Gopnik on Chesterton (I)

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I've been meaning to say something for a while about Adam Gopnik's recent New Yorker essay (not online, unfortunately) on G.K. Chesterton, which I didn't find nearly as excellent as Rod Dreher did. Gopnik is of course a brilliant writer in his way, but his way tends, as Rick Brookhiser aptly put it, to make his own sensibility the measure of all things. He's a classic example of the cosmopolitan as provincial: He has something clever to say about everything under the sun, but where something more than cleverness is called for he's often at a loss, or else inappropriately facile. His breadth is astonishing, his depth considerably less so; he's a liberal ironist who often seems unable to imagine how anyone could have ever been anything else. This means that he's precisely the right man to explain, say, a Parisian restaurant war to an American audience, or to gently mock the over-enthusiastic reception that greeted the Gospel of Judas. And it makes him a fine guide to G.K. Chesterton the literary stylist, where both his praise and his criticisms seem to me judicious and on point. Where other aspects of Chesterton are concerned, though ... well, not so much.

I'll start with his lengthy attack on Chesterton's "Jew-hating," which culminates in this peculiar passage:

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.

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. Here I think Gopnik is indulging the chauvinism of hindsight: The assumption that everyone who partook of the attitudes that helped make the Holocaust possible should be judged and condemned on the basis of what we know now, rather than what they knew then. It's the Goldhagen approach to assigning culpability, in which even people who opposed Hitler - even people like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who died fighting him - are to be judged, and harshly, if they failed to live up the standards that Western society only adopted after the Holocaust provided a terrible example of where these thoughts and impulses can lead.

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.

As for Chesterton's parallel between "Prussianism" and the conception of the Jews as a chosen race - well, Gopnik can call it "wacky" if he likes, but the notion that Nazi racial theories, and especially the half-baked attempt to forge an "Aryan Christianity" purged of Judaic elements, were rooted in jealousy and imitation of the Jews as well as hatred strikes me as a subtle and important point. (In George Steiner's instantly-controversial novella The Portage to San Cristobal of A.H., he places exactly this argument in Adolf Hitler's mouth - and not, I think, merely in an attempt to dismiss it.) Indeed, I think the parallel is useful for understanding not only the Nazis but a wide variety of contemporary race-based theologies - from black liberation theology, to take a much-in-the-news example, to the more Arabist strains within Islam - that seek to claim for their ethnicity the particular favor that God has bestowed upon the Jews. Obvious, this sort of argument is outside Gopnik's intellectual comfort zone. But that's a problem with his narrow frame of reference, not the argument itself.

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Ross Douthat is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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