Postcolonial theory—the intellectual rationale for the imperialist imposition of our cultural orthodoxies on all people everywhere—claimed another victim last week, as Rudyard Kipling’s poem “If—” was removed from a mural at Manchester University and replaced with Maya Angelou’s “Still I Rise.” The rationale provided by Sara Khan, the “Liberation and Access Officer” of the Student Union, was clear: “Kipling stands for the opposite of liberation, empowerment, and human rights—the things that we, as an SU, stand for.”
Now, I am no particular fan of Kipling. Of the poets of his generation, I prefer Housman and Yeats. I enjoyed The Just So Stories as a child but do not regard them as highly as the tales of Robert Louis Stevenson or Edgar Allan Poe. Nevertheless, Kipling was a fine writer—still the youngest-ever winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature—and works such as “If—” and The Jungle Book have been read with appreciation by generations. And like all good writers, Kipling can be enjoyed by those who do not share his background or his political convictions. As a teenage grammar-school boy from a nation and generation where class, not race or sexuality, was the primary category for thinking about diversity and exclusion, I thoroughly enjoyed Stalky and Co. and did not feel the least bit oppressed. And “If—,” the offending text in this case, is apparently the favorite poem of Serena Williams, hardly an advocate for white male imperialism.
Of course, Kipling was a man of his age. He wrote appreciatively of the British Empire, particularly India. Yet, as someone who lost a son in the trenches of the First World War, he had agonizing firsthand experience of the personal pain European imperialism and military ambition created. It is true that, by today’s standards, he would qualify as racist. But even on this issue there is room for nuance. In an interesting article in the New English Review, Ibn Warraq offers quotations from the published works and private letters of Kipling that, at a minimum, make his attitude to imperialism and other races appear more complicated than the Liberation and Access Officer of Manchester University SU seems to think.
That takes us to the heart of the problem. Postcolonial theory, for all its jargon, is built upon simplistic binaries: white versus black, male versus female, straight versus queer, the West versus the Rest. And it’s a zero-sum game: If somebody is poor or oppressed, then the culprit just has to be that person who is rich or free. Postcolonial critique can be culled from a Wikipedia entry, grasped in an instant, and deployed with ease through the medium of the moment: Twitter, with its truncation of all intelligent discourse.
Postcolonial theory offers a vision of the world that has no more moral sophistication than the typical B-movie Western from the 1950s, where the goodies and baddies were identifiable by the color of their hats. It is the perfect ideology for the imperialist parvenus of our culture of virtuous victimhood, who want to feel superior without the bother of having to respect the views of others, and who want to appear savvy without the intellectual effort of understanding their opponents. It is both intellectually and morally lazy, but its advocates seem to be getting away with it. Then again, bullies typically do—whether we are talking of the old imperialists with pith helmets and handlebar mustaches, or the new ones with tattoos and hashtags.
The irony, of course, is that handling the moral ambiguities of life, accepting that others might hold views different from one’s own, and having the humility to acknowledge that maybe this generation does not have a monopoly on wisdom, were traditionally parts of growing up and of becoming educated, in the true sense of the word. We need to recover that notion of education, if we are not to become a nation of permanently outraged adolescents. That is why it is so worrying to see this war against education unfolding on university campuses. If they enshrine permanent adolescence, then unless we raise the voting age to 65, we are in serious trouble.
So what if Rudyard Kipling or Joseph Conrad do not quite make the grade on some of today's political questions? Their greatness precludes their being reduced to today’s political questions. It lies in the fact that their portrait of life was rich and complex and, yes, often ambiguous—because that is what life is like. The left used to understand this. Old-style Marxists would acknowledge that reactionary authors might yet transcend their own limits to offer insights into reality, as Gyorgi Lukacs’s work on that quintessential Tory, Sir Walter Scott, shows. To dismiss all of Kipling because he regarded the British Empire as a good thing is akin to refusing to drive a car because Henry Ford was an anti-Semite.
Perhaps, if the Liberation and Access Officer of Manchester SU took the time to read and wrestle with authors with whom she disagrees, she might learn something. She wouldn’t be a man, as Kipling concludes (though it would no doubt contravene the SU’s ideals of “liberation” to rule that out completely), but she might make it to being an adult.
Carl R. Trueman is a professor in the Alva J. Calderwood School of Arts and Letters at Grove City College, Pennsylvania.