It was exactly one hundred years ago, January 10, 1921, that G.K. Chesterton first set foot on the American continent. His much anticipated arrival from England was a very big event. The press swarmed around him, as he stepped off the boat in New York to begin a four month lecture-tour. He said he had come “to lose my impressions of America.”
He made some striking observations of our country: one, we have an obsession with health that makes us miserable; two, our government doesn’t represent us; three, our journalists don’t tell the truth. As I say, striking.
He gave over 50 speeches in over 30 cities, all to sold-out, standing-room-only audiences, and he was always the headline when he came into town.
He famously quipped upon first seeing the lights on Broadway: “It would be very beautiful if only one couldn’t read.” He later said New York reminded him of hell, adding, “Pleasantly, of course.”
Overall he found the American people warm and welcoming. But he found all the bars closed and Americans very unhappy about it, yet feeling helpless to do anything to change the law that had closed them. The nation-wide law was, after all, based on concern for people’s health. We now refer to that law as Prohibition. Chesterton said that during his entire time in America he never found one person who spoke in favor of Prohibition. A century later bars are again closed, but liquor stores have been deemed more essential than churches.
In his recurring lecture, “The Perils of Health,” he argued that we think too much about health, and it has become morbid. Health fads, like all other fads, are hysterical, that is, both funny and manic. He quoted a comic song from the English stage that mocks the ludicrousness of certain sweeping health and safety regulations:
Father’s got the sack from the water-works
For smoking of his old cherry-briar;
Father’s got the sack from the water-works
‘Cos he might set the water-works on fire.
The speech that he gave most often was entitled “The Ignorance of the Educated,” and he said it got worse the more times he gave it. But the point remained strong: Americans are educated by people who don’t know what they’re talking about. He quoted the American humorist Artemus Ward: “‘It ain’t so much mens’ ignorance that does the harm as their knowing so many things that ain’t so.”
He covered history and politics … and especially journalism. The press was obviously amused that Chesterton was filling theaters telling people that everything they knew wasn’t true.
He offered a critique of his good friend, H.G. Wells, whose recently published Outline of History utterly misrepresented the story of mankind, seriously asserting that Man the mere anthropoid, in his early stages, clubbed women on the head and dragged them off to be their mates. Chesterton said there was absolutely no evidence for this whatsoever, yet the Man the professor accepted it as fact. He asked his audience, “If primitive men were so rude, why were primitive women so refined?” The problem is that we can’t really describe prehistoric events because we have no record of them – because they were prehistoric.
Incidentally, he made the same point just a few years later, when he wrote a full-length rebuttal to Wells’ book. It was The Everlasting Man.
In his American lectures, Chesterton’s main disagreement with Wells was on the notion of progress. Chesterton did not believe, as Wells did, that the world was in a constant process of improvement. He did not care for what was being called progress, especially as government grew larger and more remote. “I have a great doubt about the value of a world state,” he said. “A world state would quite likely be the worst governed the mind of man can conceive. Why it’s hard enough to get representatives to represent when they are right here and we can see and control them. How can we control them if they are … far off?” He said if Patrick Henry were to return to life and see what was going on in the civilized world, he might simplify his famous line to: “Give me death.”
He noted that we have abandoned the knowledge that comes from straightforward common sense in favor of “long-winded pseudo-scientific evasion.” He criticized those who spoke with great authority but vast stupidity, and one of the prime examples he gave – amazingly – was the scientific and political discussion about race. A century ago.
The ignorance of the education was especially evident in journalism, with newspapers doing a great deal to spread ignorance. “Being a journalist myself, I have talked and written all sorts of nonsense.” But his criticism of the press is that they tell deliberate lies with malice aforethought.
While “The Ignorance of the Educated” was a blast at the authorities who misrepresent the past (and the present), another ongoing lecture, “Shall We Abolish the Inevitable?”, was a blast against the authorities about the future. The former put too much faith in the Missing Link, the latter in the Superman. He urged people to be more skeptical about the historians and scientists – and theologians – who were fatalists. He rejected the doomsayers as much as the scientific utopians. Both were enemies of free will, which Chesterton defended above all. He said no two people in history did more harm than John Calvin and Karl Marx.
Upon his departure, a New York Times reporter asked him what most impressed him about America. He answered, “The number of people who came to my lectures.” A hundred years later, what impresses me is how right he was about everything then – and now.
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