Bill Kristol writes about the Obama campaign’s spiffy new, one-word campaign slogan—“Forward”—and jokingly suggests that the slogan may have been lifted from Mao’s “Great Leap Forward.” Or, on the other hand, maybe it was a steal from MSNBC’s “Lean Forward.” From the sublimely bloody to the bloody ridiculous, then.
Either explanation seems plausible. But consider, just for the fun of it, the possibility that the slogan may have been the brainchild of some campaign staffer who remembered a few lines of Tennyson from a long ago literature class.
Half a league, half a league,
Half a league onward,
All in the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
"Forward, the Light Brigade!
"Charge for the guns!" he said:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
The poem contains some the essential elements of the Obama adventure – futility, exhortation, and vanity. Still, better Tennyson than MSNBC or Mao, and thinking along those lines does lead one down an interesting and profitable path. First to a neglected Kipling poem, The Last of the Light Brigade. The poem is a hot indictment of their countrymen’s indecent neglect of the veterans of Balaclava, some forty years after the charge.
There were thirty million English who talked of England's might,
There were twenty broken troopers who lacked a bed for the night.
They had neither food nor money, they had neither service nor trade;
They were only shiftless soldiers, the last of the Light Brigade.
A campaign slogan that leads one to Kipling isn’t entirely a bad thing. And going back to Kipling inevitably leads one on to Orwell, which is entirely a good thing.
In his famous and always re-readable essay on Kipling, Orwell writes, “During five literary generations every enlightened person has despised him, and at the end of that time nine tenths of those enlightened persons are forgotten and Kipling is in some sense still there.”
Orwell also makes the point that when it comes to describing war, Kipling is superior to Tennyson and his
Forward the Light Brigade!
Was there a man dismayed?
No! though the soldier knew
Someone had blundered.
Since, “at least he [Kipling] knows that men ordered to attack impossible objectives are dismayed …”
And, then, there is Kipling’s insight into something essential and eternal and especially pertinent to modern American politics as practiced under such slogans as “Forward.”
“A humanitarian,” Orwell writes, “is always a hypocrite, and Kipling’s understanding of this is perhaps the central secret of [his] power to create telling phrases.”
The Obama campaign, while full of humanitarians, has not been able to come up with any telling phrases of its own so we seem to be stuck with “Forward.” If it is a literary steal from Tennyson, that doesn’t promise much. A pointless charge followed, two generations later, by a life of debt and begging. Survivors of the Light Brigade’s charge were reduced to depending on charity from those accustomed to “making mock of uniforms that guard you while you sleep.”
If we follow the Yes We Can Brigade on its wild charge, two generations from now, the remnants will be going to the survivors of the Great Leap Forward for handouts.
Utopia, as Kipling and Orwell understood, never arrives.