The 150th anniversary of Rudyard Kipling’s birth in Mumbai (30th Dec 1865) has not been receiving much attention. As the first writer of English to win the Nobel Prize for literature one might have thought that his birth would have been worth commemorating; not least, because of our obsession with ‘celebrity’. Why is the greatest ‘celebrity’ of the greatest empire the world has ever seen, George Orwell’s “prophet of empire”, at best, ignored and at worst reviled?
Sadly, he is widely regarded as out of step with the way we are supposed to think these days. The labels, ‘racist’ and ‘imperialist’ are indelibly associated with Kipling. They damn him as much as they damn his hero, Cecil Rhodes. Both men, though, were representative of their time and, as with most sweeping generalisations, the labels present only part of the picture.
Kipling may have seen imperialism in terms of the “White Man’s Burden” but his British soldier knew that:
“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!”
Knee jerk denunciations of Kipling and of the British Empire and of all it stood for have, too often, become the common currency of intellectual debate in our universities and in our classrooms. Such narrow-minded prejudice is the antithesis of ‘real’ education. What service do we do our youngsters when we encourage them to make such simplistic judgements? How many teachers and lecturers are referencing Kipling’s opposition to fascism? As early as 1933 he had warned that “The Hitlerites are out for blood” and by 1935 he had identified Mussolini as an unhinged egomaniac. He denounced Oswald Mosley in similar terms.
Young children, of course, are more inclined towards a favourable opinion of Kipling but how long will it be before “The Jungle Book”, too, is placed on an index of forbidden books? The Friends’ Central School in Philadelphia has just banned Mark Twain’s “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” on the grounds that it is not “inclusive”. In the UK we are moving in the same direction. The “whatculture.com” website, for example, has a section headed:
“10 classic children’s book that are actually racist”.
Here they are:
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
The Secret Garden
Tintin in the Congo
The Chronicles of Narnia
The Little House on the Prairie
Playing the ‘race card’ is the nuclear option on today’s educational battlefield. It brooks no opposition and has become the last refuge of educational scoundrels and charlatans.
Shackled, as teachers are, by the need to see the world – past and present- through a lens of political correctness, ‘educators’ are cutting the roots of our national identity. And, as we know, when the roots are cut the plant dies.
Racism is absurd but so, too, is seeing and judging the past through the eyes of the present. Racism may have been a feature of British imperial rule but it has been a feature of human behaviour throughout history – white on black, black on white, white on white, black on black and so on. It is still with us. The Rwandan genocide is a recent example.
It is the absurdity of racism that we need to present to children, not a distorted, one-sided picture of the past. It is time, then, to inject a bit of insightful humour into the debate. I suspect that young people, including those at Oriel College, Oxford, could learn a ‘thing or two’ about racism from the BBC’s 1970s Likely Lads” comedy series. As head teacher, it formed part of an assembly I did on racism. The message registered more, I think, than any diatribe against Kipling and the British Empire.
Bob: I bet we could go right round the world and you’d have a pat response ready.
Terry Collier: I’ve travelled man, I’ve seen a bit of the world now you know.
Bob: What do you think of Koreans, for instance?
Terry Collier: Not to be trusted. Cruel people. Much the same as all Orientals.
Bob: That’s a third of the world’s population dismissed in a phrase. Russians?
Terry Collier: Sinister.
Terry Collier: Cowardly.
Bob: Oh? I thought you might have saved that for Italians.
Terry Collier: No, no, they’re greasy aren’t they? Not as greasy as the French mind.
Terry Collier: Arrogant.
Terry Collier: Lazy.
Terry Collier: Pornographic.
Bob: Well that’s just about everyone. Oh, Americans?
Terry Collier: Well, they’re flash aren’t they?
Bob: So it’s just down to the British, is it?
Terry Collier: Well, I haven’t got much time for the Irish or the Welsh, and the Scots are worse than the Koreans.
Bob: And you never could stand Southerners.
Terry Collier: To tell you the truth I don’t like anybody much outside this town. And there’s a lot of families in our street I can’t stand either. Come to think of it, I don’t even like the people next door.
Bob: I see, so from the distant blue Pacific through the barren wastes of Manchuria, to 127 Inkerman Terrace, you can’t abide anyone.
(Image Courtesy Herry Lawford, Flickr)