His mind resembled the vast amphitheater, the Coliseum at Rome. In the center stood his judgment, which like a mighty gladiator, combated those apprehensions that, like the wild beasts of the Arena, were all around in cells, ready to be let out upon him. After a conflict, he drives them back into their dens; but not killing them, they were still assailing him.
~Life of Samuel Johnson
I’d like to make a case for tribal localism by drawing a counterfactual conclusion from my experience with the late Joe Sobran. By the end of this essay though, you will have realized that Joe wasn’t a vehicle for an argument but that the argument is a tribute to the greatness of the man. And more than convince you of the argument’s potency, I hope mostly to convince you of his importance to radical traditionalism and to spur you to read everything you can that he wrote. As Matt Scully eloquently noted, Michael Joseph Sobran was our era’s master of plain-English prose.
Joe was an old friend of my father’s when I met him in 2006 and for about the next three years I hung pretty close to his side. It was an incredibly lucky relationship, more than a privilege really—and that isn’t modesty speaking, it’s conscience: There is a personal debt I owe to a man.
He may have never written an inelegant sentence in his life and the first thing a person would say about Joe after meeting him was that he never spoke one either. In an era when our discourse is mostly sound bites of stuttering platitudes, Joe’s spoken eloquence may have been his most impressive quality. Even after working next to men like Jim Burnham and Bill Buckley, Jeffrey Hart said Joe was the finest conversationalist he’d ever met, and Jared Taylor made essentially the same point. The National Review editorial on Joe’s death aptly compared his talent in this regard to Milton’s, whose blindness made writing a matter of dictating.
After I got to know Joe, I realized that his constitutional talent for the spoken word put him in a peculiar position as a writer. Spending long hours in conversation with Joe, on his or my porch while he smoked his signature cheap cigars, made me aware that when the rivers of his mind were really flowing, Joe could speak more beautifully than the best prose I’d ever read. His peculiar position as a writer must have been that he tried to write as well as he spoke, different from the rest of us who can only hope to speak half as well as we write.
While talking to Joe, you really felt the full force of those swift and unorthodox judgments he was known to deploy with unmatched eloquence. Joe was never mean-spirited, but he was jarring, and he was the last of an era that took ethnic terms for granted. In his writing, he referred to feminists as “those whores” and was not afraid to begrudge someone their philo-Semitism or refer to “the Jews.”
Matt Scully, in his majestic remembrance of Joe quoted from above, was probably referring to this acidity in Joe’s style as a mark of the loss of his “Johnsonian disposition.” On the contrary, no one got a point across with more power than Joe did when he wrote in frank terms. It was a credit to his courage that he did not allow himself to be bullied by political correctness into writing poorly and stupidly.
In the course of a day, Joe would think up as many anagrams for a single word as he could and carried around an index car and a pen for the purpose, which he would also use to jot down notes and asides worth saving. In his last years his short-term memory was in bad shape, which made keeping track of the note cards nearly impossible, which I always thought was one of the causes of the slowdown in his output of columns.
Joe had so many clever quips worth saving that I figure he’d probably appreciate it if I wrote some of them down for him from memory myself. Most of these were probably from or wound up in a column, but they were all said in the course of some conversation I had with Joe, and I’m only quoting the ones I remember clearly. There were so many more that I can’t quite remember, and I’m kicking myself now for not jotting them down then.
Bill Clinton took to carrying around a Bible because “he didn’t know when he would need to perjure himself.”
Pat Moynihan knew “which side of his bagel was buttered”
George Will was “unforgivably pointy-headed,” and David Frum was merely “that Canadian Zionist.”
Anti-Semitism was the only explanation Joe could think of for making John Podhoretz executive editor of Commentary.
Obama was a “mulatto baby-killer.”
He admiringly called Ron Paul a “freak of nature.”
He said Sam Francis was “the disciple that Burnham always deserved.”
His friend, the moral philosopher Hadley Arkes, was affectionately referred to as, “The brave old son of Abraham.”
Pat Buchanan was simply, “the man I trust most.”
