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.