Remembering Joe Sobran
By W. James Antle III
Before there was Ann Coulter, there was Joseph Sobran. The former National Review senior editor and syndicated columnist might have been the sharpest polemicist ever to skewer a liberal, the wittiest foe of the conventional wisdom ever to wield a pen. Few others were as adept at turning a phrase -- or turning the keeper of some taboo red with rage.
Sobran died last week at the relatively young age of 64, physically frail but strong in his faith. He left behind a body of work as powerful as that of any conservative writer of the 20th century, worthy of comparison to Chesterton and Belloc. To call Sobran an influence would not just be an understatement; it would be an insult to Joe Sobran.
Pat Buchanan called Sobran "the finest columnist of our generation." High praise considering the source, but apt nevertheless. From politics to pop music and abortion to the welfare-warfare state, Sobran was a shrewd analyst who cranked out perceptive one-liners like some kind of literary machine.
Having lived through what liberals described as the "Decade of Greed," Sobran memorably observed, “Politicians never accuse you of 'greed' for wanting other people's money -- only for wanting to keep your own money." Long before there was any Tea Party holding rallies where people read the Constitution, Sobran dusted off the forgotten founding document and explained the basic premise of the American Republic: "The rights of the people come from God. The powers of government come from the people."
While other conservatives offered technical or economic arguments against the latest expansion of federal power, Sobran asked a simple question: Is the proposed measure constitutional? The answer, more often than not, was no. But the abandonment of the Constitution forced us into a set of obligations the average American never freely chose, at a cost that grows more staggering by the day. The Constitution isn't some perfect document, Sobran understood. But fidelity to it would have avoided the United States' impending national bankruptcy.
Yet as Sobran frequently lamented, "the U.S. Constitution poses no serious threat to our form of government." A president who tried to govern according to the Constitution would probably be impeached. We'll see how much better the Republicans not named Ron Paul running for Congress this year will fare. "Most Americans aren't the sort of citizens the Founding Fathers expected; they are contented serfs," Sobran wrote. "Far from being active critics of government, they assume that its might makes it right."
Though Sobran died something of a Catholic anarchist, he was no libertine. He understood, for example, the reality behind the euphemism of "choice" in the context of the unborn: “After tens of millions of 'procedures,' has America lost anything? Another Edison, perhaps? A Gershwin? A Babe Ruth? A Duke Ellington?" he asked, concluding, "As it is, we will never know what abortion has cost us all."
As the Cold War came to a close, Sobran came to reject the United States' postwar interventionist foreign policy. He opposed not only the second President Bush's disastrous, unpopular war in Iraq, but also the first President Bush's seemingly successful, popular one. To him, it was consistent anti-statism. Sobran quipped, "If you want government to intervene domestically, you’re a liberal. If you want government to intervene overseas, you’re a conservative. If you want government to intervene everywhere, you’re a moderate. If you don’t want government to intervene anywhere, you’re an extremist."
Soon people began to detect the whiff of anti-Semitism in his columns about Israel, ending his relationship with both National Review and William F. Buckley Jr., the man who discovered him as a writer. Sobran denied the charge, but over time -- after the break with the conservative movement and the attendant loss of income -- the denials became increasingly difficult to believe. He wrote noxiously of "the Jews who maintain their borders furtively and deal disingenuously with gentiles" and consorted with Holocaust deniers, who praised him as a brave truth-teller while he professed ignorance of the documentary evidence and Zyklon B. "I am not, heaven forbid, a 'Holocaust denier,'" Sobran remarked. "I lack the scholarly competence to be one."
"If I were to hate Jews en masse, without distinction, I would be guilty of many things," Sobran went on to say. "Obviously I’d be guilty of injustice and uncharity to Jews as human beings. I would also be guilty of willful stupidity. More personally, I’d be guilty of ingratitude to my benefactors -- which Dante, in his Inferno, ranks the worst of all sins -- since many of my benefactors, in large ways and small, have been Jewish." Yet he picked a funny place to demonstrate gratitude to such benefactors: a speech to the Institute of Historical Review, a "revisionist" outfit dedicated to denying or minimizing Hitler's crimes against Jews, in which he dwelled at length on what he saw as malign Jewish influence.
Publicly, a number of Sobran's allies closed ranks behind him and pretended he was merely a victim of having broken one taboo too many. Everyone else pretended that nothing was lost in his dismissal from polite society. Privately, many who knew him on both sides were dismayed by this turn of events. Even those who continued to admire him were troubled by some of his associations; others who shunned him wondered what happened to the gentle scribe they long considered incapable of hating Jews or any other human being.
Sobran wrote wittily even about his sudden radioactivity. Caught up in the controversy surrounding the Council of Conservative Citizens, a White Citizens Council-like group with which several Southern Republicans had been entangled in the 1990s, he made a confession. "It’s true I addressed them some years ago," Sobran admitted in one of his columns. "But I should state here, for the record, that I would never have accepted their invitation if I had known then of their associations with Republican leaders."
Before William Buckley died, he and Sobran reconciled. After Buckley was diagnosed with the emphysema that eventually killed him, Sobran wrote movingly of his old friend's acts of charity. "Compared with all this, the political differences that finally drove us apart seem trivial now," Sobran concluded. "I saw the same graciousness in his relations with everyone from presidents to menials. I learned a lot of things from Bill Buckley, but the best thing he taught me was how to be a Christian. May Jesus comfort him now."And comfort Joe Sobran, too.
W. James Antle III is associate editor of The American Spectator.