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GKC: Saint, Maybe; Anti-Semite, No Print E-mail
By Michael Coren   
Thursday, 10 October 2013

I’m used to being discussed, even abused, on Twitter and Facebook. It’s the price you pay for being a journalist, and if I were influenced by negative comments at the end of my columns, I would have given up long ago. The positive comments are, of course, all routinely and absolutely accurate! Last month, the discussion was not about a recent article or television broadcast, but a couple of lines from a book I’d written in 1988: Gilbert: The Man Who Was G. K. Chesterton.

Why the renewed interest? I had defended Chesterton against charges of anti-Semitism in my book, and had quoted London’s Wiener Library, an institution devoted to the study of the Holocaust and anti-Semitism, explaining that Chesterton, “was not an enemy, and when the real testing time came along he showed what side he was on.”

Timing, of course, is everything; and it was announced recently that the author of the Father Brown stories, The Everlasting Man, Orthodoxy, The Man Who Was Thursday, biographies of Aquinas, Dickens, and myriad books and columns was being considered for beatification.

As soon as this was made public I wrote that the old anti-Semitic canard would be resurrected.  I wish I could be wrong more often. In took very little time for Britain’s influential and respected Jewish Chronicle, a weekly newspaper, for example, to print an article under the lead, “Can this Jew-hater G. K. Chesterton be a saint?”

I think the question rather gave the answer away. Geoffrey Alderman wrote:

I never cease to be amazed at the lengths to which some will go to excuse or belittle clear expressions of anti-Semitism articulated by public figures, present or past. . . .Chesterton was a highly successful novelist, journalist and critic who converted to Catholicism. Rome likes to reward converts, perhaps in the hope of luring others to follow them. . . .But there’s a problem: Chesterton had a much-publicized aversion to Jews and to Judaism.
He then pulled out the usual quotations and references from Chesterton’s enormous body of work, and enormous body, to prove that the man hated Jews.

Mr. Alderman and I have at least two things in common. Both of us have written about Chesterton, and both of us are Jewish. I became a Roman Catholic in 1985, but to a genuine anti-Semite, I am still a Jew. If you doubt me, take a look one day at the abuse I mentioned above.

As a Jew, however, I will always be immensely and intensely grateful to Chesterton, who in so many ways guided me towards the Church. I am sure this will be of no comfort to Mr. Alderman, but there it is. And as someone who has battled anti-Semitism all of his life – as an unruly youth on the London streets and as a similarly unruly adult on the written page – I do feel that I possess certain qualifications in all this.

Yes, Chesterton did make some ugly, foolish comments, particularly after the death of his brother Cecil, who almost certainly was a genuine hater of Jews. Because Cecil had launched a campaign against a group of politicians, some of whom were Jewish, and then died prematurely in 1918, Gilbert – always strangely in awe of his far less talented sibling – allowed his grief to become anger towards Cecil’s enemies.

He left the world some fatuous lines of poetry about Jews in his novel The Flying Inn; he showed too little sensitivity in writing of Jewish people in medieval England; he was wrong and uncharacteristically banal about the Dreyfus trial; and at his worst, allowed himself to stroll along the dirty path with Cecil, and the loud but not genuinely anti-Semitic Hilaire Belloc.

We have to ask if a hater of Jews would write that, “The world owes God to the Jews,” or that “I will die defending the last Jew in Europe”? We have to wonder how he could have formed such close, intimate relationships with Jewish friends for all of his life, people who would not have tolerated affection from a Jew-hater for a moment, and wrote as much then and after Chesterton’s death.

He condemned anti-Semitism, he embraced Zionism, he was lauded by Jewish leaders, and as early as 1934 – when many intellectuals and politicians were ambivalent – called for the mass rescuing of Jews from Nazi Germany, and made repeated public condemnations of National Socialist anti-Semitism. He was a kind, loving, Christian man, who should have been more thoughtful in some of his statements, but passed the great litmus test when others failed.

“One sees great things from the valley”, he wrote, “only small things from the peak.” To interpret the man by peering up from the lowest point in that valley would be tragically myopic. Best to leave the last word to Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, one of the most prominent leaders of American Jewry in the first half of the twentieth-century. When Hitlerism came, he was one of the first to speak out with all the directness and frankness of a great and unabashed spirit.

Saint? Who knows. Anti-Semite? Not at all.

