Tory Debate No. 10: An American Empire?
I attended my ninth Tory debate (the Tories’ tenth over-all) on Thursday, October 27. The resolution was “Resolved: America Will Never Be an Empire.”
I thought that the resolution would give me and excellent opportunity to discuss not so much the actual question of whether
I began my preparation for the debate after I finished with classes, starting traditionally with a search of the Weekly Standard archives. I found a number of interesting pieces on the benefits of imperialism (especially of British imperialism) and assembled the best points into a page of notes.
After an hour or so of reading I had a good speech outline, but it still lacked that extra little bit of pizzazz. Where is the best description of what imperialism involves? The answer came immediately to mind: Kipling – “Take Up the White Man’s Burden.” (Of course).
I looked up the text of this magnificent poem online and read it through once. Then it turned out to be so good that I had to read it again. I was suddenly struck by a burning desire to see the poem in print (and an internet printout does not suffice) so I grabbed my jacket and dashed over to Sterling Memorial Library.
I had never taken a book out
I went through Sterling’s main entrance into the cathedral-like structure that houses the card-catalogues, with various connecting passageways to computer “clusters,” reading rooms, and the Stacks themselves. (The “Stacks” refers to the multi-story book tower that holds the largest part of Yale’s collection – about 4.5 million books).
I decided to handle the entire matter in a very traditional fashion (which I’m sure the Tories would appreciate) and started by looking for the appropriate volume’s call number in the card catalogue. The card catalogue itself stopped being expanded in the 70s in deference to a computer system known as “Orbis” (subsequent acquisitions are documented, but not in nearly as dignified a manner). This notwithstanding, there are several million cards to look through in the cabinets that line both walls of the nave, all the way from one end to another. I quickly found the right section, and was happy to see that Kipling has an entire drawer devoted to him on the left-hand side of the building, about halfway down.
I found a likely looking title – the 1920 Rudyard Kipling’s Verse: Inclusive Edition 1885-1918. The first of our copies was in the rare book collection, but two more copies were in the Stacks. I made note of the call number and took the unprecedented step of actually asking for “directions” – one of the librarians at the front desk was only too happy to tell me how to use the call number to find the right floor.
Apparently I wanted floor “2M.”
Not exactly sure what the M was for, I nevertheless inferred that if I were to start on the first floor and work up, it would be impossible to miss. I presented my Yale ID to the guard by the Stacks’ entrance and passed into the colossal book collection for the second time in my life.
I quickly found 2M and wandered around for a few minutes to get my bearings –
Now I was in high gear – back in my dorm I paced back and forth, quoting the poem out loud and making expansive, Churchillian gestures with my free hand. I decided that I would be better off bringing just a single prop (as opposed to notes and book). I therefore decided to memorize the notes and keep them in my breast pocket during the debate.
As debate time approached I installed my suit – this time with a black necktie that I bought locally (which I near-instantly recognized as a mistake; color and price). Nevertheless, the tie deserved to be worn at least once, and so it was selected for the evening.
I set out for the debate, which was to be in the JE Common Room as it had been last week. I was once again on schedule to be the first there, and so I stood outside for a few minutes waiting for a Tory to show up.
It wasn’t long before the former chairman appeared with an ice bucket and a bagful of refreshments. He explained that the provost was in the process of taking a midterm, and that he would handle the provostly duties this evening.
The former chairman and I went into the common room and began to set up – choosing for our chairman a more comfortable seat than we’d given him the last time.
It wasn’t long before the other Tories began to come in. Among those in attendance was the Brazilian freshman who had made his first appearance last week, and a member of the Conservative Party (a friend of our chairman). The former chairman’s grandparents also showed up later in the evening and managed to stick it out to the end of the debate. I walked about with my Kipling volume clasped in my hand, occasionally asked to explain what I was doing with it. I would take care my these explanations not to come too close to the wording of my speech.
I was in the middle of an interesting poetical discussion with the Englisher when the chairman called the debate to order. I went over to take my sofa-seat to the chairman’s left and leaned back for the reading of the minutes. After a minor correction was made, the minutes were approved, and secretary stood to read the topic of our debate.
The chairman asked for an opening speech in the affirmative, but no one offered to give one. After about ten seconds, I raised my hand for a point of information:
“Is it not in fact the cast that the chair frowns on a one-sided debate?” I asked.
