A Few Thoughts On Orwell, Kipling, Hillary, and Gore

(crossposted from Daily Kos)

George Orwell once referred to Rudyard Kipling as the “prophet of British imperialism.”  That he unquestionably was.  

Which is not to suggest that Kipling wasn’t a great writer.  He was that too.  

As Orwell wrote in this brilliant essay

Kipling is the only English writer of our time who has added phrases to the language.  The phrases and neologisms which we take over and use without remembering their origin do not always come from writers we admire.

One of Kipling’s most famous poems offers lessons to Hillary Clinton on how she ought to conduct herself as this marathon, bruising fight for the 2008 Democratic nomination draws to a close.  And the need for party unity becomes paramount to coalesce behind a once-in-a-generation candidate who is poised to succeed in the General Election in November.

The choice is obvious: either we succeed collectively or fail individually — only to see a continuation of the most destructive domestic and foreign policies in the post-WW II era.

That is simply what is at stake in this election.

Rudyard Kipling a prolific writer and controversial figure in his own lifetime, was much more than just a chronicler of the worldly pursuits of Britain as a dominant power in the late 19th century.  At the time, Great Britain was to the rest of the world that over a hundred years later the United States in some respects is today — a global hegemon in equal parts admired and revered yet despised and feared by many around the world.  

Willingly or not, such is the price a country pays for its global dominance.  Kipling’s writings reflect this sense of dominance, self-importance, and, yes, even responsibility to oneself and to others.  

At the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club at Wimbledon, just as players are about to enter Center Court and engage in fierce competition, there’s a sign that reminds players what winning and losing is all about


The poem ‘If’ is inspirational, motivational, and a set of rules for ‘grown-up’ living.  Kipling’s ‘If’ contains mottos and maxims for life, and the poem is also a blueprint for personal integrity, behaviour and self-development.  ‘If’ is perhaps even more relevant today than when Kipling wrote it, as an ethos and a personal philosophy.  Lines from Kipling’s ‘If’ appear over the player’s entrance to Wimbledon’s Centre Court – a poignant reflection of the poem’s timeless and inspiring quality.

Read the poem in full and listen to the below recitation.  I found it quite moving

IF

       If you can keep your head when all about you

       Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,

       If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you

       But make allowance for their doubting too,

       If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,

       Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,

       Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,

       And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:

       If you can dream–and not make dreams your master,

       If you can think–and not make thoughts your aim;

       If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster

       And treat those two impostors just the same;

       If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken

       Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,

       Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,

       And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:

       If you can make one heap of all your winnings

       And risk it all on one turn of pitch-and-toss,

       And lose, and start again at your beginnings

       And never breath a word about your loss;

       If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew

       To serve your turn long after they are gone,

       And so hold on when there is nothing in you

       Except the Will which says to them: “Hold on!”

       If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,

       Or walk with kings–nor lose the common touch,

       If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you;

       If all men count with you, but none too much,

       If you can fill the unforgiving minute

       With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,

       Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,

       And–which is more–you’ll be a Man, my son!

       — Rudyard Kipling


No matter the arena of competition, our society places a undue emphasis on and premium on winning. This is who we are. Rarely, if ever, are losers remembered for the valiant fights they fought.  But Kipling cautions us that there’s not much difference and, indeed, a fine line between winning and losing.  Both concepts are to be treated with a degree of indifference, perhaps even derision.

:: ::

No one in American political life today knows more about disappointment than probably Al Gore.  For over a year, when Gore was still considering (or, certainly not ruling out) a possible run in 2008, I and so many others on this web site aggressively promoted his candidacy.  We wrote, cajoled, petitioned, and did everything in our power to encourage him to join the fray.  His running (and subsequent election in 2008) would have been sweet vindication.  For many, the collective guilt of not seeing him in the White House where he rightfully belonged the past eight years would have been erased.

It wasn’t meant to be.  

As someone once commented in one of the numerous Gore Diaries I wrote until last Fall, Al Gore doesn’t just belong to us anymore.  The rest of the world also claimed him as one of its own.  Our loss was the planet’s gain.  And, disappointed or not, we respected that decision.  

