Dear Mr. President . . . Read Your Kipling

I have bad news for you. You’re an imperialist. I realize that for a man like you, educated in the highest circles of modern academia, what I’ve said is a grave insult. While I’m at it, let me offend you completely. Your foreign policy is an attempt “To veil the threat of terror / And check the show of pride.” You’ve vowed to “Send forth the best ye breed—Go bind your sons to exile / To serve your captives’ need.” The result of all this will be to—I’ll bet you a second term—“Watch Sloth and heathen Folly / Bring all your hope to naught.”

The poem I’ve been quoting is by Rudyard Kipling (British, 1865­­–1936). I doubt they teach much Kipling in the highest circles of academia these days. And I doubt they teach much about imperialism except that it’s an epithet. To learn about the slur you can’t escape you’ll have to go back to premodern academia, before it got high and started going in circles. In the 1940s, Hans Kohn, the Sydenham Clark Parsons Professor of History at Smith College, wrote that “the concept of imperialism carried various connotations in the different periods of history.” According to Kohn, among these connotations is a “liberal” one. We owe it to Alexander the Great. And it has been recurring intermittently for 24 centuries: “a world state, a cosmopolis, in which all the inhabitants would live in complete equality, in intermarriage and commercial exchange, on the basis of one common civilization.” Professor Kohn argued that what nineteenth-century British imperialism connoted was an attempt “to bring the occidental concepts of political liberty and human dignity to oriental nations.” Professor Kohn further argued that “as a result of its ethical basis, liberal imperialism carried its self-annulment with it.” He was wrong on this last point. Because here are the British—and us along with them—“somewheres east of Suez” again, bringing more occidental concepts to eastern nations whose previous supply seems to be used up.

There is an irony to this, which brings us back to Kipling. He was fond of irony. And he was considered to be the poet laureate of imperialism when imperialism was still considered to be worthy of laurels. Mr. President, undo some of the damage from the hours you wasted as an undergraduate reading Frantz Fanon and Edward Said and brush up on your Kipling.

R udyard Kipling was a firm proponent of Kohn’s liberal imperialism—so much so that, well into the twentieth century, he still had his nose out of joint about 1776. For a positive-thinking young man like you, Kipling’s views are damn grim. Take for example “The Man Who Would Be King.” Maybe you remember the movie, with Sean Connery and Michael Caine. Or maybe not. You were 14 when it premiered. Anyway, Daniel Dravot (Connery) and Peachy Carnehan (Caine) are two mustered-out British noncoms on the skids in the Raj. They decide to make their way up past Swat and Chitral (you’ll recognize those names from your daily briefings) to a remote mountain fastnass called Kafiristan. Daniel and Peachy think that, with the proper application of Western military technology and Western political science, nation-building will be a snap. They do a lot of good, Daniel and Peachy. They bring peace and prosperity to the Kafiris and reinvigorate the local Freemasonry Lodge. And then they get their heads handed to them. Or, rather, Peachy gets Daniel’s head handed to him, whereupon Peachy crawls back to civilization in much the same condition that George W. Bush crawled back to Crawford, Texas.

It’s often assumed that Kafiristan was a place that Kipling invented. In fact, Kafiristan was a real place high in the Hindu Kush, a pagan enclave in otherwise Muslim territories. Kafir means “unbeliever.” When Kipling wrote his story, in 1888, Kafiristan had been seen by exactly one European since the time of Alexander the Great. Major George Robertson was knighted just for looking at it. Other than the knighthood things did not go well for Kafiristan, as things usually don’t in such necks of the woods. Alexander the Great himself came back with an awful wife from the region, Roxanne (her white-trash name is appropriate since her home is said to be the cradle of the Aryan race). In 1895, the locals were forcibly converted from paganism, with much slaughter, by the prematurely Islamo-fascist emir of Kabul, Abdur Rahman. Very foreign places like this are full of people who live well outside the cosmopolis. One wonders whether the goings-on in the Kafiristans of the earth are any better understood today than they were when Daniel and Peachy were playing NATO.

