Many of my friends are now writing tributes to Joe Sobran who died yesterday at the age of 64 from complications of diabetes. He was a nationally syndicated columnist who for 21 years was both a senior editor at National Review and a CBS Spectrum radio commentator. His death brings back many youthful memories, and it is best to say I have mixed emotions.
A list of Sobran articles I have enjoyed would be long, and many of them are his early works. His towering intellect, the incisive quality of his mind, his keen wit and religious devotion can not be denied. He had other admirable qualities, but his reputation will always be tarnished by his inexcusable attitude toward Jews.
Ann Coulter says “he did a lot of good work,” while Richard Shaftan, a respected Louisiana academic, calls him “Perhaps the greatest Catholic journalist ever, and a tremendous warrior for the conservative cause.” Shaftan’s praise for Sobran’s work on social and economic issues is understandable, but the late author was more comfortable with the left wing on foreign policy, national security and trade issues.
Sobran was a paleoconservative disciple of Pat Buchanan and Ron Paul, who later identified himself with isolationist libertarians. Buchanan called him “Perhaps the finest columnist of our generation.” He was briefly the Constitution Party candidate for Vice President in 2000. After 21 years be was fired as a senior editor of National Review by William F. Buckley, Jr., because of his controversial comments about Jewish people. Buckley said anyone who reviewed Sobran’s articles “might reasonably conclude those columns were written by a writer inclined to anti-Semitism.”
Those who knew him well say Sobran’s outlook changed around the time of his 40th birthday (February 23, 1986) when many of his articles became sharply critical of Israel and Jews. The situation is similar to Sen. Barry Goldwater’s (R-AZ) opposition to the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Goldwater had black friends and there is clear evidence he was not a racist. Sobran had Jewish friends and they insist he was not antisemitic, but Goldwater was wrong and many of the things Sobran wrote were reprehensible. Goldwater never regretted his opposition to civil rights, and Sobran never retracted his comments about Jews. At the end of his life, Sobran was working on a book critical of Abraham Lincoln, and his opposition to the Iraq War during the past decade was well known. He blamed Israel and Jews for the 9/11 attack.
Comments By and About Joe Sobran:
Joseph Sobran’s 2002 address to the Institute for Historical Review, which questions the existence of the Holocaust:
Why on earth is it ‘anti-Jewish’ to conclude from the evidence that the standard numbers of Jews murdered are inaccurate, or that the Hitler regime, bad as it was in many ways, was not, in fact, intent on racial extermination?…. I lack the scholarly competence to be [a Holocaust denier]. I don’t read German, so I can’t assess the documentary evidence; I don’t know chemistry, so I can’t discuss Zyklon-B…. Of course, those who affirm the Holocaust need know nothing about the German language, chemistry, and other pertinent subjects; they need only repeat what they have been told by the authorities … the Holocaust has become a device for exempting Jews from normal human obligations. It has authorized them to bully and blackmail, to extort and oppress.
Dr. Joseph Bottum, Editor of conservative religious journal First Things:
What can one say? He was a polymath, a genius, and a sometimes brilliant writer of enormous speed and fluidity. And he drove himself nearly mad, embracing conspiracy theories and the crankiest of ways to reject consensus—from the authorship of Shakespeare’s works on down. His life was filled with unhappy incidents, which may have what pushed him to the battles he constantly forced on his friends, but he remained constant in his faith. May he be taken home to God, where all those battles cease and every tear is wiped away.
Dr. Hunter Baker of Houston Baptist University reacted to Joe Bottum’s obituary by saying:
Highly appropriate and rightly charitable remarks. What a tragic story. One of the longtime greats in conservative publishing once told me Joe Sobran was just about the best writer with whom he’d ever worked. He lost all that to his increasingly heterodox views.
Ben Domenech, Editor, The New Ledger:
Sobran was accused of anti-Semitism by several, most notably Norman Podhoretz. It was an accusation that was certainly borne out by his later writings, and by his association with the Holocaust-denying Institute for Historical Review. The National Review firing was a severe blow to a man who’d invested twenty-one years of his life in a publication and was shown the door in middle age. It’s clear that Sobran never truly recovered, though he did reconcile with WFB before the latter’s death. . .
Sobran’s early work has much to recommend it — he is at times supremely eloquent, with a fierce logic behind his words. Read his Single Issues: Essays on the Crucial Social Questions, published in 1983, and you can see why Buckley liked the man. But at some point, Sobran lost his mental footing: the darkness came, and he descended rapidly into the paranoia of glowering anti-Semitism.
I am sad about Joe Sobran. He was a brilliant fellow in some respects, but he lost himself to darker things. So, in much the same way I will be sad when Pat Buchanan inevitably passes, and Peter Brimelow, and yes, Andrew Sullivan — I am sad tonight for what this man could have been, and what he instead chose to be.
Quin Hillyer, the American Spectator:
It has been many years since I read a single piece by Sobran, because I got so disgusted with what certainly appeared to be his trafficking in anti-Semitism. I just could not bear to read that crud. But I must say that before he lost his bearings, Sobran was one of the most elegant and eloquent columnists I have ever read. . . . Sobran wrote “For years I all I have wanted is a president who was as simple as Ronald Reagan. It is a mystery to me why simple virtues like Ronald Reagan’s are thought to be anything but a great qualification.” It is the Joe Sobran who wrote that column, not the one later so rightly criticized by William F. Buckley, who I choose to remember. R.I.P.
Karen Powers, an anti-abortion activist:
I knew him from his writings on politics, culture and Shakespeare – and from a school carpool we shared. I didn’t always agree with what he wrote, but he always made me think and was enthusiast to explain concepts and ideas to me whenever we talked. He was a pretty original, independent person. I liked him very much.
Jason Maoz, The Jewish Press, March 10, 2006:
“He’s the columnist who complained “Hitler died in 1945, but anti-Hitler hysteria is still going strong”; cautioned against “the excessive moral prestige Jews have in the media and the public square”; whined about “Jews deciding the standards, setting the criteria of humanity”; and observed, in chilling if artful prose, that because Jews “set themselves up as the arbiter, there is, if you’ll pardon the expression, a certain ‘kill the umpire’ impulse.”
“He’s the writer who decried, in a column following the release of Schindler’s List, what he called “all this Holocaust-harping” and characterized Nazi genocide as basically a German overreaction to the crimes of “Jewish-led communist movements.” And he’s the commentator who warned that “History is replete with the lesson that a country in which the Jews get the upper hand is in danger. Such was the experience of Europe during Jewish-led Communist revolutions in Russia, Hungary, Romania and Germany.”
“No, he’s not Patrick Buchanan, he’s Buchanan’s ideological soulmate, Joseph Sobran, a talented writer who in the mid-1980’s descended into the fever swamp of anti-Semitic polemics and hasn’t emerged since. Though Sobran’s work is now mainly relegated to the Internet, he’s had a remarkably mainstream career, not only as a syndicated columnist but as a regular commentator, from 1979 to 1991, on the CBS radio network’s “Spectrum” series and as a senior editor at National Review for nearly two decades.
“Israel,” Sobran has written, “exemplifies most of the ‘anti-Semitic stereotypes’ of yore: it is exclusivist, belligerent, parasitic, amoral and underhanded. It feels no obligation to non-Jews, even those who have befriended it.” And, in a column in which he condemned the “relentless pro-Israel propaganda” of non-Jews like Jeane Kirkpatrick and George Will, Sobran complained that it was due to the enormous power of the American Jewish establishment that “Israel’s journalistic partisans include so many gentiles – lapsed goyim, you might say.”