History in the dock: Chesterton, Rhodes and the trial of politically incorrect history


By Ann Farmer

The ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ campaign wants to remove the statue of colonialist Cecil Rhodes, who gave his name to Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe and Zambia), from Oxford university. Oriel College benefits from Rhodes money, but his reputation as a racist is judged to be against the prevailing consensus on equality, and the Oxford Union has now voted with the ‘antis’.

The consensus of opinion from real people, however, is that the statue should stay; that we are judging history ‘through the wrong end of the telescope’; that we cannot judge it at all if we remove the evidence for the prosecution just because it makes us feel uncomfortable, or because our political posturing gains us a mention in despatches in the Culture Wars.

In his Daily Telegraph column Charles Moore noted that the anti-Rhodes campaign is characteristic of the modern desire to ‘put history in the dock’.[1] As he remarks: “Anyone who does not conform to current views about sex, race, equality, empire, and so on, is permitted no defence counsel, and is summarily convicted. It is not hard to find important dead people who were unsound, from a modern point of view, on the role of women, gay rights, universal suffrage or tiger-shooting.”

This is precisely the point I make in Chesterton and the Jews. Since the 1960s, emotive debates on G. K. Chesterton’s “guilt” or “innocence” have resembled a posthumous trial; the crime in question is being deemed anti-Semitic after the Holocaust, that terrible crime against humanity, but principally against the Jews.

Chesterton died in 1936 and some of the writings quoted against him by the case for the prosecution were written well before that, something that critics tend to ignore, along with his defences of Jews and very early attacks on Nazism and the religion of race, in the face of the majority’s indifference. Moreover, they fail to judge his views against his own historical background – Medieval anti-Jewish persecution and Russian pogroms, preferring to judge him in the light of a crime that occurred after his death.

And the current obsession with ‘politically incorrect’ historical figures is strangely selective; for example, the views of ‘progressive’ Left-wing figures H. G. Wells and George Bernard Shaw have escaped scrutiny, although their advocacy of mass slaughter for millions of innocent people, mainly disabled but also the socially ‘unprogressive’, might seem curiously at odds with the present-day preoccupations with equality; as for diversity, there is the small matter of their insistence that the Jews should disappear as a people in the interests of human evolution (Shaw), and that Nazism was merely a stage on the way to the world state, conveniently ‘clearing away’ the ‘rubbish’ of ‘stale old beliefs’ (Wells).

Some of Chesterton’s expressions would be seen as anti-Semitic today, but many of them were also used by Jews; critics have tended to take a highly selective approach, which is not difficult, since Chesterton always stated both sides of an argument. One at least has misinterpreted a poem condemning the French for their treatment of Dreyfus as an anti-Semitic diatribe. His Zionism, like that of many Gentiles, has been caricatured as driven by anti-Semitism, and even compared to Hitler’s approach.

Chesterton and people like Winston Churchill referred to the ‘Jewish problem’ – a term was in common usage, and as politically correct in its day as anything that could be dreamed up by ‘Rhodes Must Go’ campaigners – meaning a cycle of ‘friction’ with non-Jews, leading to anti-Jewish violence; they attributed this to the lack of a Jewish homeland, a political problem with a political remedy. But they were motivated by fears for Jewish security as well as concerns about British interests (being patriots, an equally ‘un-PC’ stance).

Chesterton was a humorist, and since humour, like patriotism, is a foreign concept to the PC brigade, his jokes (“A thing that someone says to cause amusement or laughter, especially a story with a funny punchline” (O.E.D.)) have been interpreted as anti-Semitic; even his anti-anti-Semitism has been interpreted as anti-Semitism. According to our stern post-Holocaust standards, few Gentile Zionists had completely ‘pure’ motivations, but it is inaccurate to posthumously paint them as Nazis.[2]

Few, if any, true anti-Semites – those obsessed with Jews, who saw Jews ‘behind everything – even the War – were Zionists. To Hitler, Zionism was anathema: “[A]ll they want is a central organisation for their international world swindle, endowed with its own sovereign rights and removed from the intervention of other states: a haven for convicted scoundrels and a university for budding crooks.”[3]

In fact Chesterton’s Zionism stands the test of time much better than the stance of present-day critics of the ‘Israel problem’. Such critics would label Chesterton as anti-Semitic, but their anti-Zionism looks very much like anti-Semitism, not least because unlike Chesterton they are living in the aftermath of the Holocaust. Despite this, such critics are silent on the implications of their criticism, for if Israel’s existence is to blame for everything – including terrorism – the ‘solution’ to the ‘problem’ is to eliminate Israel – the unspoken ‘final solution’.

As Charles Moore points out, Nelson Mandela was much more conciliatory than his present-day defenders, taking quiet satisfaction in the fact that Rhodes’s legacy would be used to promote cultural harmony; Martin Luther King looked forward to the day when men would not be judged by the colour of their skin, but by ‘the content of their character’.

To be fair to the anti-Rhodes campaign, their schooldays have been spent imbibing the milk of multiculturalism, spiced with enough blood-curdling historical atrocity to make their flesh creep, hence they are primed to see prejudice everywhere. And prejudice, they believe, inevitably leads to genocide, just as Chesterton’s jokes have been seen as ‘leading to’ the Holocaust – post hoc, ergo propter hoc.

Unlike those of us who have encountered genuine prejudice – have combated and even suffered from it – nice young people have had instilled into them the fear that they, too, might be prejudiced. With no real battles left to fight, the current crop of equality campaigners are intent on punishing the past. Like Cromwell’s posthumous critics, they are not content with dancing on the grave of the politically incorrect figures of history, but demand that their reputations be disinterred and desecrated.

No one has yet erected a statue to G. K. Chesterton, although there is a blue plaque at his former home in Kensington; but anyone who wishes to dig up his reputation for anti-Semitism needs to study the whole body of evidence. They need to study him in a balanced and contextualised manner, avoiding the careless anachronisms of dumbed-down history. Indeed, the un-historical approach can be counter-productive; in the drive to expunge racism and anti-Semitism we will merely succeed in destroying the evidential foundation on which our multiculturalism rests.

Lacking opportunities for genuine debate, future generations might even rehabilitate truly obnoxious and dangerous historical figures because some of their views tally with current political fashion. In the mania for censoring (and censuring) people like Chesterton, some might think that Hitler was at least right in his anti-Zionism. If Chesterton and the Jews can do anything to halt the rush to un-reason, the work involved will have been worth it.

[1] Charles Moore, ‘The bigger question is not Rhodes – it is the way we look at the past: By convicting the dead for being politically incorrect, Rhodes Must Fall shortchanges history’, Daily Telegraph, January 16, 2016)

[2] Gerald Kaufman, ‘Chesterton’s final solution’, Times Educational Supplement, January 2, 1998.

[3] A. Hitler, Mein Kampf (London: Pimlico, 1925–26/2001), p. 294.

Copyright 2016 Ann Farmer

Photo by Godot13 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

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