Untimely Observations

The Inspiration of Joe Sobran


The death of Joe Sobran on September 30, after several years of failing health, could not have come as a total surprise to any of his friends. News about his deteriorating condition and the need for divine intervention was steadily provided by Fran Griffin, his alter ego of many years, his longtime publisher, and, not least of all, his tireless fundraiser. From Fran’s reports throughout September, it was clear that Joe would not survive much longer. The news that he expired painlessly may have been the least disturbing communication from her during this period.

Joe’s death deprives those of us on the independent right and in Anglophone society of a brilliant literary presence. Although widely known as a political controversialist, Joe was also, not incidentally, one of the most impressive English stylists of his and my generation. Most of his columns, like his works on Shakespeare’s real identity and on complicated constitutional questions, were literary gems. And though he would not have presumed to compare his talent to that of his hero G.K. Chesterton, Joe was probably Chesterton’s equal as a master of expository prose. The reason this graduate of Eastern Michigan (and scion of a working-class Ukrainian family) rose rapidly at National Review to become a senior editor within three years, after being hired in 1972, is that William F. Buckley recognized his considerable talent.

And arguably Joe was kept at the magazine even after Norman Podhoretz and his soul-mates condemned him as an anti-Semite in 1993, because Buckley wished to hold on to his best writer. Perhaps trying to bring around his newly acquired neoconservative dinner companions, Buckley defended Joe (and Pat Buchanan) for a time as “contextual” rather than genuine anti-Semites. According to Buckley, it was because of general sensitivity to the historic problem of anti-Semitism and the special place of Israel among American Christians as well as American Jews that the frontal attack on AIPAC and Jewish media power engaged in by Joe aroused such resoundingly negative feelings.

Joe retorted that if his targets were as weak and vulnerable as they claimed, then he would not have had to fear for his job and his future.

In the end he was driven off the pages of National Review, after violating a rule established for him specifically, that he would never again be allowed to write on Jewish subjects. I doubt Joe broke that rule out of disrespect for Buckley, whom he viewed as a second father. Meeting both of them at a conference at Hillsdale in the mid-1970s, I was struck by Joe’s deferential behavior toward his mentor. Even after he lost his post at NR and Buckley had become for the entire world to see the servile instrument of neoconservative power, Joe went on speaking of him with profound respect. In 2008, after Buckley had died, Joe, who by then was badly ailing, expressed relief that he had been able “to patch things up” with the man whom he had esteemed for so many decades.

If he had violated Buckley’s house rule by returning to forbidden subjects, he had done so because he would not allow himself to be intimidated. And though I often disagreed with Joe’s positions, or found them to be overstated, there were two things I would never question. One, the author in question was a person of unimpeachable integrity; and two; he would never have expressed an opinion simply in order to advance his career. By contrast, his enemies had no such virtues, and it was not surprising that Joe’s adversary had made a reputation for himself by writing memoirs appropriately titled Making It. Joe’s enemies stood for the Kingdom of Arrogance, although given how well they have done, one would have to reconsider the truth of the biblical teaching that “Pride goes before the fall.” This certainly has not been the case for those who ruined Joe’s career.

It now seems to me that Joe’s enemies won, at most, a Pyrrhic victory. They had derailed the careers of others, including Sam Francis and myself. They had also smeared Buchanan in their publications and then pummeled him with nasty accusations of anti-Semitism and homophobia during his presidential run in 1992. But Buchanan landed on his feet, and so did I, to the extent that I could fall back on some kind of academic position. Sam too survived after a fashion, even after the neoconservatives, led by immigration expansionist Linda Chavez, got him fired at the Washington Times. Indeed, even that first victim of what Murray Rothbard called “the neoconservative Smearbund,” Southern conservative literary scholar M.E. Bradford, had a professional life after the neocons kept him from becoming Director of the NEH. Mel could and did return to a full professorship at the University of Dallas.

But Joe fell more catastrophically than the other neocon victims, from celebrity to almost total marginalization. In spite of all, he did continue to put out newsletters and even occasionally got invited to give talks, in return for modest compensation. Among those who helped Joe through these difficult times were Fran Griffin, Lew Rockwell, the traditionalist Catholic magazine The Wanderer, and a few other publications that paidhim for his writing. It was often distressing to read Joe’s essays online or in his printed newsletter, knowing that this magnificent writer was going largely unread in his lifetime, while imbeciles and intellectual pygmies were being featured in prestigious and heavily funded neoconservative and liberal publications. Such disproportion between earthly accomplishments and earthly reward is enough to make one believe that all justice lies in the afterlife.

All the same, Joe’s fate did not have the consequence that the neoconservatives intended. Rather than serving as a warning of what might befall those who practice rightwing deviationism or take unauthorized positions, Joe’s outrageous reduction to a pariah generated resistance to the bullies who had gone after him. The steepness of his fall and the pious forbearance with which he treated his enemies had the effect of pouring steel into the spine of the independent Right. Machiavelli taught that it is better to be feared than to be loved but the worst thing is to be despised. Those who persecuted Joe and those who were the beneficiaries of this persecution became loathed by those whom this example of vengeance was supposed to render fearful.

It is also telling that for the younger generation on the independent Right, Joe is a hero, in a way that most paleoconservatives are not. The young admire him for having fought back, not only against the American global democratic empire but against the neoconservative commissars of the present conservative movement. Joe didn’t change the subject when he smelled danger and he didn’t care how many members of the New York nomenklatura he offended by speaking his mind. He suffered grievously for his honesty, while others were making careers by truckling. Whatever his faults, they pale beside his luminous virtues. Requiescat in pace Dei!