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British Bread and Circuses

In the 1980’s my father wrote extensively of the distribution of mental resources in the West, comparing its patterns with those of the Soviet model. In my own turn I took up the subject in several newspaper articles, as well as a book, in the 1990’s. To my mind, frankly, it remains the question of questions and the conundrum of conundrums.

Who works for lucre and who for glory? Who, in a given culture, bakes cinnamon rolls and who gives orders? What sort of person sells door to door and what sort designs intercontinental ballistic missiles? Why do bumbling fools rise to the top under one system and are sent to log wood somewhere north of Turukhansk under another? We are somewhere between sociology and common sense here, between history book and personal experience, between business management and luck of the draw, yet it is no exaggeration that our civilization’s survival as the freest of political organisms existing in the world today depends on the accuracy and depth of the answers.

Broadly put, the West is a civilization, from the Latin word meaning city. Its global competitor, for most of the twentieth century and just as starkly now in the twenty-first, is a militarization, from the Latin word – a cognate of Sanskrit melah, assembly, and Greek homilos, crowd – meaning encampment.

Existence in the city means peaceful pursuit of pleasure, with the entire social edifice having been configured in such a way as to make that pursuit synonymous with life, and if the citizen is informed, educated, and entertained in the process, his pleasure is thought to have been enhanced. Existence in the encampment means obedience to one’s superiors, since in wars of conquest all impulse to action must proceed from the top and travel down a continuous chain of command – in contrast to defensive wars, where that impulse, metaphorically speaking, originates with a common soldier armed with a pair of binoculars who espies the invader crossing the bridge. The denizen of the encampment is to be informed, educated, and entertained only to the extent it will improve his ability to carry out orders.

"To inform, educate and entertain" is the stated purpose of the British Broadcasting Corporation, the nearly century-old BBC. Here we arrive at the news component of the present post, as it was noted last week that among 23,000 staff of the institution, which operates under Royal Charter and hence enjoys a quasi-government status, 91 executives are paid salaries higher than the prime minister of the United Kingdom.

Of these 91, eleven little Caesars are paid twice what the prime minister makes. Thus a Merseyside lad called Paul Hollywood – to choose an example onomatologically, I as often do – who is by profession a baker and hosts a TV program called “The Great British Bake Off,” receives an annual salary of £300,000, as compared with David Cameron’s £142,500.

I have nothing but admiration for the business acumen of the author of 100 Great Breads. Yet a sense of cosmic doom comes upon me at the thought that the man charged with the survival of a civilisation is less valued by that civilization than a purveyor of bread and circuses.

Andrei Navrozov

Andrei Navrozov, born in Moscow, lives in Palermo and is European editor for Chronicles.  The former publisher of the Yale Lit, he is a widely published author and translator.  His Italian Carousel: Scenes of Internal Exile was published by Peter Owen Publishers.

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