What Is a Patriot to Do?
The Collected Works of G.K. Chesterton: Volume XX
By James V. Schall
Review Author: John C. Chalberg
At first glance, the editorial decisions that resulted in this volume seem rather hit-and-miss. Of the four longer pieces — books really — Christendom in Dublin and Irish Impressions make for an obvious pairing, while The New Jerusalem and A Short History of England do not. Lumped together, the quartet seems to be discordant. But it really isn’t, especially when Chesterton himself is on hand to provide the harmony by way of his defense of patriotism.
I suggest that readers leap to the end and read “The Patriotic Idea” before tackling anything else. Written in 1904, this wonderful essay constitutes Chesterton’s defense of an idea that was much-maligned then and remains much-maligned today. More than that, it lays bare what Chesterton is up to in the rest of this edition. More accurately, it reveals what the editors have chosen to put Chesterton up to in this seemingly eclectic volume.
In “The Patriotic Idea,” Chesterton takes aim at Tolstoy in particular and the “skepticism of the last two centuries” in general. Now just who did a 28-year-old nobody think he was to take on Tolstoy and a few hundred years of skepticism in a few pages and one fell swoop? After all, at that time the then-obscure essayist had barely begun to make a name for himself, much less make crystal clear to a wide readership the essence of his worldview. Actually, Chesterton’s worldview was always very clear and never wandered all that far from home. Not so for those “modern intellectuals” (read “skeptics”) whose disapproval of patriotism was accompanied by a “strange coldness and unreality” that accompanied their alleged “love of men.” With that love came hatred, Chesterton charges, whether hatred of kings or priests or soldiers or sailors. That stipulated, those same modern haters somehow convinced themselves that they “adored humanity,” even though they invariably spoke of humanity “as though it were a curious foreign nation.”
In this volume, his editors have caught Chesterton at work explaining a few genuinely foreign things (Catholic Ireland, Jews in general, Jews in Palestine, as well as the whole Islamic world) and one occasionally foreign thing (England). Most of his explaining was presumably undertaken for the benefit of his fellow Englishmen. His editors have been so bold as to presume that he might have something to say to the rest of us. And, not surprisingly, he does.
Each of the four longer pieces in this volume is based on Chesterton’s travels and thoughts during or not long after the Great War.
In the midst of his Irish excursions in the middle of the Great War, Chesterton refused to disguise his fear. He continued in that vein when he stopped to record his Irish Impressions. His great fear was that the Great War would end in a Prussian victory. If “Prussia” (and not Germany, mind you) had won that war, “Europe would have perished. And if Europe perishes, then England and Ireland perish as well.” That America joined the Great War was cause for great cheer on the part of Chesterton. That America helped England defeat “Prussianism” was cause for even greater cheer — his temptations to revolt, along with the Irish, against his own British government notwithstanding. Which brings us to his Short History of England, which in a curious way is really just a short step away from today.
Chesterton conceived of this short history as a popular history. To be sure, kings and queens populate this history, but they do not dominate it. In Chesterton’s view, the English people dominated their history — at least until the rise and ultimate dominance of Parliament. There was a time, albeit long ago, when Parliament truly was the House of Commons, a time when that House “consisted of plain men summoned by the king like jurymen.” There was also a time in England, especially during the high Middle Ages, when “king and the populace came into conscious alliance.” But both times were clearly over by the dawn of the 20th century, by which time the English aristocracy had captured the House of Commons and converted it into the Parliament.
Chesterton conceded that although this new entity called Parliament did “many great and not a few good things,” it also did “two other things” that may have been great but were not good. The first was Parliament’s siding with the Protestants, thereby guaranteeing the triumph of commercial capitalism and British imperialism (over the small farmer and the little Englander); the second saw Parliament emulate the Germans, thereby assuring the rise of the welfare state (and ultimately Hilaire Belloc’s “servile state”).
To Chesterton, the welfare/servile state amounted to the “German regimentation of the poor,” which in turn amounted to the “relapse of barbarians into slavery.” His solution for postwar England was to do what the English had done following the “other barbarian defeat.” (That was the defeat of Islam, but more on that just a bit later.) His solution? Following the Great War, Chesterton called for a return to an England of “guilds and small independent groups” to restore the “personal property of the poor and the personal freedom of the family.” If England spurned this Englishman’s call, if Parliament preferred “dead momentum” to real choices, Chesterton was “half inclined to wish that the wave of Teutonic barbarism had washed out us and our armies together; and that the world should never know anything more of the last of the English, except that they died for liberty.”
His cheers for England’s victory in the Great War were no doubt tempered by this “half” inclination. But at least the Chesterton of the early 1920s still had half a mind to defend what was left of his ideal England. That defense took Chesterton all the way back to the late 12th century and King Richard the Lion-Hearted. Chesterton compares him to those “responsible” Englishmen of 1914 who had trooped off to the “Front” to defeat Prussianism. As such, King Richard was a patriot, and the Crusades were, “for all thoughtful Europeans, things of the highest statesmanship and the purest public spirit.”
To Chesterton, Islam was the “final flaring up of the accumulated Orientalisms.” Grounded in a “hatred of idols,” its understanding of the Incarnation was itself an exercise in idolatry: “The two things it persecuted were the idea of God being made flesh and of His being afterwards made wood or stone.” Understood in that light, Islam was “something like a Christian heresy.”
