My Boy Jack, my boy George & political parables

My Boy Jack is a PBS historical drama that I stumbled upon [three years late!] over the New Year’s weekend. Based on a play of the same name, My Boy Jack is a touching, ironic and ultimately infuriating double biography of Rudyard Kipling [author of The Jungle Book and many other classic tales] and his teen-aged son, John. Although the story takes place at the outbreak of World War I, I was struck by its relevance to issues we still face nearly a century later.

Rudyard Kipling, revered in contemporaneous England for his story-telling prowess, was also a staunch colonialist and, according to historians, a racist as well. He saw Germany’s invasion of France in 1914 as a threat to the British Empire and to the civilizing benefits—as he saw them—that British colonialism had brought to the world. In PBS’s Masterpiece Theatre production, first presented in 2008, Kipling—who had never himself served in the military—pushes hard, through oratory and his own political clout,  for England to enter the war and for young men to join up.

One of the young men he urges into battle is his own son, nicknamed Jack [played by Harry Potter star Daniel Radcliffe, in another role that prominently features a pair of glasses]. Jack Kipling is severely nearsighted and is summarily rejected by the military brass, who believed that a soldier who lost his spectacles would be a risk to his compatriots. To overcome this obstacle, Kipling goes so far as to outfit his son with “pince-nez” glasses, which ostensibly could not be lost because they were attached to a lanyard around the wearer’s neck.  Although this ploy fails, Kipling manages to use his considerable influence to wangle an appointment for his son into the Irish Guard. His pride and delight at visualizing his son in the role of potential hero and defender of the Empire is obvious. But we don’t feel bad for Jack, as Rudyard’s manipulation has given his son a chance to emerge from his famous father’s shadow, escape the constraints of upper-class life, and achieve something of his own.

The story ends sadly: the ending is quick for Jack, but very murky and prolonged for his family. After all, it’s a war story.

But it’s also a parable.

I doubt that the playwright had this in mind when he wrote it, but on one level, the story of My Boy Jack has some eerie parallels with elements of the George H.W. and George W. Bush relationship: famous father, son in the shadow, misguided paternal influence to set the son up for glory, tragic consequences [in the Bush scenario—for the country].

More broadly, My Boy Jack also offers a parable for the politics, American hubris and military adventurism that have defined the past decade. Jack Kipling has terrible eyesight, but it’s his father who has tunnel vision—ironically so focused on the honor and glory of the empire that he doesn’t consider the damage he could be inflicting on his son and his family by pushing Jack into battle. The jingoistic speech Rudyard delivers, exhorting all young men to stand up for England, is reminiscent of the testosterone-overdosed, post-911 bullhorn-at-ground-zero exhortation of a president eager for the “patriotic glory,” and political gain of a war that would ultimately prove unjustified, morally bankrupt and financially disastrous.

[One non-parallel of the PBS drama vs. recent history is that Rudyard Kipling ultimately realizes his mistake and lives the remainder of his life regretting the consequences and finding himself discredited by his once-avid followers. The same cannot be said for President Bush.]

A day or two after seeing My Boy Jack, the myopia metaphor struck me again. Listening to an NPR discussion of Social Security, I heard two commentators with differing views expound on ways to assure Social Security’s viability. “Remove the cap on payroll taxes,” said one. “Means-test recipients,” said the other. But among all of the competing solutions offered, there was no discussion of eliminating the cost of two wars—unnecessary, unjustified and unwinnable wars—to balance the budget, or reduce the deficit, or just to save billions or trillions of dollars that could be used to help people rather than to kill and maim them.

Sadly, some issues are apparently timeless. Or maybe I’m simply reading too much political drama into one historical drama.