Maximus: Marcus Aurelius had a dream that was Rome, Proximo.  That is not it.  That is not it!

Proximo: Marcus Aurelius is dead, Maximus.  We mortals are but shadows and dust.  Shadows and dust, Maximus!

—from Ridley Scott’s Gladiator

Every time I watch the above scene from Gladiator, that powerful movie about the decadence of Roman imperial government, the lamentation of Maximus for the unfulfilled promise of Rome and for the long-defunct republic turns my thoughts to the health of my own country.  Like the film’s Marcus Aurelius, our ancestors also had a dream, a vision for America, but what we have today, as Maximus says, “is not it.”  This America, which Fitzgerald’s Nick Carraway referenced as “the last and greatest of all human dreams,” seems moribund, or even dead and buried, and Proximo’s “shadows and dust” might well serve as her epitaph.

More and more, this difference between the American dream in which we once believed and the reality of America in this year 2014 strikes me as a vast, unbridgeable chasm.  On those days when the news headlines prove particularly daunting, when the lashes of yet another public scandal drive optimism into the dark, cold dungeons of the heart, this chasm often leaves me in despair over what remains of my country.

A recent example of such flagitious conduct involves both our federal government and the media.  Disclosures from various sources reveal that the Internal Revenue Service has investigated and in some cases intimidated certain political adversaries of President Barack Obama.  Despite these unlawful intrusions, the American press, once considered a watchdog in the political realm, has only reluctantly undertaken any serious investigation of the charges.  Had a similar accusation been leveled against the previous president, a Republican, I have no doubt but that we would see the press in full attack, baying for special prosecutors and calling for impeachment.  This transition from watchdog to lapdog should sicken all who value the Fourth Estate as a guardian of freedom.

What troubles me, and what I suspect troubles all Americans who have any notion of contemporary affairs, is the horrible sensation that we are sliding into a government and a way of life that run counter to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”  We appear in grave danger of losing forever those peculiar qualities that have distinguished the United States from other countries around the globe.

Hindering our comprehension of this danger is our abuse of language.  To help clarify my attitude regarding my country and American exceptionalism, I turned to several dictionaries.  The recurring words of definition for country are a “specific geographic location,” “common laws, customs, and government,” and “community.”

Geographically identifying America as a country should be easy enough.  This is an elementary school fact: Canada, Mexico, and the Atlantic and Pacific oceans form the borders of the continental United States, with Alaska and Hawaii standing outside those boundaries.  Yet how valid is this perception?  We are the only country in which there is debate about whether we should have borders at all.  For decades millions of Mexicans and other people from points south have crossed those borders to live and work illegally in the United States.  Confronted with such an invasion, especially in the face of domestic terror attacks, most nations would have closed their borders and regulated immigration.  Whether through genuine goodwill or for the more perverse reasons of cheap labor and Democratic votes, we still lack control of our borders.  As a result, people whose loyalties lie more with Mexico than with the country in which they reside inhabit large parts of California and the American Southwest.  If this trend continues unabated, even the casual observer must wonder whether some of this region will remain, even as a pretense, a part of the United States.

Such disparate loyalties have narrowed my own sense of country.  I love my state of North Carolina and consider it my native land, but California is another case altogether.  In addition to its geographic distance, the Golden State, with its swarm of illegal immigrants, exerts little hold on my affections.  When I resided in San Diego for a year in the mid-1970’s, I felt as if I was living in a country I knew as America, but the demographics since that time have changed dramatically.  Spanish vies with English for supremacy in the southern half of the state, members of La Raza routinely promise that the state will one day belong again to Mexico, and Cinco de Mayo has for many inhabitants replaced the Fourth of July as a celebration of independence.