“Or a zero-sided debate,” the chairman and I added simultaneously. He rapped his gavel and asked the chief whip, whom I had thought planned to be in the negative, if he would give an opening speech.
The chief whip agreed, and proceeded to give a surprising talk on the exploitive and yet unprofitable nature of empire. I understood that in part he was being accommodating in speaking opposite to where he had planned, though he added in his speech that on reflection, this was indeed the side for him. Nevertheless, his points did give me a good occasion to segue into a discussion on the positive points of empire, and so I resolved to offer myself for the first negative speech of the evening, provided there were no immediate volunteers senior to myself.
After the chief whip answered his questions and was thanked, the chairman duly asked for an opening speech in the negative. No one immediately volunteered, so I grabbed the opportunity and was recognized by the chairman.
“Thank you, Mr. Chairman,” I said, rising to give my second consecutive opening speech.
As I started my next sentence, I was appropriately cut off by the chairman’s request for a prop-related motion. This was made by the former chairman, and seconded. It was, however, opposed by the SSCY, who had for a few debates decided to object to all props. Nevertheless, he was heavily in the minority, and I was allowed to continue:
“The prop in question is this book of Kipling’s verse. Kipling, of course, is the author of the great Empire-related poem ‘Take up the White Man’s Burden.’ This struck me as just the sort of poem the body would like to hear, and so you will hear it, later in my speech.
“First there is to be discussed the basic nature of empire. It does not have to be, as has been suggested, an empire of military control. As the great naval strategist Alfred Mahan pointed out, there are empires of influence as well; I shall run on the premise that
“It has also been suggested that empires are a bad thing. This is not so. In reality they can do tremendous good. An empire may not be so good for an imperial power – it does cost a lot of money and require constant attention. But look at what the great
“Empires export money, people, law. They export civilization. They civilize countries that cannot govern themselves or civilize themselves.
“Being a colonizer is not an easy job, though. That is what Kipling talks about in ‘Take Up the White Man’s Burden’ which he wrote at the height of the
“I am very fond of this poem. It has, however, become rather unpopular of late. One of the reasons is that, because of the refrain ‘Take Up the White Man’s Burden,’ it has been unfairly characterized as a racist poem. Of course when Kipling talks about the ‘white man’s burden’ he is referring to the burden of
“The second reason that volumes of Kipling have been generally unpopular is that, when Kipling had to decide what ‘signature mark’ he would have printed on and in all of his books, he unfortunately chose a symbol that we would come to know some years later as the “swastika.” As you can see it’s here on the cover as well as the title page [I showed the book around the room at this point]. It wasn’t Kipling’s fault of course, that’s just the way it goes.
“So here is ‘Take Up the White Man’s Burden.’ Follow closely its trenchant explanation of what empire involves:
“‘Take up the White Man's burden--
Send forth the best ye breed--
Go, bind your sons to exile
To serve your captives' need;
To wait, in heavy harness,
On fluttered folk and wild--
Your new-caught sullen peoples,
Half devil and half child.
Take up the White Man's burden--
In patience to abide,
To veil the threat of terror
And check the show of pride;
By open speech and simple,
An hundred times made plain,
To seek another's profit
And work another's gain.
Take up the White Man's burden--
The savage wars of peace--
Fill full the mouth of Famine,
And bid the sickness cease;
And when your goal is nearest
(The end for others sought)
Watch sloth and heathen folly
Bring all your hope to nought.
Take up the White Man's burden--
No iron rule of kings,
But toil of serf and sweeper--
The tale of common things.
The ports ye shall not enter,
The roads ye shall not tread,
Go, make them with your living
And mark them with your dead.
Take up the White Man's burden,
And reap his old reward--
The blame of those ye better
The hate of those ye guard--
The cry of hosts ye humour
(Ah, slowly!) toward the light:--
"Why brought ye us from bondage,
Our loved Egyptian night?"
Take up the White Man's burden--
Ye dare not stoop to less--
Nor call too loud on Freedom
To cloak your weariness.
By all ye will or whisper,
By all ye leave or do,
The silent sullen peoples
Shall weigh your God and you.
Take up the White Man's burden!
Have done with childish days--
The lightly-proffered laurel,
The easy ungrudged praise:
Comes now, to search your manhood
Through all the thankless years,
Cold, edged with dear-bought wisdom,
The judgment of your peers.’
