Kiplin’ vs. Palin
Repeat after me: pigs can’t fly. Repeat after me: if you don’t work you die. Repeat after me: fire will certainly burn.
Perhaps these truths seem self-evident. But let’s face it, the whole Wall Street debacle, with its cost of some $700 billion to generations of Americans, was based on the fathomless human ability to disregard facts and believe in cloud-cuckoo-land.
Risk no longer existed. The penniless could afford a $200,000 house. Real estate prices could only rise. Securities full of toxic loans would prove benign. Debt was desirable, leverage lovely, greed great. Two and two made five. The moon was a balloon and streets were lined with gold.
How could it happen? That outraged question springs now to everyone’s lips. But from Dutch tulips to Californian dotcoms, great heists have happened and will again. No flight from reality is as sweet as the illusion that money grows on trees.
A friend wrote suggesting I take a look at Rudyard Kipling’s poem, “The Gods of the Copybook Headings,” in the light of current events. Written in 1919, when Kipling was 53, in an England drained by the Great War, which had taken the life of his teenage son, the poem makes sobering reading.
A copybook was a school exercise book used to practice handwriting. At the tops of pages, proverbs and sayings (like “Stick to the Devil You Know”) appeared in exemplary script to be copied down the page by pupils. The truisms were called “copybook headings.”
The poem begins:
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.
And what are the qualities of these “Gods of the Copybook Headings?” The fourth verse sets them out.
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.
The seventh verse reads:
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.”
Truth, in short, confronts delusion and utopia.
Kipling is not much in fashion these days, other than for his children’s books. For a politically correct age, he speaks too bluntly of the world’s — and empire’s — cruel ironies. But his vivid evocation of war’s horror, man’s hypocrisy, illusion’s price and power’s passing make him important in this pivotal American moment.
As it happens — life’s ironies — I was reading Kipling after watching the vice-presidential debate, or more precisely Sarah Palin, the winking “Main-Streeter” from Wasilla. And the words of hers that rang in my ears were:
“One thing that Americans do at this time, also, though, is let’s commit ourselves just everyday American people, Joe Six Pack, hockey moms across the nation, I think we need to band together and say ‘Never Again.’ Never will we be exploited and taken advantage of again by those managing our money and loaning us these dollars.”
I’m sorry, Governor Palin, words matter. Life has its solemn lessons. “Never Again” is a hallowed phrase. It’s applicable not to the loss of a mortgage, but to the Holocaust and genocide.
According verbal equivalency to a $60,000 loan and six million murdered Jews, or 800,000 slaughtered Rwandans, is grotesque. Perhaps Palin didn’t mean it, but that’s no less serious. The world’s gravity escapes her.
Not Kipling, who wrote in “Epitaphs of the War” (1914-1918):
If any question why we died,
Tell them, because our fathers lied.
I wonder, after the lying and the dead of the Bush Administration, in the midst of the wars, in the face of 760,000 lost jobs, is Palin’s offer of a “little bit of reality from Wasilla Main Street” enough?
“The Gods of the Copybook Headings” ends:
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!
Palin, Mainstreeter that she is, loves to drop her g’s, so she’d no doubt call the poet Kiplin’. She might have asked, with that wink, to call him “Rud.”
That’s cutesy politics. But pigs still don’t have wings. The world’s still a dangerous place. It’s time for copybook realists in the White House.