My name is Ozymandias, King of the White House

Shelley's Ozymandias is one of the great poems. Little could Shelley have known that one day a comparable despair could be felt by taking a look at modern America

Has America become a land of despair?
Robin Mitchinson
On 26 June 2015 10:57

‘My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings                                                          

Look on my works ye Mighty, and despair!’

Substitute ‘Obama’ for ‘Ozymandias’ and this pretty well sums up the way many pro-American Brits feel about the US today. Whole swathes of public life seem dysfunctional.

The political system is deadlocked. The Constitution was predicated on compromise. It was designed around the separation of powers in such a way that would prevent tyranny or oppressive governance.

This means doing political deals, but Congress gives every impression of wanting nothing more than to obstruct more or less everything, whether from one House to the next, from the President to Congress, and vice-versa.

Last year’s ‘lock-down’ showed just how far politicians are prepared to put the best interests of the people at risk for petty political advantage. Part of the strategy was to shut down facilities that would most inconvenience or annoy the public, whether or not there was any financial nexus. Just like the UK’s public sector trade unions!

As de Tocqueville put it: ‘The tyranny of the legislature is really the danger most to be feared, and will continue to be so for many years to come. The tyranny of the executive power will come in its turn, but at a more distant period.”

The justice system is hardly working. Reports come from Texas about a man who has been held without charge for more than 90 days. Only apartheid South Africa could begin to match this. When Tony Blair tried to raise the limit to 42 days he was well and truly shafted by Their Lordships next door.

There is a prisoner, Albert Woodfox,  who has been in ‘solitary’ since the 1970s. It is difficult to conceive of anything that more neatly fits ‘cruel and unusual punishment’. And yet it is not uncommon practice for prisoners to be held in solitary for years without this being challenged as unconstitutional.

America has 5 percent of the world’s population, but it has 23 percent of the world prison population. It seems to have a fetish about banging-up people for years for offences that elsewhere would not be regarded as deserving of imprisonment.

Most incomprehensible of all to us Limeys is America’s obsession with firearms. It strikes us as infantile; grown men pretending to be cowboys or Dirty Harry. Which is all very harmless -- except it gets people killed when fantasy turns to reality.

Of course, we have gone too far; as a consequence of one mass shooting, most firearms were banned from just about everybody. Only the police and the villains now carry guns in Britain. But it should not be beyond possibility that sensible controls can be introduced that do not breach the mythical ‘right to bear arms’.

For example, there should obviously be an age limitation. ‘Weapons of war’ such as machine guns and heavy calibre stuff should be outlawed. Every gun owner should have a licence before purchase, only granted on proof that the applicant was trained in the use of the weapon, and possession should be limited to one handgun and one rifle.

When it comes to complaints about the rotting infrastructure, we are on familiar ground. If the freeway is falling apart, so is the M6 over here. Bridges in danger of collapse? Plenty. Railways reaching the end of their useful lives? Welcome to Network Rail or Amtrak.

But if it’s not sexy, politicians are not interested either side of the pond.

Robin Mitchinson is a Contributing Editor to The Commentator. A former barrister, living in the Isle of Man, he is an international public management specialist with almost two decades of experience in institutional development, decentralisation and democratisation processes. He has advised governments and major international institutions across the world

blog comments powered by Disqus