Sunday, 12 July 2015

Chesterton and the Jews, by Ann Farmer

Best known for his detective hero Father Brown, G. K. Chesterton’s patriotism and growing sympathy for the poor vied with his appreciation of Jewish family values and his gratitude to the Jewish people for bringing God to the world.

With the rise of Nazism, Chesterton once again became their champion.

Although his Zionist views – as much misunderstood now as then – attracted controversy, he foresaw the perils of a race obsession that knew no boundaries, and his warnings against a resurgent German militarism were heard (or, mostly. not heard) as early as Winston Churchill’s.

He also saw the dangers to the family from both Left and Right; and as the Nazis strove to control family life, his admiration and gratitude for Jewish family values came to the fore.

Chesterton and the Jews peels away post-Holocaust assumptions to reveal his complex feelings for ‘the Jews’ - admiration, fascination and fear – discovering neglected layers of meaning in stories hitherto seen as anti-Semitic.

And with many life-long Jewish friends, Chesterton, prince of paradox, seems never to have suspected that his closest friend – his wife – was in all probability Jewish.

Chesterton and the Jews sets its subject in the context of his times, but also examines his claims to universal relevance as a modern prophet, studying him alongside close friends H. G. Wells, George Bernard Shaw and Hilaire Belloc.

Although all had strong opinions on the ‘Jewish question’, Wells and Shaw have emerged from history with their reputations unstained, while Belloc and Chesterton have acquired a reputation for anti-Semitism.

Belloc was self-consciously rational and strove to avoid prejudicing his case by unthinking prejudice; he managed to restrain the excesses of G. K.’s brother Cecil (although Cecil’s wife was harder to restrain), but although G. K. was badly knocked off course by his brother’s death in the closing days of the Great War, and took up the latter’s more aggressive stance on the ‘Jewish question’ almost as a mark of respect, he slowly recovered his sanity on the issue.

His entry into the Catholic Church, itself regarded as irredeemably anti-Semitic by many Jews, actually marked the emergence of a milder, more universalistic Chesterton, characteristically though paradoxically in tune with his nationalistic theory.

Shaw regarded the unlikely union of Chesterton’s and Belloc’s contrasting philosophies as an ungainly pantomime animal, the Chesterbelloc.

The contrast between their differing approach to the ‘Jewish question’ could be summed up by saying that following Cecil’s death at least, Chesterton tried to be anti-Semitic; Belloc tried not to be anti-Semitic; both failed, although after the rise of the Nazis, Belloc like Chesterton spoke out strongly against anti-Semitism.

On the surface they appeared to have the same view of the ‘Jewish question’, but a close study of their writings suggests that while the half-French Belloc feared that the English would become increasingly ‘Jewish’ (in a negative sense) over time, Chesterton feared that by rejecting their Jewishness, Jews would become ever more English (in a negative sense).

Of course, the problem with rebutting the often inaccurate and hyperbolic claims of anti-Semitism against Chesterton can make it appear that there was no problem. This is far from the case, but it was a much more complex problem than might at first appear to post-Holocaust eyes.

Nonetheless, in my desire not to overlook any hint of anti-Semitism I became almost as fanatical in my anti-anti-Semitism as any anti-Semite, and I have stressed that such references, themselves expressed with a nuance that was almost finicky, constitute a mere fraction of a huge outpouring of fiction, non-fiction, poetry and biography.

As to the ChesterShaWells and the ‘Jewish question’, each of its individual parts espoused the cause of the underdog, and this brought Chesterton into conflict with what became known as ‘Jewish finance’, because he had genuine sympathy with the poor, whereas Shaw and Wells were more interested in eradicating poverty by eradicating the poor.

Chesterton was suspicious of bureaucracy and overweening state power, whereas Shaw and Wells were attracted to that supreme, neutral entity, the totalitarian state, by its power for doing good.

Disregarding Acton’s warning about the corrupting power of power, they believed that so long as absolute power was in the right hands it would be wielded with absolute safety – but the right hands must be the strongest hands.

Their advocacy of the extermination of the weak did not cause the Holocaust, but both saw the Dictators as an evolutionary stage to their Utopias; desperately revising their predictions in the light of the latest totalitarian outrage, they became prophets in reverse.

And while Shaw and Wells supported totalitarianism because they saw it implementing some of their cherished ideas, Chesterton rejected fascism despite its potential for implementing his Distributist ideas.

While not planning their Utopias principally to address anti-Semitism, all claimed their Utopias – and in Shaw’s and Wells’s case they were ‘I-topias’ - were the answer to it.

All attacked Nazi anti-Semitism, but when ‘the Jews’ failed to spearhead his revolution Shaw transferred his hopes to the Nazis.

Wells, in the face of the Nazi extermination programme, eventually accepted that Jewish assimilation, a crucial stage on the way to creating his World State, was not an immediate possibility, but he blamed anti-Semitism on the Jewish insistence on remaining ‘separate’.

When tested by anti-Semitism, the I-topias survived. Millions of Jews did not.

Chesterton – the only one of the three who did not live to see the War – responded most realistically to Nazi anti-Semitism, and if the claim to prophet status in the age of Dictators is based on correct analysis of power politics and identification of the biggest threat to Britain, to democracy and to civilization, Chesterton’s claim surpasses that of Wells and Shaw.

