Ozymandias, King of Conservatives
By: Matthew Barad
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
— Percy Shelley
January of 1818, English writer Percy Shelley published a poem that would come to define two centuries of British history, and three centuries of conservative paranoia. He titled the poem Ozymandias, after the Greek name for Pharaoh Ramesses II. It was a meditation on human achievement and a prescient portent of things to come. The poem asks its readers — then citizens of a burgeoning British Empire — to question the purpose and longevity of conquest. Why build statues if they are doomed to fall to pieces? Why conquer the world if that world will overcome you?
These same questions weigh on the minds of conservatives today as they cower at the idea of the West’s own history of cruelty and conquest being written from new perspectives. Just as Ozymandias’ statue lies eroded in the sands, so too do statues of Columbus in Boston, Stonewall Jackson in Virginia, and enslavers in Bristol now lie decapitated, unseated, and at the bottom of rivers.
Contrary to conservative narratives about the status of Confederate statues as historical monuments, it is well documented that they were created decades after the Civil War, and often in direct response to black liberation and civil rights struggles. Far from apolitical museum pieces, statues of Richard E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson were built and are maintained as celebrations of conquest, enslavement, and white supremacy. They do not ask their viewers to engage with America’s sordid history of slavery, nor do they meaningfully explore the difficulties of that cultural heritage.
Instead, confederate monuments boast of a bygone “golden age.” They ask us, and black Americans in particular, to do nothing more than look on the works of slavery and genocide and despair.
In the fallout of World Wars One and Two, Ozymandius enjoyed renewed interest. The British Empire had all but entirely collapsed. Monuments to British supremacy across the globe had fallen to colossal wrecks — trunks in the desert. Shelley’s prediction had come true.
This was only a tragedy for the British, of course. Newly freed nations like India were at last able to control some part of their destinies. Centuries of bloody independence struggles and brutal imperial repression had come to an end. In India under British rule there were 31 famines, and vast swaths of the subcontinent were left intentionally undeveloped. As the sun set on the British Empire, it rose for much of the world.
Ozymandias captures the paranoia of the West as its imperial legacy becomes at once more distant and more clearly despicable. After four centuries of conquest, the work reads as the inevitable destiny of white supremacy and eurocentrism. Demographics have changed, people have learned, and solidarity is growing. Conservatives can no longer rest secure in their understanding of the West, its hierarchies, and its economic modes as permanent. Things are changing, and statues are being torn down.
When asked to defend statues of Columbus or Robert E. Lee, conservatives rarely even discuss the moral worth of those men, much less the impact of the statues in the current day. Instead, they obsess in abstract terms about “history” and characterize removing these monuments as a slippery slope to book burning and indoctrination. The impact that rewriting history with these statues had, much less the indoctrinatory effects of immortalizing slave holders, are never addressed.
For conservatives, the existing historical narrative of the West is good in and of itself. It should not be modified, explored, or changed in any way. It should be like a monument in the desert; able to impact us but beyond our influence.
Percy Shelley’s poem is about more than the inevitable erosion of previous world orders; it is also about the terror that grips hegemons as they contemplate a future beyond their power. More than anything, conservatives remain hyper-focused on the removal of their statues because they understand that their power is fleeting and their dominion is nearing its end.
The day is coming when Imperialism will cease to be a glorious past and instead will become a cautionary tale. Its works, though mighty, will be seen as harbingers of despair. Its cold sneer, its claims of supremacy, will appear absurd against an expansive history. And on its pedestal, a new future will be built.