I am retired from Government, law enforcement, public life and all other pointless endeavors. Nothing, nothing whatever is to be attained. My magic consists in eating when I am hungry and sleeping when I am tired, and in attending to beauty.
Joe Sobran passed away two weeks ago and I've delayed writing about it because there were so many good obituaries. I knew Joe and want to write something reflecting the man I knew rather than the controversial public figure.
It's striking how even those who departed from his views frankly admitted his brilliance as a writer and polemicist. Reviewing his little bon mots as Ann Coulter did in her farewell to Joe is to reacquaint yourself with the most trenchant conservative critiques of the past 30 years. But those familiar with his work know this. It's interesting that those who undermined him have little to say, while so many seem to realize the significance of his passing. He was safely out of mind as an exile, but his passing came as a pang of conscience to many as they reflected on how much they owed him. He clearly stands out as an injured party in the minds of those who stood by while he was blacklisted. Defending Joe was not a good career move. But casting a few flowers on his grave shows a least a bit of spine.
Why did Joe's life and career end so poorly?
Joe was one of the few people I knew for whom religious and philosophical principles were real in a way physical objects are to the rest of us. He simply would not cooperate with what he felt to be wrong. His opinions and positions could change, but having changed they were as adamantine as his previous ones. In his final years he waged a kind war of civil disobedience against the motor vehicle laws of the State of Virginia. I gather that he didn't think he need a license and wouldn't pay tickets for driving like everyone else on public roads. How many of us would do this? Certainly not me.
I think his banishment from the National Review undercut him precisely because of this penchant for living, rather than merely expounding a way of life. Unlike most writers he came to prominence in one place and stayed for a long time. I doubt that he had any sense of self promotion beyond what he did within the charmed inner court of NR. The NR he rose within was a pretty heterogeneous place. Bill Buckley allowed for real differences of opinion among the writing staff.
That changed when the Neoconservatives became first minority then majority stockholders in the conservative movement. They were not, and never were men of ideas, so much as men of interests. The best interest of the State of Israel was a central concern. Any line of reasoning would do just so long as the right side was advanced. In this environment, Joe was doomed. Joe was all about the best argument wherever it led. It didn't matter to him that a good argument countered the interests of people Bill Buckley thought of as important to the success of the movement.
We all know that Joe was told that displeasing the Zionists would be bad for his career. His reaction baffles many. I think that his lack of self protective action can be traced to two character traits.
First, Joe gloried in disputation and learning. And in this he wasn't afraid to take unconventional positions. He didn't believe that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare. He rejected Darwinian evolution. For a time this fit in well with NR's menagerie eccentric intellectuals. But eccentrics and free spirits are dangerous to movements. Such men blow discordant notes in the Neocons unified orchestra of approved, coordinated opinion. Joe just couldn't write like an aparachic.
Second, Joe came from blue collar roots, and to such a man threats, veiled of otherwise, had to be resisted. The Joe I knew, if told not to write about birds, could be counted on to buy a parrot within the week. Part of this was a certain impishness that couldn't conceive of people favoring the poor argument over the expedient one. Joe never uttered an anti-semitic sentence in my presence. He had plenty of opportunities as the subject of his banishment from NR came up often. He understood that he was seen as holding opinions counter to Jewish interests But he never attributed his trouble to "The Jews."
I saw him less and less in his last years and heard of his declining fortunes and health from his ex-wife Jean. I e-mailed him a time or two. I happened on a Utube of him being interviewed and I was shocked at how emaciated and haggard he was. Truly, he was the image of a burned out case. Yet he still managed, intermittently, to write with the old brilliance. The dieing coal of his talent still glowed bright until the end. But you had to sift around in the ashes to find it.
Moves are afoot to collect and publish his work in book or at least internet archive form. I think this is essential. People of the future will prosper by absorbing his pure and natural style while marveling at how we descended from such as he, to the race of pygmies impersenating conservatives now.