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Great Writers And Anti-semitism

Adam Gopnik's essay on the English writer G.K. Chesterton is, alas, not online. But here is Gopnik on Chesterton's anti-Semitism:

The insistence that Chesterton's anti-Semitism needs to be understood "in the context of his time" defines the problem, because his time-from the end of the Great War to the mid-thirties-was the time that led to the extermination of the European Jews. In that context, his jocose stuff is even more sinister than his serious stuff. He claims that he can tolerate Jews in England, but only if they are compelled to wear "Arab" clothing, to show that they are an alien nation. Hitler made a simpler demand for Jewish dress, but the idea was the same. Of course, there were, tragically and ironically, points of contact between Chesterton and Zionism. He went to Jerusalem in 1920 and reported back on what he found among the nascent Zionists, whom he liked: he wanted them out of Europe and so did they; he wanted Jews to be turned from rootless cosmopolitans into rooted yeomen, and so did they.

Chesterton wasn't a fascist, and he certainly wasn't in favor of genocide, but that is about the best that can be said for him-and is surely less of a moral accomplishment than his admirers would like. He did speak out, toward the end of his life, against the persecution in Nazi Germany, writing that he was "appalled by the Hitlerite atrocities," that "they have absolutely no reason or logic behind them," that "I am quite ready to believe now that Belloc and I will die defending the last Jew in Europe." Yet he insisted, "I still think there is a Jewish problem," and he denounced Hitler in the context of a wacky argument that Nazism is really a form of "Prussianism," which is really a form of Judaism; that is, a belief in a chosen, specially exalted people.

To this, Ross Douthat responds

But the whole point of the "in the context of his times" argument is precisely that by the standards of the '20s and '30s, it was morally impressive for a political writer to reject both fascism and communism, to praise Zionism, and to speak out forcefully against Nazi anti-Semitism - and not in its eliminationist phase, but in its very earliest stages. (Chesterton died in 1936.) This does not excuse Chesterton's anti-Semitism by any means, but it makes him an odd target, out of all the writers and thinkers of that period, to single out for particular opprobrium.

First off, Gopnik is "singling out" Chesterton's attitude toward Jews because he is writing an article about Chesterton! When the letters of Kingsley Amis or Philip Larkin are publicly released and much of the intellectual "community" focuses solely on the misanthropy and racism of the collections, one does feel that he is witnessing a tiresome spectacle that misses the larger picture. But when you are writing about a particular writer, it seems imperative to at least mention his or her feelings about, say, race and religion. An essay on Evelyn Waugh that discussed only his racist caricatures and reactionary Catholicism might quickly become boring to read, but such unfortunate characteristics do demand some discussion (over and above their obvious importance to the texts under consideration).

What's more, Ross' next point is also debatable:

At the risk of belaboring the obvious, it's worth pointing out that a great many opponents of slavery in the United States, Abraham Lincoln included, were racists in much the same way that Chesterton was an anti-Semite - possessed of ideas about black inferiority, the necessity of the separation of the races, and so on and so forth, that look morally abominable to us today. But it would be at least mildly peculiar to attack Lincoln, let alone the more strident abolitionists of that era, on the grounds that by saying that their racism needs to be understood in the context of their times we're just "defining the problem," because their time was the time when slavery was at its zenith. It was, sure - and they were the ones opposing it! Now of course Hitler had many critics purer than G.K. Chesterton, and Zionism had champions less bigoted - but not so many, in that dark time, that we can deny Chesterton at least a modicum of credit for getting certain big things right. [Italics Mine]

The italicized sentence above is not without merit, and it would indeed be strange to attack Chesterton...if he had also saved European Jewry from Naziism, as Lincoln freed the slaves (this is an inexact comparison, although the point still holds). And while it may be "peculiar" to attack Lincoln, it is not at all odd to attack Northern racial sentiment in the four score and five years leading up to the Civil War. From the compromises in the Constitution, to the Kansas-Nebraska Act to the election of one pathetic president after another, the racism and small-mindedness of many people throughout the United States--and not just in the South--is an inescapable part of America's history (Lincoln's powers of articulation--notably in his second inagural address--surpass my own on this point). Without taking credit away from those who bravely opposed subjugation and racism and slavery, one should still say that the moral failing here was gigantic--and that the blame must be spread widely. Similarly, it may be admirable that Chesterton did not succumb to fascism, but the culture of anti-Semitism that raged throughout Europe prior to World War II must be held at least partially accountable for what followed.

Finally, Gopnik ends his essay by saying that:

If obviously great writers were allowed onto the reading list only when they conform to the current consensus of liberal good will--voices of tolerance and liberal democracy--we would probably be down to George Eliot.

Indeed, Gopnik never even comes close to writing that we should not be reading Chesterton (or Waugh, or Graham Greene, or John Buchan, or...) because of his feelings toward Jews. Nor is his piece a product of the 'Huck Finn should not be taught in classrooms even though it is the most eloquent case against racism that we have in print' school of thought. And for that we can--and should--be grateful.

--Isaac Chotiner