Friday, December 09, 2005

Kaplan, Kipling and Things That Don't Change

My favorite living writer of non-fiction (after Steve of course!) is Robert D. Kaplan. He is mostly a travel writer with a deep sense of history and culture, following Patrick Leigh Fermor as his model. Mediterranean Winter is my favorite Kaplan work so far. I recently read his latest book, Imperial Grunts that is a collection of vignettes (most previously appeared in the Atlantic Monthly) describing American military activities around the world post 9/11.

I was a little disappointed in the book, as it appeared curiously uneven. I enjoyed the Mongolia and Fallouja pieces when they appeared in the Atlantic so much that my expectations were maybe too high. I wasn't prepared for the savaging he got however, when David Lipsky reviewed his book in the NY Times.

Lipsky has some valid criticisms of how Kaplan has stumbled. Kaplan's dual roles as travel writer and foreign affairs analyst are sometimes at war with each other and the book suffers for that. Kaplan tries for fine literary effects and occasionally falls short using trite adjectives and mixed metaphors.

After a bit though, Lipsky leaves the book and takes after Kaplan personally. He says Kaplan, "... over his career, appears to have become someone who is too fond of war." Kaplan favorably contrasts the intelligence, capability and patriotism of American soldiers to that of cosmopolitan elites and Lipsky then insinuates he's a hypocrite for having a cosmopolitan lifestyle: he has lived overseas for extended periods and has a Canadian wife. I think that really means that Kaplan has direct experience with both and is calling them the way he sees them. Frankly, Kaplan has worked his way up the hard way, his success was a long time coming. If you read his books you know he doesn't parachute into a country, he walks the streets and that is one of his strengths. Lipsky sounds jealous.

Finally we get this from Lipsky: "Despite this, Kaplan, the realist, has elsewhere defined his realism as "an unrelenting record of uncomfortable truths. . . . The realism exhibited here may appear radical." In fact, it tends toward the cozily familiar: like evolutionary psychology, his findings don't so much upset conventional wisdom as support it with a surprising pillar. Most situations, however novel, will submit to cold-war realpolitik and the "he's-our-son-of-a-bitch" alliance."

Steve and I kicked this around a bit and his take was: "Pretty good critique of the book- though I still like most of it. But of Kaplan? Maybe evolutionary psychology and realpolitik (like Kipling) strike us as true because they ARE. Do you know his poem The Gods of the Copybook Headings?"

I had not read that Kipling poem, one of Steve's favorites, and here it is for you.

The Gods of the Copybook Headings

AS I PASS through my incarnations in every age and race,
I make my proper prostrations to the Gods of the Market Place.
Peering through reverent fingers I watch them flourish and fall,
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings, I notice, outlast them all.

We were living in trees when they met us. They showed us each in turn
That Water would certainly wet us, as Fire would certainly burn:
But we found them lacking in Uplift, Vision and Breadth of Mind,
So we left them to teach the Gorillas while we followed the March of Mankind.

We moved as the Spirit listed. They never altered their pace,
Being neither cloud nor wind-borne like the Gods of the Market Place,
But they always caught up with our progress, and presently word would come
That a tribe had been wiped off its icefield, or the lights had gone out in Rome.

With the Hopes that our World is built on they were utterly out of touch,
They denied that the Moon was Stilton; they denied she was even Dutch;
They denied that Wishes were Horses; they denied that a Pig had Wings;
So we worshipped the Gods of the Market Who promised these beautiful things.

When the Cambrian measures were forming, They promised perpetual peace.
They swore, if we gave them our weapons, that the wars of the tribes would cease.
But when we disarmed They sold us and delivered us bound to our foe,
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings said: "Stick to the Devil you know."

On the first Feminian Sandstones we were promised the Fuller Life
(Which started by loving our neighbour and ended by loving his wife)
Till our women had no more children and the men lost reason and faith,
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings said: "The Wages of Sin is Death."

In the Carboniferous Epoch we were promised abundance for all,
By robbing selected Peter to pay for collective Paul;
But, though we had plenty of money, there was nothing our money could buy,
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings said: "If you don't work you die."

Then the Gods of the Market tumbled, and their smooth-tongued wizards withdrew
And the hearts of the meanest were humbled and began to believe it was true
That All is not Gold that Glitters, and Two and Two make Four
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings limped up to explain it once more.

As it will be in the future, it was at the birth of Man
There are only four things certain since Social Progress began.
That the Dog returns to his Vomit and the Sow returns to her Mire,
And the burnt Fool's bandaged finger goes wabbling back to the Fire;

And that after this is accomplished, and the brave new world begins
When all men are paid for existing and no man must pay for his sins,
As surely as Water will wet us, as surely as Fire will burn,
The Gods of the Copybook Headings with terror and slaughter return.

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