Saturday, October 9, 2010

The Evolution of a Revival

With success comes danger.

Case in point: as Cardinal Newman was beatified last month in England, the left had to do something; they couldn’t just ignore Newman and they weren’t about to read him. So what did they do? They co-opted him, they made him not only a theological liberal (the one thing he never was), they also made him a raving homosexual (the other one thing he never was). The left says about Newman insipid things like, “he stood for change” or “he told us to follow only our conscience, and my conscience lets me do whatever I like”. In effect, they keep saying, “You know, he’s really one of us,” meaning that John Henry Newman is a sophisticated liberal living a life of quiet despair and going to Anglican services for the music as he sits in the pew with his arm around his boyfriend – something which even a cursory reading of Newman would tell you he’s not.

The same is happening with our man G. K. Chesterton, but it’s not the left who are making Chesterton an ugly caricature; it’s the right.

Ten years ago no one knew who G. K. Chesterton was. I did, because I was devouring his books (he was the writer most responsible for my conversion), and I noticed on what was then a still-fledgling internet that there were only a few references to him scattered here and there that one could find if one looked hard enough on search engines. There was, for example, something called the American Chesterton Society and a guy who spoke on EWTN at odd times about Chesterton, but the average intellectual or reader had never heard of him. Chesterton, the most brilliant essayist and thinker of the twentieth century, had been buried.

But, as I pointed out in an article for the St. Austin Review, this is a Faith of Resurrection, and we now see Chesterton out of his grave, jovial and ebullient as ever. This has caused a rush on shovel sales.

Many people are made uncomfortable by this laughing and living corpse talking and thinking among them, more alive now than most of the people we see on the street, and so there’s a desire to cover this man up again and pretend his resurrection never really happened. But the reburial of Chesterton is only one of the dangers his followers now face. There is another that might be the more dangerous. For Chesterton is once again in the public eye – and being in your eye is just a tad shy of being “in your face”.

And people are responding in two major ways to Chesterton being “in their face”. They are either

1. Reading him, or
2. Not reading him.

If they are not reading him, they are either

A. Dismissing him (burying him, damning him with faint praise, slandering him), or
B. Co-opting him for their own partisan agendas which bear no relation to who Chesterton really was or what he really wrote (in other words, doing to him what the liberals are doing to Newman in England).

The two tactics employed are, therefore, BURIAL or CO-OPTION. And we need to understand these tactics well and be wary of them.

For I assert that we are no longer in the Early Stage of the Chesterton Revival, a stage that consisted almost entirely of Getting the Word Out, promoting Chesterton and trying to get people to read him. We have now passed into the Middle Stage of the Chesterton Revival, a stage that consists of Defending Him, both from the attacks of those who want to get rid of him; and also Defending Him from those who want to co-opt him, who want to take Chesterton and wave him as a banner or use him as a cloak to defend their less-than-Chestertonian designs.

And so far we see these two responses of the non-readers in a left / right split.

The left are the ones who are damning Chesterton with faint praise, who are writing grudging articles that acknowledge the revival while at the same time making sure we understand that Chesterton was a shallow, partisan thinker, a rabid Catholic who was from an utterly bygone era, a judgmental boor who was a bigot in a jester’s costume. Or, as Stanford Nutting calls him, with livid indignation, “that anti-Semitic, medievalistic, misogynistic, homophobic pre-post-modernist G. K. Chesterton.”

On the other hand, the right are the ones who are trying to co-opt him. Take for example this past week’s hubbub over James O’Keefe (see my latest two posts), a young man who claims his two heroes are Saul Alinsky (who dedicated his book Rules for Radicals to Lucifer) and G. K. Chesterton, a very unlikely combination to say the least. O’Keefe’s latest stunt, exposed by CNN, the evidence of which has still not been addressed by O’Keefe without spin, distraction and fudging, has embarrassed a number of Chestertonians who feel that O’Keefe never should have been invited to speak at this year’s Chesterton Conference to begin with and who feel that the American Chesterton Society should now officially distance itself from him. (By the way, although I am one of O’Keefe’s most vocal critics, I speak as someone who actually likes O’Keefe personally and admires his sense of humor, his pluck, his stirrings of Faith, and therefore I think it’s particularly important to call him out when he messes up as profoundly as he has).

This type of problem would not have happened ten years ago and did not happen ten years ago. Back then, a young idealist like O’Keefe would have read Alinksy only because no one in his circle of friends would even have known who G. K. Chesterton was. But now Chesterton is popular again, and as such is part of the popular culture, a thing that is reeking and rotting and that tends to corrupt everything it touches – corrupting it especially with partisan politics.