The latter saw a separate Jewish people as an existential threat to their Utopias, but Chesterton believed they should not disappear even if they wanted to. Thus, his approach may be seen as equally flawed.

Nevertheless, unlike Shaw’s Shawtocracy of the Strong Man, and Wells’s worldwide expertocracy, Chesterton never abolished free will. When his ‘peasantocracy’ idea was largely rejected, only Chesterton trusted Man as God trusted Man: enough to accept rejection.

None of the three giants was perfect, or a perfect prophet. However, the ‘prophet test’ is not a test of perfection.

Chesterton admitted he was not perfect – no mere human being could be – but he was the only one of the three literary giants of the early twentieth century to reserve a place in his worldview for the Jewish people.

Shaw and Wells failed to see that the killing they advocated could be applied to other categories of human beings, but Chesterton realized that the ‘strong man’ could apply eugenics to anyone he chose.

Far from an historical curiosity, Darwinism is once again influencing the view that certain categories of people are not human persons and thus may be killed.

Indeed, ethicist Peter Singer, who has advocated infanticide for the disabled and who believes that human rights should be conferred on the great apes, has been lavished with praise and national honours.

Unlike Shaw and Wells, Chesterton did not urge the disappearance as the Jewish people as a precursor to his small-property-owning idea.

He maintained that Jewish financial power was in decline, and his belief in democracy and revealed religion, against fashionable evolutionary theories, Utopias and the Superman idea, challenged him on the ever-present yet ever-changing “Jewish question”.

That he met this challenge makes him the best prophet in the age of dictators.

His controversial version of Zionism, feared by some Jews as heralding a return to Medieval ghettos, is capable of a less threatening interpretation. But Chesterton may now be regarded by progressives as a failed prophet on the “Israel problem” in view of his advocacy of a Jewish homeland in Palestine, whose creation and continued existence they blame for provoking violent reaction worldwide.

Indeed, in the progressive worldview, Hitler’s ‘sincere’ opposition to Israel could yet be seen as prophetic, while the post-Modern aversion to objective truth, shaped by concerns about the ‘authoritarianism’ that supposedly led to the Holocaust, has itself led to a situation in which Holocaust denial is just another opinion.

It was not necessary to be a prophet in the 1930s to foresee the resurgence of anti-Semitism, that most enduring of hatreds. Indeed, Wells, Shaw and Chesterton all warned of a recurrence if their advice was not heeded.

But even without the lessons of history, they merely had to look around, see what was happening, and project it into the future if, as Ebenezer Scrooge remarked, ‘things did not change’.

Because Chesterton trusted men but distrusted Man, he could see what would happen if things did not change.

Shaw and Wells distrusted men but trusted Man, whom they saw as a eugenically purified and racially homogenized Superman. They denied the Fall of Man, and forgot, as Chesterton warned, that men make mistakes simply because they are men.

The very old-fashioned Chesterton espoused the diversity of Man before it became orthodoxy, but he knew that a diversity of men was needed to restrain the Strong Man and empower the weak.

Democracy depended on diversity of opinion, a democracy built on the Christian belief in free will.

While Shaw and Wells celebrated the Strong Man and were incapable of understanding the deeper meaning of Jack the Giant killer, Chesterton saw only too well the meaning of the Nazi Giant menacing the Jewish people.

G. K. C. died before the War, but gazing through the lens of the Holocaust, many present-day critics would no doubt condemn his writings for anti-Semitism, while falling into the age-old trap of singling out the Jewish state above all others for criticism, and blaming its existence for world unrest.

I do not expect progressive received opinion to regard Chesterton other than with a sneer, but interest in his writings is growing among ordinary people, and the test of a true prophet is whether he can be discovered afresh by each new generation – by people who may never have heard of him, but who now hear him addressing their own concerns, which are the enduring concerns of Man.

Even if not a prophet in the strictest sense, this makes him a man for all seasons.

It is sad that Chesterton is more likely to be recognised and acclaimed in the rest of the world than in his own country. But no prophet ever is recognised and acclaimed his own country, and that may be an indication that he may after all have a claim to prophet status.

More importantly, the progressive elitist classes that he warned about, which once constituted a tiny minority in society, now wield the greatest power, largely through the media.

They are doing exactly what he predicted – creating a progressive I-topia of birth control, abortion and euthanasia.

With the best of intentions, they have succeeded in delivering the medical fascism of eugenics and the neo-colonialism of population control, by re-packaging as rights and choices the old abuses that Hitler imposed on his victims.

Or perhaps, more insidiously, and consequently more dangerously, they will succeed in introducing genetic cleansing of the pre-born – for the avoidance of suffering, naturally.

As Chesterton realised, their intentions are good. But he also knew that the road to Hell is paved with good intentions.

That realisation constitutes a much greater claim to prophet status.  

Chesterton and the Jews: Friend, Critic, Defender (Angelico Press, June 2015).

Biographical information

Ann Farmer studied for a master’s degree at the Centre for Jewish Christian Relations in Cambridge, England. Publications include Language of Life: Christians Facing the Abortion Challenge (1995); Prophets and Priests: The Hidden Face of the Birth Control Movement (2002); By Their Fruits: Eugenics, Population Control, and the Abortion Campaign (2008); The Five Wounds (2012). She is married with three children and four grandchildren.

1 comment:

  1. I like this article, makes me think about a lot of things. But one thing I like is opening my horizons, I become more intelligent.