What would Chesterton say?

g-k-chestertonYesterday my colleague Grant Gallicho found a Depression-era Commonweal editorial defending FDR against his many critics (Recovery & Reformation, November 17, 1933). The terms of the discussion then are weirdly familiar: the loose talk of "socialism" to describe any program that used the power of the state to relieve human suffering; the fantasy that the economic crisis would come to an end only when the "professors" quit their meddling and let the Wall Street types responsible for the crisis take control again; the insistence that the market would heal itself if only government stopped interfering with "the natural forces of recovery"; the paranoia of rightwing populists, the contempt of that era's Koch brothers. (Of course, some things have changed. Our predecessors allowed themselves greater enthusiasm than we are now accustomed to, writing that "President Roosevelt has gloriously led this nation toward a real reformation of its entire polity." Yes, that's right -- "gloriously." You'd be hard pressed to find such an expression in any Commonweal editorial about the current president.)

Most interesting to me, though, was a passage reporting the response of G.K.'s Weekly.

Among the flood of editorial comments upon the present situation, the most truly enlightening one which we have seen is in the pages of a foreign review, G. K.'s Weekly, of London. "The time has come for thoughtful observers to be discouraged about the experiment inaugurated by President Roosevelt," says G. K.'s Weekly, "as no doubt thoughtful observers were discouraged soon after Hercules began his attempts to cleanse the Augean stables ." The English observer disclaims any special knowledge of American conditions. Like Will Rogers, all he knows about the situation is what he reads in the papers, and he knows enough about contemporary journalism not to trust in all he reads. But G. K. Chesterton's paper—like G. K. C. himself—possesses a philosophy by means of which to judge the events recorded by newspapers much more accurately than most of the newspapers can judge them. For that philosophy is solidly grounded upon Christian principles. It is a fundamental axiom of that philosophy that social justice—the welfare of the masses of mankind—is more important than the sort of national "prosperity" which means enormous wealth and socially perilous power for a few privileged cliques and classes, and poverty or destitution, or the permanent danger of poverty and destitution, to the masses of the people. That is also the philosophy which this journal holds. We believe that it also has become the dominant philosophy of the great masses of Americans, and that it finds its practical leader in President Roosevelt.

As G. K.'s Weekly goes on to say: "Since March last the United States have been transformed by an internal revolution of which President Roosevelt is the soul. The revolution has not succeeded—nor have many other revolutions in the past succeeded half way through. But there is this to be said for President Roosevelt and his advisers, that they have taken extravagant care throughout not to dangle before the eyes of the American people the glittering carrot of Utopia. If anything they have been pessimistic.... Yet it is something to have achieved that much of a revolution that is recognized as monumental though incomplete and hazardous, where the forces against any chance of success at all were overwhelming. For President Roosevelt has had to deal at once with unemployment, financial chaos, the opposition of vested interests, corruption in all organs of government, and all departments of commerce, European complications and vital developments in Asia."

Plus ça change.... Not everything that appeared in G.K.'s Weekly was written by G.K.C. himself. And, yes, Chesterton opposed socialism, was generally suspicious of anything that smacked of collectivism, and had a thing or two to say about the pretensions of professorial technocrats. Nevertheless, it should impress any admirer of Chesterton that his newspaper, at least, judged that President Roosevelt had "taken extravagant care throughout not to dangle before the eyes of the American people the glittering carrot of Utopia." The legacy of the New Deal is now described by some of its Catholic critics (including some who reach for their Chesterton chrestomathy any time they want to stud their gloomy prose with a bit of imprimatured wit) as the road to serfdom, distinguishable only in degree from the utopian projects that brought us the Gulag and Mao's labor camps. A show of hands, please: How many self-described Chestertonians in this country have anything nice to say about F.D.R., or about the heir to his project, B.H.O.? There in the back—is that you, Garry Wills?

Matthew Boudway is senior editor of Commonweal.

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