Friday, July 18, 2008

Dale Ahlquist's Response to the New Yorker

Dale has commanded that I publish his letter in its entirety for you now. And when Dale sends an email, people respond.

So, here it is. In addition, thanks to Dave Z., I've included two quotes from prominent Jews who knew Chesterton.
To the Editor of the New Yorker:

Mr. Gopnik has besmirched the good name of the good Gilbert Keith Chesterton, even while sandwiching his comments between thick slices of praise. Maybe it’s just revenge. After all, Chesterton said, “New York reminded me of hell. Pleasantly, of course.”

For those of us who love Chesterton, we are always distressed to see him subjected to any vile charge. But we’ve gotten a little tired of the charge of anti-Semitism. He’s been absolved of that one too many times for us to count – from the tribute by Rabbi Stephen Wise to the official statements of the Weiner Library (the archives of anti-Semitism and holocaust history in London). Mr. Gopnik has added a new technique to making the charge stick – declaring that Chesterton’s admirers should not defend Chesterton against the horrible accusation. Hm. That is certainly one way to end the debate. I would meekly suggest that a better way would be for people to stop repeating charges that have already been dropped.

But we are still going to take Mr. Gopnik’s article as a sign of hope. Fifteen or twenty years ago, Chesterton was simply dismissed by the literary establishment as an anti-Semite and not taken seriously. Now he is at least being taken seriously before being dismissed as an anti-Semite. As the Chesterton revival kicks into high gear, we expect the trend to continue to the point where Chesterton is simply taken seriously without the obligation to mention anything about how Chesterton judges the Jews or how the Jews judge Chesterton.

In the meantime, we regret the unfortunate turn in Mr. Gopnik’s otherwise brilliant essay. There is something a little too desperate, too anxious in his attempt to prove that Chesterton is anti-Semitic. He is dancing as fast as he can to explain away Chesterton’s Zionism and his outspoken stance against Hitler for oppressing the Jews. (“I will die defending the last Jew in Europe.” What does it take to convince some people?)

Among the worn out arguments Mr. Gopnik uses is: Chesterton should not treat the Jews as if they are different because…well…they’re different. But far more troubling is his argument that Chesterton, the Catholic convert, has this pervasive nastiness woven into the very fabric of his philosophy. Whether consciously or not, Mr. Gopnik has broadened his implication to include the whole Catholic Church. Perhaps some future literary critic will be discussing Mr. Gopnik’s anti-Catholicism rather than Chesterton’s anti-Semitism. He can only hope that he will one day be considered so noteworthy a controversialist.

For now, however, the most important consideration should be of the following passage from Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man:

“…the world owes God to the Jews… [T]hrough all their wanderings… they did indeed carry the fate of the world in that wooden tabernacle…The more we really understand of the ancient conditions that contributed to the final culture of the Faith, the more we shall have a real and even a realistic reverence for the greatness of the Prophets of Israel. [W]hile the whole world melted into this mass of confused mythology, this Deity who is called tribal and narrow, precisely because he was what is called tribal and narrow, preserved the primary religion of all mankind. He was tribal enough to be universal. He was as narrow as the universe…”

Doesn’t exactly sound like the writings of an anti-Semite. Sounds more like someone who has a deep respect for the Jews. Also sounds like a pretty good argument for localism. Chesterton has thrown Mr. Gopnik’s main point into serious jeopardy. Either Chesterton is right to defend localism, which is what preserved the Jews, or localism is a menace and the Jews should have melted into their surroundings three thousand years ago. Mr. Gopnik cannot have it both ways.