And so we see that the right is attracted to Chesterton because he’s Christian – indeed Catholic. And the left is appalled with Chesterton for the same reason, for the left is viciously anti-Catholic, having openly and virulently rejected much Catholic teaching by supporting abortion, euthanasia, the destruction of the family through the degradation of marriage, and so forth and so on. But what so-called conservatives are loath to admit is that the right has also rejected much Catholic teaching by supporting torture, unbridled capitalism, unjust war, degradation of the poor, Puritanism, and (as we can see with O’Keefe and his supporters) unadulterated consequentialism (the teaching that the end justifies the means). Either way, the Church is despised. Either way Christ is crucified all over again.

And either way, Chesterton is not read. Or if read, read superficially and not understood.

Of the two reactions against Chesterton by those who do not read him, or who do not read him well, I think the latter is the more dangerous. The left can’t bury him again. He’s too big and they can’t shovel the muck fast enough. They can’t heave such a heavy thinker so easily back into the pit of oblivion. But the right can do worse than that. The right can fashion him into an ugly painted puppet on a stick who’s no more than a fat little ventriloquist dummy, moving his mouths to the words they themselves are speaking.

But either side may yet use either tactic. As the left has used the tactic of CO-OPTION on Blessed Cardinal Newman, so they may find that by co-opting Chesterton’s economics they can turn a Distributist into a Communist and thereby further their economic and social agenda; and as the right becomes more uncomfortable with the passages of Chesterton that deride personal attack and Puritanism, the right may reach for the nearest shovel in the blink of an eye, hoping to BURY the sign of contradiction in their midst before he becomes a cornerstone of something bigger and more distasteful to them. So don’t expect the twin tactics of BURIAL and CO-OPTION always to be used by the same group of people. That’s one of the things we need to be mindful of.

For we can only be prepared to save Chesterton from the oblivion into which the left is heaving him, and from the ugly painted puppet on a stick into which the right is fashioning him by recognizing that the challenge is different now, though the solution is still the same: read Chesterton, read more of him, read him carefully, read him well, and turn with all of our hearts to the very Everlasting Man G. K. Chesterton everlastingly served.

Thus the Middle Stage beings. Thus the wariness and wakefulness demanded of us by our own success.


Miki Tracy said...

Thank you, Kevin! Perfectly put.

blog nerd said...

Some really great points here. Particularly about how he is being co-opted and I very much like the elegant simplicity in the

reading him and
not reading him

dichotomy! I think a big problem is the not reading him part, and I think it comes down to the point that


that many people think that to have read one of his books is to have "read Chesterton" or to read carefully selected quotes or a single essay here and there.

I like writing about how Chesterton is like geometry fractals--meaning, a little piece of Chesterton's writing contains the whole within it, and I think there is a certain way in which he compresses a totality of thought into very small spaces, despite the notable amount of print space he has taken up in history.

In another way, however, the body of his work is so overwhelming, and represents so many facets, there are so many different TYPES of Chesterton fans, who gravitate toward him for widely varying reasons. He was sui generis--and in that he attracted many different trajectories.

The sci-fi and fantasy fan, the social and economic rebel, the historian, the literary critic, the artist, the comic book writer, the film-maker, the sociologist, all come at Chesterton for different reasons and that is something we should celebrate--even when it invites in a diversity of thought and opinion, and a form of Chesterton sampling that can be as troubling as it is fascinating.

O'Keefe shows what the post-modern sampling of complex ideas can produce--I've mentioned to you before. You can stitch the head of GK Chesterton to the body of an Alinsky and use the legs of Ashton Kutcher and the Arms of Allen Funt and what you have is the abomination of pseudo-thought that is the necessary fruit of the age of information but little understanding.

It's one of the downfalls of the Internet. One of the upsides, however, is that we can become aware of little networks of people who are interested in the things we are. And form little communities based on that and it is in contemplating that sometimes almost unbearably pluralistic chorus that we begin to gain understanding whether it is to further understand our own viewpoints, or, more exciting, to actually allow it to change our viewpoints.

That's where the understanding comes from and will eclipse this kind of sampling that allows a Chesterton and Alinsky mash-up to lead us to the Pleasure Palace on O'Keefe's boat.

Thanks for the post.

Jonny Stephens said...

Let''s not forget that we can also listen to many of his works, courtesy of Librivox:

The Unknown Poet said...

Yes, and on Ignatius Press