English poet, novelist and short story writer Rudyard Kipling has remained peculiarly popular among American conservatives, and his poems and prose are repeatedly unearthed to lend some ruddy Victorian good sense to present day issues. In 2010, former Fox News commentator Glenn Beck used the last two stanzas of the poem “The Gods of the Copybook Headings” in a video broadcast as a hellfire warning against social progressivism:
As it will be in the future, it was at the birth of Man
There are only four things certain since Social Progress began.
That the Dog returns to his Vomit and the Sow returns to her Mire,
And the burnt Fool’s bandaged finger goes wabbling back to the Fire;
And that after this is accomplished, and the brave new world begins
When all men are paid for existing and no man must pay for his sins,
As surely as Water will wet us, as surely as Fire will burn,
The Gods of the Copybook Headings with terror and slaughter return!
That same poem was taken by many economic conservatives as a prophesy of the reckless optimism and lust for fast money that led to the financial crash of 2008. Tom Burroughs, group editor of WealthBriefing, wrote an article entitled “Never Mind Keynes, Wealth Managers Should Read Kipling.” Burroughs singled out the following lines as a wise reprimand for financial imprudence:
Then the Gods of the Market Tumbled, and their smooth-tongued wizards withdrew
And the hearts of the meanest were humbled and began to believe it was true
That All is not Gold that Glitters and Two and Two make Four
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings limped to explain it once more.
Yet this “prophet of British imperialism,” as George Orwell termed him, retained a profound ambivalence towards America. His few years with his American wife in Vermont were the most bitter of his life, and he indignantly referred to the Revolutionary War as the “the American Rebellion” – although in a poem of the same name he was careful not to condemn it outright, instead casting it, in a most English fashion, as a dignified sporting scuffle akin to the annual Eton v Harrow cricket match:
Each for his land, in a fair fight,
Encountered strove, and died,
And the kindly earth that knows no spite
Covers them side by side.
Where Kipling remains truly pertinent, however, is in the lessons that careful close reading can impart for contemporary American foreign policy – lessons quite contrary to nationalist chest-thumping and Empire building. Take his infamous poem “The White Man’s Burden,” addressed to America in 1899 on the eve of its annexation of the Philippines after the Spanish-American War (its original subtitle was “The United States and the Philippine Islands”). Although broadly encouraging America to shoulder the “burden” of a new colonial possession, the poem’s subtlety is too often overlooked.
The neoconservatives who clamored for a greater military role for American in the new century are analogous to overly earnest readers of the poem, deriving their cherished “moral clarity” from the more gung-ho passages that call for manly, responsible action from an imperial authority:
Take up the White Man’s burden–
Have done with childish days–
The lightly proferred laurel,
The easy, ungrudged praise.
Imperialism is cast as a necessary step into adulthood from a state of childish peace and innocence: by taking the Philippines America will have come of age as one of the “great powers.” Yet, far from being a jingo imperialist anthem, the poem taken as a whole carries an ambiguous tenor, one that alludes to the self-destructive and thankless underside of imperial assertion, however noble or “humanitarian” the intention. Certain passages are eerily applicable to the pyrrhic “victory” of America and her allies during the Iraq War:
And when your goal is nearest
The end for others sought,
Watch sloth and heathen folly
Bring all your hope to naught.
[…] Take up the White Man’s burden–
And reap his old reward:
The blame of those ye better,
The hate of those ye guard
Contrast this healthy draught of English cynicism, proving all too correct, with Dick Cheney’s statement prior to the Iraq invasion that “We will, in fact, be greeted as liberators.” Kipling knew that Empire was at least as much a curse as a blessing, and that it required a grim resolution, a willingness to do unspeakable things, and the stamina to hunker down for the long term. Kipling would have laughed at the neoconservative notion that liberal imperialism could be practiced within a tight timetable, at a low expense, and with a clean conscience.