Ozymandias Redux?

Copyright © by Len Holman, 4/29/11


“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:

Look on my works, ye Mighty and despair!”


  John McCain wants America to jump on Libya like a trampoline.  He has said the president doesn’t understand “American exceptionalism,” which is the current term for Manifest Destiny, and which clearly implicates God in this country’s historically successful hegemony over the rest of the world.  We have been the biggest, most powerful, most invasive, corrupting and corrosive power since the Roman Empire.  We have done some pretty amazing, wonderful things in a very short period of time, and we’ve done some amazingly stupid, hurtful, cruel things in that same amount of time.  Through it all—just a little over 400 years, from Jamestown to rovers on Mars—we’ve been on the rise, and no one has been able to do much to prevent it.  But lately, things have looked a bit shaky for continued American dominion, and the senior senator from Arizona may have to ponder Shelly’s sonnet to get a better handle on things.

  Ozymandias is the Greek transliteration for one of the names that an Egyptian pharaoh, Ramses II, was known by, but the poem is not especially about a Pharaoh.  It is about us.  And the Ottoman Empire, and the glory that was Greece and the grandeur that was Rome.  It’s about the evanescence of power and the repeated cycling of arrogance and force and through history, and the inability of that force and arrogance to sustain no more than a few hundred years of supremacy before a downfall.  It’s about us and all the peoples who, through drought and wet, famine and plenty, slavery and freedom, believe the empire—their particular empire—will last forever.  Forever is a very long time, though—too long to sustain any great polity, no matter the size or strength or wealth.  History is clear about this; I’m pretty sure the U.S. has no formal diplomatic relations with the Sumerians, Akkadians, Babylonians, or the Ming Dynasty. And here we are, the mightiest, proudest, most arrogant entity since Raider Nation, and we are sore afraid.

  But whither our fear?  Did we not tame a wild land? Subdue the fierce Cheyenne and the proud Sioux?  Did we not cross the country on rails, and take in strangers from around the world?  Did we not fight aggression and tyranny, sometimes many enemies at once?  Have we not done what God admonishes in Genesis—to subdue, and have dominion over, the earth?  Isn’t our economy still immense, our largesse toward less fortunate nations generous, and our place as one of history’s greatest nations secure?  Isn’t all that enough?  Apparently not.  Our elites want more, much more.  They want us to continue—contra history—to rule, reign, conquer, subdue, and otherwise endure for all time.  The rest of us are grumpy and see our country as on the wrong track—either we are too weak and too profligate, or we are too hard on the weak and too zealous to compromise, or we are too ineffectual to control world events—as we have been divinely ordained to do.  Everyone says, “Do it my way and we’ll be back on top,” and all the while we slide while the world seems to be crumbling. 

  But history also shows that the idea that events are out of anyone’s control, that the Apocalypse is at hand, is a common theme in human affairs and so we may just be over anxious.  Sure, the sea is rising as the ice melts.  Sure, the Middle East is in flames and our oil supply is threatened.  Sure, gas prices are rising and threatening to delay or abort our expected recovery.  Yes, no one can buy a house or get a job, and our education system is falling apart, and not one politician will have a sandwich with anyone from the other party, but isn’t that the way of things?  The fear is not unexplainable.  After all, we are genetically programmed to survive, and survival means being familiar with your territory, knowing where the threats are, in short, relying on the regularity of the environment.  And today, our environment is becoming unknown—and fearfully, unknowable.  Combine this disappearing of comfortable landmarks with the arrogance of wanting and expecting, undimmed, evergreen world power, and you get panic.  When panic sets in, flailing, running, screaming internally, and confusing terror commence.  It might be a passing set of events, an illusion of decay fostered by the media’s predilection for spotlighting the worst things happening (“if it bleeds, it leads” syndrome), or it could be that things really ARE falling apart, that the curve of historical progression is trending down and when it eventually turns back up, we won’t be around to see it. 

  The thing is, for Homo sapiens, that’s too ambiguous; it doesn’t lead to what evolution wants, which is to pass genes to the next generation.  Imagine you’re out hunting, and suddenly you see the grass off to your right move; you hear it rustle.  If you wait to see if it’s just the wind—and it turns out to be a carnivore looking for a snack—then you’re dead.  Your genes end up in the predator’s digestive track and then…well, we all know where some of that food goes.  Therefore, over time, we have become programmed to avoid ambiguity, to desire clarity, to see the world in black and white terms.  It’s a great survival instinct.  So we take it on media faith and anecdotal personal experience that the world—our American world—is ending, and there lies the root of our distress.  And we can’t let it go.  We’ve been Number One for so long—at least in American terms—that we are loath to give it up.  We want to go to the Super Bowl and win it every year.  Just getting into the playoffs is too humiliating, too unfair; it’s what lesser teams aspire to—it’s all they can aspire to.  So the reaction sets in.  We will not become “two vast and trunkless legs of stone” for some “traveler from an antique land” or ANY land to find some time in the future. 

  Thus the Tea Party’s insistence on social reconfiguration (disguised as fiscal conservatism).  They, and many others, sense impending change and dimly realize that the future is hurtling away from them and they are desperate to reel it in.  The worst, most pathetic irony is that in their frantic attempts to establish a New Golden American Age, they are making everything worse; they are ensuring the country will have uneducated, uninsured, unhealthy children, an elite so removed from the rest of us they may as well live on the moon, an infrastructure so rotted as to be unusable, and a political system so divided and dysfunctional as to be undemocratic.  Those of us who care about our future DO despair.  We are not broken giants yet—far from it.  But if we all don’t get on the same page, the sands of history will bury us.


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