Reading and Politics

I had always avoided reading Kipling until recently. His stories were for boys, I thought, his poems were brassy anthems to Victorian values, and, most off-putting, his ideology was an argument for empire. Calling him a “gutter patriot,” and worse, Orwell said of him, “It is no use pretending that Kipling’s view of life, as a whole, can be accepted or even forgiven by any civilised person.” The judgment of critics and history seemed to have been pronounced. I felt no need to acquaint myself with Kipling.

Then, recently, it occurred to me that my objections were misplaced. I have long believed we, the United States, are an imperial power and have been one since we conquered the Philippines in 1899. (Arguably, our ideology of manifest destiny made us a land empire in the Bismarckian style from very early in our history, but I set aside that more disputable claim. Call it the Drang nach Westen and leave it in brackets.) At the very least, when we became a global maritime power in the late 19th century, we picked up many of the same imperial strands of foreign policy long held by Great Britain, including, most visibly, involvement in the Middle East. Might it not be helpful to understand how Kipling’s letters cultivated Britain’s imperial attitude, that we might find parallels in our own case?


The first thing I discovered is that Kipling’s infamous “The White Man’s Burden,” which I had always just assumed was an idle piece of colonialist jingoism, was actually calculated propaganda—a direct appeal to America to take over Britain’s role as the world’s leading proponent of muscular Christianity. Kipling wrote “The White Man’s Burden” in 1899 expressly for the consideration of U.S. political leaders as their forces were conquering the Philippines and Washington was eyeing the rest of the Pacific Rim for colonial prizes. “Go ahead,” Kipling said, in so many words. Although it’s hard to judge the political impact of his poem, there is no doubt of Kipling’s intent: he openly abetted the original sin that ended our republic and turned it into an empire.

(It is worth recalling a homegrown, American reaction to the Philippine conquest and  its sequel, the Spanish American War. Mark Twain, rather than cheering imperialism on, militated strongly against it, saying he never wished to see the American Eagle’s talons sunk into a foreign nation. Twain clearly saw us surrendering something essentially American when we gained an empire—our belief in the imperative to live and let live.)

Today, we should take an unflinching look at the core myths of “The White Man’s Burden.” First is the idea that the imperial power conquers foreign lands for the good of the conquered. Try as the natives might have done, those “sullen peoples, half devil and half child,” have just not been able to arrange a decent life for themselves. They keep bowing to a Big Man and penuriously trading cloths and fruits with one another rather than building parliaments and railroads. Please recall that, after briefly declaring our military aim in invading Iraq in 2003—keeping that African yellow cake out of al-Qaeda’s hands—the talking heads of government spent months playing up, instead, our mission to make Iraq safe for democracy. The Babylonian natives were finally ready for political enlightenment, we deemed. As W himself put it, the blessings of liberty were a gift from God, to which all nations could attain. Our forces were doing the Lord’s work, delivering freedom through the barrel of a gun. Kipling could not have hoped for a finer distillation of his words.

A side note: by clearing the tyrant Saddam away, we would open the local market to the riches of global trade. Bathed in new money, the savages would be diverted from tribal hatreds and violent rebellion: peace would descend. (See Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism for a lively study of this kind of project.)

A second myth is the thanklessness of the conquered. Silly things that they are, the natives cannot make out our benevolent wishes at the hot core of violent liberation. So the conquering hero must cultivate a serene ability to weather their slings and arrows. Kipling is, as usual, literal on this point. Although we

“. . . seek another’s profit

And work another’s gain,”

This is what we can expect in return:

“Take up the White Man’s burden—

And reap his old reward:

The blame of those ye better

The hate of those ye guard.”

As propaganda, this sentiment is highly useful. It pre-fabricates a narrative to justify carrying on when the natives seem most violently to resist our good intentions. When, say, a U.S. president needs to calm the homefront and assure them their troops are doing the right thing despite rousing murderous opposition in some far-flung province, there is nothing quite so impressive as the solemn appeal to our selfless virtue. We are better than them.

And our essential goodness puts us on the right side of history, a very good place to be. The natives may rage against us today, but our sacrifices are made for an eternal principle, which will win out in the end, because it must.

