Saturday, December 24, 2016

Rudyard Kipling: The Stranger

The British intellectual and Nobel Prize in Literature winner Rudyard Kipling for most of his life was an unabashed pro-imperialist and pro-colonialist who apparently never really gave serious thought to the idea that people, especially non-white people, shouldn't be ruled by their betters, by which he usually meant English whites or at least whites of Anglo-Saxon stock. Kipling had little confidence in the abilities of people outside of that group to rule themselves. He extended this skepticism to the Irish, being an ardent foe of Irish home rule. Kipling justified British rule over the Irish by using the same tropes and dodges that Europeans used to justify their rule over Asians and Africans. It was only later in life after his son was killed in WWI that Kipling may have begun to rethink some of his more jingoistic views.Even though Kipling was criticized in his time and ours for some of his more reactionary ideas, few people ever questioned his literary talent or his devotion to his country. The recent terrorist incidents in Germany, France, Belgium, the UK and elsewhere in Europe which were primarily committed by recently arrived non-Europeans reminded me of Kipling's poem "The Stranger". It's Kipling at his most nationalistic. I'm not a huge fan of this poem. It has a smug tone. All the same regardless of whether you think this piece is a stirring paean to nationalism or an ugly screed to race hatred I think it's important to realize that nationalism and its uglier cousins of xenophobia and racism aren't going away anytime soon. "The Stranger" touches something real in this world. Nationalism isn't automatically an evil thing. There are limits to how many immigrants any country can accept, particularly if the cultures of the immigrant and his destination country are very different. This is especially the case in Europe, where most of the countries have been ethnic homelands of one kind or another instead of open source states like the USA. Theoretically anyone on the planet can become an American. That has never been the case with most other countries. To be a German or an Ethiopian is a statement of bloodlines and ethnicity just as much as it is a statement of geographic origin. The unchecked influx of the Global South into the Global North can't go on forever. It has caused, and will continue to cause, an increase in the popularity of right-wing nationalist movements. And I don't think those trends will be good for anyone. We may imagine a world where everyone can all just get along but as long as we have different nations, different languages and different ideas about how to set up societies that world isn't going to come about by pretending to ignore our differences. Progressives will need to re-engage with nationalism. It can't be left to the right.
The Stranger
by Rudyard Kipling
The Stranger within my gate,
He may be true or kind,
But he does not talk my talk--
I cannot feel his mind.
I see the face and the eyes and the mouth,
But not the soul behind.

The men of my own stock,
They may do ill or well,
But they tell the lies I am wanted to,
They are used to the lies I tell;
And we do not need interpreters
When we go to buy or sell.
The Stranger within my gates,
He may be evil or good,
But I cannot tell what powers control--
What reasons sway his mood;
Nor when the Gods of his far-off land
Shall repossess his blood.

The men of my own stock,
Bitter bad they may be,
But, at least, they hear the things I hear,
And see the things I see;
And whatever I think of them and their likes
They think of the likes of me.

This was my father's belief
And this is also mine:
Let the corn be all one sheaf--
And the grapes be all one vine,
Ere our children's teeth are set on edge
By bitter bread and wine.
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