“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone stand in the desert … and on the pedestal these words appear: ‘My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings; look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!’” – Percy Bysshe Shelley

TLR took a family trip to Washington, D.C. two weeks ago, and was reminded of how much America’s capital resonates with Ozymandian 20th and 21st Century “Mighty Works.” What in Shelly’s time was a recognition of the transient Might of the Pharaoh Ramesses II, ruler of Egypt from 1279-1213 B.C., today eerily echoes in America’s capital. History, after all, is riddled with “Ozymandiases,” rulers whose empires have come and gone, leaving behind massive “Works” (bringing to mind Machu Pichu, the Taj Mahal, and Chichen Itza (as well as Beijing’s Forbidden City)). Are the Capitol Building, the White House, the Washington Monument, the Federal Triangle and the surrounding government edifices Ozymandian testimonials to America’s Might?

The term “Capitol” takes its name from Capitoline Hill in ancient Rome, the crest of which featured the Temple of Jupiter. The United States Capitol was intended not merely to emulate the power and grandeur represented by Ancient Rome, but to be a real-world exemplar of that power. To punctuate America’s ties with historical Might, the Capitol stands on a hill in front of a reflecting pool, a replica of Persepolis, the capital of the ancient Iranian Empire founded by Cyrus the Great in 550 B.C. Both the Capitol and the White House (as well as other government buildings) are constructed from blocks of Aquia sandstone from a Federal quarry, with the Capitol’s Corinthian columns being made of marble, organically connecting the American Empire to the Roman, Persian and Egyptian ones. Just as the immensity of the Egyptian Pyramids is impossible to appreciate from photographs, so too are the sizes and scales of the Washington, D.C. monuments, with each sprawling/massive structure requiring a physical presence to fully grasp.

Much like the ruins structures built in Ancient Egypt and Imperial Rome, the heart of America’s capital itself is a monument, though not to the Might of Pharaohs or Caesars, but to the success of American democracy. That has meant that the seats of America’s power, the Capitol – home to America’s Legislative Branch, the White House – the Chief Executive’s home, and the Supreme Court – where the Judicial Branch resides, have visitor centers for the general public. The Capitol’s center – an enormous space completed in 2008 that, despite its size, is dwarfed by the massive Capitol Building itself – focuses on the process of law-making. The White House’s visitor center takes visitors through the Presidential succession process. And the Supreme Court building is dedicated to America’s Rule of Law. How America reached the pinnacle of global power and influence is reflected in the Washington Monument, the Jefferson and Lincoln Memorials, the Smithsonian Museums, the Library of Congress, the Vietnam and Korean War Memorials, and the government agencies whose names are engraved on adjoining government buildings.

Given today’s fraught times, however, TLR’s visit to our nation’s capital prompted TLR to consider whether history will rhyme with view Washington, D.C.’s magnificence as a justifiable homage to the achievements of American democracy or an example of ephemeral Ozymandian ambition and hubris. Today’s America after all is a fractured society, with virtually everyone adhering to an exclusionary tribal orthodoxy. Truthiness abounds and is magnified by social media. Those who favor Joe Biden, as well as those who oppose him, are ineffective at explaining to Democrats that he’s too old, that his advisers require replacement, that colleges are erring in teaching history as a struggle between oppressor and oppressed terrorists, and that wokism is a form of free speech repression. What was formerly the “big tent” party now is a party that has closed its doors to philosophical non-conformists.

Unfortunately, Donald Trump’s rhetoric plumbs ever deeper depths, being pointedly tribalist and requiring absolute personal fealty. The Republican Party no longer relies on traditional conservativism … or even a rational adherence to conservative conformity. If you were dubious about Donald Trump in 2016 or 2020 or after January 6, 2021, or doubt his policy prescriptions, you’re a RINO you have been excommunicated from the Party. It doesn’t matter if you’re a dedicated supporter of Republican policies –, just ask Liz Cheney. Loyalists deny mankind’s role in climate change, oppose abortion rights, denigrate gun control and the benefits of vaccines and deny the strategic importance of Ukraine, and express support for deglobalization, protectionism with across-the-board tariffs, and massive immigrant deportations. Democrats deny that Joe Biden is a doddering old man at the same time Republicans deny Donald Trump’s incoherencies and credit him with superhuman knowledge of economics and foreign affairs. Meanwhile, both Parties exalt Executive Power and pile on deficits and debt. These are not the ingredients for continued American Might and do not suggest a favorable democratic legacy.

It is worthwhile to remember the warning of Benjamin Franklin as he emerged from the Constitutional Convention in 1787. He was asked “What have we got? A republic or a monarchy?” Franklin’s reply: “A republic—if you can keep it.” As a TLR reader recently wrote, “to have a democracy you need the willingness of the citizenry to deal with one another as equals, to accept and respect each other’s opinions, the belief in free speech, the meaning of E Pluribus Unum, and the absolute unwillingness to accept a ‘boss’ [monarch]. Sadly, all these things are getting short shrift in today’s American society. I would say that, sadly, the current state of affairs could point to an end of the American Empire.”

Can America avoid decline and fall, the fate that awaited Ancient Egypt, Persia and Rome? The answer in a democracy depends on the voting public…, although according to its enthusiasts, the destiny of homo sapiens rests with AI. In their view, America’s future depends on the rapid development of a capable and benevolent AI…, and the avoidance of Skynet. TLR, however, retains faith in the American Experiment.

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Finally (from a good friend)

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