And what, in the end, do we get for being in the right? The usual: terror and resistance. Kipling’s brief lines on this subject are haunting. They sketch a scene that needs only a slight shift to prefigure the blast of a thousand IEDs in Iraq and Afghanistan. Kipling on the occupying soldier’s lot:

To wait in heavy harness

On fluttered folk and wild—

Your new-caught, sullen peoples,

Half devil and half child

Take up the White Man’s burden

In patience to abide

To veil the threat of terror

And check the show of pride.

The most obvious lesson to be learned from “The White Man’s Burden,” which Kipling takes no pains to disguise, is that empire does not pay. The imperial power is left exhausted, seeking a fresh ally to take up his fight. But whoever assumes the burden, Kipling warns, must do it for a higher cause.

If decline and fall is the inevitable fate of empire, might it not be instructive to view the subject from the perspective of high tide, just as the imperial power and glory start to fade? Kipling does just this in the beautiful “Recessional,” a poem written to mark Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897. Rather than celebrating the high occasion, though, Kipling plays prophet and reminds the Britons that their empire is doomed if it does not remain rooted in Christian virtue—a flat contradiction if there ever was one.

Kipling‘s melding of muscular Christianity with adventurous militarism will feel familiar to almost all Americans today. Though written more than one hundred years ago, the first stanza of “Recessional” stirs the same pieties that today’s Christian masses associate with our wars. (Do we not expect each president to kneel in prayer with a chaplain as part of the pre-game show?) Kipling strikes the religious tone:

God of our fathers, known of old,

Lord of our far-flung battle-line,

Beneath whose awful Hand we hold

Dominion over palm and pine—

Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,

Lest we forget—lest we forget!

Beautiful as the words are, they tell an old, tedious story of national grandeur, of which it seems any reasonable people would have tired by now—that God is on our side. I would hope that fewer and fewer Americans can bring themselves to believe this myth, but those who do should ponder how closely their position lies to that of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps. Of all the labels it would seem sensible to drop, holy warrior stands out.

Just two stanzas later in “Recessional,” Kipling officially kills the party mood by admitting as prosaically as a poet can that empires end in military defeat, and the present one can fare no differently:

Far-called, our navies melt away;

On dune and headland sinks the fire:

Lo, all our pomp of yesterday

Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!

Judge of the Nations, spare us yet,

Lest we forget—lest we forget!

The next stanza, though, provides the salve that all “real” winners eventually apply, the comfort of having played the better game even if the final score indicated a loss. We at least have law and decency on our side:

If, drunk with sight of power, we loose

Wild tongues that have not Thee in awe,

Such boastings as the Gentiles use,

Or lesser breeds without the Law—

Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,

Lest we forget—lest we forget!

So where does our public virtue, our need to do unrequited good come from? From our sturdy, Boy Scout values. (Scan P.G. Wodehouse, by the way, for Boy Scout characters, and just see if you can find a happy effect produced by their daily good turns. I absolutely loved being a Boy Scout, but I also know why Wodehouse turns to Baden-Powell’s crew when he needs a child to poke his nose into grownups‘ business.)

In his deservedly famous poem “If,” Kipling lays out the full slate of virtues called forth by the public spirit and the adventurous heart. Only four stanzas long, it is worth recalling in full:

If you can keep your head when all about you

Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,

If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,

But make allowance for their doubting too;

If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,

Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,

Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,

And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:


If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;

If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;

If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster

And treat those two impostors just the same;

If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken

Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,

Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,

And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:


If you can make one heap of all your winnings

And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,

And lose, and start again at your beginnings

And never breathe a word about your loss;

If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew

To serve your turn long after they are gone,

And so hold on when there is nothing in you

Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’


If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,

Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,

If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,

If all men count with you, but none too much;

If you can fill the unforgiving minute

With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,

Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,

And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!

It doesn’t require me to point out how salutary most of this is. Some of it is even sublime, especially the insight into the illusory nature of triumph and disaster. (No less a figure than Kafka heralds the abolition of difference between those two “impostors.”) But “If” is, in the end, a speech to a boy, which locates the chief contests of life—racing, gambling, public speaking—in fields of action where men seek excellence. It would be stupid of me to say that other, neglected virtues must be femine specialties, but it is striking to note what is missing from “If”—instances of compassion, inclusion or tolerance, for example.