“It’s remarkable isn’t it. Kipling underlines for us the difficulty inherent in being an exporter of civilization – they build roads and ports, and nudge primitive peoples ‘slowly toward the light’ as he says, but at the same time it is a very tough and thankless job for the colonizers.
“Even though the job is hard, someone needs to do it. At the time Kipling was writing,
It was question time for me, and I got to answer plenty. In particular, there came finally from the secretary one question that I had prepared for and desperately hoped would be asked: What about us? Were we not one of
“I thought this question would come up,” I answered. “In the case of the
The last remark was a bit of a faux pas, quickly picked up on by the other members, but I was able to make a quick recovery:
“Our civil war was not an intractable struggle, unlike the ongoing wars in other former colonies. It was fairly brief; it had a beginning and an end; some people had a great time; others were killed and didn’t have such a good time; and it brought along with it the added benefit of the abolition of slavery, which I would say is a substantial point.”
Another question came from the right-hand side of the room: “Alright, so this is a hard job and someone has to do it. Why does it have to be us?”
“Tony Blair was asked quite a similar question when he last addressed the joint session of congress in the US,” I said, “and he made quite an eloquent answer. He said, ‘You may indeed ask, “Why me? Why should I be the one to do this job?” and the only answer you can make is that the job is there and it is yours to do.’”
After a few more questions I was thanked, and allowed to return to my seat.
The one issue that the speakers of the evening could not get together upon was what an empire actually consists of. The former chairman spoke the affirmative and claimed that the one essential point in being an empire is having the government recognize itself as such. Considering, though, that the
The current chairman spoke in the negative, and supported a looser definition of empire, claiming that we had been one in the past and could in fact be considered to be one now.
The SSCY spoke in the affirmative. He, however, viewed empire as being hard on the colonized countries, whereas the former chairman, had spoken on the same side but described empire as being hard on the colonizer. The SSCY also suggested in his speech that, contrary to Mr. Gelernter’s suggestion, most empires are not created out of a benevolent desire to help the colonized countries. He also used as a semi-comic example countries like
The SSCY’s last pair of points gave me an opportunity to make a few more of my own in the form of a question:
“The SSCY has pointed that empires are not often created for the purpose of helping other countries. While this may be true, I am sure he will concede that projects often end with a different purpose than that which they were started with. The Civil War began as a war over states’ rights and ended as a war to end slavery. The British Empire began as an effort to help
“The gentleman has also mentioned the happy Dutch. They may indeed be happy, but they are also a little pipsqueak country, and will remain one. We on the other hand are in a different position – is there nothing to be said for greatness? [“Long speech,” the secretary corrected herself.] The SSCY has advocated our doing what is in our interest – does he not concede that ultimately it is in our interest to do what is morally right?”
It was rather long for a question, but I was relieved to have made the rest of my points. The SSCY did not feel that striving towards greatness was a sufficient justification for empire (nor was the moral compulsion). In the final instance, he seemed happy to let
Later in the evening the Brazillian fellow decided to give a speech. He was recognized by the chairman, and, despite his marked accent, eloquently proceeded to demand that
The evening continued to wear on – another pair of speeches was made and our caucus became the longest debate of the year. When the chairman finally asked the acting sergeant at arms to divide the body, it was quite nearly 11 o’clock and our attendance had dropped off quite a bit.
Saying that he was a little too tired to think of anything remarkably clever, the acting sergeant at arms declared simply, “affirmatives to my right, negatives to my left.” The floor vote was close enough that the outcome depended on the votes of the sergeant at arms and the secretary.
Presently the chairman leaned over and the result was whispered in his ear; he spent a moment in silence and then announced, “By a vote of seven in the negative, four in the affirmative, and one abstention, the resolution is, sadly, affirmed.”
The motion that we adjourn to Yorkside “as is traditional” was made and passed with all speed, but unfortunately it was too late for most of the Tories to go. In point of fact, it seemed as if it would just be the chairman and myself.
We walked over to Yorkside together, not wishing to let this tradition fall into disrepair (though we might have stopped for ice cream at Ashley’s, had they not been closed). We were seated in a back booth, and it was only a few minutes before we saw the Brazillian fellow come in and find his way to our table. We eagerly bade him join us, and spent a very interesting half-an-hour or so in discussion – chiefly about what it meant to be a conservative, and a Tory.
It was around midnight when I finally got back to my dorm. I wanted to start writing this one up right away, but the need for sleep was more pressing, and won – I said a fond goodbye to yet another Tory debate.