Through the narrow lanes of Trastevere a young man, newly arrived from the countryside, carries heavy amphorae uphill from the docks. He will do this all day, every day, for as far into the future as he can contemplate.
No longer needed on a farm where slaves are replacing peasants, he has come to Rome desperate to earn a living. A city bursting with new construction and commerce under Augustus might offer sufficient wages to buy food, at least so long as his body holds up. When his back no longer bears labor, he will succumb to hunger and disease, sinking into the quiet embrace of death probably before age 35.
Tell him that this is Rome’s Golden Age, and he would stare in disbelief. Explain that no collection of humans west of India, including him, will experience greater peace, wealth, freedom and technological achievement for more than 1500 years and he might fly into a rage. That is one of history’s great tricks: A Golden Age is only visible in retrospect.
If this is not America’s Golden Age, it is only because greater achievements lie ahead. Human beings have never built a civilization more wealthy, free, powerful and culturally dynamic. Rather than recognizing our achievements and enthusiastically building on them, we are wracked with manufactured angst.
According to Donald Trump and many others like him, we are pitiable losers, a global doormat. Astride the world, the lone military and economic power on the planet, many insist on a whimpering retreat into sniveling defeatism. Ironically, our own cowardice is the only remaining danger to our security and prosperity. Our failure to recognize a Golden Age threatens to place it in our past.
Few civilizations have ever enjoyed any sustained period in which an armed invasion ceased to be a constant danger. Famine was never more than a season away. Plague always lurked at the margins. Worried about inequality, a tiny fraction of a percent of human beings who have ever lived enjoyed the ability to read or lived in a home without livestock.
Compared to history our poorest are kings, but what about the present?
First, consider our physical security. Americans live in the only country on Earth still capable of projecting decisive military power anywhere else on the planet. In fact, ours is the only civilization that has ever developed that unchallenged capability. No power on Earth can threaten to topple our political structure at home and no power on Earth can confidently challenge our will abroad in an open fight. By any reasonable definition of security we are not only the most powerful civilization on the planet, but the most powerful civilization humans have ever constructed.
Terrorists strike fear into our population, but they pose no threat to our security, our economy, or our way of life. More Americans are killed by flat screen TV’s falling off their walls than by terrorists. Toddlers playing with guns kill more Americans than terrorists. Our terrorist threat is a neurotic mirage.
Economically we remain alone atop a global commercial order crafted to our specifications. Every major commercial venture from Qatar to Quebec must, if it wishes to be competitive, must maintain the capacity to operate in our language, conform to our laws, and trade in our currency. All global commodities are priced in our currency.
For all the talk of a challenge from China, the realities are almost laughable. Twenty years of an unprecedented burst of growth has brought China a per capita income that rivals Albania and a skyrocketing national debt.
A one-party planned economy has borrowed enormous sums of money to build infrastructure constituting an endless bridge to nowhere. Huge planned cities sit empty, while a closed, unrepresentative government struggles to conceal the cracks in the façade. Until the Chinese can build a modern political structure to support a modern economy, they will remain stalled. If they ever develop the political structure necessary to support broad prosperity, they will cease to be a challenger and evolve into a full ally.
Hollywood has been the world’s most potent cultural force for almost a century, but it has already been eclipsed by other recent cultural platforms. Using Internet based technologies Americans have sparked an explosion of human creativity and expression, the overwhelming bulk of it in our language. Our music, films and literature dominate global art and expression.
Consistent with this rising power and influence, our nation is becoming a microcosm of the world. Public school children in some corner of our country speak almost every national language. While other countries struggle to achieve assimilation, Americans are developing a culture of difference. This is the place where the world’s finest build and develop the world’s best. No other nation incorporates such a broad degree of cultural diversity into its mainstream center.
Wealth and achievement have not eliminated struggle. We have not solved every problem. Americans still struggle with issues that undermine our quality of life and defeat justice. That is to say, we have not yet reached the peak of our potential. Like that young man in ancient Rome, the achievements of a civilization may have made life better for us than it might otherwise have been, but life still offers struggles and disappointments. Very few Americans perceive what we have accomplished.
Recognizing our achievements is important not because it makes us feel good or relieves us from the burdens we still face. That sense of perspective is vital as we choose where to invest our energies. This is not a time to retreat. This is not an age of fear or failure. Our struggle to build a freer, more diverse, more prosperous society is working. Seeing what we have accomplished and what lies ahead should inspire us to continue in courage rather than shrinking in cowardice.
Our problems would be the envy of our forebears and remain the envy of much of the world. We should be addressing them with a grateful smile. With the smallest investment of courage and insight our greatest age remains in our future.