The most rewarding discovery I made in reading Kipling for his politics was that, not all his stories (or poems) are for boys. Kim, which has a reputation as a mere adventure tale, is actually a subtle study in cultural identity. The pull between Eastern and Western selves, which Kipling explores masterfully, with all due parallax, also lies at the dark heart of almost all of Orhan Pamuk’s novels and some of Joseph Conrad‘s. The Light That Failed, although melodramatic, is another thoroughly grownup novel, dealing as it does with self-worth, romantic obsession and the enduring value of camaradery.

Despite inveighing so heavily against Kipling, Orwell ultimately gives him the credit that literary longevity commands.  Kipling remains well known and higly quotable (if usually out of context). His poems are, according to Orwell, “vulgar thought vigorously expressed.” In fact their durability may consist precisely in this formula. Who recalls George W. Bush’s rather lame protest that he made war reluctantly because he was “a loving guy”? Who remembers “Bring it on”? I thought so.


Coming Up For Air

I DIED ON this day last year.

Well, let me back up a step.

I was drowsing uncomfortably in a swanky private clinic in oldtown Heidelberg, dormer windows thrown open to a warm, glowing summer evening. It was the second day after my disc replacement surgery, and I felt like hell—sore, irritable and dispirited. An hour earlier the nurses had tried to help me to stand (doctor’s orders), but I had barely been able to sit up and dangle my legs over the bedside. Getting my feet onto the floor and putting any weight on them was just out of the question.

Preposterous, I thought. I had been under the knife for six hours; it plunged into the navel, through a sheath of muscle, around viscera and arteries, to my desiccated fourth lumbar disc, which it scraped out and tamped in a titanium replacement. The invasion assailed my whole body; the hours of controlled anasthetic death left behind a narcotic lethargy I felt no will or ability to shake off. Stand? It seemed to me the nurses might as well ask me to start up a wrecked car and drive it. After my pathetic effort I just wanted to sleep, and I asked for my second dose of morphine that day, 15 minutes ahead of schedule.

Some short time later, Marcus, one of my nurses, came to take a routine blood sample. He slipped the needle into my forearm and began to draw. He asked me how I was, but he was unsurprised when I didn‘t respond. The morphine had taken effect, and I was in a deep opiate sleep, finally. It had been a long day. Marcus finished his draw and got ready to walk away.

Then he noticed I was turning blue.

But I’m getting ahead of myself again. Or to put it more precisely, I’m getting outside myself. I have no direct knowledge of what happened in my room that evening between six o‘clock and eight thirty. The patchwork of information that fills that gap came from others—nurses and doctors who broke the calm of that golden evening, rushing, shouting, crashing a ventilator through my doorway, and, in the process, disturbing the peace of my fellow surgery patients. We had all been promised in the clinic’s brochure we would recover in quiet luxury, and up until the eruption of activity in my room, that is what we had been doing.

The loud, jagged reality that called me back to consciousness that evening started as an inchoate, desperate feeling that I had been under water too long—far too long—and I was coming up for air. The darkness shattered and became suddenly, violently bright.

Junger Mann, junger mann, kannst du mich hören?” The voice was loud and hoarse, in my face, rising to outdo a profusion of background noise. It did not belong to any of my nurses. Why was a stranger seeming to plead with me to hear him? But I was too occupied heaving for breath to feel properly curious. Taking in great gulps of air as fast as I could, I was getting only the tiniest sips of what I needed, and felt I was falling behind. I was still drowning. Improbably, a chorus of voices around me began to say, as if to reassure each other, “Er atmet wieder.” He’s breathing again.

Only barely, I gasped inwardly. I cast wildly about to consider why that was the case. Hadn’t J just drifted off to sleep on a beautiful summer evening? Why did I feel like I was drowning?


In my ear, an electronic voice clacked and instructed someone—me?—to breathe normally. The even, minatory words repeated in a loop, like an emergeny weather announcement. Although I was l little aware of what was going on, I pieced together that the voice belonged to a machine, and the machine attached through a tube to a mask on my face. That’s why I couldn’t breathe; my mouth and nose were covered. I tried to remove the mask, but a hand descended to cover mine, holding the mask in place.

Looking back, this was the moment I began to make crude sense of my situation. I had fallen too deeply asleep and my breathing slowed. I’ve always been a deep sleeper, and the morphine took me too low. The clattering machines and swirling bodies must have been there to pull me back up and get me breathing right again. My account of the situation was, I would learn later, on the right track, but I was indulging my usual bias for optimism. It’s funny how we revert to form.


