Bread and circuses

The Roman satirist Juvenal lamented the fact that his fellow citizens had given up being politically engaged and were happy to sell their votes to politicians in exchange for free food and entertainment; ‘bread and circuses’. Let’s hope that 2000 years later we’ve not become even cheaper, settling for just the circuses.

Preparations for the Diamond Jubilee and Olympics are certainly, from some perspectives, beginning to look rather crass and inappropriate, given the circumstances faced by many people.

Despite the organisers’ insistence that the events are relevant to the entire nation, they are overwhelmingly concentrated in London. Given the fact that many of the capital’s families are being forced to leave their homes due to benefit changes, London can no longer claim to be an inclusive city: the poor cannot live there. So as families pack up their belongings and prepare to leave homes they can no longer afford, lavish and expensive partying must only serve to underline their misfortune.

It’s always good for communities to get together, it’s great that many people will enjoy street parties: but as Jill Segger has pointed out lavish official banquets are difficult to justify when food banks are struggling to cope with the demand from people who can’t afford to feed themselves. And it’s hard to celebrate one elderly lady surviving 60 years of wealth and privilege, when many of her contemporaries are unable to get the care they need to maintain even their basic dignity.

The Diamond Jubilee is being presented as a politically neutral event, with the BBC apparently becoming a PR machine for Buckingham Palace. But this leaves a sizeable minority of people who would like to be able to elect their head of state marginalised and excluded. The lack of space for alternative views does not reflect well on our democracy.

The Olympics have traditionally represented some of the highest ideals of humanity, with nations coming together in peace to celebrate dedication and effort. But they have been hijacked by commercialism, with sponsors like BP and McDonalds insisting on a rigorous enforcement of their expensively bought rights. This has led to the ludicrous situation where athletes are banned from disclosing what cereal they had for breakfast if it’s not produced by an official sponsor, and the British Sugarcraft Guild being told members cannot ice cakes with Olympic rings or logos.

It would be laughable if it wasn’t so deadly serious: in 2006 a special Act of Parliament was passed which made breaches of the trademark and copyright rules surrounding the London Olympics no longer merely a civil offence, but a criminal one.

It isn't just the Jubilee that is closely aligned with the armed forces. the militarisation of the Olympics is in danger of making it seem more like an overt display of wealth and power than a celebration of humanity. Simon Jenkins has called it, ‘a festival of the global security industry, with a running and jumping contest as a sideshow.’

And as half a million sick and disabled people lose their modest support, it seems particularly tasteless that the firm responsible for depriving them of their benefits, Atos, is sponsoring the Paralympics, particularly now that GPs have called for the assessments they carry out to be scrapped, ‘to prevent harming the weakest and most vulnerable in society’.

In a double-dip recession, with the European economy teetering on the brink, it’s understandable that people are desperate for something to feel good about. It’s just a pity that what they are being asked to feel good about in the UK this summer are celebrations of wealth, privilege, and an exhibition of the continuing power of the one per cent.

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© Bernadette Meaden has written about religious, political and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is a regular contributor to Ekklesia.

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