 
Michael Coren is a TV and radio host based in Toronto, Canada. His syndicated column runs each week in many newspapers. He is the author of thirteen books, including Heresy and Why Catholics Are Right.
 
 
The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

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Comments (11)Add Comment
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written by Randall, October 10, 2013
Yes, the cries of 'anti-Semite!' are all too predictable. Of lesser importance, I suppose, is the current fluffle concerning the name of the NFL Washington Redskins. The team owner, Mr. Snyder, recently wrote a soberly clear letter to Redskins fans laying out the history of the team and its name. But why let facts get in the way when one can wallow gloriously in a sense of victimhood.

In neither case do I mean to deny the evil committed to both Native Americans and Jews in history. It's the looking for slights were they don't exist that is like a plague.
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written by Jack,CT, October 10, 2013
Good Stuff, thx
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written by Grump, October 10, 2013
Are not the Jews who deny the divinity of Jesus anti-Semitic? Think about it. Jesus on this earth was Jewish to the core, yet his own rejected Him. Save for Luke, the first Apostles were all Jewish. The Church grew out of Judaism and is not Christianity, simply put, "Judaism completed"?

Thus it is not possible for a true Christian to be anti-Semitic, as Bishop Sheen often said. Where the confusion lies is any criticism of Israel or Jews in general often is twisted into a convenient label: "anti-Semitism." Like "racist," "sexist" and "homophobe," there is an instant connection made, however false, whenever a critique is made of one of another race, gender or sexual persuasion. The knee-jerk response is to assign a one-word label that then becomes the narrative for others to parrot.

One of my favorite writers, H.L. Mencken, was an agnostic and mislabeled as anti-Semitic, yet he worked closely for years with George Jean Nathan, a Jew and co-editor of two magazines they founded together. Many of Mencken's best friends were Jewish, yet now and they he would hurl a barb or two at them, both individually and as a group. A self-professed agnostic, he also had it in for just about everyone else including Christians. But as the self-described "amiable skeptic," he left a sliver of hope and even humility in his dying days that he could be wrong about the non-existence of God. Who knows a person's heart? I would not be surprised to find a chastened but redeemed H.L. finding a room at the Heavenly Hotel.

I've read a lot of Chesterton and often found his prose overstuffed with metaphors that sometimes were incomprehensible. I think he wrote fast and, as any writer knows, when you write fast you can sometimes look back and wished you had a good editor. Once unleashed, words can never be retracted. I've written a few and said a few that I would like to take back. Haven't we all?

Thanks for a good column on one of the great Catholic apologists who may not have been a saint but surely was a sinner, as we all are, and one who had believed he had been saved by God's good grace.
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written by Rich in MN, October 10, 2013
I know that Dale Ahlquist -- a Baptist converted to Catholicism by Chesterton -- has written at least one lengthy article in "Gilbert" magazine defending Chesterton of the anti-Semitism accusation. I do not remember the specific passages cited against Chesterton or the defenses/excuses offered, but I think it is important to differentiate spirited arguing against positions versus hatred against people. In my own time, I have sensed a bit of that in politics. Most recently, debating against the President's positions seems to carry some implied shadow of racism when, in fact, the opposition is to the ideas and policy positions, not the man. Still, the shadow exists; the elephant is in the room.

Which leads me to my other point: there is another "racism" hurtle that Chesterton (and Chesterton's canonization proponents) may need to address in some serious way. That is Chesterton's use of the toxic "N" word. In the million words he has written in his prolific career as a journalist, he has used the "N" word probably a dozen times. Some uses may possibly come off as having some level of positive rhetorical value to our modern sensibilities. For example, the occurrence of the "N" word in my favorite Father Brown story, "The Chief Mourner of Marne," may play into the general critique of the speaker's positions. However, some occurrences of the "N" word do not seem quite to meet that test. We may all be able to get past the changing meanings of words such as "queer" and "gay" with just the occasional childish smile, but we cannot get past the current connotation of the "N" word. That defense of Chesterton is yet to be written.

Ah-hemmm, Mr. Coren???
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written by Harry, October 10, 2013
He wasn't anti-semitic in the sense that he had a passionate loathing for Jews - he could maintain cordial relations with Jewish people, certainly, and any thought of violence towards them was simply unthinkable to the man.
But he did have a kind of genteel antisemitism, I think. His position on the Jews basically boiled down to that they could never really fit in in any nation - they would end up accumulating too much power, and they could never be truly loyal. In Chesterton's eyes the Jews spoiled the pristine Englishness of England - they were an awkward anomaly.
Now that's certainly not the kind of stuff that would lead to GKC forming violent gangs of skinheads to go around attacking people, but it is a wearily common anti-semitic trope.
We ought to be careful in defending GKC on this topic - it's far better to just frankly admit some of his views were totally wrong rather than try to justify them. That'll lead you down some very dark paths, as can be seen in the issue of Gilbert that defends GKC - it goes to absurd lengths in denying any trace of anti-semitism, leading to absurdities like a positive review (!) of E.Michael Jones' 'The Revolutionary Jewish Spirit' - because to acknowledge any whiff of Jew hatred would be accepting that our opponents may actually have a point.
Some battles just aren't worth it.
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written by Steven Balshor, October 10, 2013
Chesterton may have used the "N word" in a fashion reflecting his times. I'm unaware of such use in context so I can't judge its importance or sting. However, if that is a bar to holiness one wonders how St. Paul made the cut what with his history of complicity in the murder of Christians if not direct murder himself.
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written by yan, October 10, 2013
While I understand that your task here is to shield Chesterton from charges of anti-Semitism, I would have appreciated from one who is such a Chesterton scholar as yourself that you actually had adduced, rather than simply referenced, 'the usual quotations and references from Chesterton’s enormous body of work' upon which allegations of Chesterton's anti-Semitism are based. I think we can decide for ourselves, given the 'whole body' so to speak, of evidence, whether or not GKC is guilty of this accusation.
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written by Deacon Jim Stagg, October 10, 2013
Dear Rich in MN,

Perhaps you would like to research the use of the "N-word" more deeply than you appear to have done so far. The word has not always had the pejorative meaning that it surely accumulated during the Civil Rights struggles of the Sixties. It was a common word, used by authors, newspaper writers and the common public, partially because of a contraction of the name, Negro = "Nigro" = (eventually) the N-word. Among my parents' and grandparents' generations in the northern Midwest, where blacks were seldom seen, it was in somewhat common use, though not frequent use.

Perhaps some etymologist could better explain the source and developed use of this word, but, truly, in my youth (1940-1955) the word was descriptive, at worst. It more surely identified a person who had pronunciation difficulties with "Negro".

GKC was simply a man of his times, and wrote, sometimes, as people were wont to speak. No more, no less.

Peace.
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written by Carlos Caso-Rosendi, October 10, 2013
I don't know why but since the ascent to the throne of Barack Obama, all those claims about racial hatred, past exploitation, and genocide are getting to be a real bore. Forgive my frankness. Millions are killed in the womb every year, many more agonize malnourished or starving around the world, thousands of others are caught in the cross-fire of stupid wars, etc. And we are to be concerned by someone crossing some Hebrew a century ago? Please put your kvetching in a bag take a hike! If you don't like Chesterton don't read him. The plight of the Hebrew race is only one drop in the ocean of human suffering. In my personal experience I have been abused and taken by Jews an inordinate number of times. It may be a statistical oddity but it certainly taught me to be careful and avoid them, converted or not. I am sure if Chesterton said something not too proper about some Jew somewhere sometime, he would have had his reasons. The man was not a bigot. Jews are not 100 percent infallible saints. Besides we can all claim some damage from some other race. A northern Italian man I met once was still fuming about the Romans coming and destroying the culture of his little valley near the Switzerland border. Twenty centuries later the guy had a bone to pick with an empire gone more than a thousand years ago!

We are about to have a lot of trouble soon and the debacle of the world economy is not going to spare any race or individual. Enough of this already get a little cup of enough-whining. No one gives a rats tootsie about your victim-hood!
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written by Rich in MN, October 10, 2013
Deacon Jim,

Thank you for your reply. I think your observations and suggestions will need to be part of the ongoing debate. Unfortunately, we live in a time in which naivete masquerades as sensitivity in the public forum. Thus, for example, as the cause of sainthood is advanced for someone such as Pius XII, he has been in need of defending against cavalier charges of being anti-Semitic and of being "Hitler's Pope" only because those accusations are part of the (rather shallow) public understanding and discourse. That is why I think the "N" word might very well be an issue for the Chesterton cause -- not because he hated anyone but because most public discourse is at such a superficial level.

Thank you, again, and peace to you, also!
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written by Ed, October 11, 2013
Thank you Carlos Caso-Rosendi, glad someone here said it.

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