“If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten,” wrote Rudyard Kipling, who was of course correct. That thought spills back to me after reading an unexpected article by Sarwar Kashmeri on one of the Huffington Post satellite pages.
With heavy pedantistry, and a tone that leaves me uncertain as to whether or not his suggestion is meant as satire, Kashmeri opines that America needs its own Rudyard Kipling. He writes:
“Perhaps what America needs as it continues on its neo-imperial journey is a Rudyard Kipling. In riveting poetry and prose Kipling brought the glory, the blood, the savagery, and the sacrifice of the common soldier home to Britons, in phrases they simply could not ignore.
So let’s find a Kipling for the coming decades of Pax-Americana. An American poet whose work will accompany brave Americans as they trod the four corners of the world.”
Kipling, the man who gave us the Jungle Book, Kim, Just So-Stories, Gunga Din, and much more, is today not well regarded in academia. Kipling is seen largely as an apologist for imperialism and his “White Man’s Burden” has earned him a reputation as a racist. Yet, if you take Kashmeri at his words, there is in my opinion a tremendous advantage to the having a Kipling.
Kipling can make the exotic adventurous, which contrasts with the prevailing sense of the unknown as a Joseph Conrad “Heart of Darkness.” (If you watch the “redux” version of the movie Apocolypse Now you will understand). Kipling also has the ability to instill pride. Others will dispute this, but the national pride created by Kipling is not a jingoistic fervor, but a solemn pride, steeped in a sense of duty.
As attractive as Kashmeri’s suggestion is we should not forget that is was attempted in a measure by Bill Kristol of the Weekly Standard, with support from David Brooks, in 1997. Kristol called for a new strain of conservatism, that would encompass and ignite Republican politics in a way that has been absent since the optimism of Reagan. Kristol called it “national greatness” conservatism, and as you would expect from Kristol a careful observer will notice the influence of Leo Strauss.
National greatness conservatism would advance the notion of America as “an exceptional nation with universal principles,” thus requiring it to maintain its republicanism in limited government, but project itself, in Kristol’s words, “energetically.” Critics will argue that this idea in practice is known as the much derided Neo-Conservatism.
As an aside, critics who use “neo-conservatism” as an epithet use the term incorrectly, and some seem to use it as a mask for left-wing anti-Semitism.
Kashmeri, if his words are sincere, makes a call for something different. National greatness was intended as a political movement. A new Kipling would be the well-spring of a cultural movement. Here I see the great advantage.
If you discuss history with British friends you may note, as I have, a distinct lack of pride in British history, particularly the accomplishments of the Pax Britannica. It is dreadful that so many modern Britons have a sense of (almost) shame for the wonderous things their forebears gave the world. That meekness seems to be taking root in America.
Robert Kaplan’s non-fiction Imperial Grunts, is, like his other works, wonderfully Kipling-esque, but those seeds were cast on infertile soil. Movies, the logical medium for an American Kipling, may not be capable since they seem too enamored of political diatribes, or big budget explosions.
Kipling may find no place to take root in our age. If that assessment is correct we would first need a pre-Kipling, someone to pull the weeds and till the soil. That is a job most capably handled in the educational system. Sadly, I see no evidence that this may soon happen.
Kashmeri’s lament, again, if it is not sarcastic (I really can’t tell), is that America needs to be proud of itself, deal soberly with its obligations, and think somberly of the cost. It is an idea I wholly endorse. Failure to do so would considerably shorten the lifespan of the American age which begun in 1946.
The confidence of America has shriveled. Our Exceptional nation is scorned at home by many – with abettors abroad – and misunderstood by more. Failing economic visions threaten the ability to restore that confidence. On this trajectory, the next generation will inherit a world that is not led by an Anglo nation for the first time in a few hundred years. A world without those values at its heart would be a dangerous and dismal place.
As Kipling wrote, “gardens are not made by singing ‘oh, how beautiful’ and sitting in the shade.” Blood, sweat, toil, and tears are required. Lacking those the Kipling garden would soon grow into the Conrad jungle.