Op-Ed Columnist Democrats Should Read Kipling By WILLIAM KRISTOL NYT: February 18, 2008
Browsing through a used-book store Friday — in the Milwaukee airport, of all places — I came across a 1981 paperback collection of George Orwell’s essays. That’s how I happened to reread his 1942 essay on Rudyard Kipling. Given Orwell’s perpetual ability to elucidate, one shouldn’t be surprised that its argument would shed light— or so it seems to me — on contemporary American politics.
Orwell offers a highly qualified appreciation of the then (and still) politically incorrect Kipling. He insists that one must admit that Kipling is “morally insensitive and aesthetically disgusting.” Still, he says, Kipling “survives while the refined people who have sniggered at him seem to wear so badly.” One reason for this is that Kipling “identified himself with the ruling power and not with the opposition.”
“In a gifted writer,” Orwell remarks, “this seems to us strange and even disgusting, but it did have the advantage of giving Kipling a certain grip on reality.” Kipling “at least tried to imagine what action and responsibility are like.” For, Orwell explains, “The ruling power is always faced with the question, ‘In such and such circumstances, what would you do?’, whereas the opposition is not obliged to take responsibility or make any real decisions.” Furthermore, “where it is a permanent and pensioned opposition, as in England, the quality of its thought deteriorates accordingly.”
If I may vulgarize the implications of Orwell’s argument a bit: substitute Republicans for Kipling and Democrats for the opposition, and you have a good synopsis of the current state of American politics.
Having controlled the executive branch for 28 of the last 40 years, Republicans tend to think of themselves as the governing party — with some of the arrogance and narrowness that implies, but also with a sense of real-world responsibility. Many Democrats, on the other hand, no long even try to imagine what action and responsibility are like. They do, however, enjoy the support of many refined people who snigger at the sometimes inept and ungraceful ways of the Republicans. (And, if I may say so, the quality of thought of the Democrats’ academic and media supporters — a permanent and, as it were, pensioned opposition — seems to me to have deteriorated as Orwell would have predicted.)
The Democrats won control of Congress in November 2006, thanks in large part to President Bush’s failures in Iraq. Then they spent the next year seeking to ensure that he couldn’t turn those failures around. Democrats were “against” the war and the surge. That was the sum and substance of their policy. They refused to acknowledge changing facts on the ground, or to debate the real consequences of withdrawal and defeat. It was, they apparently thought, the Bush administration, not America, that would lose. The 2007 Congressional Democrats showed what it means to be an opposition party that takes no responsibility for the consequences of the choices involved in governing.
So it continues in 2008. The director of the Central Intelligence Agency, Gen. Michael Hayden, the director of national intelligence, the retired Vice Admiral Mike McConnell, and the attorney general, the former federal judge Michael Mukasey, are highly respected and nonpolitical officials with little in the way of partisanship or ideology in their backgrounds. They have all testified, under oath, that in their judgments, certain legal arrangements regarding surveillance abilities are important to our national security.
Not all Democrats have refused to listen. In the Senate, Jay Rockefeller, chairman of the Intelligence Committee, took seriously the job of updating the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act in light of technological changes and court decisions. His committee produced an impressive report, and, by a vote of 13 to 2, sent legislation to the floor that would have preserved the government’s ability to listen to foreign phone calls and read foreign e-mail that passed through switching points in the United States...
To govern is to choose, a Democrat of an earlier generation, John F. Kennedy, famously remarked. Is this generation of Democrats capable of governing?