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Bread and circuses

03/09/04 12:00AM By Barrie Dunsmore
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(Host) Several recent news stories have reminded commentary Barrie Dunsmore of one of the ways ancient Roman emporers successfully controlled public opinion.


(Dunsmore) A couple of thousand years ago the Roman social commentator Juvenal lamented his fellow citizen's loss of interest in the affairs of their empire. As he put it, "The people that once bestowed commands, consulships, legions and all else, now concerns itself no more -- and longs eagerly for just two things: bread and circuses." Throughout the centuries, the Roman emperors' practice of providing "bread and circuses" as a means of diverting the attention of the masses from the real issues of the day has had many imitators.

I am reminded of that strategy by recent events in our own times, times that some are now calling the age of American Empire. One such incident involved the country's number one circus, the Super Bowl. From hysterical media reaction to instant Congressional hearings, one might have concluded that the event in question was a mortal threat to the very fabric of our society. Michael Powell, son of Colin and head of the Federal Communications Commission, played lion-tamer, cracking his whip at the broadcasters and threatening huge fines for any future breaches of public decency. And for what-- one almost but not quite bare breast? Never mind that on any given cable or satellite service any time of the day or night, X-rated programs proliferate.

As I watched Mr. Powell in action, I found myself thinking...this is the same FCC Commissioner, acting on behalf of President Bush, who has behaved like the broadcast industry's lapdog. Under Powell's new regulations, greater control of the public airwaves is surrendered to the likes of Viacom, Fox and Disney. Yet, on the essentially meaningless issue of Ms. Jackson's breast, he would pretend to be tough. Interesting diversion.

Then there is the question of steroid use in professional sport. While the environment received not a single mention in President Bush's State of the Union speech, the attention he gave to drugs in sport grabbed banner headlines. Attorney General Ashcroft then personally announced indictments of several people involved in a California lab suspected of producing steroids. Now it seems that Federal prosecutors have leaked to the media, the names of several prominent baseball players allegedly using steroids from that lab.

As a lifetime baseball fan, I am personally very concerned about steroid use by big-name home-run hitters. I think it seriously damages the integrity of the game. But do we really need the Federal Government insinuating itself into this problem? And to what end? Could it be that by such high profile involvement in policing our most treasured circus, the Feds are actually trying to divert our attention from the really serious problems the country is facing at home and abroad?

Finally, there is the White House support for a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage. Looks to me like still another circus.

This is Barrie Dunsmore.

Barrie Dunsmore is a veteran diplomatic and foreign correspondent for ABC News, now living in Charlotte.
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