'Ludicrous, surreal episode' against G. K. Chesterton returns
By Michael Coren
Two weeks ago there was a Twitter discussion of my 1988 book Gilbert: The Man Who Was G.K. Chesterton. Since the thing was written a quarter of a century ago, and I've written 10 books and thousands of articles since, I was flattered and amazed.
There have also been several biographies of the grand Catholic author and journalist published since then, some of them, frankly, rather better than mine, so why the sudden interest?
The reason is monomania, wrapped in the last acceptable prejudice of anti-Catholicism. Chesterton is in the news because a canonization attempt has been initiated. I take no particular stand on the issue; whether Chesterton is accepted as a saint or not says nothing about his literary greatness.
But, as I predicted when all this started, talk of saintliness would resurrect accusations of anti-Semitism, and there is no denying that he did indeed make some unpleasant and hurtful comments about Jews, and that on some Jewish issues he lacked the empathy and compassion he routinely evinced elsewhere.
However he was an early anti-Nazi, condemning German anti-Semitism in 1934, when many others, including figures on the left, were silent or ambivalent. He was also loved by several Jewish friends, who were explicit in defending him against charges of Jew-hatred.
Chesterton's brother Cecil was almost certainly anti-Semitic, leading even Hilaire Belloc, himself a victim of similar charges, to condemn the man for his racism.
I wish Chesterton had not said some of the things he did about the Jewish people, because it empowers his critics and also because it is so horribly disappointing, but as a Jewish convert to the Church, I remain convinced that to regard him as being anti-Jewish is to fail to grasp context, chronology, era, and his authentic philosophy.
But back to my book, and what is reveals about the fundamentalism of those so committed to damaging Chesterton's reputation. I devoted an entire chapter to the Jewish issue, discussing it in some detail. One brief passage concerned London's Wiener Library, a small institution devoted to the study of the Holocaust and anti-Semitism.
I spent a morning there in 1985 and discussed my research with a librarian. He told me that Chesterton was never seriously anti-Semitic. "He was not an enemy, and when the real testing time came along he showed what side he was on."
That's it. A couple of lines in an entire chapter on Chesterton and the Jews, in an entire book about Chesterton. That conversation has been repeated elsewhere, but I haven't thought about it in more than 25 years. Then, suddenly, a self-published writer in Britain demanded a name, proof, a reference.
Sorry, mate: no name, no proof, and it was, as I say, a quarter of a century ago. It hardly matters anyway, because we need to make up our minds about Chesterton and this issue based on his writing and actions, not one brief exchange I had 50 years after his death!
Back to the monomania I mentioned earlier: some people assumed they had found a stick to beat Chesterton, me, the Church, those who love Chesterton, those who believe in the Catholic process of canonization. A ludicrous, surreal episode began, where the unreasonable and the outlandish were employed to try to once again push Chesterton into the gutter.
Anti-Semitism is pernicious and anti-Catholic, but then so is hatred of Arabs, black people, or any minority or identifiable group. The Holocaust, the forced starvation in Ukraine, Rwanda, Cambodia, the Armenian massacres: humanity is capable of a coal-black darkness.
It is, surely, not the nature of the victim, but the nature of the crime that should inform our response.
Chesterton must be judged on his literary output and on his personal and political actions, which concerned so much more than opinions about Jews. What the new generation of attacks reveal, however, is that hatred is still alive and active, and that some people will go to the most extreme, bizarre lengths to have their way.
At the end of it all, Gilbert Keith Chesterton will continue to change the world, while others can't even change their tune. "One sees great things from the valley," he wrote, "only small things from the peak."
Rather the valley with Gilbert than the peak with his critics.
Coren's website is www.michaelcoren.com, where he can be booked for speaking engagements.