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Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Kevin Myers, Rudyard Kipling and Imperialist Rhetoric

It should, I suppose, come as no surprise that Kevin Myers’s poet of choice is Rudyard Kipling, “the poet of empire” as he was known, and as Kipling’s own official website proudly proclaims. In Myers’s Independent column of yesterday, 9 August 2011, he quoted a verse of Kipling’s on the solder’s life in Afghanistan in the late 19th century, as part of his tribute to 37 US soldiers killed in a helicopter crash.

Myers is our day and our country’s  prosodic poet of empire, a “believer in the American imperium”, as he puts it in his orotund way. “It is the most benign global force that there has existed… It is an association of the free. No one has to join.” 

Myers has, I suspect, been reading a lot of Kipling and other 19th century imperialists, as he is coming out with a rhetoric very much of the same sort. Aside from the fact he’s talking about the US and not Britain, it’s the very same. Is he nostalgic for the old times when Britannia ruled the waves? And now he seeks to approximate this golden age in the form of an US empire, “a benign global force”, if such a thing is not a contradiction in terms: benignity won’t get any force very far along the road to global domination.

Kipling was originator of that famous phrase “the white man’s burden”. His poem of that name is a stirring ode to imperialism:

Take up the White Man's burden--
Send forth the best ye breed--
Go, bind your sons to exile
To serve your captives' need;
To wait, in heavy harness,
On fluttered folk and wild--
Your new-caught sullen peoples
Half devil and half child.

Half devil and half child. Nice. And so on over several verses. The sort of stuff, I am sure, that Kevin Myers gets misty-eyed about, and from which he has learned many lessons of rhetoric. It is the same exhortatory and inflated tone that Myers himself aims at. It can be a powerful weapon in competent hands, such as, undoubtedly, Kipling’s. Another Kipling favourite is “Ulster 1912”, an address to the unionists of Northern Ireland as the spectre of Home Rule loomed:
The dark eleventh hour
Draws on and sees us sold
To every evil power
We fought against of old -
Rebellion, rapine, hate,
Oppression, wrong and greed
Are loosed to rule our fate
By England's art and deed.

The faith in which we stand,
The laws we made and guard,
Our honour, lives, and land
Are given for reward
To murder done by night
To treason taught by day,
To folly, sloth, and spite,
And we are thrust away

The evil powers of rebellion, rapine, hate. That would be the Irish Catholics, I suppose. Hardly an even-handed approach to the problem of Home Rule. Folly, sloth and spite as well. As an Irishman, I find this a nasty piece of work. But anyway, the rhetoric of English dominion over Ireland was always the same as the rhetoric of empire in other parts of the world, and it’s the same as Myers’s pro-American spiel:

“What we are seeing in the Hindu Kush is part of an epochal struggle between the primal and the complex: between the nihilism of jihadist fundamentalism, and rule of reason, law and science. There is no guarantee that the latter will prevail.”
America is reason, law and science and Afghanistan is nihilism. Simple. When one can see the world in such binary terms it’s easy to justify imperialism. But given how close Myers is ideologically to English imperialists of bygone days, I wonder what his attitude to the old British Empire and British rule in Ireland is. I’m not familiar enough with the entire body of his work to know – and don’t intend to attain that familiarity – but still I would like to know, because his line of reasoning seems to assume the more technologically advanced nation is necessarily superior, and has the right, nay the duty, to stamp its foot down on the lesser race, for what end I’m not sure.

Having been recently reading Thomas Carlyle and some other commentators on English imperialism and the Irish question, I find echoes of that attitude in Myers, and it is there, too, in the studiedly patrician tones of his voice; a man who clearly likes to consider himself of an emperor race. Not knowing his full geneology, I believe he is second-generation Irish, so I would be interested to know his views on the anti-Irish aspect of Kipling, who he quotes so admiringly. Does he note any similarity in how Kipling saw the Irish and how he saw the people of the Indian subcontinent? Does he see any similarity in Kipling’s Irish and his, Myers, view of Afghans and the like? Even better, read Carlyle on the Irish. Had Kevin Myers been born some generations earlier he, as an Irishman, would have been spoken about as he now speaks of Afghans. Does this fact give him any pause for thought at all? Even for the briefest moment? That is what I’d like to know.

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