Joe Sobran: Martyr for truth


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The conservative columnist and former assistant editor of National Review, Joe Sobran, passed away September 30 at age 64 from complications of diabetes, a disease that had seriously afflicted him for years. Much can be said about Sobran. He was an extremely talented writer and political commentator who dissected the politically correct cant of the day in a prose style that sparkled with witticisms encapsulating trenchant, and usually taboo, truths. He was a conservative who became increasingly more anti-government, ultimately declaring himself an anarchist. He was a faithful Catholic who staunchly opposed abortion. He was an expert on Shakespeare who supported the unorthodox thesis that the works traditionally attributed to "the Stratford man" were actually authored by Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford.

Living in the Washington, D.C., area, I got to know Joe Sobran in the 1990s and continued to see him off and on until recent years when his health precluded much travel. I always found him to be extremely personable, a raconteur nonpareil who treated insignificant people such as myself as equals. Everyone enjoyed immensely the chance to be with him. The monthly Catholic-oriented dinner that I attend in suburban Virginia is called the Sobran Dinner, and Sobran himself, in better days, had often attended. I went to his wake and funeral, joining many other friends and admirers of Joe in offering our respects to him and his family.

What was especially noteworthy about him, however, was his penchant for intellectual honesty. Joe Sobran sought to pursue truth, even when it would lead to the destruction of his brilliant career and ultimately contribute to his early death. Specifically, it was his violation of the taboo pertaining to Jewish power and the U.S. Israelocentric foreign policy that led to his fall. In the 1980s, Sobran was the rising senior editor at William Buckley's National Review, and he seemed to be destined for a brilliant future. But owing to pressure from powerful pro-Zionist Jews such as Norman Podhoretz, that future never materialized, and Buckley ultimately fired Sobran in October 1993. Despite Buckley's close relationship with Sobran, who had served 21 years with National Review — 18 as senior editor — Buckley caved in to pro-Zionist Jewish pressure.

It was apparent that Buckley did not want to fire Sobran and, in fact, was pressured for a number of years before doing so. As Sobran wrote in "How I Was Fired by Bill Buckley":

Bill and I had been good friends for most of the 21 years I'd worked for him. But the friendship was strained in 1986, when he took the side of my attackers in a row over Israel. When Norman Podhoretz and his wife Midge Decter accused me of "anti-Semitism," Bill wrote a weird public disavowal of my columns on Israel, saying in effect that I wasn't anti-Semitic, but deserved to be called anti-Semitic. What made it so bad was that I knew he didn't even believe what he was saying. It was a failure of nerve. That was clear even from the disavowal itself, which included a sweaty digression on Jewish retaliatory power.

Earlier that year, he'd taken me to dinner to warn me of the dangers of being "perceived," as they say, as an anti-Semite. His book [In Search of Anti-Semitism] makes it sound like a long campaign to set me straight, but it wasn't like that at all. Bill didn't suggest I'd done anything wrong or that he disagreed with anything I'd written. But Norman Podhoretz was mad at me. That was enough.... I continued in my wicked ways, criticizing Israel as an albatross for the U.S. In May [1993] the Zionist apparat went public in its smear against me, throwing the National Review into a total panic. There was hysteria in Bill's apartment the night he and the other senior editors discussed it: the disavowal had been prepared behind my back. This was the first I'd heard of it. Bill's statement didn't even mention the Podhoretzes by name, as if he was protecting their anonymity. Every other published account of the incident, on both sides, spoke freely of the Podhoretzes' role; but for some reason, National Review tried to pretend they had nothing to do with it. Furthermore, all responses from the magazine's readers — who were overwhelmingly on my side — were suppressed.... [Most establishment obituaries leave out the Podhoretz factor in Buckley's decision to remove Sobran.]

... With Bill's statement, National Review became, by default, a neoconservative magazine. It had virtually announced that its avowed principles didn't apply to Israel, and that its conservatism had no real separate existence from that of Commentary or The Public Interest.

National Review would champion the neocon Israelocentric war policy in the Middle East. It would have as regular writers such neocon stalwarts as Michael Ledeen. And some of the gentiles at National Review would outdo even the Jewish neocons in their extreme opinions about Muslims, as was the case when senior editor Rich Lowry would propose "nuking" Mecca in 2002 as retaliation for a terrorist attack. As an indication of the exceedingly taboo question of Jewish power, it should be noted that Lowry remained as senior editor of National Review even though he proposed the mass murder of innocent Muslims, while Sobran was removed for maintaining that pro-Israel Jews were influential in shaping U.S. Middle East policy, an obvious truth known to all people with a knowledge of American politics.