“Ok, call his wife and tell her there was a pulmonary insufficiency,” said the man who had implored me to hear. His voice was calmer now, but only slightly; he sounded like an athlete still on the field after a big game. “Tell her that he’s going to be in the Uni Clinic and give her the phone number.” The voice must belong to the attending doctor, I thought. My breathing was improving to the point that I reined in my drowning panic, but I now became aware of an ache in my chest.

I took it as a good sign that I could still understand German. Whatever had happened, my brain had not gone. I raised my hand to wave the doctor over, and between gasps I aksed him if I had had a heart attack. “You had a pulmonary insufficiency. We are calling your wife to let her know, and we are arranging to send you to the University Clinic.” I noticed, or perhaps I recalled days later, that he did not begin his answer with “No.”

For reasons I didn’t understand at the time, I then proceeded to the Heidelberg University Clinic. Wasn’t I already in a perfectly good hospital? I was rolled on to a gurney, taken down the elevator and deposited in a waiting ambulance.

On my way down I paused mentally. Why was the bed I was rolled out of so hard? And why had I been unstrapped from it? My bed didn’t have straps. I recalled from my EMT training years ago that we had secured cardiac “patients” on a rigid plank called a backboard to enhance the effect of chest compressions. Had I been strapped to a backboard?

The drive to the University Clinic was exquisitely painful. We lurched and bumped over the cobblestones of Heidelberg’s oldest, most corrugated streets.  I had been given a counter-agent for the morphine, and the pain bloomed unmedicated  from an epicenter at my fourth lumbar vertebra. When we arrived, I was wheeled through the hot darkness of the night to a floodlit double door marked “Chest Pain Unit.” Strange, I thought, I did have chest pain, but hadn’t I just been told by a doctor that my “deficiency” was pulmonary?

Lying there in the heat and darkness, all I really wanted to do was call my wife. The message I knew she would receive—”pulmonary insufficiency”—would be just enough to alarm her, and I wanted to give her a proof of life, not life struggling to hang on, but my own, normal life, albeit in a drowsier, inconvenienced form. I therefore economized the truth when I reached her. I had fallen asleep too deeply, I said, and my breathing had slowed down to a worrisome rate. It was basically my original construction of the events, which I suspected of lacking detail but which I nonetheless stamped and sealed as the official version. It would do for the moment.

Another patient in the open-air ward was also on the phone. He had had a heart attack. An elderly couple were making solemn, muffled conversation, which, like my inner monologue, strained to find a bright, domestic theme. He had had a heart attack too. I felt my chest and wondered if I was in the right place.

Eventually a doctor arrived. He looked at my chart and told me my breathing had stopped after an overdose of morphine, and I was being monitored for cardiac problems. There had been no cardiologists on duty at my private clinic, so I would spend the weekend with them at the University Clinic. I passed a miserable night, refusing anasthetics and thrilling to the variety of unanswered alarms that plague an emergency medicine ward. They seemed designed to prevent sleep.

The next day I was placed in a room whose westard wall was made entirely of glass. I was glad to be through the night. It had been too eventful. The sun of the hottest day of the year streamed through wall-sized window, warming me and evoking, inwardly, the same glad burst Robert Graves felt at finding himself alive after being wounded at the Somme, “Oh sun, oh life!”

After a very short time, though, I was thoroughly roasting, and the poetry drained out of the moment. The room was a furnace; it throbbed with cartoon waves of heat. By what sadistic impulse, I wondered, had the curtains been left open to the massive, thick windows that framed a huge sun that seemed to  hang in the sky mere feet away? Did the resulting inferno not contravene medicine’s first principle to do no harm?

Mopping away sweat, I asked the nurse for something, anything to cool myself. She closed the (inexplicably open) curtains, disappeared, and after five minutes, reappeared, with a small electric fan. I marveled that, in a hospital with hundreds, perhaps a thousand over-warm patients, she had so quickly produced a fan. Then I recalled, with relish, the European’s deathly fear of indoor breezes. I was safe, and I knew it. Even in 100 degree heat, no right-thinking person among the hospital’s masses would covet my fan, capable as it was of producing a killing draft. I turned it on.

