Great Britain has been a global superpower since its navy took down the Spanish Armada in 1588. Four and a half centuries is a good run. And if Liz Truss successfully kills Britain, as seems to be her monomaniacal wont, schoolchildren of the future will easily recall the beginning and end of this period of British dominance, bookended as it is by important reigns of queens named Elizabeth. As George III sings in Hamilton: “Oceans rise, empires fall.”
Did Constantinopolitans in 1452 realize their way of life would end a year later, never to return? Were there warning signs? Did they perhaps interpret the death of the Byzantine emperor John VIII Palaiologos in 1448 as a bad omen? Or were they blissfully ignorant, indulging in the fifteenth-century equivalent of binging Keeping Up with the Kardashians, not even pausing to marvel at the splendor of the Hagia Sophia, the cathedral that would soon be converted to a mosque?
Who is living more fully in denial than the last citizens of a once-mighty empire?
These days, a sizable percentage of the British economy involves providing elite financial and legal services to Putin-friendly oligarchs. There is so much Russian money sloshing around the capital that the city has been dubbed “Londongrad.” A con man called Boris—that should have been a hint—when he was mayor of that city, pushed the Kremlin op called BREXIT, and when he was prime minister, presided over Britain’s messy divorce from the European Union. His successor’s surname might as well be “Trussia.” She’s there, it appears, to manage the bankruptcy proceedings. Austerity is the watchword of the day, even as the new king glowers at his servants for improper placement of his royal inkwell, like the despised villain in some Pixar movie. He’s waited decades to wear the crown; will he speak? Will he attempt to undo this mess? Or will he putter silently around Buckingham Palace, managing his ill-gotten portfolio, while his subjects freeze in the winter cold?
That’s what it looks like when an empire dies.
Across the pond, we are not immune. The warning signs are all around us. Trump, of course; but a healthy nation can survive a criminal president. Denial of reality: that’s what will kill us. The election was stolen. The vaccines are a Deep State op. The virus is fake. Zelenskyy is Hitler. There is a crisis at the border. A blip in gas prices is more important than the survival of democracy. It’s a witch hunt! Disinformation, whataboutism, lies, horseshit, treated as real news by our supine Fourth Estate.
I took no pleasure in watching Herschel Walker flash his pretend police badge during the debate with Senator Warnock. He is a former professional athlete, beloved in Georgia, handsome, charismatic, and able to command a room—even if the words coming out of his mouth vacillate between nonsensical and horrific, even if he is unequivocally a garbage human being. That he is out there at all, that the GOP is backing him, that the polls are close—it just makes me sad. That’s what it looks like when an empire dies.
Flipping through a terrific poetry anthology I found at the book fair a few weekends ago, I came across a sonnet by Claude McKay, the Jamaican-American poet and novelist who was a big part of the Harlem Renaissance. “America” was written in 1921, when McKay was 31. Reading it now, a hundred and one years later, the poem feels like a prophesy, if not a curse. He foresees the end of the American empire—poets are the most reliable futurists—his last lines calling to mind another sonnet, Shelley’s “Ozymandias:” Nothing beside remains. The lone and level sands stretch far away.
Although she feeds me bread of bitterness,
And sinks into my throat her tiger’s tooth,
Stealing my breath of life, I will confess
I love this cultured hell that tests my youth.
Her vigor flows like tides into my blood,
Giving me strength erect against her hate,
Her bigness sweeps my being like a flood.
Yet, as a rebel fronts a king in state,
I stand within her walls with not a shred
Of terror, malice, not a word of jeer.
Darkly I gaze into the days ahead,
And see her might and granite wonders there,
Beneath the touch of Time’s unerring hand,
Like priceless treasures sinking in the sand.
As they say in sports, Father Time is undefeated. We are fighting against entropy, against forces too strong to control. But we mustn’t give up the fight. As McKay writes in another, more famous, poem, “If We Must Die:” Like men we’ll face the murderous, cowardly pack, / Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!
If you’ve never watched The Five 8 before, this is the episode to watch. I can’t recommend strongly enough checking out LB’s monologue in the first segment, which is about six minutes in:
Photo credit: Woolworth Building and NYC skyline. Image from page 20 of Cathedral of Commerce (1921).
The UK rag the 'Daily Star' has a live feed on You Tube depicting Liz Truss vs a head of lettuce ~ which will go first? British humour at it's finest. Awesome Sunday read, cheers!
Forgive me, Greg, for forgetting to catch up with you on Five 8 yesterday. I was busy posting a story from WaPo to LFAA's community about the Eastern High School marching band, whose home base is in Washington, D.C. Uniforms in tatters, instruments in urgent need of repair, in high demand but hardly any funds to keep going, these musicians are not daunted as they practice their skills through the streets of Capitol Hill, all smiles as they are doing what they love the best they know how. My post was meant to show our capital city boasts more than just empty politics. To my surprise, many replied saying they were so heartened, they had donated to the band. And there was a follow-up to the story, because many more - across the world, no less! - also donated. The last I heard, the band garnered over $115,000 in donations!
I may be wrong as two left shoes, but I am willing the same win for our democracy come November 8. Just a thought.
P.S. Love this post.