A couple of decades ago, I was walking meditatively in the ruins of the Circus Maximus in Rome. I was by myself, until I saw a lone jogger, a young woman in a sweatsuit, start to run laps around what used to be the track. I hailed her, and was delighted to discover that she, too, was an American. We spoke briefly, and only when she and I parted did I think what an incongruous sight we would have seemed, to a ghost of a typical Roman Circus Maximus-goer of 2,000 years ago: our outlandish costumes, our equally outlandish claims about where we came from.
I think about that encounter every so often these days, as the fin-de-régime feeling deepens among so many thinkers, and especially among conservatives: We’ve spent all the money, the Constitution’s in tatters, the nuts have nuclear weapons . . . And it’s hard not to be pessimistic, to have a sense that we’re living not just on borrowed time but on time whose debt is coming due. But I saw something on the subway today that brought home to me that we’re not done quite yet. Sitting next to me on the downtown A was a woman, dark-skinned Hispanic, about 50. She was mesmerized by a prep book for her citizenship test. Over her shoulder, at random, I saw: “Q. Who becomes president if both the President and the Vice President are unable to serve? A. The Speaker of the House of Representatives. . . . Q. What is the supreme law of the United States? A. The Constitution. . . . Q. How many years are Senators elected for? . . .” The diligence with which she was working through that material was impressive, and inspiring. We have made some awful mistakes in this country, and our survival and success are far from assured. But we go on, in the hope that when this woman’s children are grown, the answers to these or similar questions will still matter.
How long it does go on is a probably a matter more of eschatology than of politics; but our task in the interim is to transmit the best of it, as best we can.. (My favorite — unfortunately, apocryphal — story about Martin Luther: He was asked what he would do if he knew the world would end tomorrow. He responded, “Plant a tree.”) The racetrack at Aqueduct may still be standing 2,000 years from now, but I don’t especially care; I’d rather leave the visitors of that time some of the materials I saw in my seatmate’s devoted hands.