M. Joseph Sobran, Jr., was a raging lib. Nobody wants to hear this, but it’s true. The controversial columnist—who would have been 75 today—would have made John Locke blush like a schoolgirl.
More on that later. Before any satisfactory account can be made of what Joe Sobran was (and why it matters), what he was judged to be must be addressed. Sobran was fired from National Review after a protracted dispute about alleged anti-Semitism, and now tends to be mentioned only in sanctimonious whispers, as a hard-right crank and certified loon.
His focus—some called it an obsession—on Israel’s supposed inadequacy as an ally of the United States led to charges, first by Norman Podhoretz before being picked up by William F. Buckley (Sobran’s boss and sometime mentor), that Sobran was an anti-Semite. Buckley, to his credit, agonized over the allegations. Perhaps less to his credit, he published his agonizing for the world to see, first as a single-essay issue of National Review, and then, with copious responses (including Sobran’s own) in book form as In Search of Anti-Semitism.
Sobran’s early responses in his defense noted that Buckley never actually accused him of being an anti-Semite. “All he really did—to Pat [Buchanan], Will Buckley [Sr.], and me—was to juxtapose us with the word ‘anti-Semitism,’ which is in itself enough to create a foul impression, no matter what the logical and syntactical ligaments may be.” These first rebuttals display Sobran in his prime, and NR‘s John O’Sullivan even called Sobran’s contribution to the book “a fine example of the polemicist’s art.”
But as time went on, Sobran—perhaps from the pang of what he felt was betrayal, perhaps from bitterness at the loss of his career—began to spiral downward. His savage wit devolved into gratuitous cruelty, with later newsletters and columns calling into question the insistence of his NR colleagues that the Joe Sobran they knew was not capable of hatred. His infamous 2002 appearance before the Institute for Historical Review, which peddles in Holocaust denial, cannot be excused. If there is any explanation to be found for Sobran’s reprehensible actions in later life, it may be in O’Sullivan’s own concern expressed in the foreword to In Search of Anti-Semitism:
It cannot be in anyone’s interest to drive people into anti-Semitism by accusing them of it peremptorily. If the venial sins of the Right are first equated with more serious left-wing offenses and then punished with still greater severity, they are likely to become mortal: mortal sins, mortal wounds, perhaps both. If so, the result will be needless bitterness, broken friendships, a harsher tone in conservative debate, and the waste of some remarkable talents.
It was the spiral of these later years, as much as the Podhoretz-Buckley condemnation, that stained the man’s memory for so many who might otherwise find great value in his work. Joe Sobran thus cannot be absolved for the pall that has fallen over his legacy. But anybody who studies the full saga carefully and with a fair mind will conclude that the pall should not have fallen so heavily.
It is, therefore, welcome that reevaluations of Sobran’s legacy have abounded in the decade since his death. But their substance has been almost uniformly restricted to a plea that the man not be judged by his darkest hour. This singular focus has, of course, left much unsaid about his finer ones.
His was a rare talent, fueled by a remarkable mind. A friend of Sobran’s once revealed his process to me: Forty minutes before his deadline, Joe would stroll into the NR office with a stack of assorted newspapers, plant himself at his desk, light up a cheap Italian cigar, and spend half his time paging through the papers until inspiration hit. Then he would crank out a column, pristine, in twenty minutes.
In caliber of writing, he was surpassed among conservatives only by the masterful D. Keith Mano (his NR colleague), and in clarity of thought he was entirely unmatched. As Matthew Scully put it in an NR obituary, “[Sobran’s] was a style that looked easy, except no one else could duplicate it, making points that seemed obvious, except no one else had thought of them. The quality of Joe’s thinking was so evident that you could forget to compliment the quality of the writing.”
But what “Joe’s thinking” actually was may surprise those who have only heard him mentioned in passing as a crank. His admirers typically call him a paleoconservative, and that’s one way of looking at it. But the defining feature of Sobran’s work is an intense commitment to a particular understanding of freedom. That he was a conservative is indisputable, given his eloquence on the importance of tradition or his vicious invectives against the evils of abortion. This was no reflexive apostle of license, as many are who bear the “libertarian” label today. Yet that, too, was a label Sobran bore proudly.
The best encapsulation of Sobranism may be found in Pensees: Notes for the Reactionary of Tomorrow, a long essay (just short of 32,000 words) published in NR in 1985. Sobran’s remarkable body of work, exemplified in Pensees, should remind the reactionary of today he can love liberty, hate government, and still remain in the right; that there is, in fact, a militant philosophy of freedom that cannot be reduced to crack, porn, sodomy, and guns; that maybe, just maybe, there is a possible libertarianism not consumed by degeneracy.
His thesis is deceptively simple, rooted in two principles: humility and gratitude. A conservative is a person who sees that the world is good, rejoices in that goodness, and recognizes that he would not do very well to remake it from scratch. Just as this worldview, planted as it is firmly on the ground, discourages utopian endeavors, so too it mandates the preservation of what good we have built through conservative action:
The world is inexpressibly complex. Every individual is a mystery to every other, so much so that communication is difficult and fleeting. Moreover, the past is a mystery too: very little of it can be permanently possessed. We have various devices—words, rituals, records, commemorations, laws—to supply continuity as forgetfulness and death keep dissolving our ties with what has existed before.
There is no question of “resisting change.” The only question is what can and should be salvaged from “devouring time.” Conservation is a labor, not indolence, and it takes discrimination to identify and save a few strands of tradition in the incessant flow of mutability.
The same humility that inspires this traditional conservatism must be applied, as Sobran sees it, to every act of government. Drawing on Aristotle, he points to the plain ideal of “few laws, seldom changed.” At times, Sobran’s reverence for habitual rhythm, for the preexisting order of things, approaches something like natural law philosophy. At others, his pragmatic approach to cultural sensibilities, to the limits and prerogatives of government, presages Michael Warren Davis’s sensibilism. On the whole, Sobran’s vision suggests the “politics of limits” that TAC’s executive director has emphatically endorsed.
Of course, at the time Sobran was writing—two, three, and four decades ago—the institution most in need of a reminder of its limits was the state. (This is not to say that the state no longer needs such a reminder; only that it now has a great many rivals.) On the one hand this was a practical matter: “Maintenance,” Sobran wrote, “is a demanding activity, and the state that maintains a traditional order against all the forces of decay is not ‘doing nothing.’ It is doing plenty. It is doing nearly all we can or should ask.” But it was also a matter of principle. Freedom is worth preserving, and a government that denies its citizens’ freedom—or a government action that impedes it—does not deserve conservatives’ support.
This is where Sobran’s principal value lies for us today. As, post-Trump, conservatives attempt to mold a new agenda, and to give it philosophical support, the manifest failures of fusionism (and of neoconservatism) tempt many to abandon the idea of a freedom-loving liberal conservatism altogether. But Sobranism situates liberty in its proper place: a high place, far preferable both to no place and to the highest place. Freedom is a substantive thing—not merely the negative freedom of Hayek (whom Sobran cites frequently, and approvingly), but a positive set of conditions which must be met for a person to live a meaningfully free life. Man cannot be free in chaos.
If anyone can resurrect the dead idea of fusionism in 2021, it may be Joe Sobran’s ghost—an eminently unlikely champion. Though thinkers on the right today tend to remember liberal-traditional fusion as a relic of the National Review era, Sobran’s brand reminds us that freedom is a good thing—if only an intermediate good—and it should not be a) abandoned in the pursuit of other ends, or b) mistaken for an ultimate end unto itself. Sobranite fusionism is not an attempt to reconcile wild liberty with restrictive order, but a humble recognition that real liberty quite simply does not exist without order underlying it, and that order is a natural—perhaps supernatural—thing, beyond human powers to create and barely within human powers to affect. The only good government is the one that recognizes that, and upon that recognition labors diligently both to preserve “a traditional order against all the forces of decay” and to foster the righteous freedom that such order makes possible.
Like other lovers of freedom, from Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn to Hans-Herman Hoppe and beyond, