Sunday, 2 November 2014

Benign racism: the most pernicious form

There’s such power in Rudyard Kipling. 

The characters in Kim, for instance, are unforgettable: the red-bearded giant of a Pathan horse dealer, Mahbub Ali; the Babu, Hurree Chunder Mookherjee, self-declared a “fearful man”, but staking his life on serving the British Raj; and perhaps one of the most endearing figures in literature, Teshoo Lama from Tibet, seeking the river that will wash him clean of all taint of sin.

To say nothing of Kim, the epitome of the lovable rogue, constantly in mischief, whether his own or other people’s, a white but able to pass himself off as any of half a dozen Indian types. At least.

And yet, the pleasure of reading Kim comes with an uncomfortable trace of embarrassment. Because Kipling constantly refers to “the Oriental” way of being or doing things, and to certain characteristics as somehow “white.” Kim, for instance, is able to resist powerful, perhaps hypnotic, suggestion and see things the way they really are, and there is a strong implication that it is his European blood that gives him the strength.

Rudyard Kipling: fine writer, but the racism's no less toxic
Besides, it was Kipling who wrote a poem about the “white man’s burden”.

Take up the White Man's burden 
The savage wars of peace – 
Fill full the mouth of famine 
And bid the sickness cease; 
 And when your goal is nearest 
The end for others sought, 
Watch Sloth and heathen Folly 
Bring all your hopes to nought.

Doesn’t that sound like Bush and Blair in Iraq? We fought a savage war for peace, and look what those lesser beings have done with what we gave them…

Perhaps one of Kipling’s greatest gifts was the ability to give the common soldier a voice, not something writers had tried before him. Who can forget Gunga Din?

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!

How enlightened is that? The white soldier admits that the Indian water carrier isn’t merely his equal, but his superior.

Except, except… he belted him and flayed him. And one can’t help feeling that it was Gunga Din’s darker skin that entitled the soldier, and Kipling who spoke for him, to do so. Indeed, when we look a little closer, the puzzle is solved: Gunga Din was a superior sort of man because, despite his brown skin, inside he was white:

An' for all 'is dirty 'ide 

'E was white, clear white, inside

There’s no denying the love Kipling had for India, and for Indians: it shines through powerfully in Kim. But it’s the love of a superior for an inferior. And the superior is there to rule the inferior. In the interests of the inferior, that’s Kipling’s message in The White Man’s Burden, but with a rule of iron (“though I’ve belted you and flayed you…”)

There’s something benign about the racial view propounded by Kipling. But that only makes it more pernicious. There’s nothing to wonder at in Gandhi’s swift denunciation of the notion of the 
white man’s burden as a yoke for colonial peoples.

Bas relief by John Lockwood of a scene from Kim
So when I re-read Kim recently, I rediscovered the pleasure I’d had as a child, at the spellbinding story and above all at the compelling characters, but with an acute sense of unease at the underlying message.

I suppose in a sense we’ve progressed since 1901, when the book appeared. The pretence that the Raj served the Indian people has been well and truly punctured, and the Raj itself ended; whatever the problems India still faces, and there are many, its people have made great advances since Britain left.

No ruler looks after the interests of the ruled as well as they would look after their own, if only he’d stop ruling them.

Back in Britain, we can take some satisfaction from the fact that racism is at least no longer hidden behind any kind of pernicious nonsense about its being good for the oppressed. 

When UKIP attacks Bulgarians or Romanians, it at least doesn’t pretend that it’s doing them some kind of favour. Instead, it makes it clear that it is targeting them as a group, just because they are Bulgarians or Romanians (“I was asked if a group of Romanian men moved in next door, would you be concerned? And if you lived in London, I think you would be,” said Nigel Farage to a radio interviewer).

They try to disguise their xenophobia behind an economic smokescreen: immigrants take our jobs (they don’t: they do jobs we can’t find native Brits for) although, somehow, at the same time they come here to live off our benefits (immigrants are 60% less likely to be on benefits than the native born). Underneath it all, they just don’t like people from abroad, and they know there are plenty of Brits who share their view, so they push it.

At least we can see the racism for what it is these days. Kipling disguises his poison, but in Farage it’s openly displayed. And there’s nothing benign about it: it’s wholly malignant.

It’s better to be able to recognise the toxin than for it to be hidden. Doing away with it altogether would, of course, be far better still. That would mean living in a world in which people were judged not as white or black or “oriental”, not as British or Bulgarian or Iraqi, not as Christian, Jew or Muslim, but as individuals. There’d be no space in such a world for the likes of UKIP.

Unfortunately, there might be no space for Kipling either. That would mean the loss of some great writing. Which would be sad, but if that
’s the price, it’s worth paying.

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