Today is the birthday of Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936). I was gratified to learn this weekend that my sons had studied his 1899 poem “The White Man’s Burden” in school, and that they had been taught the poem in much the same way as I had been taught it in the early 1980s, as a problematic relic from the Age of Imperialism. The poem is startling at times in the frankness of its racism, but it also provides a helpful window into the pervasiveness of Kipling’s assumptions, which were institutionalized, near-universal (Mark Twain was one of the few non-radicals of the time that I know of who didn’t share them). The degree to which these attitudes permeated the ether a century ago is further brought home by the poem’s morally unassailable, anti-Timonist message that the wealthy and the strong should give of themselves generously despite any perceived ingratitude on the part of the recipient. That a large spirit like this can be warped and bent into the petty service of colonial power-mongering recalls later misalliances perpetrated by the likes of Ezra Pound and Martin Heidegger. God save us from artists and philosophers; I’ll always recoil from patronizing pieties made on their behalf.
And yet, without Kipling, would we ever have had this?: