I’ve only subscribed to two newsletters ever, one being former National Review editor Joseph Sobran’s “Real News of the Month.” In the mid-1990s I was in my early 20s and the discovery of past conservative thinkers like Russell Kirk and Richard Weaver encouraged me to seek out their contemporary intellectual descendants, of which Sobran was one of only a handful. Most right-wingers in the ’90s, including many pundits and intellectuals, were so obsessed with Bill Clinton that conservative first principles took a backseat to hyper-partisanship and conspiracy theories, neither of which interested me. No doubt Clinton was an awful president, but so was his predecessor, and of course his successor proved far worse–yet even today most conservative journalists cannot bring themselves to bash in a bipartisan fashion. Sobran was not only one of the few exceptions to this rule, but would combine news and politics with deeper philosophical and civilizational concerns similar to men like Kirk or Weaver. At the time, I realized that if being a conservative simply meant hating Democrats then it meant nothing. But if being conservative was to think like Sobran, it had immeasurable meaning precisely because he constantly encouraged his audience to remember and reexamine what that term meant.
Learning of Sobran’s passing last week at the age of 64, I began to recall so many of his conservative reminders, particularly his Jeffersonian views on foreign policy and how valuable they are today. One of the beautiful things about the Tea Party is it n ow encourages conservatives to remember and reexamine what they stand for–Sobran’s specialty–a reflection that was even less in evidence under George W. Bush than it was under Clinton. Sobran had to leave his 18-year job as editor of National Review in 1993 due in part to his traditionally conservative views clashing with the neoconservatives’ agenda for the Middle East, or as he wrote in his final column before his death:
“I saw thirty years ago that we were headed for needless war with the Arabs, and I had two boys in their teens. By 1991 I hated Bush with a murderous fury. He was willing to get young men like my son Mike killed for no clear reason. I didn’t want them dying in the Middle East, where we always seem to be defending democracy and freedom these days… Nobody else at National Review seemed to have this worry.”
Today, the neoconservatives that so worried Sobran are worried themselves about a Tea Party movement hellbent on cutting spending, particularly if grassroots conservatives begin critiquing the monstrously big government program of American empire. Last week, columnists representing the American Enterprise Institute–Danielle Pletka and Thomas Donnelly–warned in the Washington Post that Tea Partiers should stay away from the likes of Ron or Rand Paul, Sen. Tom Coburn, Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels, and any other Republican who would dare question our current foreign policy. Neoconservatives Pletka and Donnelly seem to believe that America’s superpower status is what makes it great, forever spreading “freedom” and “democracy” around the world through perpetual war. Needless to say, the conservative Sobran took a more traditional view:
“[M]any Americans admire America for being strong, not for being American. For them America has to be ‘the greatest country on earth’ in order to be worthy of their devotion. If it were only the 2nd-greatest, or the 19th-greatest, or, heaven forbid, ‘a 3rd-rate power,’ it would be virtually worthless… . This is nationalism, not patriotism… . When it comes to war, the patriot realizes that the rest of the world can’t be turned into America, because his America is something specific and particular–the memories and traditions that can no more be transplanted than the mountains and the prairies… . But the nationalist, who identifies America with abstractions like freedom and democracy, may think it’s precisely America’s mission to spread those abstractions around the world–to impose them by force, if necessary. In his mind, those abstractions are universal ideals, and they can never be truly ‘safe’ until they exist, unchallenged, everywhere; the world must be made ‘safe for democracy’ by ‘a war to end all wars…’ For the nationalist, war is a welcome opportunity to change the world. This is a recipe for endless war.”
Endless indeed. The Wilsonian vision Sobran describes is progressive in origin, yet is also the neoconservatives’ vision and to the extent that the neocons continue to define the Right’s foreign policy, this will forever prevent even the rambunctious Tea Partiers from truly achieving their stated limited-government desires. As George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Joseph Sobran once warned, a state of perpetual war is simply incompatible with republican government. As evidenced by Pletka and Donnelly’s recent column, the neoconservatives now fear too many conservatives are beginning to waking up to this. Sobran spent years trying to wake them up, reminding his right-wing friends that “War has all the characteristics of socialism most conservatives hate: Centralized power, state planning, false rationalism, restricted liberties, foolish optimism about intended results, and blindness to unintended secondary results.”
The countless examples of Sobran’s wit and wisdom are too many to revisit here, but he should be remembered not only as one of the greatest conservative minds of our time–but of all time. Sobran’s genuine patriotism informed his genuine conservatism thus putting him at odds with neoconservatism for the last decades of his career. To the extent that neoconservatives took over the larger movement, there was simply no place for a man like Sobran. And to the extent that traditional conservatives can now take back their movement from the big government neocons, they will be fighting the same battles as the late, great, Joseph Sobran.
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