A 21st Century Recessional Odyssey
As John Derbyshire wrote on the eve of July 4th, 2002, less than a year after 9/11, and a century after Rudyard Kipling's epic poem of England at the peak of her powers:
Kipling's intent in "Recessional" was, as he himself plainly said many times, to strike a note of moral responsibility among all the self-congratulatory bombast. A deeply superstitious man, he felt what he said in the poem: that great power must be accompanied with great humility. Human beings, and the nations they make, live out their lives under the eye of a higher Authority, who is not pleased by displays of arrogance. It is interesting to note that Kipling took no payment for the poem, and in fact never made a penny from it. He regarded it as a public service, an act of duty.
I think that "Recessional" has something to tell us today. Of course, the circumstances of the United States in 2002 are not those of Britain in 1897. We are not an imperial power, and we have no wish to be. We do not hold, and do not want to hold, "dominion over palm and pine," either under God's hand or any other arrangement. We are a commercial republic of free citizens who, on the whole, prefer to mind our own business.
We are, however, Top Dog among nations, just as Britain was Top Dog 105 years ago. That state of affairs brings with it certain inevitable consequences, and certain responsibilities that cannot be shirked. Those consequences, and those responsibilities, are much less welcome to us than they were to Queen Victoria's Britain, because we are a different kind of country; but to pretend they don't exist — that we can mind our own business in blithe disregard of what is happening elsewhere in the world — is irresponsible folly. Hundreds of millions of people all over the world admire us; hundreds of millions more hate us. We are the Cargo nation; and when the Cargo fails to arrive, it is surely we, through our cruel malice, who must have withheld it. Hundreds of millions would come to live here if they could; most of them to improve their lives, some for other reasons.
For all the differences between our time and Kipling's, and between our nation and his, some things are still the same. This world is still, as it was in 1897, "a nest of burglars." Civilization still needs defending — watchfully, ceaselessly — against barbarism. Sometimes, as we saw last year, barbarism will break through the defenses. Sometimes, as we see so often in our universities, those defenses crumble and decay because the ones who should guard them have, instead, been assaulting them with picks and hammers from the inside, from sheer joy of destruction and arrogance of intellect.
Flash-forward another eight years. At Newsreal, Kathy Shaidle writes, "Glenn Beck’s educated, sophisticated critics" at the Huffington Post "have never heard of Nobel Prize winning poet," Rudyard Kipling.
"Has it ever occurred to you, Winston, that by the year 2050, at the very latest, not a single human being will be alive who could understand such a conversation as we are having now?"