Advice from Kipling & Orwell about America’s empire. Let’s listen.

Summary: Here’s a powerful poem by Rudyard Kipling. It’s about Britain, but also about us. The past provides a mirror in which we can see ourselves, valuable given the clouded vision that afflicts us. These notes from the past can help us get a grip on ourselves, and perhaps retake the reins of America.

“Recessional” by Rudyard Kipling

Composed for Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee (1897)

Rudyard Kipling

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!

For heathen heart that puts her trust
In reeking tube and iron shard,
All valiant dust that builds on dust,
And guarding, calls not Thee to guard,
For frantic boast and foolish word —
Thy mercy on Thy People, Lord!

For heathen heart that puts her trust
In reeking tube and iron shard—
All valiant dust that builds on dust,
And guarding calls not Thee to guard.
For frantic boast and foolish word,
Thy Mercy on Thy People, Lord!

Kipling’s words were a warning to Britain at its peak about the need to build its Empire on a just foundation, and that power and rapacity were just sand. By “lesser breeds” and “heathen heart” he pointed to Germany as an exemplar of a lawless people that believed that “might makes right”. (WWII proved that beyond question, after which Germany proved that people can change.)

Orwell’s comment about this poem applies as well to post-9/11 America. From his article in Horizon, February 1942

“No one, in our time, believes in any sanction greater than military power; no one believes that. … There is no “Law,” there is only power. I am not saying that is a true belief, merely that it is the belief which all modern men do actually hold. Those who pretend otherwise are either intellectual cowards, or power-worshippers under a thin disguise, or have simply not caught up with the age they are living in.”

We already had proven Orwell wrong when he wrote these words. On 14 August 1941 the UK and USA agreed to the Atlantic Charter, defining the goals of WWII as not just defeat of the Axis nations but also to create an international world order based on law. Twenty-six nations agreed to this statement (the Declaration by the United Nations), on n 1 January 1942. It was later embodied in the UN Charter signed on 26 June 1945. The long dream of a new world order had become real.

Unfortunately time has proven Orwell right about America’s true nature. Fifty-six years after the UN’s creation Bush and Cheney used 9/11 as an excuse to return the world to the primeval chaos where might makes right. Now that idealistic structure — and the long-term project of which it was part — lies in ruins. We have repeated our actions after WWI. Just as America abandoned President Wilson’s attempt to bring law to international relations through the League of Nations, which fell without its keystone.

The Bush – Cheney wars and failed occupations set the Middle East aflame. Iraq, Libya, Yemen, and Syria are burning. After two failures perhaps it is time for a new world leader.

American Bald Eagle
He’s displeased at our weakness.

The dynamics of Empire: cui bono?

Even today people like Niall Ferguson write nonsensical (but pretty) propaganda about the glories of the British Empire. We can excuse Kipling’s love for empire, but not that of a historian writing over a century later. Orwell cuts through Kipling’s idealism to see the base reality of empires.

“He {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.”

Like the British Empire, the American empire run for profit, but our elites extract them from home — from us — rather than the “wogs” abroad — through defense spending and keeping us distracted while they pick our pockets.

Orwell makes another powerful observation about imperial Britain that also describes America…

“it is a fact that Kipling’s ‘message’ was one that the big public did not want, and, indeed, has never accepted. The mass of the people, in the nineties as now, were anti-militarist, bored by the Empire, …”

The American people have always had an isolationist viewpoint, liking the pageantry but unwilling to support foreign wars with their money and blood — excerpt after provocations and when stoked by propaganda. As we have seen with our post-9/11 wars: strong support from the public at the start, which fades as the war runs on — but it makes no difference. The wars’ advocates remain confident, journalists act as cheerleaders, and the government (including liberals like Hilary and Obama) continue the wars.

If we leave the political machinery idle then others will run America. But we can take the reins of America if we have the will.

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