I am a great admirer of Mister Rudyard Kipling, and especially of his poetry. As I once read somewhere (that I cannot not now recall), it seems that in every generation the ‘best’ critics pronounce him to be irrelevant, and yet in every subsequent generation Kipling is still there, still read, and still admired, while those who dismiss him have a way of being forgotten.
Of all his many great poems, Gunga Din is one of his greatest. It is rather long, so I won’t reproduce the whole thing here, but the summary is that the speaker is a British Army veteran telling the story of Gunga Din, the bhisti (water carrier) of his regiment in India. Though the British soldiers looked down on him and mistreated him, Din was devoted and fearless, never complaining and finally dying in the act of saving the speaker’s life. The poem ends with the famous summation:
"Yes, Din! Din! Din!
You Lazarushian leather Gunga Din!
Though I’ve belted you and flayed you,
By the livin’ Gawd that made you,
You’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din."
There is much that could be said about this poem, but my point is not so much to praise it, as it is to illustrate something about our own world.
Many a modern Progressive westerner would be and has been appalled by lines in the poem, such as “For all his dusky hide / he was white, pure white inside.” They (correctly, as far as it goes) consider this a racist turn of phrase, of the kind that they themselves would never dream of using. As likely as not, this alone would be enough to make them dismiss Kipling as a mere ‘white supremacist’ (if not, then certainly one look at the title of another great Kipling poem, The White Man’s Burden would do the trick).
I’m not going to try to defend Kipling against the charge of being a racist, especially as I believe that, by our standards, he in fact was. But I do want to do draw your attention to a curious twist in the modern mindset. It is that we have tremendous trouble grasping principles.
Our moral objections are almost all based on a simple fact: that this kind of person is being mistreated, or that this particular thing is being done. To put it philosophically, we are preoccupied with the matter of a thing and pay little attention to its form. Thus, a large number of modern people really do think that there is a great moral difference between hating a man for his race and hating him for his economic status, or between a woman despising men as such and a man despising women as such. That both are as much the same crime as stealing cash is to stealing jewelry doesn’t seem to occur to us.
Now, you cannot think sense about morality unless you get this idea of principles clear, and you cannot get it clear until you can identify what is and is not an equivalent case.
The respective views of Mr. Kipling and a modern college student on the subject of the Indian peoples, for instance, is not an equivalent case, for they were raised in completely different intellectual climates. Kipling’s point of view was never seriously presented to the college student as something he ought to believe; if it was presented at all, it was as a historical relic that has been supplanted. The reason the modern college student doesn’t think as Kipling did is not because he is that much more enlightened than Kipling, but because it was never a serious option for him to do so. He may as well be proud of the fact that he never owned a slave or mistreated a horse. Likewise, Kipling never seriously encountered a perspective that we would recognize as Progressive, and certainly wasn’t raised to one (though he was likely to be much the more independent thinker of the two, but we’ll discount that for now).
I am not here saying that Kipling’s Imperialism and the modern’s Progressivism are morally equivalent; that’s as may be. I am saying that they are socially equivalent. What we would call racist sentiments was as common in Kipling’s day as progressive sentiment is in ours. In both cases they are more or less the accepted, cultured view among the educated classes. And both have their ‘Other:’ the people who, in the common view, are ‘lesser than us.’ For the Imperialist it was the native population; for the Progressive, it is (among others) the Imperialist.
And herein lies the equivalent case; not how each regards Indian people, but how each regards their particular ‘Other.’ Stripped of their respective idioms, this is what is being said on each side:
The modern says, “This man is of this type and therefore he is of no account.”
Kipling says, “This man is of this type, but nevertheless is of more account than I.”
Kipling, you see, has the more humble, the more open-minded sentiment. Kipling had, in fact, more of the virtue in which name he is despised than the modern who despises him. It is only the difference in whom they address that virtue to (an accident of history) that makes for the illusion that it is otherwise.
The reason this should be is that, as I understand it, in Kipling’s worldview, the ‘Other’ was not morally distinguished, only racially and culturally. It might be given to the white man to rule the other races, but that didn’t mean that any given white man was morally superior to any given brown man.
By contrast, Progressivism is inherently moralistic; it defines its positions as the morally correct ones, and anyone who deviates from them is morally tainted for that reason. Their ‘Other’ must be less than themselves by definition, and so the very possibility for nobility and magnanimity toward the ‘Other’ is lost. Any such efforts would be regarded as enabling or validating evil worldviews.
This, by the way, may seem to stand in strange contrast with the fact that moral relativism (that each man must work out for himself what he believes is right) is a Progressive doctrine. In fact, it follows from it. For if every man creates his own morality, than if a man’s morality seems wrong to us, it is he himself who must be wrong. If a man’s morality causes him, say, to object to our living with our girlfriend unmarried, he isn’t stating what seems to him a matter of fact, but deliberately choosing to think badly of us, for he made his own morality and could make it otherwise if he cared to. Moral relativism, of its nature, makes a crime of any morality that is not relativistic, just as religious pluralism tacitly declares all religions claiming to be the truth to be false.
That is why Kipling could be noble in his sentiments to his ‘Other’, but a thoroughgoing Progressive could not. The modern Progressive would cheerfully call a man like Kipling all the equivalent names that the British soldiers heaped on Gunga Din. He would gladly belt and flay him and imagine him condemned to Hell. But the one thing the modern Progressive who so despises Imperialists like Kipling could never say to such a man is that final, humble confession:
"By the livin’ Gawd that made you,
You’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din."
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