In his brilliant speech following the atrocious legal decision by the Supreme Court of the United States in December 2000, Gore provides an example for Hillary on how to deal with adversity

Over the library of one of our great law schools is inscribed the motto, “Not under man but under God and law.”  That’s the ruling principle of American freedom, the source of our democratic liberties.  I’ve tried to make it my guide throughout this contest as it has guided America’s deliberations of all the complex issues of the past five weeks.

As for the battle that ends tonight, I do believe as my father once said, that no matter how hard the loss, defeat might serve as well as victory to shape the soul and let the glory out.

And now, my friends, in a phrase I once addressed to others, it’s time for me to go.

As some of you know, I worked for Gore on his 2000 Presidential Campaign in Nashville, Tennessee. As painful as it is for me to watch that speech again, I was never more proud of him when he delivered it.  Note: in this diary, I would prefer not to rehash the 2000 Election and its many aspects. We’ve thrashed it to death over the years.

In the years since that fateful decision by the US Supreme Court — or possibly ever — has anyone had a better second political act than Al Gore?  Is anyone more respected internationally today than Gore?  F. Scott Fitzgerald was wrong.  There are second acts in American life — provided one recognizes political reality and begins the process with a renewed sense of commitment.  

:: ::

Enough has been written in the past couple of days about Hillary Clinton’s faux pas yesterday and her insensitive comments for which she has rightly been taken to task and roundly condemned by friends and foes alike.  One fact, however, is undeniable: Hillary Clinton will always be remembered as a trailblazer in American politics.  Whether future female candidates for national office will emulate or shun her 2008 campaign model remains to be seen.  Her place in history is secure.  That is (or ought to be) obvious to her many supporters in the Democratic Party.  And particularly to her vociferous detractors.  

As Kipling suggested in his poem — and Al Gore so graciously demonstrated in his 2000 concession speech — it matters how people remember you years, even decades after you’ve conceded the national spotlight to others.  Winning is preferred in any pursuit; losing, though, can also render one free and sufficiently liberated to redefine one’s own legacy.

In that respect, Hillary Clinton can learn a thing or two from Rudyard Kipling and Al Gore.  When the moment is right, I’m fairly confident that she will make the right decision.  And demonstrate what Ernest Hemingway referred to as “grace under pressure.”  

She owes it not only to herself but also to the Democratic Party which has served as her vehicle in national politics and propelled her to this point in our nation’s history.

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9 comments

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  1. Tip Jar

    Thanks.

    • pico on May 26, 2008 at 12:26 pm

    I really really dislike Orwell’s essay on Kipling, which seems more an act of literary revenge than serious criticism.  Even Orwell’s reading of Kipling’s attitudes towards the empire are narrow (that’s not to say Orwell doesn’t have any insights – he does – but that he’s got such a narrow thesis that he has to eliminate a lot of Kipling’s best work to get there.)

  2. All left-wing parties in the highly industrialized countries are at bottom a sham, because they make it their business to fight against something which they do not really wish to destroy. They have internationalist aims, and at the same time they struggle to keep up a standard of life with which those aims are incompatible.

    We all live by robbing Asiatic coolies, and those of us who are ‘enlightened’ all maintain that those coolies ought to be set free; but our standard of living, and hence our ‘enlightenment’, demands that the robbery shall continue.

    Words as true now as when they were first written – maybe truer.

  3. “Lord God of Hosts,

    Be with us yet…

    Lest we forget,

    Lest we forget.”

    I keep think Bush needed to read that one, because he obviously forgot.

    And then there is the line:

    “A fool there was and he made a prayer,

    Even as you and I….

    A little dig at the “widow”, or in our times…. the “widow maker” W.

    And, Don’t forget Tommy…because…

    “Tommy ain’t no fool,

    You bet that Tommy sees.”

    He may have been an Imperialist, but he did have a few choice words for the folly of Imperialism, something Bush has not heeded.

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