Richard, in sum, was a patriot, and the First Crusade was nothing less than a “unanimous popular uprising.” More than that, it was an “adventure against a mighty and mysterious enemy,” an adventure that contributed mightily to the transformation of England. Part of that transformation saw the king and his subjects enter into their “conscious alliance.” And part of it was the gradual but nonetheless conscious awareness of Christians everywhere, who “never knew how right they were until they went to war with Moslems.”
When Chesterton wrote those words he knew the history of the Crusades, which is to say he knew the history that too much of Western Christian Civilization seems determined today to forget: “They seem entirely to forget that long before the Crusaders had dreamed of riding to Jerusalem, the Moslems had almost ridden into Paris.”
If anything, what Chesterton learned in Palestine only confirmed what he had long known. Islam was less a religion than a “movement.” And, like modern movements, such as Bolshevism and feminism, it practiced “mere monomania,” whereby “everything is neglected that one thing may be exaggerated.” Chesterton defined that one thing as the “greatness of God which levels all men.” So far so good. But trouble loomed because the Moslem “had not one thought to rub against another.”
When it came to dealing with his own world, not to mention everywhere else, the Moslem was the “man in the desert, who moves and does not rest.” He had one true idea, but no true notion of much of anything else, including “no true notion of building a house…. His only house is his grave.” In a sense, Chesterton found something creepy about the entire Moslem world, populated as it was by people who would “accept nothing between a tent and a tomb.”
Would Chesterton dare to write such words today? The Chesterton of 1920 did just that — and more. After spending time in the “New Jerusalem,” he dared to declare that the “native Moslems are more anti-Semitic than the native Christians.” He conceded that “both are more or less so” and discovered that for the time being at least they had “formed a sort of alliance out of that fact.” In the long run, however, Chesterton thought it “best that the Pax Romana should return” to the Middle East, leaving the “suzerainty of those lands” in the hands of Christians, rather than Moslems or Jews.
Here Chesterton was no doubt engaging in some wishful thinking, even as he left himself open to charges of anti-Semitism and — what is today’s term? — “Islamophobia.” Chesterton actually left himself open to the first charge in the preface to The New Jerusalem: “To talk of the Jews as the oppressed and never as the oppressors is simply absurd.” And, to be sure, it is.
Chesterton pursues the subject in a chapter titled “The Problem of Zionism.” Sympathetic to the cause of Zionism, he thought that the “true test of Zionism” was not whether Jews could “climb to the top of the ladder,” but whether Jews could “remain at the bottom.” A Jewish state would be a success “not when the Jews in it are successful,” but when the “Jews in it are scavengers and sweeps, dockers and ditchers, porters and hodmen.”
Persisting in this vein, he could not understand those who had no objection to “Jews as Capitalists,” but a great objection to “Jews as Bolsheviks.” In his view, much of the “new anti-Semitism” was “merely anti-Socialism.” If forced to choose between the two, Chesterton had “much more sympathy with the Jew who is revolutionary than the Jew who is plutocratic.” For that matter, he had more “respect” for anyone, Jew or otherwise, who would lead a “revolt against the oppressors of the poor” than for anyone, Jew or otherwise, “safe at the head of a great money-lending business oppressing the poor.”
Was Chesterton an anti-Semite? Certainly he never thought so. If anything, he thought of himself as an advocate of “Zionism.” Consistent with that “Zionism” was his belief that “Jews are Jews, and as a logical consequence they are not Russians or Rumanians or Italians or Frenchmen or Englishmen.”
Did he know that because of such statements he stood accused of anti-Semitism? Certainly he did. His response was to propose that Jews deserved the “dignity and status of a separate nation.” If it was anti-Semitism to believe that “Jews should live in a society of Jews [and] be judged by Jews [and] ruled by Jews,” then Chesterton was willing to call himself an anti-Semite. But he preferred to label himself a practitioner of “Semitism.”
Writing in 1920, Chesterton could have no idea that such a separate nation would come into existence any time soon. And he certainly had no idea that that nation would exist on a small piece of the larger land to which he hoped that the “Pax Romana” would one day return. But of course that “separate nation” does today exist. Which brings the story to today.
In the aftermath of the defeat of Prussianism, Chesterton might be excused his semi-sigh of relief that civilization had been saved. During the long exhale that was his tour of the “New Jerusalem,” he had no idea that there would ever be a 9/11. But a careful reading of The New Jerusalem tells us that he very much suspected that such a day would eventually come.
So just what is a good patriot to do? Should one support the imposition of a Pax Americana on the “men of the desert”? Or abandon the entire region, including the Jewish state that Chesterton once endorsed (without ever imagining that it would be located where it is)? Given the sorry state of post-Christian America, it is tempting to be at least “half inclined” to wish Chesterton’s wish of many years ago. But wishing that the current wave of Islamic barbarism would wash the West away is less a choice than a retreat to a kind of “dead momentum” all its own.
In truth, that “dead momentum” is very much in evidence in the Europe of today. If the Moslems of long ago very nearly rode into Paris, Moslems today are very much ensconced there and elsewhere across Europe, thanks to the “dead momentum” that is the demographic disaster that awaits a Europe that has failed to reproduce. If Chesterton were alive today and would tour the continent and record his “European Impressions,” he would find few men of faith and not many vibrant peasant families. Nor would he come across much by way of the Crusaders’ sense of the “purest” of commitments to “public service.” Would he urge that such a people rally against a new barbarian foe? And would he cheer on America?
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