Naturally we stay in a fairly steady complaint or snarl mode about the American government, but I suppose it is taken for granted life is easier and in inumerable ways better in America than in any other state anybody can think of at any point in the history of the planet.

If we are Democrats we love to fling our arms heavenward and declare we have been delivered to the barbarians; if we are women or black or gay or Jewish or Arab or Catholic we like pointing out discrimination. Our farms are in perilous state, our streets are full of crime, our hospitals kill you, our lawyers and electricians gouge you and the price of cloves is hardly to be believed. Furthermore, it is colder than it should be in March and something should be done about the wind.

In my youth a neighbor, Aunt Frances, who strongly suspected the German Bund was infiltrating everywhere, used to say, and increasingly say as she grew older, that "it should not be permitted," though it was never clear which power in earth or heaven should emit thunderbolts on whatever outrage she was concerned with at the moment.

If she were alive today she'd be a virtual long-playing record.

Is there any American who fails to see things wrong, sometimes outrageously and unnecessarily wrong, with the country or who has failed to notice the American predilection for confusing American interests or even American policy (when it can be detected) with the will of the Almighty?

What annoys me, though it is probably nothing more than an incurable American romanticism (surely we are the only nation that ever existed that starts nostalgia fads for a past decade the instant a new decade begins), is the asinine claim that democracy now is very shaky indeed, compared with some presumed golden age.

It may be a coincidence but I have heard about 10 times in the last year some allusion to the golden age of democracy in 5th-century Greece. Then, you may hear some idiot say, democracy reached heights it never was able to maintain afterwards. Then people were truly free and moreover went to the theater to see plays by Aeschylus and all the men were gods and all the women wore gauze you could see through. Everywhere art and science flourished, zub, zub, zub.

As it happens I thank God I did not have to live in the Athenian democracy, which others seem to have confused with a South Seas fantasy or with paradise itself.

America for all her blunders succeeded early in holding together an empire far greater than the Greek, and in compre- hending early what the Greeks never were able to conceive or effectuate -- a union of states.

The history of Greece, at her greatest, is a history of continual war among brothers. Gaithersburg was continually marching against Falls Church, frequently slaughtering all vanquished males and selling the women and children into slavery.

The vaunted Athenian court, at the height of Greek democracy, executed Socrates, and was forever condemning to death or exiling some great hero of the immediate past. If you won an astounding victory at Marathon or Salamis it did you no particular good; you were soon fleeing for your life like Themistocles, or Alcibiades or Miltiades or any number of others.

The Greeks at their best did not hesitate to attempt unholy deals with their chief enemy, Persia, for some transient advantage over other Greeks, as if Charlottesville applied to Moscow for arms and troops to use against Warrenton.

And as for the vaunted theater, it was admittedly magnificent in a way ours is not; on the other hand the majority of theatergoers in Athens (the very crown of Greece at her best) had as much trouble with irony and satire as audiences today, and from a play like "The Clouds" they remembered nothing except Socrates was a fool. Not quite the intent of the author, but then it was as dangerous in Greece as anywhere else to be overly sparkling.

When their history was far advanced, and when it was increasingly clear the only salvation of the empire lay in extending the rights of citizenship to other cities, the dunces of Athens went exactly backwards and restricted those rights more than formerly. Slaves, of course, never had rights of freemen, no matter how learned, and of course women could not vote, nor residents of Athens who came from outside the city. But at the peak of her glory, Athens decided you could not vote unless both your parents were free Athenians. If your mother was a Thracian princess and your father an Athenian aristocrat, tough luck.

This common dream of a golden Greece has had the effect of obscuring some of the triumphs of Egypt and Persia, but worse than that has served as a never-never land, a veritable cloud-cuckoo-land in the modern imagination to the denigration of the startling glories of the American state.

It is not necessary to think an American president or an American court is the greatest thing since the invention of wheels to notice that even the worst presidents of recent times were a considerable advance over comparable Greek leaders of their greatest century.

They do not -- granted -- neces- sarily exceed Pericles in intellect, but they also do not steal all the funds of American allies throughout the world to build billion-dollar shrines to the Republican Party in the capital. For which, considering both official taste and the general level of architecture, we may be thankful.

It is worth remembering that when Adlai Stevenson lost the election neither he nor anybody else wondered if he would be executed on some pretext or other, and this is more than he could have counted on when Greece was at her democratic height.

Undoubtedly the natural wealth of the American empire has as much to do with the ease and relative glory of American life today as our system of government, but an incalculable debt is owned to American institutions, too (those blasted bureaucrats are in some ways as precious as infuriating), and much is owed our schools and, for that matter (God save us all) some of our newspapers.

Freedom of speech is far easier here than in the golden age of Greece, so is protest easier and safer, and freedom to move around is greater than a Greek would dream of. The freedom to be let alone (though on bad days we whine pitiably about this) is at an all-time peak.

It's true we may all be blown to hell tomorrow, but that has always been the case, and in the meantime life has never been so easy for so many.

I know people sleep on heating grates and it is all too obvious that not everybody is rich. Things once thought luxuries -- enough food to keep your kids from starving, artificial heating in the winter, freedom from arbitrary death at the whim of a governor, freedom to read -- are now assumed as the most basic of necessities.

When someone says for a particular emphasis that it is worse for blacks to be ignored than to be lynched, we may see clearly enough the height the American civilization has reached. When the crime imputed to the state is not that one is hanged or denied a vote or denied a chance to compete, but is "ignored."

How fragile the singular state of freedom in America is we may judge from the course of events in our own time in other states; and how perilous a course we are following, trying to avoid anarchy while increasing freedom, anybody knows who has ever juggled seven balls across Niagara. It is breathtaking to see.