Being removed from National Review was only part of Sobran's punishment, which I think illustrates that there was nothing uniquely craven about Buckley's actions. Buckley acted the way successful people in the United States believe they must act if they are to remain successful. Sobran would also lose his position as commentator on the CBS Radio program "Spectrum," where he had been featured for 21 years, and most newspaper outlets would cancel his syndicated column. And he would be blacklisted not only by other mainstream venues but even by many alternative ones, to the extent that he could not earn a living and would spend his later years in poverty, supported by a few friends but abandoned by the powerful. It should be added that even the self-proclaimed conservative opposition to the neoconservatives, the much ballyhooed magazine The American Conservative, would exclude him from its pages. Chronicles, too, would suspend him for a period of time.

Many of the establishment obituaries (as well as The American Conservative's) maintain that in his later years Sobran veered to the dark side by speaking before groups espousing "hate," such as "conferences organized by British Holocaust denier David Irving," as the Washington Post's obituary put it. Those obituaries ignore the fact that since Sobran was no longer allowed to write or speak in more mainstream conservative venues, conferences such as Irving's were among his very few alternatives. Moreover, Irving's conferences did not focus on the Holocaust, and Sobran did not speak on the subject there, nor does he ever seem to have "denied" the Holocaust.

Taking notice of Sobran's death in The American Conservative, Michael Brendan Dougherty does acknowledge that Sobran "was hardly interested in Holocaust denial, or even much invested in hating Jews," but Dougherty nonetheless alleges that he "went on to say things both cruel and insensitive," without citing anything said by Sobran that was so "cruel and insensitive" as to require his shunning by respectable people. The article continues in this cryptic vein by moving into the realm of mind-reading:

His purpose there ["at a conference of Holocaust revisionists" in 2002] 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.
For some reason, Dougherty refrains from revealing any particulars of Sobran's "stupid speech." Odd, if what Sobran said did indeed preclude him "from making a revival as a columnist with The American Conservative."

Sobran's critics typically do not quote the "indefensible" or "stupid" words of his that are so heinous as to put him beyond the pale. The astute Sobran clearly understood why he was confronted by silencing instead of by counter-arguments, as would be the case in the liberal, free society that is often presented as the American reality. As he wrote in "How I Was Fired by Bill Buckley":

Nobody really disagreed with me. That, in fact, was the problem. Nothing creates more awkwardness than saying things people can't afford to admit they agree with. Disagreement is manageable. It's agreement that wreaks havoc. If people disagree, they'll debate you. If they secretly agree with something, but are furious with you for saying it, then they'll try to shut you up by any means necessary.
Since what Sobran wrote was entirely true, the only way to counter it was to silence him. And the punishment was intended to deter others from doing likewise. I think it definitely has had that effect.

Although Sobran was initially very upset about what he correctly regarded as Buckley's treachery, his Christian nature led him to be reconciled with Buckley before the latter's death, though that did not improve Sobran's own situation.

Nothing I have written is to imply that Joe Sobran was without flaws, even serious ones. He was, for example, notorious for not taking proper care of his own health. But many great men have serious flaws. And Sobran's fundamentally hurt himself. I might add that a decline in status such as Sobran experienced would sufficiently depress many people to the extent that they might not be heedful enough of their own self-preservation.

Joe Sobran, of course, was not the only person who has dared to point out the power of pro-Zionist Jews and the dangers of America's Israelocentric policy. But he was one of the very few who had so much to lose by violating these taboos. The Sobran of the 1980s had a brilliant future before him, and he sacrificed it all by telling the truth about Israel and its powerful supporters in the United States.

As the noted paleoconservative historian Paul Gottfried observes in his excellent tribute to Sobran:

But Joe fell more catastrophically than the other neocon victims, from celebrity to almost total marginalization. In spite of all, he did continue to put out newsletters and even occasionally got invited to give talks, in return for modest compensation.... It was often distressing to read Joe's essays online or in his printed newsletter, knowing that this magnificent writer was going largely unread in his lifetime, while imbeciles and intellectual pygmies were being featured in prestigious and heavily funded neoconservative and liberal publications. Such disproportion between earthly accomplishments and earthly reward is enough to make one believe that all justice lies in the afterlife.
Shortly after Buckley's death, Sobran wrote a laudatory piece on the former's character, only opaquely alluding to their falling out. His final paragraph read: "But above all, first and last, Bill was a Catholic, whose ultimate love was Jesus. His secret benefactions — they were countless (except for the ones he did me, I had to learn of them gradually) — were in keeping with our Lord's injunction not to let the left hand know what the right hand is doing. His faith was put to the test in his last year, when his wife of 57 years died in agony and his own body was tortured by disease. He displayed what I didn't expect even of him: the courage of a martyr. But I'm not really surprised."

Joe Sobran, of course, was the true courageous martyr, and he is a martyr who continues to be pilloried even beyond the grave.

Michael Joseph Sobran, Jr., 1946–2010, RIP  Ω

October 13, 2010


© 2010 by Stephen J. Sniegoski.
This page was published in 2010 by WTM Enterprises.

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