I was not a model patient at the Uni Clinic. Despite the fan, the room was still far too warm, and I called the nurse to ask her whether I ought to be moved. It had dawned on me that I had had an emergency the night before, and I thought the precarity of my state might prove useful. Instead of succor, I received a brisk lecture on the general level of disomfort throughout the hospital and the paltry ability of one nurse to re-arrange patients to their personal liking. Partly as a survival measure, partly in protest of the clinic’s pathetic inability to cool, or even ventilate, itself, I stripped utterly and lay naked on my bed. I stayed that way until I was released, two days later.

The nurse left, and I removed my oxygen mask, which had been compounding my misery the whole, hot morning. It was a mistake. My breath began to quicken. I put the mask back on, but my breathing still felt too fast, and a hint of panic returned from the night before. To calm myself I lay staring at the hot, white ceiling, focusing on steadying my breathing. In the quiet, though, I discovered a new complaint—again an ache in the middle of my chest. When did that start? Could it be a mere coincidence that I would have chest pain and shortness of breat at the same time? I called the nurse.

She called a cardiologist, and within minutes, I was receiving my fifth or sixth blood test since arriving. As blood-drawing seemed to be a habitual proceedure for the University Clinic, a kind of casual greeting, I asked, “Can you tell me why you’re testing my blood?” “Of course,” said the cardiologist, “to see if you are having a heart attack. We have a lab test that will tell us in 15 minutes.”

“Well, do you think I am having a heart attack,” I asked, with somewhat forced equinamity.

“It doesn’t seem that way,” he said, “but since your heart stopped last night, we are not taking any chances.”

“My heart stopped?”

“Yes, then you were resuscitated.”

So there it was. My heart had stopped. Much later, when I would receive the University Clinic’s bill, I would see the facts in black and white: “Patient’s symptoms or condition upon admission: cardiac arrest.” Together with my pulmonary “insufficiency,” I had satisfied the conventional definition of clinical death. Which explains why it was so hard, and unpleasant, to come back to the light. I had just dipped my toe into the infinite sea of unconsciousness which preceded my existence and will receive it again. The pull is strong at eternity’s edge.

So where had my chest pain come from? Was I really having a heart attack as I lay there roasting in the University Clinic? Was the ache a lingering illusion triggered the night before by the sign over the doorway of the Chest Pain unit? No.

Marcus, the nurse in the private clinic, filled me in later. On the night of my emergency, when he finished the blood-draw and saw I wasn’t breathing, he checked my pulse. He found none and started chest compressions. I don’t know how long they went on, but when the doctor on duty arrived to give me the morphine counter-agent, he found a pulse and instructed Marcus to stop. I recalled something else from my EMT training. The CPR instructor had told us that real chest compressions, if they are to billow the heart’s chambers properly, go deeper than TV chest compressions, a good two to three inches. It is not uncommon to crack a patient’s rib loose from the sternum while massaging the heart. I had been sore from this rough treatment and remained so for a week.

After two nights of small but continuous horrors in the University Clinic, I was released by the chief physician of my ward. He thought I was back in the clear, and, anyway, it was a Monday, and the private clinic would have its cardiologists on duty again.

During my time in the University Clinic I more or less actively avoided any attempt to comprehend what had happened. Anyway, the hallucinations of morphine withdrawal, the discomforts of the heat, and my rebellion, after the first day, against the policy of keeping me flat on my back round the clock, occupied me sufficiently. I just wanted air conditioning, a chance to try standing again, and my surgeon to tell me that all the banging around of CPR, rough transfers from one bed to another, and the punishing drive through oldtown Heidlerberg had not ruined his work. I felt it had—that I had a worthless piece of titanium bulging outside its assigned position in my spinal column—but, luckily, what did I know? My new disc was fine.

On the morning of my release, the orderlies used a blanket to roll me from my bed onto a gurney. I said goodbye to the nurses I had treated so poorly. In the ambulance, the driver traced the way back to my original clinic, through the old streets again. As we passed over the Neckar River, he announced our position jauntily, like a tour guide, and I knew we were only five minutes away.

Stopped at the clinic, the orderlies slid me halfway out the back of the ambulance, and the gurney’s front legs swung down and deployed with a clack. The sun, directly overhead, struck me full in the face. The light was nearly blinding, but I could just make out the lime-green leaves of the maples and elms lining the street. The orderlies pulled me the rest of the way out, and the gurney’s back legs snapped into place. I was back.