As I Please
Tribune, 11 February 1944
two journalistic activities that will always bring you a come-back. One is to attack the
Catholics and the other is to defend the Jews. Recently I happened to review some books
dealing with the persecution of the Jews in medieval and modern Europe. The review brought
me the usual wad of antisemitic letters, which left me thinking for the thousandth time
that this problem is being evaded even by the people whom it concerns most directly.
The disquieting thing about these letters is that they do not all
come from lunatics. I dont greatly mind the person who believes in the Protocols of the Elders of Zion,
nor even the discharged army officer who has been shabbily treated by the Government and
is infuriated by seeing aliens given all the best jobs. But in addition to
these types there is the small business or professional man who is firmly convinced that
the Jews bring all their troubles upon themselves by underhand business methods and
complete lack of public spirit. These people write reasonable, well-balanced letters,
disclaim any belief in racialism, and back up everything they say with copious instances.
They admit the existence of good Jews, and usually declare (Hitler says just the same in Mein
Kampf) that they did not start out with any anti-Jewish feeling but have been forced
into it simply by observing how Jews behave.
The weakness of the left-wing attitude towards antisemitism is to
approach it from a rationalistic angle. Obviously the charges made against Jews are not
true. They cannot be true, partly because they cancel out, partly because no one people
could have such a monopoly of wickedness. But simply by pointing this out one gets no
further. The official left-wing view of antisemitism is that it is something got
up by the ruling classes in order to divert attention away from the real evils of
society. The Jews, in fact, are scapegoats. This is no doubt correct, but it is quite
useless as an argument. One does not dispose of a belief by showing that it is irrational.
Nor is it any use, in my experience, to talk about the persecution of the Jews in Germany.
If a man has the slightest disposition towards antisemitism, such things bounce off his
consciousness like peas off a steel helmet. The best argument of all, if rational
arguments were ever of any use, would be to point out that the alleged crimes of the Jews
are only possible because we live in a society which rewards crime. If all Jews are
crooks, let us deal with them by so arranging our economic system that crooks cannot
prosper. But what good is it to say that kind of thing to the man who believes as an
article of faith that Jews dominate the Black Market, push their way to the front of
queues and dodge military service?
We could do with a detailed inquiry into the causes of
antisemitism, and it ought not to be vitiated in advance by the assumption that those
causes are wholly economic. However true the scapegoat theory may be in
general terms, it does not explain why the Jews rather than some other minority group are
picked on, nor does it make clear what they are a scapegoat for. A thing like the Dreyfus Case, for instance, is not
easily translated into economic terms. So far as Britain is concerned, the important
things to find out are just what charges are made against the Jews, whether antisemitism
is really on the increase (it may actually have decreased over the past thirty years), and
to what extent it is aggravated by the influx of refugees since about 1938.
One not only ought not to assume that the causes of antisemitism
are economic in a crude, direct way (unemployment, business jealousy, etc.), one also
ought not to assume that sensible people are immune to it. It flourishes
especially among literary men, for instance. Without even getting up from this table to
consult a book I can think of passages in Villon, Shakespeare, Smollett, Thackeray, H. G. Wells, Aldous Huxley, T. S. Eliot and many another which
would be called antisemitic if they had been written since Hitler came to power. Both Belloc and Chesterton flirted, or something
more than flirted, with antisemitism, and other writers whom it is possible to respect
have swallowed it more or less in its Nazi form. Clearly the neurosis
lies very deep, and just what it is that people hate when they say that they hate a
non-existent entity called the Jews is still uncertain. And it is partly the
fear of finding out how widespread antisemitism is that prevents it from being seriously
The following lines are quoted in Anthony Trollopes Autobiography:
When Payne-Knights Taste was issued on the town
A few Greek verses in the text set down
Were torn to pieces, mangled into hash,
Hurled to the flames as execrable trash;
In short, were butchered rather than dissected
And several false quantities detected;
Till, when the smoke had risen from the cinders
It was discovered that the lines were Pindars!
Trollope does not make clear who is the author of these lines, and I
should be very glad if any reader could let me know. But I also quote them for their own
sake that is, for the terrible warning to literary critics that they contain
and for the sake of drawing attention to Trollopes Autobiography, which is a
most fascinating book, although or because it is largely concerned with money.
The dispute that has been going on in Time and Tide about Mr J.
F. Horrabins atlas of war geography is a reminder that maps are tricky things, to be
regarded with the same suspicion as photographs and statistics.
It is an interesting minor manifestation of nationalism that
every nation colours itself red on the map. There is also a tendency to make yourself look
bigger than you are, which is possible without actual forgery since every projection of
the earth as a flat surface distorts some part or other. During the Empire Free Trade
crusade there was a free distribution to schools of large coloured wall-maps
which were made on a new projection and dwarfed the U.S.S.R. while exaggerating the size
of India and Africa. Then there are ethnological and political maps, a most rewarding
material for propaganda. During the Spanish
Civil War, maps were pinned up in the Spanish villages which divided the world into Socialist, democratic and Fascist states. From these you could
learn that India was a democracy, while Madagascar and Indo-China (this was the period of
the Popular Front Government in France) were labelled Socialist.
The war has probably done something towards improving our
geography. People who five years ago thought that Croats rhymed with goats and drew only a
very shadowy distinction between Minsk and Pinsk, could now tell you which sea the Volga
flows into and indicate without much searching the whereabouts of Guadalcanal or
Buthidaung. Hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of English people can nearly pronounce
Dnepropetrovsk. But it takes a war to make map-reading popular. As late as the time of
Wavells Egyptian campaign I met a woman who thought that Italy was joined up with
Africa, and in 1938, when I was leaving for Morocco, some of the people in my village
a very rustic village, certainly, but only fifty miles from London asked
whether it would be necessary to cross the sea to get there. If you ask any circle of
people (I should particularly like to do this with the members of the House of Commons) to
draw a map of Europe from memory, you get some surprising results. Any government which
genuinely cared about education would see to it that a globe map, at present an expensive
rarity, was accessible to every school child. Without some notion of which country is next
to which, and which is the quickest route from one place to another, and where a ship can
be bombed from shore, and where it cant, it is difficult to see what value the
average citizens views on foreign policy can have.