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I Will Miss Joe Sobran

When I first began working at The American Conservative just before the mid-term elections in 2006, my colleague, W. James Antle III, waved me over to his desk. Joe Sobran’s latest column was online.

The big issue, of course, is the war in Iraq, which my old friend Fred Barnes of The Weekly Standard has called “the greatest act of benevolence one nation has ever performed for another.” I think I see his point. Not only have we given Iraq democracy; now that Saddam Hussein has been sentenced to hang, the Iraqis will have the satisfaction of watching their former ruler at the end of a rope, his feet kicking spasmodically for a few delicious seconds.

Even if the Democrats carry both houses of Congress, this is a spectacle we are unlikely to enjoy here in the Land of the Free. Instead, President Bush, like President Clinton before him, will probably be allowed to live out his term and then go into honorable retirement with as much White House furniture as he and his wife can carry off with them.

We laughed and rolled our eyes. At this point reading Sobran was like fetching whiskey bottles from a long-abandoned distillery. The prose was strong stuff. Some columns so sour they made you spit. Others so warm they elicited regretful tears. And then there were true vintage ones like the above which would have you laughing, feeling guilty and privileged at the same time.

And so I’m very sad to hear of Sobran’s passing. When pundits and pols invoke our Founding Documents as if they were sacred oracles, I cannot help but remember Sobran’s line “The Constitution poses no threat to our form of government.” He was probably the most talented writer at National Review during his 21-year stint there. He also made frequent appearances on the radio and penned a syndicated column. He wrote essays for the Human Life Review which were collected in 1983 under the title Single Issues – it remains the finest collection of writings about the politics of abortion.

Abortion violates every decent human instinct–so much so that its indecency must be clothed in euphemism. Its champions try to enlist compassion with an endless parade of hard cases, and to invoke snobbery by sneering at their opponents. Beyond that, they have tried to rule out, on procedural grounds, the very instincts that work against them: opposition to abortion, they say, is ‘religious,’ ergo inadmissible in the political process.

By the end of the Cold War, Sobran’s politics were evolving but no longer suited to the changing climate of the conservative movement. His critique of abortion as murder was soon joined by a critique of war as mass-murder. He would leave the movement, and although he was often grouped with paleo-conservatives, he was entirely unique. Late in life he became something like a Catholic anarchist. He wrote a column for the Tridentine-Mass promoting Wanderer. He would accept no King but Christ.

I never met Joe Sobran, but I did meet Buckley a few times. I’ve tried in the past to dissect the incident that led to Sobran’s departure from National Review. One can sum it up this way: Sobran and Buckley came to disagree on the justice of the first Iraq War. Sobran and Pat Buchanan had criticized the war as serving Israel’s interests more than those of the United States. Sobran, recklessly accused his boss and friend of being “jumpy about Jews .” Buckley then made the most opaque, insecurely verbose, and, I believe, half-hearted accusation of Anti-Semitism ever leveled. Both Sobran and Buckley seem to have been heart-broken over it. Judging by the early obituaries, many still grieve over these events.

Thinking on it now, the post-Cold War isolationists on the right were at a disadvantage in 1991. I came to political awareness in opposing the bombing of Kosovo. By that time it was obvious that American hubris, the developing norm of the “responsibility to protect”, and a democratist ideology were driving the U.S. to a long period of interventionism. There was no longer the fear of nuclear annihilation to contain the impulse to make the world safe for neo-liberalism. In 1991 these things had hardly been discussed. Critics of the first Gulf War on the left turned to a musty anti-capitalist/anti-imperialist script: “No Blood For Oil.” Critics on the right focused on foreign interests, namely Israel’s. The war ended quickly, but the breach would not be repaired.

If Buckley’s essay wasn’t true at the time it was written, it turned into prophecy. Sobran, cut off from the social circles and decent wages he knew previously, would make some very poor associations. By the early part of this decade his writings on Israel and what he called “Zionist power” were crude and indefensible. It is credibly believed that his 2002 appearance at a conference of Holocaust revisionists was driven by economic motives. He made it clear in his speech there that he was hardly interested in Holocaust denial, or even much invested in hating Jews, though he went on to say things both cruel and insensitive. His purpose there seems to have been to finally set himself on fire, and, with an impish grin, blame this inferno on his former friends. Perhaps he felt that being cut-off he was no longer responsible to anyone, even himself. It was doubly sad as this stupid speech, which he made despite of the intervention of friends, precluded him from making a revival as a columnist with The American Conservative which would debut later that year.

Sobran was eventually admitted back to write for Chronicles where he turned in columns both impressive and controversial. Some of his admirers would be surprised to know that he was a close correspondent with Ann Coulter, who has often credited her punchy style to Sobran’s influence. He eventually reconciled with Buckley. His tribute to Buckley is deeply moving, and contains a revelation that Jim Antle and I had long suspected, that Buckley was secreting money to Sobran, even without Sobran knowing the source.

Most of the tributes to Sobran have been generous even when they note the things he said when he was at his weakest. Sobran seemed to have regretted some of the things he said. And it is a testament to the friendship and admiration he inspired that we also regret that he said them. It would be to the benefit of all kinds of conservatives and the wider world if we could begin to recover the great work that he did defending human life from the predations of our culture and government.

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