The single time Joe heard Jim Burnham curse was after Nixon decided to support some tin-pot Black Nationalist dictator: “In this world, sometimes you have to throw your friends to the wolves. That’s just the way it is. But you don’t have to spout a lot of Bullshit about “Democracy” while you’re doing it!”
And there are a hundred hilarious baseball stories my memory can’t do a justice to.
The collection of Joe’s essays from the Human Life Review was published under the title Single Issues, but the book is much more than a polemic against abortion. In those essays, Joe basically cataloged and critiqued everything that has changed for the worse in our culture. He liked to quote his friend Hugh Kenner’s maxim that we are always blind to the styles of our time, but Joe’s mind belonged more to Shakespeare’s age than our own, which gave his writing a sometimes bemused tone, as if he was looking at us from the past, wittily reproaching the ugly aspects of modernity, like a time traveler who finds the future a bizarre tragicomedy. With his gently pulverizing blows, Liberalism’s smoldering shibboleths after reading Single Issues seem smothered. It is a fountainhead of social criticism.
I think he was the best American prose stylist in opinion journalism since the first, whom he was similar to in respects, but fundamentally probably more the Sage of Baltimore’s opposite. Joe’s book of collected columns on Bill Clinton rivals Mencken’s writings on FDR. You hear the same effortlessly articulated sentences glistening with detached contempt, the tone of a man outside the circles of power yet somehow above them, sharpening the barbs of his jests with an impish grin across his face. But Joe saw the battle of ideas as finally a war over souls; Mencken said he was really just enjoying the Zoo. There was infinite weight at stake in Joe’s perspective, and you could feel it in his writing.
He considered Clinton’s presidency the final nail in our culture’s coffin; the final triumph of feminists, of women who want to let lead the kind of men who respect women least and are happy to let them abort their bloodline. Joe agreed with Alasdair McIntyre that the barbarians were now inside the gates. He was a moralist with the incisive eyes of a Machiavellian:
Nearly all discussion of politics overlooks a constant but hidden factor: blackmail. We can never know the extent to which our rulers are secretly ruled by others who know their dark secrets. And Washington, like most cities, is full of dark secrets…
Since the 1996 election, for example, it has transpired that Bob Dole was afraid to make an issue of Bill Clinton’s character because he was afraid that his own extramarital affair, many years earlier, might be revealed. I first read about it in the New York weekly The Village Voice at the very end of the campaign…..
Few things are more unnerving than learning that your enemy has learned things you don’t want your own family to know. One reason the two parties seem so friendly to each other is that each is afraid of what the other might do in an all-out fight. Both have a lot to hide. And since keeping secrets is harder in the media age than ever before, the problem is likely to keep getting worse.
However contemptible the men this system has saddled us with thus far in fact are, Joe saw that the system was not healthy enough to select Statesmen mature enough to rule over us with honor and dignity, nor men with enough wisdom to respected the State’s natural limits. The overarching theme of those columns was that Clinton was the perfect specimen of a symptom of a very sick system. Joe knew that a man of Clinton’s vulgar personal values could only rise to power in a society where advocates for cultural disease have too much power. Clinton was the final indignity to a losing century for conservatives; he was a worthy target and Joe took great delight in deprecating him.
Things had a way of turning back to a matter in Joe’s mind that brought him to tears in front of me on occasion. It occurred in the year after he arrived at National Review in New York City, and it gave Joe’s life a purpose.
Roe v. Wade shocked Joe’s conscience on many levels. Superficially, it was the ultimate act of tyranny from a State imposing itself lawlessly. On an individual level, Joe considered abortion murder—and suicide on the level of civilization. He saw abortion as the issue so many of our problems revolved around, including the masculine problem with modernity.
From his essay “In Loco Parentis”:
Having left the personhood of the fetus formally uncertain (while in practice denying it), [the Supreme Court] has referred the abortion decision to one person alone: the mother. Obvious as this seems, it implies another profound virtual denial, namely of the father’s interest in the life of his own unborn child. This means that a husband has no more standing to prevent the abortion of his child than if he were a vagrant lover; indeed, that he is as powerless as a perfect stranger with relation to either the mother or the child. The woman’s right is unqualified by any rights of the child or its father. More important, that right is unaffected by her membership in the family.
We have gone from expecting brides to be virgins to denying husbands the right to be fathers. If feminists were now demanding that Solomon split their baby, if their novel conception of “health” required killing the disease of children, and if these moral barbarians were going to attack his Church on top it, then Joe thought there was no justice in calling them anything other than whores.
He was probably right that Roe v. Wade was the only single event that ever really mattered to the generation of feminists who won it. Their movement was mostly a war of attrition, except for Roe—Roe was their Revolution; and Joe was our Burke. He brought moral sanity back to many and many have lived a more fruitful existence because of him.
Joe coined the term Alienism to denote the resentment women, minorities and assorted outcasts have for a masculine, Christian, and European society. The concept was a kind of unifying theory of liberalism, bringing its separate complexes together into a coherent psychology. The idea didn’t stick around long among movement conservatives but it almost perfectly identifies and encapsulates the enemies of radical traditionalism. Joe was a traditionalist Catholic and not a student of Nietzsche, but he did once concede to me that the Anti-Christ made some good points; Alienism is the Slave Morality of our place and time.
He had started to seriously consider the problem of Islam when I met him. Joe found much to admire in the Islamic world. His favorite place to eat was a Pakistan restaurant in Burke, Virginia. Once, while we were enjoying the restaurant’s ambience and cuisine, Joe made the apt remark, “And we think we’re giving them Civilization.” He said he had attended a gathering at that restaurant in the run-up to the first gulf war of critics of Israel’s role in bringing it about. I found interesting his mention of a man who had attended the meal: Jim Webb.
Joe admired Islam without feeling a need to apologize to it, but he eventually came to the conclusion that Islam was Christianity’s antipode: It was Evil. He said he would someday have to write that; but to my knowledge never did, and I hope I’m not betraying his trust by revealing it now. I do so because I think the reasoning that led him to that conclusion is particularly interesting.
The metaphysics of Allah’s Will unsettled Joe. Put simply, Allah’s will was arbitrary— opposite Christianity’s belief in absolute and immutable categories of Good and Evil. The God of Islam transcends those rational categories. Indeed, Allah has no rational character himself. Islamic and Christian metaphysics cannot therefore be reconciled.
Joe was not sure what that meant for America’s future; but he saw that the contradiction could only come to a head; and he sensed that soon the battle would have to be entered in earnest by Rome, and trusted the Pope sensed it too.
The best way to put the issue of Joe and his Jewish accusers, I hope, is to say that Joe Sobran did not want to live in a world without Jews. He was surrounded by them most of his adult life and he made genuine enemies with relatively few of them. Many had a special place in his heart: Murray Rothbard and Hadley Arkes come most readily to mind.
Joe found the fact that he couldn’t escape the controversy, even despite actually having lots of Jewish friends, rather comical. He would observe something random, work his way through a syllogism, and, with perfect delivery, deduce that it was anti-Semitic—leaving me in stitches. My favorite line was, “I’m not anti-Semitic, but I admit that I’m anti-Semantic.”
In truth, his enemies and even his mentor never gave his perspective on the matter an accurate description, which allowed them to write about it as if it weren’t an obviously sound and sensible position. He once told me a Jewish-American Zionist had written him a harsh letter after Joe criticized John Warner for pandering to Israel on some matter or another. Joe responded by patiently explaining that he had no problem with Joe Lieberman pandering to Israel—those are his people, Joe had said. But if Lieberman was going to pander to his people because they are his people, then Warner ought to be able to decline to pander to them because they are not his people. Joe’s response was so warm that the person wrote back to apologize and sent Joe a donation.
