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Article on Chesterton

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Article on Chesterton

Postby Karen » 02 Jul 2008, 20:31

There's a long article by Adam Gopnik on Chesterton in this week's New Yorker magazine (issue of July 7&14). It's not available online, alas, but it's very interesting, and I encourage you to buy the magazine and read it. There's a photo of Chesterton: my, he was enormous! And also some discussion of his anti-Semitism, which I was unaware of. But it's mostly a tribute to his marvelous writing.
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Postby rusmeister » 03 Jul 2008, 03:47

I wish I could get a hold of it.

I have set myself to reading everything GKC wrote - a considerable task.
One thing I'll say right off the bat is that his "anti-Semitism" is greatly misunderstood, but the knee-jerk view that some have at the sight of his statements in limited context are entirely predictable, given how political correctness works (rhetoric designed to bring about certain reactions without questioning them - example: "discrimination" as something automatically bad, rather than neutral, or "criticism" as being purely negative, or any criticism of what being Jewish in the face of other nationalities means is "anti-Semitism" and therefore bad. (Pavlov's dogs, please pant and drool!")

Not blaming you for it, Karen. Most of us have been conditioned by public schooling and the media. Just remember that you should read for yourself, in full context, what GKC had to say before you say that he was saying something bad. I'll bet dollars to doughnuts GKC's critic in that article did not - at the very least, regarding that question.

His autobiography has the most seemingly "anti-Semitic" statements I have seen thus far (the Marconi scandal, which, among other things, deals with how Jewish brothers in high positions, who should have acted as Englishmen in their positions, acted as brothers instead when the two came into conflict. That sort of thing would only seem anti-Semitic to someone who's not paying attention or who didn't really read the book.

Also, it's pretty odd, then, that this "anti-Semite" condemned Hitler so roundly (for his persecution of Jews, among other things) and supported (for reasons like the one above) a homeland for Jews.

I'm not the most knowledgeable on this topic (yet) - I'm sure Dale Alquist could do better. Why don't you drop him an e-mail? He has responded to me before.
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Postby Karen » 03 Jul 2008, 12:31

Actually Gopnik does a pretty good job (at least, it seems to me) of showing how some of Chesterton's words on the subject should properly be seen in context but how others are more clearly anti-Semitic. It doesn't concern me that much, at any rate; as with Luther, one has to accept that sometimes men who wrote or did much good in the world had some very bad habits of mind.
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Postby rusmeister » 03 Jul 2008, 15:53

Karen wrote:Actually Gopnik does a pretty good job (at least, it seems to me) of showing how some of Chesterton's words on the subject should properly be seen in context but how others are more clearly anti-Semitic. It doesn't concern me that much, at any rate; as with Luther, one has to accept that sometimes men who wrote or did much good in the world had some very bad habits of mind.


I've read a lot of his stuff by now, Karen, and I will challenge the idea that Chesterton was bigoted ( held unreasonable ethnic/racial attitudes) towards Jews. The Jews, traditionally speaking, have an additional and unique problem of having ethnicity darn near identified with religion due to their unique history. What I have seen to date in GKC describes reasonable attitudes.
Maybe there's something I missed, but I've read the 'scary stuff' in his autobiography and found it to be rational and not condemnation of the Jewish people.

Like I said, I wish I could get a hold of this Gopnik. Although I recently received volume 5 of his collected works and was surprised and annoyed to find the introductions and commentary by others full of criticism just plain inferior to Chesterton himself. (I wouldn't have minded superior criticism so much. I was just thinking how lucky it is for these snooty critics that GKC isn't here to take them apart.) My impression is that Gopnik would be more of the same.
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Postby Adam Linton » 07 Jul 2008, 00:55

Oops!

Before I saw this thread, I asked if anyone else had read the article in a posting in "What Are You Reading?" I should have known, Karen, that you would have done so!

rusmeister, in terms of Chesterton's anti-semitism, I'd suggest that you read the article, if you can. Check the New Yorker website. Gopnik, while not writing hagiagraphy, is very appreciative-and has read Chesterton extensively and in context. The article is no hatchet-job. But it's hard, in my view, to be quite so dismissive of the anti-semitism after reading it (and Gopnik deals with with minimization of this by many devotees).

