Monday, February 18, 2008

Citing Kipling... No, Make That Orwell... Against The Democrats

Continuing his series of editorials which should be under the tag line, "I'm not a stupid man, but I play one in the New York Times", William Kristol offers us a new gem - Democrats Should Read Kipling. Does this mean that Kristol has read Kipling? Hardly. He read, or perhaps skimmed, an essay by George Orwell discussing Kipling. Kristol tells us, "substitute Republicans for Kipling and Democrats for the opposition, and you have a good synopsis of the current state of American politics," so let's try that with an early passage from Orwell's essay:1
It is no use pretending that [Republicans'] view of life, as a whole, can be accepted or even forgiven by any civilized person. It is no use claiming, for instance, that when [a Republican] describes a British soldier beating a 'nigger' with a cleaning rod in order to get money out of him, he is acting merely as a reporter and does not necessarily approve what he describes. There is not the slightest sign anywhere in [a Republican's] work that he disapproves of that kind of conduct - on the contrary, there is a definite strain of sadism in him, over and above the brutality which a writer of that type has to have. [A Republican] is a jingo imperialist, he is morally insensitive and aesthetically disgusting. It is better to start by admitting that, and then to try to find out why it is that he survives while the refined people who have sniggered at him seem to wear so badly.
Hm.... I guess that tells us where Kristol stands on the Republican's "Southern Strategy". Leaving aside Kristol's word substitution for the moment, let's see what else Orwell has to say about Kipling:
[Kipling] could not understand what was happening, because he had never had any grasp of the economic forces underlying imperial expansion. It is notable that Kipling does not seem to realize, any more than the average soldier or colonial administrator, that an empire is primarily a money-making concern. Imperialism as he sees it is a sort of forcible evangelizing. You turn a Gatling gun on a mob of unarmed 'natives', and then you establish 'the Law', which includes roads, railways and a court-house. He could not foresee, therefore, that the same motives which brought the Empire into existence would end by destroying it. It was the same motive, for example, that caused the Malayan jungles to be cleared for rubber estates, and which now causes those estates to be handed over intact to the Japanese. The modern totalitarians know what they are doing, and the nineteenth-century English did not know what they were doing.
Um... Kristol was defending the Republican party with this analogy? Not that he needs my words of approval, but I'll give Orwell credit for this insight about the ruling political left, although in many senses the conclusion applies to both the modern Democratic Party and Republican Party:
All left-wing parties in the highly industrialized countries are at bottom a sham, because they make it their business to fight against something which they do not really wish to destroy. They have internationalist aims, and at the same time they struggle to keep up a standard of life with which those aims are incompatible. We all live by robbing Asiatic coolies, and those of us who are 'enlightened' all maintain that those coolies ought to be set free; but our standard of living, and hence our 'enlightenment', demands that the robbery shall continue. A humanitarian is always a hypocrite, and Kipling's understanding of this is perhaps the central secret of his power to create telling phrases. It would be difficult to hit off the one-eyed pacifism of the English in fewer words than in the phrase, 'making mock of uniforms that guard you while you sleep'. It is true that Kipling does not understand the economic aspect of the relationship between the highbrow and the blimp. He does not see that the map is painted red chiefly in order that the coolie may be exploited. Instead of the coolie he sees the Indian Civil Servant; but even on that plane his grasp of function, of who protects whom, is very sound. He sees clearly that men can only be highly civilized while other men, inevitably less civilized, are there to guard and feed them.
G.W.'s neo-Republican instruction to the nation, entering a "time of war", was in essence, "Pretend nothing is wrong and keep shopping." His brand of conservativism is unapologetic for exploiting labor and resources - foreign and domestic - for the profit of corporate empire, but its fealty to the military services is nothing more than lip service. To the extent that the left can be called hypocritical for wanting to preserve an inflated standard of living at the expense of the poor, and being disrespectful of the military (and corporate) machine that makes it possible, it is hypocritical of the G.W. right-wing to profess respect for the military while disregarding the advice of its leadership and treating soldiers in a manner Tennyson might find admirable, but.... Well, let's go back to the essay, keeping in mind that Krisol sees the word "Republican" every time he reads Kipling's name. Commenting on Kipling's rendition of a Cockney accent, Orwell observes,
He ought to have seen that the two closing lines of the first of these stanzas are very beautiful lines, and that ought to have overriden his impulse to make fun of a working-man's accent. In the ancient ballads the lord and the peasant speak the same language. This is impossible to Kipling, who is looking down a distorting class-perspective, and by a piece of poetic justice one of his best lines is spoiled--for 'follow me 'ome' is much uglier than 'follow me home'.
None of this bothered Kristol? None of this made him pause and say, "Maybe I don't want to brand the Republican Party as being composed of Kiplings?" I suspect not. And I suspect that Kristol sees nothing wrong with making fun of the working man or his vernacular.
It is not only that [Kipling] thinks the soldier comic, but that he thinks him patriotic, feudal, a ready admirer of his officers and proud to be a soldier of the Queen. Of course that is partly true, or battles could not be fought, but 'What have I done for thee, England, my England?' is essentially a middle-class query. Almost any working man would follow it up immediately with 'What has England done for me?' In so far as Kipling grasps this, he simply sets it down to 'the intense selfishness of the lower classes' (his own phrase).
Let's talk selective quotations - I have boldfaced the portions of the following passage Kristol cherry-picked - care to guess why he omitted the rest?
One reason for Kipling's power as a good bad poet I have already suggested - his sense of responsibility, which made it possible for him to have a world-view, even though it happened to be a false one. Although he had no direct connexion with any political party, Kipling was a Conservative, a thing that does not exist nowadays. Those who now call themselves Conservatives are either Liberals, Fascists or the accomplices of Fascists. He identified himself with the ruling power and not with the opposition. In a gifted writer this seems to us strange and even disgusting, but it did have the advantage of giving Kipling a certain grip on reality. The ruling power is always faced with the question, 'In such and such circumstances, what would you DO?', whereas the opposition is not obliged to take responsibility or make any real decisions. Where it is a permanent and pensioned opposition, as in England, the quality of its thought deteriorates accordingly. Moreover, anyone who starts out with a pessimistic, reactionary view of life tends to be justified by events, for Utopia never arrives and 'the gods of the copybook headings', as Kipling himself put it, always return. Kipling sold out to the British governing class, not financially but emotionally. This warped his political judgement, for the British ruling class were not what he imagined, and it led him into abysses of folly and snobbery, but he gained a corresponding advantage from having at least tried to imagine what action and responsibility are like.
Wait a minute - the modern Republican Party gets Kristol's pat on the back for supposedly facing the question, "In such and such circumstances, what would you DO?" - despite the fact that even Kristol admits that its execution in Iraq has been atrocious, and despite other abject failures such as the post-Katrina debacle? Note to Kristol- I don't think the answer to that question is supposed to be, "We'll keep forging ahead with the same failed policies," or "Nothing." That's not leadership.