In the forward to Bill Buckley’s book on various people and institutions accused of anti-Semitism, including Joe, John O’Sullivan wrote that Joe’s response to the charge, included in the book, was a “fine example of the polemicist’s art.” Indeed, it is devastating:
The chief polemical project of modern Zionism has been to forge an ideological high redefinition of anti-Semitism that puts criticism of Israel on the same plane with Nazism—as if these were merely different degrees of the same metaphysical evil. And once this bogus continuum is established, even differences of degree don’t seem to matter much. The point of the devil-term is not to distinguish but to conflate. A Buchanan somehow gets no credit for confining his animus to verbal criticism of Israel; there are no venial sins in this department. On the contrary, he is attacked with as much fury as if he’d called for a nuclear strike on Tel Aviv. Yet we all sense something unreal about the accusation: Buchanan’s foes would be as amazed as his fans if he were arrested for actually harming a Jew.
I think that Joe also just enjoyed playing the paradoxical part of the conservative iconoclast. In 2002, he spoke at the Institute for Historical Review. There he declared himself a “Holocaust Stipulator”—which was too clever by half for some of his friends.
Michael Brendan Dougherty was not one of those friends, a fact revealed by his speculation that Joe’s purpose there “seems to have been to finally set himself on fire, and, with an impish grin, blame this inferno on his former friends.” Those of us who knew Joe would never impute such self pitying stunt to him.
Joe simply did not care if neocons and liberals called him an anti-Semite. He made the mistake of taking for granted the supposition that men can speak frankly about politics without their enemies shrieking about “hate speech” like unhinged women. As I said, Joe’s mind belonged more to Shakespeare’s age than our own. He viewed most of his critics as merely accidental contemporaries; Joe simply did not care about their opinion of him.
However brave of Joe his speech before that group of people was—a group that was not after all arguing that Hitler should have killed more Jews but that he may in reality have killed fewer Jews; a group whose thought crime was challenging a Jewish narrative of a crime against Jews—it wound up being foolhardy, costing him a job at The American Conservative and a real chance at a comeback. Whatever company he chose to associate himself with that day, I should add that Joe did not consider those who spoke or wrote about Jews in a certain way worth paying attention to whatever. Snarling was beneath Joe.
Some of Joe’s friend’s still lament what a shame it was that he didn’t just placate his enemies—which ought to imply that defending him is still dangerous. Matt Scully said he had “an obligation to his own talent, not to squander it in pointless intellectual battles when there were so many good and worthy causes that needed him.”
I wonder if those battles are “pointless” to Mr. Scully because they were unimportant or because they were unwinnable. In any case, it seems absurd to blame Joe for thinking they were neither. It would be better if these friends talked instead about what an injustice it was that the brightest writer of their generation had a career almost snuffed out by agents of foreign influence and authorities of PC.
Justice Scalia’s son celebrated Joe’s funeral mass where he spoke of Joe’s “childlike innocence.” Joe knew that the people who mattered to him knew that he was arguing from a principled position, not a deep-seated place of hate. He was a man constitutionally incapable of malice, and plenty of his accusers knew this. When Irving Kristol died, Joe wept, and said to me, “I cannot imagine the world without that man.” As I said before, Joe Sobran did not wish to live in a world without Jews. It was a grave injustice to slander a man of such sentiments with a term to bring an image of rotting corpses into the mind’s eye.
* * *
Whatever his hardship, and there was something definitely monkish about his existence, he was invariably a man of charity. When Joe did have money in his pocket it mostly went to his Church on Sunday; and when he could hardly make a living writing, he never stopped appreciating “all the goodness and beauty in his life that he [had] done nothing to deserve.” Sympathizing with a person’s circumstance or the condition of their soul came naturally to Joe.
He was not, well, an advocate for the gay agenda, but Joe spoke with heartfelt sympathy of a gay teenage couple he observed while growing up in Michigan. He would see them walking down the street together, holding hands. He said they were alienated by the neighborhood. But they looked so happy together that it brought home to Joe the power of human love. And human love was beautiful to Joe; and Beauty was Divine. He would often say to me, “Isn’t Jesus beautiful.
