The Lincoln Plawg - the blog with footnotes
Saturday, November 27, 2004
Would a satirical reading of White Man's Burden be anachronistic?
I'm reading Tony Judt's NYROB review article  on the US and empire when the three little words crop up.
I naturally turn to the text of Rudyard Kipling's famous admonition to refresh my memory, only to find this locus classicus of the English straight bat - Play up and play the game  and all that jazz - is dripping with sarcasm.
Empire-building is a ghastly business: there's no profit in it -
To seek another's profit- one gets no thanks from the natives -
Your new-caught sullen peoples,- for the improvements one makes: and one's work is liable to be ruined at any moment at the hands of the little brown brothers -
And when your goal is nearest
The complaint smacks of the sort made by the British about the Americans' late entry into both World Wars (of the Good of you to turn up variety). Or Winston Churchill's famous line to the effect  that
The Americans will always do the right thing... after they've exhausted all the alternatives.
A strong vein of (morale-boosting but not jingoistic) English character that showed itself in wartime humour - the cartoons of Bruce Bairnsfather  in the First World War and the 1960s/70s TV sitcom Dad's Army : only Daily Mail-reading Little Englanders in their bungalows who had been no closer to India than Margate would think there was anything glorious about empire . It was, in some cases, a necessary evil.
When the poem was published in the US in 1899, it seems it was not taken as satire . But that is scarcely conclusive of Kipling's views on the subject.
(There is, perhaps, a compare and contrast possible with the attitudes to the White Man's Burden after World War 2 (as oh so differently borne by Yanks and Brits) displayed in the works of Graham Greene - in the Quiet American and The Third Man, for instance .)
I may return to the substance of Judt's piece when I've read it!
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