Don't assume quite so easily that Gopnik would just simply have to roll over and play dead in actual personal engagement with Chesterton!

But please don't get me wrong. I still find that they is much--very much--to respect and value in Chesterton. And as Gopnik points out, Chesterton himself condemed the Nazis for their treatment of Jews (even if that condemnation was, itself, not entirely free of anti-semitism).
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Postby Karen » 07 Jul 2008, 01:12

:smile:

Since you've undoubtedly read more GKC than I have (but not as much as rusmeister, I'll wager :wink:), what do you think of Gopnik's assessment of GKC and anti-Semitism?
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Postby Adam Linton » 07 Jul 2008, 02:04

Karen wrote:Since you've undoubtedly read more GKC than I have (but not as much as rusmeister, I'll wager :wink:), what do you think of Gopnik's assessment of GKC and anti-Semitism?


I wouldn't claim to be any sort of Chesterton expert, to be sure, but here goes: while there's more--very substantially more--to his explicitly religious works than Gopnik seems to give credit to, I think that this was a fair, genuinely appreciative article--a solid, insightful assesment, all in all. (It made me want to read more Chesterton, and that's got to say something!) And I think that G's assesment of GKC's anti-Semitism is fair, balanced--and pretty much right on target. I liked the line in the article warning us away from only reading authors who match present sensibilities.

The sad thing, but the responsible and necessary thing, as I see it, is to admit frankly, that there are great, rightly beloved figures in our history (like Chrysostom, Luther as you point out, and many others) who tragically fall short in their engagement with both Jews and Judaism. This doesn't mean that we write them off or dismiss such persons. No, they are instruments for us of God's gifts. But they are also fallen, limited human beings in need of redemption, too. Recognizing this doesn't mean that we don't love, value, respect, and learn from them.

Also as I see it, this is no time to sugar-coat this particular failing in our forebearers--beloved or otherwise.

But in answering your question here, Karen, I'm probably preaching to the choir!
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Postby JRosemary » 07 Jul 2008, 02:09

I can't lay my hands on the article at present, but having read much of Chesterton's remarks about Jews, I'd say his--well, let's call it his 'issues with Jews' took a particular form. He saw a "Jewish problem" in Europe--he did not view Jews as compatriots, but as aliens. Therefore he wanted Jews to have their own homeland. Hence he supported Israel.

(Someone in my synagogue once said to me how strange it was to think that Chesterton was both an antisemite and a Zionist! 'Antisemite' may be a bit strong--I'll let others judge that--but I took the person's point.)

This is, from what I can gather, a common-enough view in many European countries. (And far more common in Chesterton's day.) Only crackpots in America would view American Jews as non-Americans. But, even today, in some parts of Europe people won't view you as a 'real' citizen of your country if you're Jewish. Chesterton, sadly, seemed to fall into that trap; as far as I can tell, he didn't view Jews as countrymen.
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Postby JRosemary » 07 Jul 2008, 02:28

P.S. This is why many American synagogues read a letter that George Washington wrote to synagogues after the American Revolution, assuring Jews that they are not merely tolerated here, but are, by right, full and equal citizens. At that time, that wasn't true in any other country in the world!
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Postby Adam Linton » 07 Jul 2008, 02:34

JRosemary wrote:P.S. This is why many American synagogues read a letter that George Washington wrote to synagogues after the American Revolution, assuring Jews that they are not merely tolerated here, but are, by right, full and equal citizens. At that time, that wasn't true in any other country in the world!


One of the many things for which gratitude is most appropriate when considering the heritage and legacy of the United States. (Not, of course, to deny that we too have had our own tragic shortcomings.)
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Postby rusmeister » 07 Jul 2008, 04:04

Adam Linton wrote:Oops!