Kipling did not believe that “one common civilization” was impossible. He argued that ordinary people, be they ever so different, are. Kipling’s “The Ballad of East and West” is remembered for the line “never the twain shall meet.” But the story the poem tells is the opposite. A British officer’s son lights out after the hill-tribe thief who stole his father’s horse and comes back a blood brother to the horse thief’s son.

But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth
When two strong men stand face to face, though they come from the ends of the earth!

In Kipling’s 1901 novel Kim, the hero is obviously of mixed race (thinly disguised as a Euro-orphan for the sake of Edwardian miscegenation sensitivities). Kim’s mentors are Mahbub Ali, a Muslim Indian of high rank in the British Secret Service and—what could be more world modern?—a Tibetan lama. Furthermore, the Freemasonry Lodge to which Kipling belonged in Lahore was multicultural and racially diverse, just like Daniel and Peachy’s in Kafiristan.

But Kipling also argued that mankind’s one common civilization was something the Sahibs could never grasp. By a Sahib, Kipling meant you, Mr. President. In his poem “One Viceroy Resigns,” he has Lord Dufferin (viceroy of India, 1884–88) tell Lord Lansdowne (his successor until 1893—and note that neither lasted more than four years):

You’ll never plumb the Oriental mind,
And if you did, it isn’t worth the toil.
Think of a sleek French priest in Canada;
Divide by twenty half-breeds. Multiply
By twice the Sphinx’s silence. There’s your East,
And you’re as wise as ever.

So bumbling is the mental process of officialdom that in Kipling’s day it thinks of Quebec as Asiatic. And in your day it thinks of Canada as having an admirable medical system.

As for the profits of imperialism, Kipling was pessimistic in “The White Man’s Burden.” The poem was published in 1899 as an admonition to President
William McKinley about colonial occupation of the Philippines, spoils of the Spanish-American War. Kipling was yet more pessimistic when he counted profits in pounds, shillings, and pence. With the verses of “Arithmetic on the Frontier,” Kipling calculates the time and effort of educating a British officer:

A great and glorious thing it is
To learn, for seven years or so,
The Lord knows what of that and this,
Ere reckoned fit to face the foe—

He estimates how the investment will pay off:

A scrimmage in a Border Station—
A canter down some dark defile—
Two thousand pounds of education
Drops to a ten-rupee jezail—

He analyzes the risk/benefit ratio:

Strike hard who cares—shoot straight who can—
The odds are on the cheaper man.

And he presents a chilling imperialist business plan:

With home-bred hordes the hillsides teem.
The troopships bring us one by one,
At vast expense of time and steam,
To slay Afridis where they run.
The “captives of our bow and spear”
Are cheap, alas! as we are dear.

So why did Rudyard Kipling support imperialism? He believed in civilization. He believed in liberty, justice, equality before the law, and all the benefits of material progress attendant thereto. He may not have believed in democracy in quite the same way you, Mr. President, and your fellow community activists believe in it—with one vote, at the very least, for each man, woman, and child. But it is a poor imperialist, Mr. President, who has no faith in his empire’s culture and refinement.

Rudyard Kipling had that faith, and then some. He not only believed in civilization, he believed in civilization as the Lord’s will. Those of us who—by grace of God, our own merit, and mere good luck—possess liberty, justice, and equality before the law have a sacred duty to extend the hand of civilization even when we get our fingers bitten off. And should we, against all odds, succeed and see civilization win out across the world, that’s not a glorious triumph for us but a humble fulfillment of obligation. Kipling felt this humility should always be kept in mind, and on the occasion of Victoria’s diamond jubilee, at the very high-water mark of the British Empire, he said so to the queen’s face:

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!

Rudyard Kipling was a righteous man. He wasn’t always in the right, by any means, but he was righteous. And we know that you too, Mr. President, are righteous. Whether your righteousness reaches beyond the end of your nose will be determined by how you treat “Your new-caught, sullen peoples, / Half-devil and half-child.” If you treat them with the same arrogance you sometimes use on the populace of your own country, then, Mr. President, you’ll have plenty of time in early retirement to read more Kipling and meditate on the fate of our particular civilization.

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!

P. J. O’Rourke is a political satirist, author, and correspondent for the Atlantic Monthly.

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