337. Influence (IX)
Throughout my life, Rudyard Kipling has been targeted to have his name effaced from university walls or his books removed from libraries; although the 2020 BLM riots produced no “cancel Kipling” sentiment, so far as I saw, it is easy to imagine his statue being pulled down or his portrait vandalised. If that were to happen, there would be the usual protests from The Spectator and the like: tributes to a great poet, recollections of The Jungle Book as a bedtime story, and lamentations that modern men do not know how to “be a man, my boy”.
Kipling is genuinely hated by the contemporary left because he was an earlier iteration of the same. Just as Trotsky was loathed by the Communists more than any crusty bewhiskered reactionary, so—here Freud was right—we operate by the narcissism of minor differences. The people who get cancelled the hardest are those who express views that are almost in line with contemporary progressive views on race and sex, but not quite. Kipling was just such a case; though it is hard to see now because he is read as an arch-reactionary figure, the personification of the British Empire.
Kipling was a good liberal—more than that, he was a journalist; in other words, he was on the left by default. He personified the British Empire, but he personified it when it was in, as with the contemporary American Empire, its social worker phase—its decadent phase, when colonialism was forgotten and government bureaucratic enterprises to “raise up the natives” were under way. Above all, Kipling is most excoriated by the left for the phrase “the white man’s burden” (which we are meant to take up). The reason this phrase rankles contemporary progressives so much is that it gives the game away; confidentially, they think they have taken up the white man’s burden. They have taken it up so exquisitely that part of the burden is never to say it is a burden, lest the burden feel upset about it—or lest your fellow progressives feel you are being unduly insensitive. Kipling is hated for the white man’s burden—“so racist”—because it too directly reminds progressives what they really think.
So be in no doubt that Kipling, were he alive today, would deploy sentimental speeches on talkshows to tell how, despite the farcical withdrawal from Kabul: “It’s the duty of every English lad to see a square deal for the widows, orphans, and distressed folk of Kabul; for the Afghan is a noble breed, who may even find respite on Albion’s placid soil.” Now, Kipling lived in India so he might have been a bit more realistic than that; but as a type he would belong with today’s pundits who lament Western withdrawal from Kabul.
His most notable books, Kim and The Jungle Book, are about outsiders who seamless penetrate alien worlds—Indian society as boy spy and animal society as an orphan—and this reflects Kipling’s underlying conviction that we are all mutable and interchangeable, even so as to become animals. Writers and journalists tend towards narcissism; and Kipling’s books fully articulate the idea that you can put on any mask you want and then belong. If anything, his books represent early anti-racism, since they caution upstanding British lads against holding the natives in contempt and calling them “wogs” or “niggers”—for his time, Kipling prefigured such classics as Anti-Racist Baby. Once again, Kipling is hated because he has not caught up—cannot catch up: we are no longer meant to teach the Afghans cricket and Utilitarianism, we are meant to teach them Facebook and Gender Studies.
Unlike most elite social commentators today, Kipling did at least become more realistic—or disillusioned, perhaps the same thing—after WWI and that was because his son died in the war, a war Kipling had propagandised for. Yet such commitment to “the burden” is vanishingly rare in our contemporary Kiplings, so late life realism will have to wait for them.