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Thursday, Oct. 2, 2014

Then and Now

Thursday, July 1, 2004

'The White Man's Burden' reconsidered

Rudyard Kipling, a Nobel Laureate for Literature, has been "politically incorrect" almost since he won the award, back in 1907. All the more reason for his many admirers, including the present writer, to like and respect him. His "Gunga Din" alone proves he wasn't the "racist" he's accused of being; and his countless would-be "sexist" remarks ("A woman is only a woman but a good cigar is a smoke"), taken in context, read quite otherwise.

He wrote memorably of a majestic bygone age whose effects, for good or ill, are still very much with us, and his words are as meaningful as when they were written.

News from Iraq can't help but remind one of the opening lines of his famous (infamous?)

"The White Man's Burden.":

Take up the White Man's burden

-- Send forth the best ye breedGo bind your sons to exile

To serve your captives' need;

To wait in heavy harness

On fluttered folk and wild

Your new-caught, sullen peoples,

Half devil and half child.

One needs to bear in mind that, in Kipling's day, "race" and "culture" were more synonymous than today. "White man" referred simply to the culturally advanced, who just happened to be white, i.e. Europeans, in Europe and out. Today, American blacks and Hispanics, even Westernized Arabs, are "white men" in Kiplingesque terms, i.e. culturally.

And haven't those words "sullen peoples, half devil and half child" been eerily suggested by certain ugly images coming out of Iraq? As likewise the words "Send forth the best ye breed" evoke American soldiers and their Iraqi mission "in heavy harness?"

Kipling wrote the poem after the U. S. conquest of the Philippines from Spain led to the suppression of an indigenous revolt, on the reasonable grounds that the country wasn't ready for self-government. America, he was saying, must join Britain in selflessly uplifting the backward peoples of the world through superior Western science and order.

To seek another's profit,

And work another's gain...

Fill full the mouth of Famine

And bid the sickness cease;

And when your goal is nearest

The end for others sought,

Watch Sloth and heathen Folly

Bring all your hopes to nought.

Take up the White Man's burden-

And reap his old reward:

The blame of those ye better,

The hate of those ye guard

The cry of hosts ye humour

(Ah, slowly!) toward the light:"

Why brought ye us from bondage,

"Our beloved Egyptian night?"

Nowadays this is decried as shameful racial arrogance, cultural imperialism. Yet even if the idea were wrong, people believed it, and acted on it with good intentions.

And was it so wrong? Weren't (and aren't) Westerners more advanced, technologically? Legally, perhaps even morally? Would you rather fall afoul of Western law, imperfect as it may be, or the corrupt chaos that passes for law in many third-world countries? What are we trying to do in Iraq if not replace the latter with the former? It may not be polite to call much of what we find obstructing us "sloth and folly," but what else is it? Many Arabs are sophisticated moderns; but many more cling to their "beloved Egyptian night," by blowing up technology and murdering aid workers striving to bring them "from bondage" into the light.

Yes, self-interest is one of our motivations. But self-interest pervades all human activity, and may exist side by side with altruism. Britain did India a favor by drawing her into modernity (as sensible Indians secretly admit), and got precious little out of it for herself.

A similar duty faces America today. Our superpower imposes us on it.

We can no more decline to exert it, for good or ill, than a star can refuse to exert its gravity. The world's choice is simple: "Pax Americana" or chaos. Many, it seems, would prefer the latter.

Like most of Kipling, this poem is anything but jingoistic imperialism. Far from it. He's challenging the advanced peoples to put aside thoughts of self and reward: "The lightly proffered 2 laurel,/The easy, ungrudged praise." "Nor call too loud on Freedom/To cloak your weariness." "Veil the threat of terror(!),/And check the show of pride." "Go make them (material improvements) with your living,/And mark them with your dead!"

What is this if not the timeless call of all wise men for their young to go forth (e.g. JFK's Peace Corps) and do good, selflessly? "Search your manhood/Through all the thankless years,!Cold-edged with dear-bought wisdom,/The judgment of your peers!"

Writers don't issue the call in such lofty terms these days, but it's still heard, and still answered.

Take up the White Man's burden-

No tawdry rule of kings,

But toil of serf and sweeper-

The tale of common things.

What is the "tawdry rule of kings" but that of Saddam we've swept away? And what do the last lines suggest but the thankless drudgery of our men and women in Iraq? The world has no veto on America's use of its superpower. We've been better judges of its proper use than others. Where have we ever used it abroad for intended ill? Germany, Japan, and the Philippines are thriving lands because we knocked some sense into their heads. Today's France, it seems, would have no Normandys, no Marshall Plans for others.

In the ancient world, Rome spread civilization far more brutally than we would dream of doing. Yet thereby Rome replaced barbarism with classical civilization, and saved the latter for us.

America's "pop culture" may be little to brag about, but like Rome we're the only bearer of that same civilization, of the high culture, able to defend or even save it.

Do we want our and the world's children to know the glories of art, literature, and music, the blessings of science and technology?

Or do we want them shrieking "Allahu Akhbar!" while blowing up hospitals and museums and bystanding women and children?