Your servant,

Dale Ahlquist
President, American Chesterton Society
The year after Chesterton's death, the great American Rabbi, Stephen Wise, wrote:
Indeed I was a warm admirer of Gilbert Chesterton. Apart from his delightful art and his genius in many directions, he was, as you know, a great religionist. He as a Catholic, I as a Jew, could not have seen eye to eye with each other, and he might have added "particularly seeing that you are cross-eyed": but I deeply respected him. When Hitlerism came, he was one of the first to speak out with all the directness and frankness of a great and unabashed spirit. Blessing to his memory! (Ward 265)
The Statement from the Weiner Library:
The difference between social and philosophical anti-Semitism is something which is not fully understood. John Buchan, for example, was charming towards Jewish people he met, but undoubtedly possessed a world view of anti-Semitism. With Chesterton we’ve never thought of a man who was seriously anti-Semitic on either count. He was a man who played along, and for that he must pay a price; he has, and has the public reputation of anti-Semitism. He was not an enemy, and when the real testing time came along he showed what side he was on. (Coren, 214-15)


  1. Dale once sent me an email and I didn't respond..

  2. Now lets see if 'The New Yorker' has the huevos to publish the response.

  3. I had renewed respect for the New Yorker for their Obama cartoon, but now alas they are back in the tank.

  4. I have never fathomed the appeal of Mr. Gopnik, who is rather cutesy-poo. I suspect he was the young darling of one of the New Yorker's editor.
    A good review of his doings is at adam-gopnik-takedown-we've-all-been-waiting-for-234697.php

    From the New Yorker this kind of nonsense is sad. It is distressing when the semi-Catholic COMMONWEAL jumps aboard the GKC / Hilaire Belloc train, without ever reading their writings. [Hint: both warned continuously of the dangers to the Jews of the complacency of the rich Jews].

  5. I doubt GK was an antisemite. He was however, pretty brazen in his dislike of the Reformation, Luther and Calvin. For quotations of GK on such matters see the last half of the online paper by Ralph C. Wood of Baylor, "G. K. Chesterton and the Many Roads Leading to Jerusalem":

    Whew! Talk about being "anti" something!

  6. Having just reread a certain Chesterton novel and then read this letter, I can't help but wonder--what if Dale Ahlquist and Adam Gopnik are secretly the same person?

  7. The substance of the anti-semitism charge against Chesterton, as I understand it, is not that he personally hated Jews, nor that he failed to oppose German persecution of Jews, and certainly not that he was insufficiently Zionist. Rather, I think what troubles a lot of people is that his particular brand of Zionism seems to have favored not just voluntary repatriation but exile and disenfranchisement of Jews from other countries--but if that's not true, I'd love to be corrected! I'm thinking of The New Jerusalem, where Chesterton says that he "would leave as few Jews as possible in other established nations," and that those remaining should be granted a position comparable to that of "a foreign ambassador--but a foreign Ambassador is a foreigner." (The New Jerusalem, 302)

    To me, this is troubling. Let me use an example to explain why. I'm a U.S. citizen of Irish descent. If there was someone who opposed any efforts to oppress me, who was grateful for my ancestral culture's contributions to the world, and who was personally warm and friendly in his dealings with me and with others of Irish descent, I would appreciate all that about him--but if he also wanted to give me a choice between moving to Ireland and living in the U.S. as a non-citizen, I would have a problem with that. I would even think that he was anti-Irish--not in the sense that he was personally hateful, but in the abstract and impersonal, yet pernicious, sense that he was hostile to the interests and rights of people of Irish descent.

    It's in this abstract, impersonal sense that Chesterton may, I'm afraid, have been anti-Semitic--despite having been a friend to Jews in many other ways. But I know that Dale and others here are infinitely more familiar with Chesterton's work than I am, and I'd love to find out what I'm missing or misunderstanding.

  8. The question of Chesterton's attitude towards the Jews is interesting and clearly there are arguments on both sides of the debate. However, one defence of Chesterton which is at best dubious is the argument that the Wiener Library defended him. This was originally stated by Michael Coren in his biography of G.K. Chesterton (1989). It has since been cited in biographies (eg. Pearce 1996), periodicals and web sites. I emailed the Wiener Library directly to ask them about this and they informed me that:

    “The Wiener Library is a research institute and would not take a position on such an issue. Since the name of the person is not given, we can only suppose it to be an invention or else someone who was not entitled to talk, officially or unofficially, on the Library’s behalf.”



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