In 1961, Garry Wills published his first book, a penetrating study of G.K. Chesterton.  It wasn’t a huge success, and it soon went out of print.  Later, after swinging fashionably leftward, Wills would write best-sellers and Pulitzer Prize-winners.

Now his Chesterton has been reissued, slightly revised, in paperback.  In a new introduction, Wills apologizes for the original book’s shortcomings—first among which he names his failure to deal sternly with Chesterton’s antisemitism.

As far as I know, nobody in 1961 found this to be a fault of the book.  Only later would imputed “antisemitism” become the defining trait, in the minds of liberal literati, of Chesterton and his friend Hilaire Belloc.  Both men, in fact, regarded “the Jewish problem” as real and serious, and both tried to be fair to the Jews in their proposed solutions.  Chesterton was a Zionist; Belloc devoted much of his book on the Jews to refuting common charges of Jewish avarice, cowardice, disloyalty, and so forth.

In 1961, it was still assumed that there could be a legitimate range of opinion on ethnic issues.  “Minorities” hadn’t yet become a synonym for “victims.”  So Wills is apologizing, in effect, for not having worn today’s fashions 40 years ago.  And he now agrees to censure Chesterton for not having worn them over a generation earlier.

In any case, nobody familiar with Chesterton’s writings has ever supposed that his scattered remarks about the Jews are central to his work.  In fact, it takes some effort to track them down in the hundred books that bear his name.  You may think them wrong; you may judge them unfair; you may find them baffling.  I am not sure what he means by “the money methods of the Jews”: Is it wrong for a group so small in numbers to use wealth as its sword and shield?

Be that as it may, Chesterton and Belloc, like most men of their time, took for granted that there was a fundamental, even tragic incompatibility between Jews and Christians.  This view was shared by many Jews, including the founder of Zionism, Theodore Herzl, whose opinions about his fellow Jews would now be condemned as antisemitic.

So Chesterton could assume that it was perfectly legitimate to think and speak critically of the Jews, in the same way that he could think and speak critically of England.  For him, to criticize a thing was not to denigrate it or to condemn it out of hand but to take its measure, to try to see it in proportion and in its true relation to other things.

This is precisely where he runs up against the unacknowledged Jewish problem of today.  Far from solving the old Jewish problem, Zionism has aggravated it in myriad ways.  Herzl’s generation hoped for a peaceful migration of all Jews to a territory of their own, where they might live normally like the other nations of the earth; it has proved otherwise.  Half a century after coming into existence, the state of Israel remains in tension, often at war, with its Arab neighbors.  Meanwhile, the Diaspora Jews, who prefer to remain in their native lands while supporting Israel from afar, complicate the situation further.  Though the Jewish “homeland” was supposed to provide a safe haven from persecution, today it’s the Diaspora Jews who have to worry about Israel’s survival in a hostile region.  Belloc foresaw all this; Chesterton did not.

The new Jewish problem is a fusion of Jewish power and Jewish ethnocentrism.  An unassimilated core of the American Jewish population, “liberal” and “neoconservative,” insists on the primacy of its own interests, especially Israel.  It equates even rational criticism of these interests with embryonic hostility and persecution—“antisemitism.”  Jewish self-criticism is called “self-hatred.”  Objectivity itself, a core principle of Western culture, has become taboo.

Since ancient Greece, Western man has been measuring all things, even himself, seeking proportion and order.  We define, compare, classify, compute, codify, set limits.  These things have become second nature to us, and we forget how small a part they play in the lives of most other cultures, where ritual, tradition, combat, divination, magic, and sheer self-assertion may have primacy over reason.

Measure begets humility.  We learn our subordinate place in the order of things and we accept it.  To forget or defy our limits is the sin of hubris, dramatized in tragedy from Athens to the Renaissance.

This is not to say that hubris has been absent from Western life; it is recurrent and sometimes incurable, and it is at least as apt to afflict a whole nation as an individual.  Men who are individually humble may have an outsized group ego.  At the moment, I believe both Jews and Americans generally are exhibiting all the symptoms of hubris.

What is remarkable, though, is the way gentiles now cater to Jewish hubris.  The regnant attitude toward the Jews in America is not antisemitism but fear.  As Christopher Hitchens has observed, public discussion of Jewish interests is now extremely “guarded.”  As in Stalin’s Russia—though, of course, to a much lesser degree—public fawning masks a private dread; the fawning, however, is the measure of the dread.  It has reached the point where the gentiles are eagerly finking on each other.

Wills’ belated, even anachronistic rebuke of Chesterton is a tiny expression of the great dread.  He is anticipating a charge of antisemitism-by-association.  In 1961, he did not have to worry about it; by 2001, he did.  It’s a perfect illustration of a development I can only call the “Gentile Problem.”