Gopnik on Chesterton (II)

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If Gopnik is somewhat unpersuasive in his discussion of G.K. Chesterton's anti-Semitism, he is likewise unconvincing when he tries to argue that Chesterton's political ideals were fulfilled in Franco's Spain:

... he dreamed of an anti-capitalist agricultural state overseen by the Catholic Church and governed by a military for whom medieval ideas of honor still resonated, a place where Jews would not be persecuted or killed, certainly, but hived off and always marked as foreigners. All anti-utopians cherish a secret utopia, an Eden of their own, and his, ironically, was achieved: his ideal order was ascendant over the whole Iberian Peninsula for half a century. And a bleak place it was, too, with a fearful ruling class running a frightened population in an atmosphere of poverty-stricken uniformity and terrified stasis -- a lot more like the actual medieval condition than like the Victorian fantasy.

Here I'm with Commonweal's Matthew Boudway, who writes:

There are many good ways to interpret Chesterton's distributism, and there are good ways to criticize it. But this is not one of them. It is a very long way from the Napoleon of Notting Hill to Alcázar. Chesterton was, as Gopnik insists, a localist, but there was really nothing localist about Franco's regime, which was characterized by strict centralization, cultural uniformity, and militarism -- things Chesterton always opposed. (Ask a Catalonian about Franco's tolerance of localism.) Chesterton's main criticism of "Prussianism," and later of Nazi Germany, was not, as Gopnik says, that it resembled Judaism in its belief in a chosen people, but that it was essentially militarist and autocratic. Despite Chesterton's "medievalism," it is not at all obvious what sort of modern political mechanisms would have best embodied his distributist theory, which is arguably the theory's greatest weakness. What is clear is that distributism was as different from Franco's brutal politics as it was from Bernard Shaw's socialism. Gopnik is impatient with such theoretical distinctions. For him, it is all about tendencies: all radical critiques of capitalism tend toward Communism, which has failed, or toward some kind of anti-Semitic authoritarianism. One is allowed to have a few mild reservations about capitalism, of course, and even to look down at the pitiless people who seem to have fewer reservations (i.e., Republicans), but any less mild opposition to our political economy, whatever its name or origin, is headed toward trouble: if not the Gulag or the gas chamber, then the Inquisition.

Tellingly, that the word "distributism" doesn't even appear in Gopnik's essay. There are plenty of things to be said against Chesterton's vision of political economy - for instance, that like other attempts to forge an agrarian third way it's unmoored from the structure of modern economies and from contemporary politics as it's actually practiced. (I wouldn't go quite that far myself: I think there are real insights to be gleaned from distributism - some of which found their way into Grand New Party - even if its adherents have a habit of falling back on Middle Earth when asked for real-world example of their ideal society in action.) But whatever you think of distributism's merits, surely a politics whose chief weakness is that it's so impractical as to have (almost) never been tried ought to be immune from the sort of lazy reductio ad fascism that Gopnik's employing here.

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

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