The long and the short of it appears to be that Kristol thinks he has read and understands Kipling because he skimmed (and largely failed to comprehend) an essay by George Orwell discussing Kipling. That raises the question, what would it take for Kristol to gain any sense of what Orwell thought - after all it's obvious he didn't pick up any insight from reading Orwell. Let's start by revisiting a sentence Kristol glossed over, " Those who now call themselves Conservatives are either Liberals, Fascists or the accomplices of Fascists." Orwell was, obviously, extremely concerned about the rise and influence of fascism. So what do you think Orwell would make of this passage by Kristol?
The director of the Central Intelligence Agency, Gen. Michael Hayden, the director of national intelligence, the retired Vice Admiral Mike McConnell, and the attorney general, the former federal judge Michael Mukasey, are highly respected and nonpolitical officials with little in the way of partisanship or ideology in their backgrounds. They have all testified, under oath, that in their judgments, certain legal arrangements regarding surveillance abilities are important to our national security. ...

But the Democratic House leadership balked - particularly at the notion of protecting from lawsuits companies that had cooperated with the government in surveillance efforts after Sept. 11. Director McConnell repeatedly explained that such private-sector cooperation is critical to antiterror efforts, in surveillance and other areas, and that it requires the assurance of immunity. “Your country is at risk if we can’t get the private sector to help us, and that is atrophying all the time,” he said.
So the generals and spies says "trust us," the corporations say "trust us", and Kristol wants to shame Democrats and liberals for saying, "Hey - wait a minute, what about rule of law? What about not having a surveillance society?" Do we have any sense of where Orwell might have come down on this question?

By the end of the essay, we have Orwell in essence depicting a modern-day adherent of Kipling as someone who "sold out to the ... governing class", among whom the "conservatives" are are now fact "Liberals, Fascists or the accomplices of Fascists,"2 with his misperception of the reality of the ruling class leading him "into abysses of folly and snobbery"? I'm left wondering if Kristol writes his editorials at a desk, or while sitting in front of a highly polished vanity mirror.

1. Although this should go without saying, I'm presenting this as an illustration of how absurd Kristol's word-substitution game becomes within the context of the essay he purports to be quoting. If you have a problem with this depiction of Republicans, take it up with Kristol.

2. How careless of Orwell to have failed to anticipate Jonah Goldberg's "argument that has never been made in such detail or with such care", that liberals are fascists, and that neither liberals nor fascists are conservative. Unless they're George W. Bush, in which case they're liberals but presumably (somehow) not fascists. Or however that works.

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