Much closer to home in terms of my alienation is Washington, D.C.  For most Americans, any mention of our nation’s capital summons to mind famous landmarks: the Capitol, the White House, the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials, the monuments and museums surrounding the Mall.  When I consider D.C., however, I imagine the scores of office buildings filled with federal employees and computers.  Beyond those buildings and bureaucrats I see in my mind’s eye a city encircled by some of the wealthiest neighborhoods in the nation, neighborhoods populated by men and women who have raked in their bucks not through the creation of wealth or through honest labor but through the machinations of a federal government.  So perceived, the city of Washington draws no more of my loyalty than does Berlin or Beijing.

Likewise, the national laws and administration of our federal government leave me as cold as the Potomac in February.  Why is this government mucking around with abortion, education, welfare, and healthcare?  By virtue of their small size, the states are better equipped to regulate, if regulation is necessary, the wants and needs of their citizenry.  Why should a bloated bureaucracy that has failed in so many areas—think of the post office, the federally mandated educational guidelines, foreign aid, the waste of taxpayer dollars in nearly every federal enterprise—be regarded as superior to state governments, which are much more closely in touch with the people they govern?  Why do we allow a central government such power?  And why should I feel any loyalty to such a leviathan, a monster most of us fear and dislike?

And community?  With the possible exception of the late 1850’s, when America stood on the brink of civil war, was there ever a time in our nation’s history when Americans felt so divided from one another?  In spite of—or, perhaps, because of—the enormous social and legal changes of the last 50 years, an unprecedented acrimony exists among Americans.  Liberals and conservatives engage in vicious verbal battles.  Our present government encourages class warfare, goading those on welfare to demand even larger benefits.  Various racial groups continue to fight among themselves, urged on by vote-seeking politicians who can benefit from such fractious divisions.  A breakdown in social customs—a recent federal proclamation will allow 14-year-old girls to use abortifacients without parental permission, thereby further undercutting the power of the family vis-à-vis the state—causes dissension in families, embitters the relations between men and women, and overturns traditional views of sex and marriage.

The major cause of these divisions, and the cause of my own sense that America has grown into something unlovable, derives from three sources: the policies and pronouncements of the federal government, the slanted political views and constant carping of the American mainstream media, and the covert dislike of many on the left for our country.

Consider racism.  In the last six decades we have advanced from a segregated society to one in which opportunity for all has blossomed.  In the military, in our schools and colleges, in the job market—in all such endeavors we see a commingling of races that would have been unthinkable before World War II.  The fact that we have a black president confirms this change.  Yet rather than allowing people to regard themselves as human beings and not as mere creatures with a certain skin pigmentation, the government, the media, and the left continue to needle Americans about race.  Through these antics the government and the media actually do more to roil the waters of racism than do the Ku Klux Klan or the New Black Panther Party.

(An aside: Imagine, if you will, a national moratorium on the issue of race at this moment in history.  Imagine if both the government and the media were forbidden to mention race, to jack up incidents into racial explosions, to agitate on behalf of any race.  Eliminate the inflammatory rhetoric, and the rest of us might actually approach one another as neighbors.)

Even with the fracturing of all these terms denoting country, we might still claim to love America not as a land or a community but as an “idea.”  Though the dictionaries do not include an idea as making a country, many political commentators and philosophers, past and present, have described America in just this way, and I would tend to agree with them, in that America, more than any other country, was born from an idea and has thrived as an idea.  Some citizens still believe that this American dream is centered on liberty, that our founders established a constitution and a government of federalism designed to give as much power as possible to the individual.  Others claim that the dream implies the pursuit of material wealth and the good life.  In many ways, these two visions complement each other: Liberty encompasses the right of a person to acquire goods and property and to dispose of these as he or she sees fit, while the acquisition of property and goods provides girders for the building of liberty.

Today, however, a number of Americans reject both these ideas.  They pay lip service to liberty and enterprise, but they advocate the transfer of wealth from rich to poor, high taxes, entitlement programs, and group rights, all of which stand in antithesis to real freedom and prosperity.  The struggle between these people and those who support the older dream, which is at the heart of what some commentators call the Culture War, is ongoing, impassioned, and sometimes violent.  Both sides have come to disagree on even the most fundamental idea of what it means to be an American.

