There is no room in the city for respectable skills . . . and no rewards for one's efforts. Today my means are less than yesterday; come tomorrow the little left will be further reduced. So I’m going to make for the place where Daedalus laid aside his weary wings
–Juvenal, Satire 3
About this time every year I reread the
Third Satire of the famous Roman poet, Juvenal. This is not because I think that Juvenal got everything right, but because I am quite sure that he got almost everything wrong. And I find the spectacular wrongness of one of the Ancient World’s greatest writers comforting when I see so many people getting exactly the same things wrong in exactly the same ways.
Juvenal wrote at the end of the First Century AD. His major theme in the Third Satire is that Rome just isn’t the city it used to be. For one thing, the Greeks have ruined the culture. For another thing, the Jews (which, for Juvenal, included the Christians) believe silly things. And everyone (see Satire 2 for more details) is apparently a pervert. It is time to get out of the city before it is ruined completely.
He was wrong, of course. Rome remained strong for another 300 years, and its forging together of Hellenistic and Hebraic ideas—the very things that Juvenal despised—continue to exert a powerful influence around the world. The Rome that Juvenal despised was actually doing just fine to anybody who was looking at the big picture.
But, that’s never been how human beings see the world. We don’t see big pictures; we see our pictures, and we come from a long line of anxiety-filled mammals who survived best when they perceived threats behind every bush. The sky is always falling. Things are always getting worse. Extreme pessimism is an unfortunate part of our evolutionary heritage.
This, I suspect, is why two-thirds of Americans now believe that the current Congress is the worst one ever. It is why there is an almost ironclad consensus in some circles that Obama is the worst president in American history.
Without going too deeply into the presidencies of Millard Fillmore or Franklin Pierce, or the Congress of Preston Brooks and Charles Sumner, I would just like to point out that every generation in American history has thought largely the same things. Every election has been presented as the most important one ever. Every president has been described as history’s worst by those who oppose him. Every Congress has been broken. And the Constitution has been hanging by a thread since the early 1790s.
Often, I think, we have a hard time distinguishing between “dysfunctional gridlock unlike anything the nation has ever seen” and “things working slowly because they were designed to work slowly.” The difference is crucial. Legislation is supposed to take a long time to pass. The Constitution is supposed to be hard to change. The Legislative, Executive, and Judicial branches of government are supposed to fight a lot. Our Constitutional system was designed to work slowly and with high levels of conflict. It is the trains to dictatorship that always run on time.And, of course, a lot of people make a lot of money by shouting about how broken everything is and how close we are to the brink of really bad things. They know how to punch our buttons and activate our limbic defense by framing every political disagreement as a constitutional crisis and every sustained debate as a sign of the Apocalypse. They have been with us always, on the left and the right, and everywhere in between. They can even be fun to listen to, but we should not mistake their brand of grim entertainment for anything like the truth. There were twelve, but I’m sure I would have found a lot more in the online catalog.
I rarely watch TV or listen to the radio, so I often miss the highlights of the Great American Outrage Machine. But I recently spent a depressing half hour in the Current-Events section at Barnes & Noble counting the number of books with subtitles like “How (Obama/Republicans/The Tea Party/Liberals/Conservatives) Are (Destroying/Trashing/Eviscerating/Ruining) the (World/Constitution/Country/America/ Our Rights/ Our Society/ Everything Good).
And yet we keep surviving, and in many ways flourishing. Outside of the Current Events aisle, the world just isn’t that bad. There are decent people everywhere who go out of their way to be good friends and neighbors. Children play, people laugh, families love, and glimpses of everyday grace keep poking out from the corners of our red-in-tooth-and-claw world. Even in the political realm, things move forward at about the speed that they were designed to move. There are trees of green, red roses too. And Robert Louis Stevenson was not completely deluded in his “Child’s Garden of Verses” when he wrote,
The world is so full of a number of things,
I'm sure we should all be as happy as kings.