Joe’s book on the Shakespeare authorship question, Alias Shakespeare, is a delight to read with an open mind. His treatment of the Sonnets in that book would probably be considered a breakthrough in Shakespeare scholarship if Joe had not been claiming they were written by Edward DeVere. Joe might have been the first person to recognize that the manufactured visage of Shakespeare is rather ridiculous and his description of it is priceless: “…intellectual but rather swashbuckling, rather like a psychoanalyst with a dash of pirate in him.”
He was at pains to produce, but ultimately did finish, an anonymously written commentary on some of the plays for a publisher. I never got to read these essays, but they are surely worth recovering. While he was writing them, my father and I attended with Joe a Kennedy Center production of Titus Andronicus, and this story is worth telling:
I was in line with Joe at the gift shop before the show behind a man buying a book of the play. Joe was never more comfortable than when he was around perfect strangers, and he said to the man ahead of us that he would have recited the play to him for free. Now, you have to understand that “childlike innocence” in Joe’s desire to please other people to see that he was not in such instances being an annoying braggart. The stranger shrugged with an incredulous smile and said something polite to Joe that I can’t now remember.
Another point to bear in mind about Joe, and which will help you appreciate the strangeness of the situation from the stranger’s perspective, is that he usually wore pieces of a sort of otherworldly wardrobe out in public. He had this bright purple pair of reading glasses—the color helped him keep track of them—that he would wear, say, to the drugstore or out to the theater. His shirt and pants were primarily something comfortable and sometimes colorful. His beard was spotty and his shoes were usually slippers.
To look at him you might find such exquisite uniqueness off-putting, until, of course, Joe spoke to you. Then you would recognize that the man matched the clothes in a profound way, that his mind was as otherworldly as his wardrobe. So imagine what the stranger of this story thought when this odd-looking and oddly personable man wound up sitting behind him, where Joe softly recited the entire play.
* * *
He was a champion of Federal Appellate Judge Doug Ginsburg, whose failed nomination to the Supreme Court Joe considered a greater loss than that of Robert Bork, and for that reason might be called the first apostle of Exileism, after Ginsburg’s memorable phrase, “The Constitution in Exile.”
It may be worth noting that Joe and Justice Ginsburg were like two tokens of the same type; both men were willing to sacrifice for their principles, that is to say, they were willing to live for them. Many do not know that after he became a sitting judge, Ginsburg was for a time something of a survivalist living in the backwoods of West Virginia. Joe spoke about Ginsburg with genuine reverence. In another dimension, he might have been Joe’s more adventurous older brother.
Joe’s insight that the Ninth Amendment was the key to understanding the Bill of Rights, and thus the key to understanding where modern constitutional jurisprudence had gone wrong was a neglected argument among his generation of Originalists. They viewed the Tenth Amendment as the key to re-shackling the Federal Government’s power, but it was Joe’s insight that the Ninth Amendment was equally important.
Hamilton held that a bill of rights would deny and disparage any sphere of liberty not specifically enumerated by the bill. The sole purpose of the Ninth Amendment was to obviate that scenario. Joe’s point was that Hamilton had been prophetic: We now have a government of few and defined limits rather than a government of few and defined powers. The purpose of the Constitution has been inverted because the Ninth Amendment has been misinterpreted.
He almost finished his book on Lincoln and the Constitution, entitled King Lincoln, and left me with the only manuscript, which is now in the possession of his saintly publisher Fran Griffin. Joe blamed Lincoln for precipitating the banishment of the Constitution into exile by obscuring its meaning and its status by bringing the Declaration of Independence into the equation of the Union’s fate.
Joe reasoned, as Mencken had before him, that if the Declaration of Independence is a “founding” document in any meaningful sense, then it only makes sense in the context of the Civil War as a precedent for Southern secession (!). The Gettysburg Address was an invalid argument, leaving Lincoln’s aggression with no justification. Joe felt a moral responsibility in the debate: By nullifying the right to secede, Lincoln was ultimately negating an option that could have mitigated Roe v. Wade.