Before I saw this thread, I asked if anyone else had read the article in a posting in "What Are You Reading?" I should have known, Karen, that you would have done so!

rusmeister, in terms of Chesterton's anti-semitism, I'd suggest that you read the article, if you can. Check the New Yorker website. Gopnik, while not writing hagiagraphy, is very appreciativep-and has read Chesterton extensively and in context. The article is no hatchet-job. But it's hard, in my view, to be quite so dismissive of the anti-semitism after reading it (and Gopnik deals with with minimization of this by many devotees).

Don't assume quite so easily that Gopnik would just simply have to roll over and play dead in actual personal engagement with Chesterton!

But please don't get me wrong. I still find that they is much--very much--to respect and value in Chesterton. And as Gopnik points out, Chesterton himself condemed the Nazis for their treatment of Jews (even if that condemnation was, itself, not entirely free of anti-semitism).


Thanks, Adam.
No, I can't get a hold of stuff from over here in Russia - I can't order online and I certainly can't get hard copy. I have to make a really big deal of something to get somebody to first obtain it and then find a way to ship it.

I did find a couple of excerpts that someone posted as examples. I was not impressed. I think people READ antisemitism into it because a) any criticism of any Jew may be automatically interpreted as "antisemitism" (hence we need a universally agreed definition) and b) they confuse personal descriptions with an attack on a people as a whole.

Definitions are everything. Otherwise, we will be drawn into quick conclusions which are not thought out because the application of the term has already (literally) pre-judiced you. I'll call any standard rhetorical word (such as "discrimination") out on the carpet if it is used wrongly or unfairly.

For that reason I can even find fault with the wikipedia article, but here is a working definition:
Antisemitism (alternatively spelled anti-semitism or anti-Semitism, also rarely known as judeophobia) is prejudice and hostility toward Jews as a group. The prejudice is usually characterized by a combination of religious, racial, cultural and ethnic biases. While the term's etymology might suggest that antisemitism is directed against all Semitic peoples, since its creation it has been used exclusively to refer to hostility towards Jews.[1][2]

Antisemitism may be manifested in many ways, ranging from individual expressions of hatred and discrimination against individual Jews to organized violent attacks by mobs or even state police or military attacks on entire Jewish communities. Extreme instances of persecution include the German Crusade of 1096, the expulsion from England in 1290, the Spanish Inquisition, the expulsion from Spain in 1492, the expulsion from Portugal in 1497, various pogroms, and the most infamous, the Holocaust under Adolf Hitler's Nazi Germany.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anti-Semitism

There is just no way we can honestly go from Chesterton's feelings that Jews had a natural tendency to act according to a conflict of interests between being Jewish and being English to such a definition of anti-semitism. You can argue as to whether he was right or wrong, you may like or dislike his conclusions and attitudes, but you cannot reasonably draw hostility towards all Jewish people from it.

Gopnik’s article, the occasion for which is to note, on the occasion of the hundredth anniversary of The Man Who Was Thursday, the publication of two new editions, most tellingly characterizes Chesterton’s racism with passages typified by the following:

The insistence that Chesterton’s anti-Semitism needs to be understood “in the context of this 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. …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 ideas was the same.

Gopnik provides several instances of Chesterton’s anti-Semitism in his own words. I will let the following autobiographical excerpt stand for the rest:

… [Chesterton] writes of how he appreciates that “one of the great Jewish virtues is gratitude,” and explains that he knows this because as a kid at school “I was criticized in early days for quixotry and priggishness in protecting Jews; and I remember once extricating a strange swarthy little creature with a hooked nose from being bullied, or rather being teased.”

A strange swarthy little creature with a hooked nose: nice stuff. So much for the magisterial Catholic sage. My enthusiasm of last December is retracted. Mea culpa. Discipleship does not cancel out race hatred; it’s the other way around: Chesterton was a false prophet and a swine.

http://rrrrodak.blogspot.com/

I would say post Chesterton's words and let them stand inspection. From the one example printed here, criticism of this author is based on an unfavorable description of a boy. But GKC is not physically describing all Jews - it is automatically taken to be an insult to a people.
I find it ironic that we are willing to be so broad-minded as to consider criticism of GKC, but that no criticism of any people who happen to be Jewish may be tolerated without a knee-jerk cry of "Antisemite!".
The famous passages from his autobiography relate to a specific pair of brothers. It helps to understand that he is digging to the causes of the conflict of interests that led the Isaac brothers to essentially sell out England (and destroy GKC's own brother in the process). Given the danger of taking snippets out of context (but they are so much easier to read, and it's fun to dig up some muck!), here is one of the most telling passages (from his Autobiography, ch. 3):

