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‘Bread and circuses’: Musk, Zuckerberg and the art of distraction

September 2, 2023 at 1:08 pm

Mark Zuckerberg (L) and Elon Musk (R). [Photo by MANDEL NGAN,ALAIN JOCARD/AFP via Getty Images]

“Panem et circenses”, said the Romans – Bread and circuses.

This maxim served the Romans well. In times of crisis and whenever they needed a distraction from military defeats or political infighting at the highest levels, they simply entertained the masses.

Caroline Wazir wrote an article for The Atlantic in 2016, linking entertainment and the need for political validation in the Roman Empire.

“The Exotic Animal Traffickers of Ancient Rome” is a good summation of how thousands of rare animals – at least rare for the Romans – were transported to Rome to be butchered at the Colosseum.

The practice was used in the early years of the Roman Empire to win approval for ambitious emperors and, during the age of decadence, to distract from the failures of struggling caesars.

Ultimately, the entire exercise had little to do with entertainment for its sake and everything to do with distraction.

But the art of distraction is not wholly Roman. Ancient and modern, all governments, without exception, use entertainment to win validation, buy love and to distract.

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It is ironic that two US-based billionaires, Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg, are resorting to the same tactic – political entertainment – this time, in the form of an actual “cage match”.

The two technology oligarchs have occupied headlines for weeks and sparked a conversation that has roped in top officials and even governments.

The fight will be held in an “epic location”, said Musk on 11 August. Italy’s Minister of Culture and Education Gennaro Sangiuliano confirmed, though ruled out the Colosseum as the location for the – we are told – “much-anticipated” match.

Many are now involved in the discussion. Even so-called social media influencers are offering elaborate analyses and enthusiastically taking sides.

It is strange how the news of the “fight” has sidelined a more urgent discussion on the power of social media, its politicised and ideological censorships and the destructive role it plays in our increasingly polarised lives.

For years, Zuckerberg has been on the defensive, unable to answer legitimate questions about Facebook’s – now Meta’s – role in the US presidential elections, alleged foreign interventions, censoring foes and elevating friends.

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Musk, too, has been in the eye of the storm since he acquired Twitter last October. He has done much to rebrand the company, now X, and fend against accusations of allowing hate speech to resurface on the popular platform.

Regardless, these two men represent a much bigger problem. They are the one per cent of the one per cent that rule the US, in fact, the West. The polarisation they invite is, in actuality, a conflict among elites, not among the ordinary – people just like us.

We are told to ignore all of this because the “exotic animals” are coming to the Colosseum once more – bread and circuses.

The inequality gap in the US continues to grow. But it is getting even more complicated than the typical statistic of a tiny percentage owning many-fold more than their fair share of wealth.

Kasha Patel wrote in The Washington Post on 17 August that the ten per cent of wealthy Americans are: “Responsible for 40 per cent of the country’s greenhouse emissions.” This was the gist of a recent study by PLOS Climate.

An earlier study by the US Department of Commerce explained how inequality in the US is also geographic, as in a widening income gap between “richer places and poorer places”.

Despite talks about a flattening inflation rate, all indicators point out that inequality will continue.

In fact, there is much more to distract from these days than just income inequality.

The Russia-Ukraine war has invited much anxiety and direct harm into our lives. But it also exposed existing fault lines on a global scale.

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Those who barely survived last winter’s energy crisis due to unusually warm weather might not be as lucky this winter.

And those who managed to put food on the table, despite the food crisis, might not be as successful in the coming months now that the grain deal is no more.

One still hopes that these crises will bring out the best in us. Alas, there are those who are equally keen on using crises to sow the seeds of chaos in order to ensure those on top remain on top.

For that to happen, they need to be able to do as they please while the rest of us attend the global circus where Zuckerberg and Musk battle it out in an “epic place” while the US government’s “whistleblowers” declare that aliens, in fact, do exist.

Instead of confronting real crises, like racism, war, hunger and refugees, it is far easier to blame someone else – shadowy far-away figures who are almost impossible to identify, let alone defeat.

This is all happening with no self-introspection. Even those among Western leaders who dare suggest alternative understandings to global crises are shut out of the conversation, often humiliated publicly and even forced to apologise.

In the final analysis, the Musk vs. Zuckerberg fight does, in fact, matter, though not for anything related to two of the richest men in the world. It is relevant to us because it is intended to be our circus.

Now, we have two options: to develop the required awareness and collective consciousness that should be enough to help us restate our priorities – nationally and globally – or accept a mediocre existence of “panem et circenses”.

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The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.