The tiff over “If” – Kipling under fire

Rudyard Kipling, 1865 – 1936: Poet, Author, and Nobel laureate in Literature (1907)

“If,” by Rudyard Kipling – one of the best-known, and arguably best, poets in the English language, aside from Shakespeare – has been a favorite of mine since childhood. My mother, an English major and sometime teacher, had a great love of poetry which she shared with me, and furthermore this poem hung on the wall of the room in which I slept when we visited her parents, my grandparents, in my boyhood days. It has been an inspiration to me for the greater part of a half-century.

But now it appears that New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady is drawing fire for posting it on his Instagram and Twitter feeds, due to claims that its author was “racist” (and, somewhat self-righteously, that Brady did not credit it to Kipling… although he did put it in quotes, and undoubtedly assumed – rightly, as it turned out – that everyone would recognize it and know who the author was).

For the record, I am no fan of Brady or the Patriots, but that really ticks me off.

Kipling was a man of his time and place. When he wrote “If,” Great Britain was at the height of its colonial power, an Empire on which the sun never set. The concept of “the white man’s burden” may be outdated and vilified now, but at the time it was a commonplace, and rooted in the same sensibility as “noblesse oblige” – the idea that those who were viewed (whether rightly or wrongly) as being at a higher level, had an obligation to care for and assist those viewed as inferior. That is to say, it was kindly meant, even if it was also mixed up with ideas of Empire and dominance, and even if it made assumptions which a more contemporary view understands as false.

Furthermore, the poem “If” has absolutely nothing even remotely related to race, class, colonialism, or Empire about it! It is about self-mastery, perseverance, determination to succeed against all odds, and to pick oneself back up, after failure, and try again. The idea that this is somehow “racist” is patently absurd; it’s ridiculous on every possible level.

And the use of this term as a tool with which to bludgeon anyone you don’t like or agree with is also absurd. We need to get off this kick, and soon – both with respect to contemporary political opponents, and even more so, with regard to towering giants of literature, history, philosophy, etc. – before we fatally undermine the foundations of Western Civilization itself.

Here is the poem in question. Read it for yourself, and see if it seems “racist” to you!


by Rudyard Kipling (1898)

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;

If you can dream — and not make dreams your master;
If you can think – and not make thoughts your aim,
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same:.
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools;

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings,
And never breathe a word about your loss:
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: “Hold on!”

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings – nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much:
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And – which is more – you’ll be a Man, my son!