The Anti-Semitism of G.K. Chesterton

It is easy to turn a blind eye to G.K. Chesterton’s anti-Semitism on grounds that he got so much else right, and on grounds that Chesterton’s casual racist references were very much a part of 20th century English culture. Yet refusing to acknowledge the less savory aspects of a life that was otherwise noble is not charity, but intellectual laziness. As Chesterton himself would have us acknowledge, “Love is not blind. It is bound, and the more it is bound, the less it is blind.”

Writing in this month’s New Yorker (not available online) Adam Gropnik stares deeply into Chesterton’s legacy, arguing not that his anti-semitism is much more than a byproduct of the times, but that it is organically connected to his localism.

The trouble for those of us who love Chesterton’s writing is that the anti-Semitism is not incidental: it rises from the logic of his poetic position. The anti-Semitism is easy to excise from his arguments when it’s explicit. It’s harder to excise the spirit that leads to it — the suspicion of the alien, the extreme localism, the favoring of national instinct over rational argument, the distaste for “parasitic” middlemen, and the preference for the simple organ-grinding music of the folk.

The irony of Gropnik’s analysis is that it was precisely Chesterton’s localism that led him to be a proponent of a Jewish homeland, firmly aligning him with the decidedly Zionist forces of both early 20th century England and contemporary America. Chesterton was even invited to Palestine by a group of Zionists, who saw him as an ally to their cause. When it came to his localism, Chesterton was, if nothing else, consistent in his application.

But I would argue that Gropnik’s analysis of Chesterton’s localism mischaracterizes it as racial, rather than geographical. For Chesterton, the universality of human nature expresses itself in the particular human person. Thomism is the root of his localism, and its fruit is not racism but localized, potentially diverse communities that resist the homogenizing effects of an unrestrained capitalism and socialism. Chesterton understood that social ties are more accidental than self-determined, which is why he advocated loving humans instead of the nebulous ‘humanity.’ We do not get to choose whom our neighbor is. This is, after all, the secret to Chesterton’s remarkable and unparalleled ability to build close friendships with those whom he deeply disagreed.

None of this makes Chesterton’s anti-semitism excusable. I leave that (dubious?) task to others. My only hope is to inculcate Chesterton’s philosophy against the poisonous charge that it is necessarily anti-semitic, a hope doubtlessly grounded in my own patriotic affection for a thinker whose influence I have still not escaped.

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  • Dale Ahlquist

    I read the New Yorker article and sent the following letter to the Editor. I don’t know if it will be printed, but here it is:

    To the Editor of the New Yorker:

    Mr. Gopnik has besmirched the good name of the good Gilbert Keith Chesterton, even while sandwiching his comments between thick slices of praise. Maybe it’s just revenge. After all, Chesterton said, “New York reminded me of hell. Pleasantly, of course.”

    For those of us who love Chesterton, we are always distressed to see him subjected to any vile charge. But we’ve gotten a little tired of the charge of anti-Semitism. He’s been absolved of that one too many times for us to count – from the tribute by Rabbi Stephen Wise to the official statements of the Weiner Library (the archives of anti-Semitism and holocaust history in London). Mr. Gopnik has added a new technique to making the charge stick – declaring that Chesterton’s admirers should not defend Chesterton against the horrible accusation. Hm. That is certainly one way to end the debate. I would meekly suggest that a better way would be for people to stop repeating charges that have already been dropped.

    But we are still going to take Mr. Gopnik’s article as a sign of hope. Fifteen or twenty years ago, Chesterton was simply dismissed by the literary establishment as an anti-Semite and not taken seriously. Now he is at least being taken seriously before being dismissed as an anti-Semite. As the Chesterton revival kicks into high gear, we expect the trend to continue to the point where Chesterton is simply taken seriously without the obligation to mention anything about how Chesterton judges the Jews or how the Jews judge Chesterton.

    In the meantime, we regret the unfortunate turn in Mr. Gopnik’s otherwise brilliant essay. There is something a little too desperate, too anxious in his attempt to prove that Chesterton is anti-Semitic. He is dancing as fast as he can to explain away Chesterton’s Zionism and his outspoken stance against Hitler for oppressing the Jews. (“I will die defending the last Jew in Europe.” What does it take to convince some people?)

    Among the worn out arguments Mr. Gopnik uses is: Chesterton should not treat the Jews as if they are different because…well…they’re different. But far more troubling is his argument that Chesterton, the Catholic convert, has this pervasive nastiness woven into the very fabric of his philosophy. Whether consciously or not, Mr. Gopnik has broadened his implication to include the whole Catholic Church. Perhaps some future literary critic will be discussing Mr. Gopnik’s anti-Catholicism rather than Chesterton’s anti-Semitism. He can only hope that he will one day be considered so noteworthy a controversialist.

    For now, however, the most important consideration should be of the following passage from Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man:

    “…the world owes God to the Jews… [T]hrough all their wanderings… they did indeed carry the fate of the world in that wooden tabernacle…The more we really understand of the ancient conditions that contributed to the final culture of the Faith, the more we shall have a real and even a realistic reverence for the greatness of the Prophets of Israel. [W]hile the whole world melted into this mass of confused mythology, this Deity who is called tribal and narrow, precisely because he was what is called tribal and narrow, preserved the primary religion of all mankind. He was tribal enough to be universal. He was as narrow as the universe…”

    Doesn’t exactly sound like the writings of an anti-Semite. Sounds more like someone who has a deep respect for the Jews. Also sounds like a pretty good argument for localism. Chesterton has thrown Mr. Gopnik’s main point into serious jeopardy. Either Chesterton is right to defend localism, which is what preserved the Jews, or localism is a menace and the Jews should have melted into their surroundings three thousand years ago. Mr. Gopnik cannot have it both ways.

    Your servant,

    Dale Ahlquist
    President, American Chesterton Society
    http://www.chesterton.org