Both sides in this struggle have also failed to serve the best interests of their country.  Many conservatives have fought this battle either as reactionaries, failing in the process to set out an alternative vision, or as romantics seeking to turn back time, to return society to old-time values and practices.  These efforts, while sometimes noble, have miscarried and will continue to do so.  Individuals, families, and certain small communities may keep and even restore some earlier sense of morality to our nation, but in general the culture is too dynamic, too disparate, and, to be frank, too corrupted for such sentimentality.

Meanwhile, those on the left, who now march under the banner of progressivism, have spent decades criticizing their native land.  While their desire for improvement may also be regarded as noble, their constant faultfinding and utopian tinkering have damaged, perhaps permanently, the very machine they sought to repair.  Their calls for tolerance have become the shouts of a mob for acceptance.  Their endless “wars”—the war on drugs, the war on poverty, the war on Western culture, the war on Christianity—bring not peace but destruction.  Their constant slashing attacks on what was once a republic, a sort of death by a thousand cuts, have brought us to the point where we are made to feel ashamed of patriotism, our faith, and any notions of American exceptionalism.  Rather than creating a country that we can all love and cherish, these progressives seem increasingly intent on destruction of the American dream, on reducing our “City on a Hill” to a junkyard, on allowing hatred, fear, and the ensuing moral chaos to swallow us up while putting us simultaneously at the mercy and whims of an ever-more powerful government.

The consequences of this last half-century of self-laceration do not lie in some future time.  They are with us now.  In The West and the Rest: Globalization and the Terrorist Threat, English philosopher Roger Scruton goes to the heart of the matter:

There cannot be a society without this experience of membership.  For it is this that enables me to regard the interests and needs of strangers as my concern; that enables me to recognize the authority of decisions and laws that I must obey, even though they are not directly in my interest; that gives me the criterion to distinguish those who are entitled to the benefit of the sacrifices that my membership calls from me, from those who are interloping.  Take away the experience of membership and the ground of the social contract disappears: social obligations become temporary, troubled, and defeasible, and the idea that one might be called upon to lay down one’s life for a collection of strangers begins to border on the absurd.

I stand on the cusp of old age.  Like so many older people, I would find it easy to wallow in nostalgia over my past, to bewail the modern world in which I now live.  But I am a teacher, and I like to think that as I have grown older I have refused the rose-colored glasses or the bitter cynicism that marks so many people of advancing years.  Teaching young people and observing the courage and high spirits of my own four grown children give me some small hope for the future.

But, of course, the question then occurs: What lessons might I teach my students about a country that seems diminished, at best, and vanquished, at worst?  What might I say to give them hope rather than despair?  How can I inspire in them a love for a country apparently hell-bent on its own ruination?

Here I find myself returning to America as a place defined by an idea.  For me, as for so many others in our history, the core of that idea is liberty.  Until quite recently, people treasured liberty.  Those who came to our shores fled their native lands for a variety of reasons: religious persecution, political oppression, a sense of adventure, a desire to improve their lives, a willingness to believe that life in this New World would bring greater opportunities than life in the Old World.  Undergirding all these motives was the bright beacon of liberty, the belief that on these shores they would make a new life for themselves.

This notion of liberty, which runs the gamut from freedom of speech to property rights, and which depends on certain obligations of citizenship, is the heart of America.  Lady Liberty, that robed figure holding high her torch of freedom, is the true emblem of our country, the symbol of what America was and can be again.  Americans are not meant to be Gullivers tied down by knots and cords of regulation and micromanaged by Lilliputian bureaucrats.  We were not meant to live in fear of the tax police, to give an annual account to the government of our earnings, to be taxed on every commodity necessary for life, to spend our entire lives renting, through various property taxes, those homes that we bought or built by our own enterprise and sweat.

Liberty and her handmaiden, personal responsibility, are the heart of America.  Keep that heart beating, and the dream will live.  Let that heart quit beating, and we will indeed become dust and ashes.