others to work for us.

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.
Margaret Mead

Of course, if it is bread and circuses that you want, then by all means, enjoy it. But please let the rest of us work. We have much to do, and trolling us isn’t going to help anyone, least of all yourself. You have much to do, and much in the way of blinkered belief to look to.

Also, by all means enjoy the distractions that Panem has to offer. We will try our best not to make it happen.

John Paul is an environmental health specialist with a medical background who holds the environment at heart. He is currently employed within the NGO sector and actively seeks to promote sustainable development while also addressing the disharmony between human civilization and the Earth.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *