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George Orwell, my favorite essayist, described reading Kipling’s poetry as “a shameful pleasure, like the taste for cheap sweets that some people secretly carry into middle life.” That, I have to admit, is much the attitude I have towards Bill Kristol’s New York Times columns. They’re so bad, so predictable, so thoroughly clichéd that it’s a sort of malicious treat to read them. And today’s exercise, “Democrats Should Read Kipling,” which offers us Rudyard Kipling supposedly through the optic of Kristol reading Orwell, is a veritable stale Milk Dud. It’s too bad to resist.
Reading Kristol and other writers he assembles at the Weekly Standard is another of my embarrassing pleasures. I often get a glimpse of the mentality of Kipling, the thinker whose loftiest thoughts include the “white man’s burden” and the long recessional into the twilight in the defense of civilization and Empire. Sometimes it’s a glimpse of the Proper World, a view of European men in stiff white linens sitting on a veranda and discussing the Great Questions of the Day as they are served tea from a shining silver service by some dark-skinned houseboy. Or perhaps it’s the noble gallantry of the Light Brigade charging off to certain death. Or the humorous rough-and-tumble of Tommy Atkins, the soldier.
No, Orwell very accurately reminds us, Kipling is “not a fascist.” “He is a jingo imperialist, he is morally insensitive and aesthetically disgusting.” Kipling’s virile defense of empire can be conjured in the image found in his works, of “a soldier beating a ‘nigger’ with a cleaning rod in order to get money out of him.”
How kind of Kristol now to offer us up Kipling with all his blemishes as a model of moral and political instruction for Democrats, who now appear bent on defiance of the White Male world through their fool’s choice between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.
Kipling “at least tried to imagine what action and responsibility are like.” For, Orwell explains, “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.” Furthermore, “where it is a permanent and pensioned opposition, as in England, the quality of its thought deteriorates accordingly.”
If I may vulgarize the implications of Orwell’s argument a bit: substitute Republicans for Kipling and Democrats for the opposition, and you have a good synopsis of the current state of American politics.
A well-chosen word, that “vulgarize.” So what are the lessons that Kipling-Kristol would conjure for us?
Having controlled the executive branch for 28 of the last 40 years, Republicans tend to think of themselves as the governing party — with some of the arrogance and narrowness that implies, but also with a sense of real-world responsibility. Many Democrats, on the other hand, no long [sic] even try to imagine what action and responsibility are like. They do, however, enjoy the support of many refined people who snigger at the sometimes inept and ungraceful ways of the Republicans. (And, if I may say so, the quality of thought of the Democrats’ academic and media supporters — a permanent and, as it were, pensioned opposition — seems to me to have deteriorated as Orwell would have predicted.)
The Democrats won control of Congress in November 2006, thanks in large part to President Bush’s failures in Iraq. Then they spent the next year seeking to ensure that he couldn’t turn those failures around. Democrats were “against” the war and the surge. That was the sum and substance of their policy. They refused to acknowledge changing facts on the ground, or to debate the real consequences of withdrawal and defeat. It was, they apparently thought, the Bush administration, not America, that would lose. The 2007 Congressional Democrats showed what it means to be an opposition party that takes no responsibility for the consequences of the choices involved in governing.
So it continues in 2008. 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.
What a torrent of brilliant insights. First, we learn that the Republicans are the “natural party of government,” which indeed reflects their self-perception and a key to the party’s ability to raise talent and money. The Democrats may “snigger” at them, but that reflects only their distance from the real-world demands of leadership. And “leadership” in the Kipling-Kristol vision means, of course, military adventures overseas, which are to be led by heroic masculine figures and not challenged or tested through any sort of democratic process.
What Kristol is busily working at, and indeed forms one of his most enduring formulas, is the Dolchstoß (“stabbed in the back”) legend. Following the tactic mastered by the German right in the violent and anarchistic wake of World War I and mimicked around the world in successive decades, any failed military escapade must be blamed on the meddling of liberals who lack faith in the virile leader and his generals. When this tactic is pulled off well, a military defeat has no consequences for those whose miscalculations produced it—rather it will provide an opportunity for them to bolster their political position. Kristol is already busy rehearsing his arguments for the fall campaign, in which Americans will be asked to choose between the heroic (in my view, genuinely heroic) figure of John McCain and the “Defeatocrats.”
So note how the Democrats have undermined the great leader, George W. Bush, and robbed him of the victory which he would otherwise have secured. Someone should remind me how the Democrats blocked Bush’s implementation of his strategy of choice? In fact they’re in the public opinion doldrums right now because they failed to do precisely that. They allowed Bush to pursue his strategies without obstacle. And the public is furious at them. Of course, the facts don’t fit very effectively into the Dolchstoß model, so they require a bit of airbrushing.
Kristol makes the quick leap from White House talking point one to White House talking point two. Those Democrats dared to go into recess without giving Bush the telecom immunity measure that he desperately wanted. Here he musters two generals and an admiral, “highly respected and nonpolitical officials with little in the way of partisanship or ideology in their backgrounds.” And like the good soldiers that they are, McConnell, Hayden and Mukasey lead the charge up Capitol Hill to fulfill their appointed mission and serve their commander in chief. By the way, let’s not wade into the rationale for this measure. When McConnell attempted that last week what emerged was three minutes of incomprehensible gibberish. Evidently, the telecoms, having collaborated with the Bush Administration in violation of the criminal law, will not collaborate with them now that the law has been amended so that their collaboration is lawful. They won’t do it unless they get a pass on criminal charges from their prior law-breaking. The problem is, of course, that no one believes this nonsense, starting with McConnell himself.
However, the Democrats’ failure to do as the commander-in-chief orders shows not that they take the Constitution seriously, but that they won’t accept responsibility for engaging with the “real world.” Engaging with the “real world” requires eviscerating the Constitution to transfer all power to our commander-in-chief, and adjusting our society to a suitably military model.
But Kristol suppresses the essence of Orwell’s analysis, because it serves just as well to expose Kristol. Orwell and Kipling were each children of the empire, both born and raised in the confines of the colonial service in the Subcontinent. Kipling at his best gives us a glimpse of the brutality and inhumanity of that system, but he then proceeds to sugarcoat and glorify it. Orwell is ever the detached and dispassionate observer, one of the greatest narrators of the colonial experience. And here is Orwell’s salute to a writer who, though inferior, in many ways blazed the same trail:
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 judgment, 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. . . He dealt largely in platitudes, and since we live in a world of platitudes, much of what he said sticks.
Kristol and Kipling are alas so much alike. But they differ in one fundamental respect. Kipling was a conservative, but he was not a party man. Kristol is little but a creature of his party. I look forward to January 20, 2009. I fully anticipate that Kristol’s attitudes about presidential power will undergo a sweeping transformation on that day. He and I are likely to become allies in battling the encroachments of the executive. I’ll welcome him as an ally. Until then, I expect he will continue to produce a stream of columns just like this one—not pieces that will stand the test of time and offer us something enduring, but simple and relatively unimaginative partisan polemic. Kipling at least offered us poetry, but as Orwell noted, it was “good bad poetry.”
More from Scott Horton:
Conversation — August 5, 2016, 12:08 pm
Sidney Blumenthal on the origins of the Republican Party, the fallout from Clinton’s emails, and his new biography of Abraham Lincoln
Conversation — March 30, 2016, 3:44 pm
Joseph Hickman discusses his new book, The Burn Pits, which tells the story of thousands of U.S. soldiers who, after returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, have developed rare cancers and respiratory diseases.
Chances that an American knows the position of his or her senators on health-care reform:
Climate experts proposed creating a fleet of cloud-seeding yachts that will pump water vapor into the atmosphere to thicken global cloud cover, thereby reflecting more sunlight, in order to counteract the effects of global warming.
In San Antonio, a 150-pound pet tortoise knocked over a lamp, igniting a mattress fire that spread to a neighbor’s home.
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"It is an interesting and somewhat macabre parlor game to play at a large gathering of one’s acquaintances: to speculate who in a showdown would go Nazi. By now, I think I know. I have gone through the experience many times—in Germany, in Austria, and in France. I have come to know the types: the born Nazis, the Nazis whom democracy itself has created, the certain-to-be fellow-travelers. And I also know those who never, under any conceivable circumstances, would become Nazis."