If you caught William Kristol's column today, you know about the meme he is promoting -- namely that, as the opposition party, the fatal flaw of the Democrats is that they have been excused from the responsibility for making decisions. Those irresponsible Democrats are contrasted with Kristol's ruling Republicans who must always ask "in such and such circumstances, what would you do?" Kristol gleans this insight from a 1942 Orwell essay on Kipling.
While there is a degree of truth to be found in Orwell's insight into the opposition, Kristol's admiration for the essay does not extend so far as to actually share this insight within the context of Orwell's broader portrait of Kipling. To a startling degree, Orwell's description of Kipling resembles men like Kristol. That description is not wholly flattering. Perhaps Kristol was hoping that his political comrades in the blogs would eagerly develop the self-serving meme without bothering to read an essay that should embarrass the man who cherry-picked an insight to serve his narrow partisan purpose. Or, maybe it's simply the case that, blind to his own troubling limitations, Kristol can't admit to a sense of kinship with the deeply flawed Kipling of Orwell's rendering.
Although Orwell correctly identified a flaw among some who are part of a privileged and secure opposition -- they can maintain a sense of virtue while relying on the ruling establishment to promote the uncivilized dirty work that affords them a more comfortable life -- he was not suggesting that the ruling establishment sees matters clearly, acts morally or judges wisely. This less politically useful dimension of the essay has escaped Kristol's attention.
As you read the following excerpts from Orwell's piece, think of Kristol, Neocons, oil, Iraq, Arabs and the Middle East:
Kipling spent the later part of his life in sulking, and no doubt it was political disappointment rather than literary vanity that account for this. Somehow history had not gone according to plan. After the greatest victory she had ever known, Britain was a lesser world power than before, and Kipling was quite acute enough to see this. The virtue had gone out of the classes he idealized, the young were hedonistic or disaffected, the desire to paint the map red had evaporated. He 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. He could not foresee, therefore, that the same motives which brought the Empire into existence would end by destroying it. It was the same motive, for example, that caused the Malayan jungles to be cleared for rubber estates, and which now causes those estates to be handed over intact to the Japanese. The modern totalitarians know what they are doing, and the nineteenth-century English did not know what they were doing. Both attitudes have their advantages, but Kipling was never able to move forward from one into the other. His outlook, allowing for the fact that after all he was an artist, was that of the salaried bureaucrat who despises the ‘box-wallah’ and often lives a lifetime without realizing that the ‘box-wallah’ calls the tune.
And see if you don't recognize a bit of Kristol in this:
How far does Kipling really identify himself with the administrators, soldiers and engineers whose praises he sings? Not so completely as is sometimes assumed. He had travelled very widely while he was still a young man, he had grown up with a brilliant mind in mainly philistine surroundings, and some streak in him that may have been partly neurotic led him to prefer the active man to the sensitive man. The nineteenth-century Anglo-Indians, to name the least sympathetic of his idols, were at any rate people who did things. It may be that all that they did was evil, but they changed the face of the earth (it is instructive to look at a map of Asia and compare the railway system of India with that of the surrounding countries), whereas they could have achieved nothing, could not have maintained themselves in power for a single week, if the normal Anglo-Indian outlook had been that of, say, E.M. Forster. Tawdry and shallow though it is, Kipling's is the only literary picture that we possess of nineteenth-century Anglo-India, and he could only make it because he was just coarse enough to be able to exist and keep his mouth shut in clubs and regimental messes. But he did not greatly resemble the people he admired. I know from several private sources that many of the Anglo-Indians who were Kipling's contemporaries did not like or approve of him. They said, no doubt truly, that he knew nothing about India, and on the other hand, he was from their point of view too much of a highbrow.