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.


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