Thursday, June 12, 2008

The Judgment of Peers

A reply to Rudyard Kipling’s “White Man’s Burden”)

Angry, defiant, he answered the summons
Of great empires of antiquity;
Naught of this world was beyond his grasp
Save this verdict of history.

“You know the Burden you laid at my feet,
‘Twas never for white men alone,
But that futility borne by great empires of old
‘Make the tired, the poor as our own!’
And I stand before you triumphant!” he cried,
“O’er a century of woe and weal;
So proffer your arguments dire and prepare
To hear the strength of my appeal!”

In gilded seats of judgment sat
The peerage of empires past;
Sweet glory they’d known, and power unchallenged,
And illusion that such could last.

Many looked on from every land
Where the feet of men still tread
But three there were in positions of honor
Whose colors were gold and red
Hard and fierce, their miens reflected
The aspects their thrones had willed
Gold dragon, gold eagle, gold lions a-prowl
Crimson fields of blood they’d spilled.

The Dragon was eldest, was first to speak,
Of the temporal certainty,
“That you may learn the surest of all
The lessons of sovereignty.

“Such power you have, like none before,
But secular, not divine.
Millennia passed before I learned
The Middle Kingdom was not mine.
Kings I summoned, my Peacock Throne
Saw emperors kowtow to me.
But my wisdom provided no surety ‘gainst
The poisoned sweetness of vanity.

“I saw the danger of enemies without;
A great wall I built to defend.
The wall did not fail, but was easily breached
By corruption that festered within.

Your trust in power, in weapons of war
May give you a semblance of peace,
But the battle you fight is internal, eternal,
Your empire will falter and cease.”

The Eagle was next to speak, to decry
The folly of luxury.
“All roads led to my seven hills,
And led the barbarians to me.

“I knew well the peril of monarchy,
And trusted to tribunals.
But lawful republic fell to limitless pride,
To opulence and bacchanal.
But still we conquered, not comprehending
The end of our strength we had reached.
We perceived not the malice we had engendered
In savages we’d thought to teach.

“They turned on us, taught us that harshest of lessons:
‘Who falls farthest, falls hardest’,
And sentenced our children to perpetual dreams
Of past glories and bountiful harvests.”

The last to speak was the wisest, the Lion
On whose empire the sun never set.
“I begat you and shed blood beside you,
Our kinship ever benevolent.

“Before you were born, ‘twas I stood strong
‘Gainst the spectre of tyranny.
To contain Moor and Inquisitor I gladly paid
That price of admiralty.
I believed my Charter’d freedom and justice
Were sufficient to win the day,
And see! My children now stand on their own;
For all mankind they light the way!

“But you, my child, tho’ our hearts were one,
We desired the best for mankind.
Our paths have diverged, I will not follow
Your doomed imperial design.

“The historians now speak of Pax in past tense,
Not only of ours, but yours.
Romana, Britannica, Americana…
Is there aught that you can demur?
For yours is but a portion, a fraction
Of the centuries my peers survived;
My heart is heavy and cold with the thought
That my child may be less than I.

“You stood for the tortured, the wrongful imprisoned,
For freedoms of worship, of speech.
But now you sacrifice such liberties,
‘Pon a brass altar of security.
Empires thrive so long as they uphold
The ideals that made them great;
I fear you will not sit with my rank, the first,
But the second, the subordinate.

“’Tis your turn now to speak, my child,
Prove me wrong, I beg you, I plead.
Restore me the hope I once proudly held
That to freedom this world you would lead.”

The brash young man nodded, quietly smiled,
And stood serenely composed,
Before these three who in all history’s grand sweep
Had longest borne the mantle of hope.

“So this be the judgment of my peers,
Cold and hard-edged indeed!
We cannot deny your centuries of glory,
For which your dear sons did bleed.
But neither need we appeal your decision,
Nor should we implore your leave,
For there’s one advantage that we yet wield,
Of which never did you conceive.
“For each of you praised the aristocrat,
The patrician, the mandarin,
And forever denied and denigrated
The pedigree of the publican.
Such similarity will always bind you
In the pages of history writ:
Your power restricted to only the bloodlines,
Of Han, of Roman, of Brit.

“You each believed ‘twas but destiny
Assured your perpetual reign,
But did you remember your gods’ caveat:
The wheel turns, all things must end?

“The Han, supreme, till a thunderbolt signaled
Their Mandate of Heaven was lost;
And Rome reigned nobly till honor and duty
Were o’ercome by comfort and sloth.
And you, O Lion, your wooden walls a-sail
Were our cradle, our crucible!
As from one in his prime to his sire now diminished
Our duty is oath-bound and filial.

“Our path is not yours, ‘tis not empire we crave,
But freedom of choice, of creed,
Your tempest-tossed fluttered folk and wild
Surely become the best we breed!
For any and all can be truly a part
Of this roiling and boiling pot,
Wherein melts away (if ever so slowly)
The hatred of those who are not.

“This world is not that which we jealously covet,
No dominion is our desire,
No Ozymandian edifice of stone,
Nor generations in royal attire.
Your paths we daren’t follow, though we have stumbled,
Supplanting freedom with patriots’ zeal;
And should we fall, yea, and someday we shall!
Others will rise bearing our seal.

“For we are not an empire or a nation,
But an idea whose time has come.
Your White Man’s Burden is bleached no longer,
But a grand spectrum, egalitarian!

“Today we declare our freedom from peerage,
From comparison with empires past;
Today we declare with harmonious discord
The Peace of Liberty, Pax Libertas!”

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