Oddly enough, I lived to have later on the name of an Anti-Semite;
whereas from my first days at school I very largely had the name of a
Pro-Semite. I made many friends among the Jews, and some of these I
have retained as life-long friends; nor have our relations ever been
disturbed by differences upon the political or social problem.
I am glad that I began at this end; but I have not really ended any
differently from the way in which I began. I held by instinct then,
and I hold by knowledge now, that the right way is to be interested
in Jews as Jews; and then to bring into greater prominence the very much
neglected Jewish virtues, which are the complement and sometimes
even the cause of what the world feels to be the Jewish faults.
For instance, one of the great Jewish virtues is gratitude.
I was criticised in early days for quixotry and priggishness in
protecting Jews; and I remember once extricating a strange swarthy little
creature with a hooked nose from being bullied, or rather being teased;
for the worst torture really consisted of his being lightly tossed
from one boy to another amid wild stares of wide-eyed scientific
curiosity and questions like, "What is it?" and "Is it alive?"
Thirty years afterwards, when that little goblin was a great grown
bearded man, utterly remote from me in type and trade and interests
and opinions, he had a sort of permanent fountain of thanks for that
trifling incident, which was quite embarrassing. In the same way,
I noted that strong family bond among the Jews which, as I recognized,
was not merely disguised but denied among most normal schoolboys.
Doubtless, I came to know the Jews because in this sense they were
a little abnormal, as I was then becoming a little abnormal myself.
Yet there is nothing I have come to count more normal,
and nothing I desire more to restore to its normal place,
than those two things; the family and the theory of thanks.
And then, in the light of these virtues as seen from within,
it was often possible to understand the origin and even the
justification of much of the Anti-Semitic criticism from without.
For it is often the very loyalty of the Jewish family which appears
as disloyalty to the Christian state. As the reader will realise
before the end, it was partly what I admired in private friends,
especially in two brothers named Solomon, which I came ultimately
to denounce in political enemies, in two brothers named Isaacs.
The first were good by every standard, the second vulnerable even
by their own standard: and yet they had the same virtue.

I am not at all ashamed of having asked Aryans to have more patience
with Jews or for having asked Anglo-Saxons to have more patience
with Jew-baiters. The whole problem of the two entangled cultures
and traditions is much too deep and difficult, on both sides,
to be decided impatiently. But I have very little patience with
those who will not solve the problem, on the ground that there
is no problem to solve. I cannot explain the Jews; but I certainly
will not explain them away. Nor have the Jews a worse enemy than
the sort of Jew sceptic who sometimes tries to explain himself away.
I have seen a whole book full of alternative theories of the particular
historic cause of such a delusion about a difference; that it came
from mediaeval priests or was burnt into us by the Inquisition;
that it was a tribal theory arising out of Teutonism; that it
was revolutionary envy of the few Jews who happened to be the big
bankers of Capitalism; that it was Capitalist resistance to
the few Jews who happened to be the chief founders of Communism.
All these separate theories are false in separate ways; as in
forgetting that mediaeval heresy hunts spared Jews more and not less
than Christians; or that Capitalism and Communism are so very nearly
the same thing, in ethical essence, that it would not be strange
if they did take leaders from the same ethnological elements.
But broadly, the evasions are contrary to common sense; as they
were contrary even to the common sense of a boy of thirteen.
I do not believe that a crowd on a race-course is poisoned
by mediaeval theology; or the navvies in a Mile End pub misled
by the ethnology of Gobineau or Max Müller; nor do I believe that
a mob of little boys fresh from the cricket-field or the tuckshop
were troubled about Marxian economics or international finance.
Yet all these people recognise Jews as Jews when they see them;
and the schoolboys recognised them, not with any great hostility
except in patches; but with the integration of instinct. What they
saw was not Semites or Schismatics or capitalists or revolutionists,
but foreigners; only foreigners that were not called foreigners.
This did not prevent friendship and affection, especially in my own case;
but then it never has prevented it in the case of ordinary foreigners.
One of these early friends of mine, now Professor of Latin at
University College, happened to have all the Jewish virtues, and also
all the others there are; he afterwards became a member of the little
club already described; and passed through Oxford with distinction;
probably greater distinction than my other friends.
http://www.cse.dmu.ac.uk/~mward/gkc/boo ... graphy.txt

There's more stuff later, but it tends to be a lot more specific towards the Isaac brothers.

