Thursday, December 01, 2022

Chesterton and Anti-Semitism

In 1978 I was counselor and a life guard at a summer camp. During one session, the boys' cabin I was working with played a softball game against a girls' cabin. The girls trounced the boys.

After the game,  my fellow male counselors and I chided the boys for allowing girls to beat them. We were echoing the kind of comments we had heard our high school coaches saying to us.

That night, a couple of the female counselors approached me. They pointed out the inappropriateness of our comments disparaging girls playing sports. I listened, recognizing they had a point.

When I think of that incident, I also recall times when, as a grade school and middle school student in the 1960's, friends and I made a number ethnic jokes. We thought we were being funny; I realized when I was older we were being offensive.

Was I a bigot or a sexist? No. But I was guilty of saying some inappropriate things. 

The summer camp incident and the ethnic jokes were all reflective of the times, and of my ignorance.

Which brings me to G.K. Chesterton.

There has been a recent flap involving individuals charging him again with anti-Semitism. The flap has led to one once stalwart Chestertonian rejecting Chesterton and his supporters/defenders, and to some former Chestertonians, like ex-lovers, gleefully supporting his criticisms.

I'm not here to chastise the fallen-away stalwart. He explains himself well, and he makes some good points. I hope with time there may be a reconciliation.

But it did lead me to reexamine my own unease about some of the things Chesterton has written. He did write some things about Jews that made me uncomfortable. He also bothered me when in multiple instances he referred to Blacks as n*****s.

I recognize, however, that I'm judging those comments and words through the lens of my own times and awareness. Consequently, I've always I considered such troubling comments and word choices as reflective of the times in which he was writing. I certainly have seen even worse comments from other writers of his time. I once wrote a clerihew about Rudyard Kilping, for example:

I don’t know if Rudyard Kipling
ever had problems with tippling.
The concerns that he’d face
involved imperialism and race.

Still, Chesterton did write a number of things that clearly are offensive. But I consider that he, like me, acted out of ignorance and reflected his times. 

That does not shield him from criticism or even exonerate him.

A sin committed out of ignorance is still a sin. The culpability is in part mitigated, but there is still culpability. 

Despite those troubling things he wrote, I remain convinced that Chesterton was NOT an anti-Semite. 

However, I also understand that what he wrote is offensive to many people, and has been an impediment to his being officially recognized as a saint. He may never be able to overcome that impediment.
That doesn't mean he's not a saint, just not an official one. 

But he is not an anti-Semite.

He's just a flawed human being, as am I.

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