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February 25, 2008

A PROPHETIC POEM



One does occasionally hear the term "The white man's burden" as a mocking reference to the claim that the British and other empires were good for the native peoples whom they dominated. I wonder how many people are aware that the term was originally the name of a poem and that the poet was Indian-born British poet Rudyard Kipling? Some, no doubt. But I would not at all be surprised to hear that NOBODY reading this was aware that the poem concerned was inspired by the deeds of a famous American "Progressive". Let me explain:

Right into the 1960's, the American Left (e.g. JFK) was patriotic and nationalistic. Nowadays they mostly make only a shallow pretense of patriotism. Getting the votes of minorities is their desperate aim these days and glorifying America does not serve that aim very well. And with Obama, even the pretense seems to be fading.

And the most nationalistic icon of the American Left in history was undoubtedly TR (Theodore Roosevelt), founder of the "Progressive" party. TR was the first Fascist leader of the 20th century -- where Fascism is conceived of as Leftism plus nationalism. He glorified war as a purifying force for the nation, built lots of battleships and invaded and took over three countries. And on the home front he attacked big business. Fascist enough? His conquests were in fact in the last few years of the 19th century but his Presidency of the USA continued into the early 20th century.

The British empire had however never been Fascist. It was run by conservatives most of the time and when the Left came to power they were much more inclined to wind it down than expand it. And, as the saying goes, the empire was mostly acquired "in a fit of absence of mind". It was not acquired as the result of any deliberate expansionist policy but rather as the byproduct of pursuing other objectives -- such as containment of the French. And if anyone doubts the humane impulse that formed British policy of the time, just reflect that it was in 1807 that Britain became the first major country to abolish slavery. And, unlike Abraham Lincoln many years later, the British both attacked it outside their own domain and abolished it at home. Lincoln's war "against slavery" was fought while permitting slavery in the North! Lincoln's war was really a power-motivated war with slavery as a thin pretext.

And India is an excellent example of the non-imperialistic origin of the British empire. The British first came to India as the representatives of a private company, the British East India company, and the aim was trade, not conquest. The company encountered various attacks on its operations, however, so gradually built up a private army to defend itself (perhaps a bit like the security guards employed by Halliburton in Iraq today). And when Indian princelings took on the company in battle, the company tended to win -- meaning that it eventually had large parts of India under its private control. At that stage, the British government got a bit concerned that the company was not treating the natives well and took over the company's military and rulership operations. So the British government in a sense "inherited" India rather than invading and conquering it. The history I have just given does of course simplify much for the sake of brevity but that is the essence of it.

And the humane thinking (mostly of Christian origin) behind British policy is spelled out in Kipling's poem. Kipling saw the British as having a civilizing mission and saw that mission as one of replacing savage values with humane and Christian ones. And he persuaded himself that TR had such values too. He wrote his poem as a commentary on the American takeover of the Philippines. He saw America as joining Britain in the mission of civilizing savages.

And what he wrote was very prophetic. And it was good prophecy because it was based on experience -- British imperial experience. He prophesied that the gift of liberty and humaneness that America would give to other nations would not be appreciated and would instead lead to resentment of America. And that was long before the liberation of France from the Nazis and the liberation of Iraq from Saddam! Here are some excerpts from a wonderful and idealistic poem that is now almost always misrepresented:

Take up the White Man's burden--
In patience to abide,
To veil the threat of terror
And check the show of pride;

By open speech and simple,
An hundred times made plain
To seek another's profit,
And work another's gain.

Take up the White Man's burden--
The savage wars of peace--
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--

That's amazingly good prophecy by my lights. Very wicked of him to mention skin color judged by today's hysterical political standards but Britain and America WERE largely white countries at the time, and still are.



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