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,...