“If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting, too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise … ”
I couldn’t remember if it was Tennyson or Kipling who wrote that, and truth be known, I was rooting for Tennyson. Tennyson was just an imperialist and a nationalist. Kipling had a nasty racist streak. (He also wrote the condescendingly racist poem, “White Man’s Burden.”)
What follows is the conversation I had with myself as I debated with myself over using that excerpt from Kipling’s, “If.”
“I like the poem. It’s great advice for handling life here in the rabbit hole.”
“Irrelevant! You know Kipling also wrote, ‘White Man’s Burden,’ right? He was an unrepentant racist. Find another poem.”
“I don’t wanna, and you can’t make me.”
(That’s the cool thing about arguing with yourself. No matter what, you always win.)
So, if quoting Kipling offends you, a trillion pardons. In my defense, I’m just trying to keep my head here in the rabbit hole, and “If” is a good pep talk in that pursuit. (Read the entire poem sometime. It’s good.)
Which leads us to the lesson we learn from quoting “If,” knowing the author also wrote “White Man’s Burden.” Our current shortage of humor and reason has caused us to hold everyone who has ever drawn breath to an arbitrarily-formulated modern standard, and should something offensive be found, we toss the entirety of that person’s life accomplishments so as to prevent overly sensitive folks from feeling uncomfy.
This practice has spared no one. Not even the nation’s founders.
There’s no avoiding the fact that a close examination of history oftentimes finds uncomfortable, conflicting truths. For instance, Thomas Jefferson penning, “All men are created equal,” while gazing out his study window at the human beings he owned, or George Washington being the first president of a country founded on principles of equality and justice, whose founding document counted the people who worked his fields as three-fifths of human beings.
The current lack of empathy, sympathy, reason and sense leads many to demand the massive accomplishments of people like Washington or Jefferson be negated by their conflicting truths.
Maybe that’s the problem with deifying our nation’s founders. We’ve been told so often they were saints, when we learn something not-so-saintly about them, we feel we must reject everything they did and said.
History’s finest, most accomplished people were above all else, human. Every human being that’s ever lived has lived their life in their times, and have made their share of mistakes and hypocrisies.
So, maybe we should look at history on a case by case basis, and truly examine things before we pass our sanctimonious modern judgment.
Yes, maybe if empathy, sympathy and sense weren’t in such short supply, we could consider history in its entirety and context.
So, yes, many of our nation’s founders owned slaves, and maybe a lot of them said some things that in the context of modern discourse is considered offensive.
But the fact remains that people like Jefferson and Washington put a system into place that two centuries hence is capable of actually addressing those conflicting truths and correcting them.
The moral may well be not to toss history with its bath water.
Maybe that’s what Kipling meant about “keeping your head while everyone about you loses theirs and blames it on you.”
So the poem stays.
(Yeah, that’s right. I won the argument with myself.)
Craig Carter is an Ontario resident and can be reached in care of The Argus Observer, 1160 S.W. Fourth St., Ontario, OR 97914. The views and opinions expressed in this column do not necessarily represent those of the Argus Observer.