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Jewish World Review
Oct. 18, 2010
/ 10 Mar-Cheshvan, 5771
A Lament for Joe Sobran
Once again it's the time of madness, also known as the midterm elections. This year's recurrence of that seasonal mania was punctuated by an obituary in the New York Times for "Joseph Sobran, 64, Writer Whom Buckley Mentored." Oh, what would we do without the obituaries in the Times, its last saving grace and utility? Give up on what used to be our national paper of record entirely? For its obituaries remain a justification for the whole, ephemeral enterprise that is a daily newspaper.
Much like Ecclesiastes, the Times' measured obits remind us of all the vanities of vanities we have seen and that are yet to come. And we do need reminding in an electoral season in which every issue Will Determine the Fate of the Nation, every blip in the news is a Crisis, and once again We Stand at Armageddon and Battle for Lord! The phrase is Teddy Roosevelt's but the spirit is every partisan's in an election year.
Michael Joseph Sobran, according to this obituary, which is where future researchers will start and may stop, was "a hard-hitting conservative writer and moralist," that is, a minor league commentator on passing events. As most of us columnizers are fated to be.
Yet to some of us in the trade he remains a stirring figure, for he starred in his own American tragedy, that of the thinker who grew lost in his thoughts, following them into ever deeper waters till he disappeared over the horizon of public perception, lost to the main.
Young Sobran's start could scarcely have been more auspicious. He was a promising student of English and American literature, the best of groundings for an observer of the hectic contemporary scene, at a state university in Michigan. When the usual politically correct automatons on the faculty objected to William F. Buckley's being allowed to speak on campus, he rose to Mr. Buckley's defense point-by-point. And soon found himself on the staff of Editor Buckley's National Review, then and maybe now the premier organ of conservative opinion in the country.
He turned out witty, incisive, serious commentary for a time, and then things began to fall apart, a little at first and then a lot. Joe Sobran's conservatism grew radical, his isolationist views left him more and more isolated, and he started seeing more and more conspiracies that needed exposing, especially the Jewish Lobby. (Strangely enough, he never seemed to notice the Arab Lobby, whose views were faithfully reflected in the vituperations of Helen Thomas till of late.)
Unhappy with the way he was being edited, Mr. Sobran turned on his old mentor. In a column for The Wanderer, a Roman Catholic weekly, he depicted his boss, that most principled yet generous of men, as pandering to Manhattan's elite. The aristocratic Mr. Buckley of course never needed to pander to the elite, being part of it. Just as one of the advantages of having money is that it eliminates any need to flatter those who do.
That column tore it. Joe Sobran was informed that it was tantamount to a letter of resignation, for why would he want to work for a man he so clearly despised? Mr. Buckley himself wrote a letter to the editor of The Wanderer in his best, fairest, most Buckleyesque style -- candid and cutting but not without human sympathy -- in which he noted that his former apprentice's diatribe "gives evidence of an incapacitation moral and perhaps medical, which news is both bad and sad...." Years later the two men were said to have reconciled personally if not politically. William F. Buckley, for all his unforgiving powers of observation, was never without charity.
Meanwhile, Mr. Sobran would go on to write a newspaper column, one we here at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette ran -- for a while. But you could almost see him get carried further and further away from reality week by week, and begin to lose any mediating connection with the inner restraint that saves most of us from our wilder follies.
It was Chesterton who noted how wrong it is to say of a certain species of madness that its victims have lost their minds. On the contrary, they may have lost everything but their minds. And so they follow their theories right out the window.
Joe Sobran, like Westbrook Pegler before him, a similar character and tragedy, wound up writing for fringe outfits like the John Birch Society, and, in keeping with the times, start his own blog. Blogging is the columnist's last resort, our own version of Facebook. He would eventually drift off into anarchism and discover that the government of the United States had been essentially unconstitutional since the post-Civil War amendments, a theory not unknown in some of these less reconstructed parts of the Union.
Someone once noted that cranks can be identified by their weakness for certain semi-intellectual fads -- to wit, vegetarianism, monetary conspiracy theories, anti-Semitism, and the belief that someone other than William Shakespeare wrote the works of William Shakespeare. So it came as no surprise to learn from Joe Sobran's obituary that, sure enough, he'd written a book attributing Shakespeare's plays to someone else, specifically Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford and a popular nominee in that bulging category.
Mr. Sobran had no interest in economics, however, and so never became a money crank. "During the Reagan years," he remembered, "which I expected to find exciting, I found myself bored to death with supply-side economics, enterprise zones, 'privatizing' welfare programs and similar principle-dodging gimmickry." He just never made the Lockean connection between life and liberty and that third, essential part of the formula: property. The man did have his gaps.
There was the anti-Semitic tinge to his thought, too, which he always denied. Though it was the basis of his split with Buckley, who could smell it as well as anyone. True enough, Joe Sobran's animus was not Pat Buchanan's brutish sort. His had an intellectual varnish. It was Mary McCarthy who said anti-Semitism is the only form of intellectuality that appeals to stupid people, yet Joe Sobran was anything but stupid, proving that the brightest of us can fall for the dumbest of obsessions -- and follow them right over the nearest cliff. Which is why the news of his death leaves some of us in the columniating trade mourning not only one of our own but what he might have been.
Paul Greenberg Archives
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