Joe’s portrait of Lincoln in the book might be the best yet. As the most Shakespearean figure in American history, Joe has Lincoln nailed. And for his final adversary, Joe returned in King Lincoln to his first, Gary Wills.
He briefly ran for Vice President of the United States on the Constitution Party ticket in 2000, soon finding out that it was against the law to make a living as a writer while running for the executive office, so Joe bowed out, literally and figuratively, becoming an anarchist shortly thereafter. Much of his adult life was spent with a battle against some tedious authority of late modernity in the background. His attitude toward crime was rather archaic: A community’s problems are its own; let the State pay them less attention.
This particular incident is public record and, as I will repeat later on, there are things most don’t know about Joe but which befitted the man and his perspective in a strangely well way and are therefore worth telling—things which his biographer will one day have to mention and which those who knew him already know about.
Joe had a quick but not consuming temper, which in this particular instance of road rage did not redound to Joe’s benefit. One of his small children had left in their seat in his car a toy gun he one day brandished at a reckless driver while harried in traffic and wound up getting himself arrested. Patrick Buchanan stood in Joe’s corner with a letter in defense of his friend’s character that he wrote to the Judge.
You might say he was a man whose temperament did not well suit the modern era—mostly to his credit. No harm, no foul, stop hassling me—about a toy—seemed to be Joe’s attitude to the incident. Joe Sobran’s toy gun story belongs to comedy now, but it illuminates an aspect of modernity that a masculine society should reject. Where we were once a nation of men universally bearing arms, we are now a nation where men can be arrested for brandishing toys in public. The incident has both a tragic and a comic aspect about it—and I should add that Joe steadily kept that bemused tone in his voice while telling me the story.
Joe wound up finally a theocratic anarchist. It was a perspective he reached after a lifetime of reading Chesterton and Johnson, leavened by the rationalism of Rothbard and Han-Hermann Hoppe, and settled by his experience with show trials and travails over toy guns. He decided that the secular state would never stop growing, and if limited government was impossible, then the modern state was fundamentally abnormal. Lending any intellectual support to it was thus misguided.
He winced especially at the modern obsession with the State’s compulsory education system, which is to say, the modern obsession with sending our children to obscene schools. He believed that the Church could provide the social hierarchy and moral order a saner society would prioritize. He was a proponent of the Catholic principle of Subsidiarity and his great essay Pensees could be read as an introduction to the philosophy of Localism:
I find a certain music in conservative writing that I never find in that of liberals. Michael Oakeshott speaks of "affection," "attachment," "familiarity," "happiness"; and my point is not the inane one that these are very nice things, but that Oakeshott thinks of them as considerations pertinent to political thinking. He knows what normal life is, what normal activities are, and his first thought is that politics should not disturb them.
It’s worth noting that this passage is indicative of what Joe did uniquely well as a writer and thinker. Most people would not compare Michael Oakeshott’s writing to music; but he was certainly great at making useful ideas out of fine distinctions. Notice that Joe only quotes the words for those ideas. If ideas are like the notes of a melody, then you could say that what Joe did uniquely well was turn ideas into music.
He summed up the difference between Jewish jokes and Irish jokes in this way: “Jewish jokes are all about a smart Jew being outsmarted by a smarter Jew, and Irish Jokes are all about a dumb Irishman being outsmarted by a dumber Irishman.” Joe had many faithful Irish friends and Kevin Lynch was one of them; and from what I could tell, Joe’s closest. He wrote a great tribute to Joe for The American Conservative:
He came to New York City and NR in 1972, by way of Ypsilanti, Michigan, and this ever loyal son of the Midwest never gave a sense of being awed by place or company. Why should he be? He came armed. He knew his Burke, his Chesterton, his Dr. Johnson, not to mention his beloved Shakespeare—on whom he had lectured at Eastern Michigan University—and was always ready to fire off a quote from any of them. His timing was exquisite. He would, at the perfectly appropriate moment, offer the perfectly apt quote to illuminate the moral or political point under discussion… He would come up with a quip or quote that would cause the room to erupt, and Buckley’s laughter was invariably the heartiest. No one could have made a smoother transition to life at the magazine.
