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 hopes to nought.
The havoc wreaked by the Haitian earthquake reminded me of Rudyard Kipling’s poem “The White Man’s Burden,” originally published in McClure’s Magazine in 1899. Kipling believed that Western man had a duty to uplift and modernize the uncivilized world but seemed resigned to the ultimate failure of such efforts. Some saw his poem only as a justification for colonialism, coming as it did at the peak of the rush for overseas possessions. The poem is much richer and deeper than that, and full of irony.
None of this was examined when I was in college during the 1960’s. Although I had professors who mockingly referred to its title, the poem itself was not read. Students only understood they should repudiate the notion of the White Man’s Burden as ethnocentric and condescending, yet one of the highest callings on campus was volunteering...