Inscribed on a plaque inside the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty is a poem by Emma Lazarus titled “New Colossus.” The sonnet waxes lyrical about how different the Green Goddess is from ancient colossal statues, and how that symbolizes the contrast between American ideals and those of empires since antiquity. The Statue of Liberty is:
“Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land”
This is a reference to the Colossus of Rhodes, a statue long thought to have straddled a great harbor (although this is now doubted), and which was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.
Empires also arrogantly stand “astride from land to land” with “conquering limbs,” like the famous editorial cartoon depicting a British colonialist standing over the African continent, “striding from Cape Town to Cairo.” In a stroke of great luck for the ironist, the lampooned fellow happened to be named Cecil Rhodes, allowing the clever cartoonist to dub him, “The Rhodes Colossus.”
In contrast, according to Lazarus’s poem, the Statue of Liberty looks upon the world with “mild eyes.” It stands beside the “golden door” of the New World and, on behalf of America, tells the “ancient lands” that they can keep their “storied pomp” of imperial greatness. America would have none of it. Instead, America would take in the victims of that “greatness”: those made “tired” and “poor” by imperial exactions. “Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…”
The new country would not bestride the world like a colossus, but would, like its great statue, stand straight and stable, holding aloft an illuminating torch: a welcoming beacon of hope and freedom.
Unfortunately this ideal has never been much more than a distant aspiration. From its earliest days, the American Colossus never hesitated to tread upon the Blacks and Indians it found underfoot.
But at least while it was busy acquiring dominion over its own continent, it was indeed quite benign and welcoming to the civilized peoples of the Old World.
But by the late 19th-century, the American Colossus had its fill of local lands and craved more exotic fare. And so, beginning with Spanish-American War, Manifest Destiny set out to sea, and the American overseas empire was born. An 1898 cartoon called “Colossus of the Pacific” aptly depicted Uncle Sam striding from the California coast to the Philippine Islands.
Thus a mere 15 years after Lazarus wrote her lovely poem, and 5 years before it actually graced the statue itself, its ideals were fully repudiated by the American regime. And the actual “New Colossus” would eventually bestride more of the globe than any before it.
For the past 14 years, the American Colossus has been on a Godzilla-like rampage, trampling over the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia: squashing people, flattening homes, and demolishing communities.
Now its specialty is not offering refuge, but making refugees. Not welcoming huddled masses, but mass-producing them. The Iraq War displaced millions. The chaos it engendered, including the rise of ISIS (which didn’t even exist before the war) displaced millions more .
Many of these displaced persons sought refuge in Syria. At its 2007 peak, Syria had received 1.5 million Iraqi refugees, on top of the 540,000 Palestinian refugees it already hosted .
But the American Colossus followed them even there, heavily funneling weapons and other support into an uprising in Syria , and escalating it into a ruinous civil war. Within a few years, as Farrah Hassen put it, Syria:
“…moved from being the world’s second-largest host of refugees to the second-largest producer of them.”
Now over 11 million Syrians (more than half its total pre-war population) have been displaced.
The American Colossus also:
- has waged the longest war in its history in Afghanistan,
- sent Libya (370,000 newly displaced in 2014) spiraling into civil war with a regime change operation,
- plunged Somalia into famine with an invasion by its Ethiopian proxy,
- continues its destabilizing drone war in Pakistan (1.8 million displaced),
- and is now facilitating a Saudi war on Yemen that has pushed 6 million people to the brink of starvation .
- It has even staggered into eastern Europe, triggering (by sponsoring a coup) and supplying an anti-separatist war in Ukraine that displaced over 4 million in 2014.
Due predominantly to this rampage, the number of “internally displaced persons” surged to 38 million in 2014 (4.7 million higher than in 2013) . And the total number of refugees in that year swelled to 60 million, the highest number ever recorded.
Tens of millions consigned to utter desperation: severed from their homes, communities, and livelihoods; hunted by armies and militias toting American weapons; striving against all odds to save the lives of their children. And now Europe, whose governments have extensively helped America sow the winds of war, is reaping a whirlwind of refugees.
America has gone from a Beacon of Liberty to a Colossus of Chaos, scattering tens of millions with its footfall. And since all war is the health of domestic tyranny, its boot is stamping on our faces as well, though not (as in Orwell) forever. For its rampage is not only murderously destructive, but colossally expensive. This, after all, was Osama bin Laden’s endgame all along: in his words, “bleeding America to the point of bankruptcy” by provoking it into overreaction.
In the Argonautika by Apollonius of (yet again) Rhodes, bleeding to death also happened to be the fate of Talos the living colossus. As Talos hurled boulders at the relatively tiny Argonauts (asymmetrical warfare for the mythic age), the sorceress Medea cast a hex on him, causing him to graze the bronze skin of his ankle on a sharp rock, upon which:
“…the ichor ran out of him like molten lead. He stood there for a short time, high on the jutting cliff. But even his strong legs could not support him long; he began to sway, all power went out of him, and he came down with a resounding crash.”
…much as the Colossus of Rhodes itself eventually collapsed in an earthquake. And this was long thought to be due in part to its overextended stance. For ages ancient tourists gaped at its shattered remains, which, like the ruined colossus of Ozymandias in Shelley’s poem, revealed the transience and vanity of the imperial “storied pomp” that Lazarus’s poem rightly disdained. “Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
If the American Colossus continues its rampage much longer, it will collapse under its own weight, and bury us all in its rubble. Since it is our own statist ideology that animates it, it is up to us to stop it before that happens. We must take our country off the precarious footing of empire, and place it on the firm foundation of liberty. Then, like the stable statue in New York Harbor, we will truly be a beacon to the world.
Also published at Medium.com.