The loyalty shown to Joe by his Irish Catholic admirers was something I had never seen before. Troupes of them rallied around Joe when he was in the doldrums, finding him a house, refilling his refrigerator, buying him the books he needed, bringing him to the doctor, and generally doing whatever they could to help Joe and his children. Some of those Irish Catholic admirers even welcomed Joe into their homes when he finally had no choice left but to wander. They moved his massive library of books into a commercial storage unit, and they now reside in “a good Catholic home,” as Joe wished, at Christendom College.
The generosities of magnanimous men like Taki Theodoracopulos, Patrick Buchanan, Lew Rockwell and, apparently, Bill Buckley should not go unmentioned. But to those of us of more modest means, this oddly gifted man, Chesterton’s Ukrainian reincarnation, was more than a friend. He was one of our own.
What is often forgotten in the whole affair of his firing from National Review by Bill Buckley is that Buckley fired Joe not because Norman Podhoretz told him to but because Joe dared him to. Buckley had told Joe to stop antagonizing the Jews and that he didn’t need that heathen fan club of Irish Catholics. Buckley denied he said it—the infamous “you don’t need those people” comment—and fired Joe for writing it in his Catholic Wanderer column. Joe very deliberately chose the loyalty of his tribe over the riches of Bill Buckley and Norman Podhoretz’s world.
Bill Buckley was the only subject I never really discussed with Joe in depth. It was too troubling for him. He obviously had a strongly emotional ambivalence towards his former mentor. Their relationship reminds one in ways of Wagner and Nietzsche’s. Every man must purge from his existence that which he loves most, and Joe Sobran loved Bill Buckley very much. He said a number of times to me that he had no regrets; but I didn’t entirely believe that when it came to Buckley. Joe never doubted that he was right and Buckley, wrong. But when he did mention him, undertones of wistfulness were easily detected in his voice. When Bill died, Joe wept for days.
Joe said that he couldn’t understand how advocates for war could be considered “conservative” when war plainly destroys everything worth conserving. The neocons were bound to turn on him once Joe began thinking like they did: Above all else worth conserving to Joe was blood. He considered the neocon’s means ruthless and dishonorable. Men with a barely disguised contempt for Christian society were pushing a Christian Republic into wars which it should not have been fighting, inflaming Israel’s enemies against us and inviting their wrath upon us, and destroying anyone who pointed this out:
Suppose things were different. Suppose this country’s foreign policy were pro-Arab and anti-Israel. Suppose the president’s cabinet were full of men with names like Mohammed, Omar, and Abdul; suppose many of the major media were owned by rich Arab-Americans; suppose much of the working press, including many of the most famous pundits, were also of Arab ancestry. A parallel situation? Not quite. You also have to suppose that if anyone were to point out that we were hearing only one side of the story in the Middle East, and that U.S. interests were being sacrificed to Arab interests, he’d immediately be branded an Arab-hater and his career might be severely damaged, with his colleagues afraid to defend him even if they secretly agreed with him.
Joe once told me his favorite line in a movie was from The Godfather’s last scene. In a flashback, you see a growing Corleone family bustling around a dinner table shortly after Pearl Harbor. Michael is about to declare that he has, against the wishes of his father, enlisted in the Army. Joe’s favorite line was Sonny’s: “Your country ain’t your blood.” He believed deeply in the singularly clarifying power of that simple idea and in the potency of its implications. In his last article, Joe reiterated that his opposition to U.S. adventurism had always been based on the guardianship of his son’s lives.
That last article of Joe’s is the last word of a very special writer. To appreciate that fact makes reading it terribly poignant, at least for those of us who knew how low Joe’s life sunk those last years and who could hear his baritone voice while reading it. Peter Brimelow should be credited for keeping that beautiful piece unpublished until he did, allowing Joe to have the last word. I hope this essay will lead more people to read it.