Now I realize that many people, in a climate that labels any criticism of anything Jewish as "Antisemitism", will see this as antisemitic, but by the above definition it is not. People who have been educated by modern schooling and the media will see precisely what they have been trained to see, and to not think further than those rhetorical labels. Not to be pedantic - but my objection is to vague definitions that actually hold double standards that lie unexamined at the roots of our thinking, and I have never seen anyone expose the roots of that thinking better than GK Chesterton. He felt that Jews were, due to their unique status, foreigners. But nowhere did he ever advocate hatred or mistreatment for Jews. He held a view that a Christian can honestly hold and remain Christian. You may like it or hate it, but you may not honestly call it "antisemitic".
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Postby JRosemary » 07 Jul 2008, 04:28

I don't know, Rus--to look at someone and say, "I don't care if your family has been here since Cromwell: you are not now, nor will you ever be, English. We're decent enough chaps to tolerate you, of course, but it'd be best for all concerned if you left"--well, if that's not antisemitism, it's something perilously close to it.

Again, what can I say but thank God for America! Here we are not tolerated, but free and equal citizens--full blooded Americans who have fought for our country in every single war. We've never been told that to be Jewish is to be disqualified from being American. (That's not to say that antisemitism doesn't exist here, but it has never jeopardized our standing as Americans.)

But hopefully Chesterton does not speak for the English citizens of today...in fact, I doubt very much he does. And hopefully he didn't speak for all the English subjects of his day, either...even if the view was more prevelant then, there may have been many who had enough sense to reject it.
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Postby Adam Linton » 07 Jul 2008, 04:51

For the record, rusmeister, and I don't offer this to continue the discussion (which I'm dropping out of)--but as a matter of personal conscience I must say that I find the long quote, in your last posting, from Chesterton's autobiography (even if can be argued to have been directly related to the topic) to have been inappropriate here.

For me it is sadly and manifestly anti-Semitic, in the fully real sense. Just the kind of stuff that helped make the Holocaust possible (even though Chesterton opposed the Nazis and would have been horrified by the Holocaust). Some things are just outside the bounds for a Forum like this. That's how I see it.

Of course, I fully realize that you intended no hurt or malice. I assume your charity and good will.
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Postby JRosemary » 07 Jul 2008, 04:57

Adam Linton wrote:For the record, rusmeister, and I don't offer this to continue the discussion (which I'm dropping out of)--but as a matter of personal conscience I must say that I find the long quote, in your last posting, from Chesterton's autobiography (even if can be argued to have been directly related to the topic) to have been inappropriate here.

For me it is sadly and manifestly anti-Semitic, in the fully real sense. Just the kind of stuff that helped make the Holocaust possible (even though Chesterton opposed the Nazis and would have been horrified by the Holocaust). Some things are just outside the bounds for a Forum like this. That's how I see it.

Of course, I fully realize that you intended no hurt or malice. I assume your charity and good will.


I respect your decision to pull out, Adam. But, for my part, I'm just as glad that Rus posted it. If Rus is determined to quote Chesterton at every opportunity, I think it's just as well that we all see what a ba****d Chesterton was capapble of being, however decent a man he might have been in other respects. (Jeez, the man couldn't refrain from describing a Jew as hook-nosed and a goblin? Thank God only crackpots use such terms today...)
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Postby JRosemary » 07 Jul 2008, 05:10

P.S. I think it's important that we view all historical figures 'warts and all'--if we're going to talk about Washington and Jefferson, we shouldn't sing their praises endlessly without mentioning slavery...
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