Thursday, May 13, 2004

LEARN TO READ. In defending the indefensible (i.e., himself), John Derbyshire aligns his brutal judgement on Abu Ghraib (i.e., torture all you want, just don’t include sex, consensual or otherwise) with Orwell:
One of the many things Orwell taught us (see, e.g., his essay on Kipling) is that the dirty work of civilization -- the work of policemen, prison guards, soldiers, interrogators of terrorist suspects -- is *dirty*. It's rough work, and won't always meet the standards of my and your personal lives. Someone is doing it on our behalf, though, right now -- not just in Baghdad, but in jails and police stations across America, and honesty compels us to acknowledge their work, and the much greater horrors it helps keep at bay.
I have no doubt Derbyshire is steeped in Kipling ("It’s ‘Tommy’ this, and ‘Tommy’ that, and ‘Tommy, wait outside’/But it’s ‘Special train for Atkins’ when the trooper’s on the tide," and all that), but his understanding of Orwell on Kipling seems poor, if this is the essay he’s talking about:
It is no use claiming, for instance, that when Kipling describes a British soldier beating a ‘nigger’ with a cleaning rod in order to get money out of him, he is acting merely as a reporter and does not necessarily approve what he describes. There is not the slightest sign anywhere in Kipling’s work that he disapproves of that kind of conduct -- on the contrary, there is a definite strain of sadism in him, over and above the brutality which a writer of that type has to have. Kipling is a jingo imperialist, he is morally insensitive and aesthetically disgusting. It is better to start by admitting that, and then to try to find out why it is that he survives while the refined people who have sniggered at him seem to wear so badly.
And so on. Orwell’s appreciation of Kipling was real, but in defending him against the "refined people," he was certainly not defending Kipling’s enthusiasm for "Imperialism as a sort of forcible evangelizing" -- Orwell’s words, which Derbyshire would seem to take as an unequivocal endorsement.

Orwell was sensible of the difference between "the nineteenth-century imperialist outlook" – Kipling’s – "and the modern gangster outlook" -- represented by the Fascism at which England was then at war. Orwell seems to have preferred the former, at least in terms of moral clarity, but he was also well aware that "Kipling does not seem to realize, any more than the average soldier or colonial administrator, that an empire is primarily a money-making concern."

I think a lot of conservatives latch onto Orwell because he talks smack about liberals, and there is certainly an abundance of this in his Kipling essay. (Of course, they tend to elide the inconvenient fact of Orwell’s Socialism, and now that Christopher Hitchens has loosened his own grip of that banner, they generally prefer to get their Orwellism from him.) One would think, though, that moral absolutists such as they would not mistake the sharing of an annoyance with a commonality of interest – unless their only genuine interest is to talk smack about liberals, which seems to be the case.

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