Paul Gottfried got it exactly right when he said that Joe is a hero to people like me in a way other “paleocon” luminaries are not. If there is any question about Joe’s relevancy because of his stance on immigration, his critics may have a point, although I know for a fact that Joe was ultimately ambivalent on the issue. He was sympathetic to both sides, and it should be explained exactly why.
Joe had many saintly women in his life, and his friend Patricia Alvarez was one of them. She was a Cuban Catholic immigrant who worked for the American Legion in Washington, DC. Though English was her second language, she took care of Joe for nothing save the satisfaction of helping this loveable man. Joe survived her by less than two years; she died of cancer at 55. Joe was not willing to say that America would be a better place with less people like Patricia. But he did agree—and he told me this explicitly—that Buchanan had won the argument.
In any case, it is true that Joe cared less about what happened in New York than he did about what was happening in Rome. That he thought Hispanic Catholics were members of his tribe in a way that the neocons were not should not render him irrelevant to our cause. We don’t all need to be Catholics, but Joe’s life showed us what it means to be a Tribalist. Would that we could all have the courage to be so archaic.
There was an aspect of Joe that his biographer will one day have to acknowledge and which those who knew him already know about. And that is that there was always a touch of dysfunctionality in his psyche which was only amplified by age.
The turn his career took may have been worse than it needed to be in part because of Joe’s own problems, in particular that of hanging onto his money and his medicine. It is no secret that he was basically hounded to death by the IRS, but that was only half the problem. When his wreck of an office at NR was finally cleaned out, paychecks he never bothered to deposit were found in his desk. When it came to money, he was either a man who’s genes had not caught up to the modern money economy or a man who simply had better things to think about, though that may be a distinction without a difference.
His handicap militated against a strict adherence to his regimen of medicines, which prevented him from maintaining the chemical balance that could have helped him. Superior minds of his kind often are rather absent-minded about matters too particular for their taste. Joe was well aware that his living quarters must have resembled Beethoven’s.
As I said before, there was something definitely monkish about Joe’s existence. In his style and in his approach to people, Joe Sobran must have looked to God more like St. Francis than Samuel Johnson. And maybe he looked like St. Francis because he was so out of place in the late modern world. And it was his fate to live out of place, in a world that didn’t appreciate him, that prevented Joe from escaping, despite the support of many, the depths of physical and material despair.
The argument I prefaced this essay by mentioning I would be making is merely this: If after losing the earthly rewards he could not have cared less about keeping, Joe Sobran had retreated to a community of Catholics, rather than relying on an inflated web of Catholics, if he had lived in a small town with the ethnic cohesiveness of a tribe, rather than an anomic society in decay, then he would not have been out of place in the world any longer.
The concentrated compassion of a small environment could have compensated for his problems; and the tribe would have been happy to help him, out of respect for his genius, which would have been obviously worth more than the tribe’s surplus. He could have lived as he did in life, cheaply and from charity, but in a much more healthy and harmonious way, and his natural gifts might have flourished to even greater heights. There would have been no IRS to bully him, no elites to blackball him, and probably plenty of friendly strangers to meet.
If he could have lived above this decadent society, rather than being forced to live beneath it, if he had been writing from an overlook instead of underground, what pictures his prose might have painted. One can just see him in some local setting, speaking as he did, reciting Shakespeare or turning some memorable bon mot, next to an audience of captivated locals, hanging on his every word. Then perhaps he might have looked most like Socrates.
In conclusion, I’m stealing from respondent BloidSoilNative a quote by the man Joe’s writing brings most to mind:
Spiritually, then, we hold that a healthy man does not demand cosmopolitanism, and does not demand empire. He demands something which is more or less roughly represented by Nationalism. That is to say, he demands a particular relation to some homogeneous community of manageable and imaginable size, large enough to inspire his reverence by its hold on history, small enough to inspire his affection by its hold on himself. If we were gods planning a perfect planet, if we were poets inventing a Utopia, we should divide the world into communities of this unity and moderate size. It is, therefore, not true to say of us that a cosmopolitan humanity is a far-off ideal; it is not an ideal at all for us, but a nightmare.