J. R. R. Tolkien, the Oxford literary professor, devout Catholic, and cultural conservative who is remembered today primarily as the author of The Lord of the Rings, once wrote to his son saying:
My political opinions lean more and more to Anarchy (philosophically understood, meaning abolition of control not whiskered men with bombs) -- or to 'unconstitutional' Monarchy.
My own preferences are for monarchy. This essay, however, is a tribute to another reactionary, now deceased, who came to believe in anarchy.
M. Joseph Sobran, who passed away on September 30th, shared Tolkien’s Catholic faith and his love of the English language and its literature. That was his major in Eastern Michigan University, where in 1971 he first met William F. Buckley Jr., the legendary founder and editor of National Review magazine. Mr. Buckley was impressed by a letter Mr. Sobran had written defending the invitation Mr. Buckley had received to speak at the school. He interviewed Mr. Sobran who subsequently received an invitation from Buckley to come to New York and write for the flagship journal of the American conservative movement. He accepted and on September 11, 1972 began his career as a writer and later an editor for National Review.
A man of Joe Sobran’s literary talents could not be limited to one outlet. When J. P. McFadden founded the Human Life Foundation in 1975 he invited Mr. Sobran to be a regular contributor to the foundation’s quarterly journal. The Human Life Review, devoted to promoting the cause of human life against what would come to be dubbed “the culture of death” proved to be an excellent forum for a socially conservative young writer. In 1983, the Human Life Press released a collection of Mr. Sobran’s articles from the journal under the title Single Issues: Essays on the Crucial Social Questions. These essays, consisting of brilliant and witty commentary on such issues as abortion, sex education, the family, secular humanism, fatherhood and pornography, earned their author praise from such luminaries as Clare Boothe Luce, Malcolm Muggeridge, and of course, his mentor William F. Buckley Jr. The praise was well deserved.
Mr. Sobran’s writings began to receive even wider circulation when his Los Angeles Times column was picked up for wider syndication by the Universal Press Syndicate.
In the 1980’s, as the dawning of the end of the Cold War began to appear on the horizon, several writers began to examine critically America’s military presence around the world, maintained since the end of World War II for the purpose of containing the Soviet menace. Would continuing this military presence serve America’s interests in the absence of a Soviet threat or would America find herself pulled into needless and costly wars? Mr. Sobran began to argue that the latter was most likely.
Although he had sound, conservative reasons for taking this position, it earned him the animosity of a number of ex-liberals who had attached themselves to the American conservative movement in the ‘70’s and ‘80’s. They especially objected to the way in which Mr. Sobran, in articulating his “America First” views, suggested that America should distance herself from the Middle East conflict. Mr. Sobran wrote a few columns critical of the Israeli lobby in Washington, D. C. and in in 1986 he criticized the bombing of Tripoli and Benghazi in Libya.
This occurred a year after U.S. President Ronald Reagan had come under attack for his visit to the Bitburg Cemetary in Germany on the 40th anniversary of the defeat of Nazi Germany. The occasion gave offence because S.S. troops represented a small portion of those buried in the cemetery. The same year it was discovered that Jonathan Pollard was smuggling classified information from America’s Naval Intelligence Service where he worked to Israel. Mr. Sobran defended Ronald Reagan in the first controversy and condemned the espionage in the second controversy.
Mr. Sobran’s detractors drew from all this, the ridiculous conclusion that he hated the Jews, and complained to William Buckley. Mr. Buckley brought the concerns to Mr. Sobran’s attention, published an editor’s note in the July 4th, 1986 issue of National Review in which he wrote:
What needs to be said first is that those who know him know that Sobran is not anti-Semitic.
That was all that needed to be said. Unfortunately, Mr. Buckley did not stop there. He rebuked Mr. Sobran for insensitivity and defended “the structure of prevailing taboos” which has more recently, and quite rightly, come under attack as “political correctness”.
The controversy continued, Mr. Buckley continued to be pressured by people like Commentary editor Norman Podhoretz who wanted him to fire and denounce Mr. Sobran. In December 1991, Mr. Buckley devoted an entire issue of National Review to the subject of “In Search of Anti-Semitism”, focusing on the accusations against Mr. Sobran and against Patrick Buchanan. This issue was one of the most notorious examples of cowardly fence-sitting in the history of the printed word. While continuing to affirm that he did not believe them to be personally anti-Semitic, he refused to defend his friends against the outrageous accusations that were being leveled against them and which he was giving greater publicity to.
Mr. Sobran was not impressed and wrote so. His relationship with Buckley and National Review ended with his being fired in 1993. In the last years of Mr. Buckley’s life, the two would renew their friendship, and Mr. Sobran wrote a most gracious tribute to his former mentor upon his death. The Christian forgiveness Mr. Sobran displayed, should be sufficient evidence to any reasonable person, that he simply did not harbor the irrational hatred of which he was accused.
The end of his career at National Review was not the end of his writing. The conservative Catholic newspaper The Wanderer continued to publish his “Washington Watch” column and his syndicated column continued to be carried by UPS for several years after which it was carried by Griffin Internet Syndicate. In 1994, he launched SOBRAN’s: The Real News of the Month a monthly newsletter published by Griffin Communications which ran until 2007. He also wrote for Chronicles Magazine and in the late 2000’s he was taken on by Chronicles as a contributing editor and his column “The Bare Bodkin” began to be published regularly.
As the title of his Chronicles column would indicate, Mr. Sobran was a Shakespeare expert, having majored in Shakespeare in his graduate studies. In 1997, his book Alias Shakespeare: Solving the Greatest Literary Mystery of All Time, was published by the Free Press. In this book, Mr. Sobran argued for the Oxfordian position on the authorship of the Shakespearean writings, i.e., that they were really written by Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford.
Mr. Sobran remained a cultural and social conservative to the end. In the early years of the new millennium, however, he announced his conversion to the kind of anarchism Tolkien spoke of in his letter to his son. The men who brought about this conversion were Dr. Murray N. Rothbard, a brilliant culturally conservative libertarian who had had a falling out with William F. Buckley Jr. considerably earlier than Mr. Sobran did, and Hans-Herman Hoppe. Mr. Sobran announced his conversion in the December 2002 issue of his newsletter, in an article entitled “The Reluctant Anarchist”. Here is how he described the argument that won him over:
Hans argued that no constitution could restrain the state. Once its monopoly of force was granted legitimacy, constitutional limits became mere fictions it could disregard; nobody could have the legal standing to enforce those limits. The state itself would decide, by force, what the constitution “meant,” steadily ruling in its own favor and increasing its own power.
That a conservative Christian would accept such a notion is not as strange as it might seem at first. Nothing has done more to undermine Christian morality, the family, the social and moral order, and the influence of the Church in recent years, decades, and centuries, than the state. Its growth in size and power has been at the expense of all Christian conservatives hold dear. I don’t accept Mr. Sobran’s conclusions, and find his attempts to harmonize anarchism with St. Paul particularly unconvincing, but I can see the attraction that anarchism held for him.
Mr. Sobran’s writings were full of wit, charm, and intelligence. Contrary to the accusations of his detractors, far from being obsessed with one or two hobby horses, he covered a huge range of topics in his columns from culture (both high and low) to religion to politics. If there is any topic that dominated the rest, it was Jesus Christ. Countless columns were devoted entirely to the subject of his Lord and Saviour – “The Man They Still Hate”, “The Optional Jesus”, and “The Words and Deeds of Christ” are but select examples.
Joe Sobran will be missed, not only by his family and friends, but by all of us who never had the opportunity to meet him in person, but who knew him through his writings. May he rest in God’s peace.
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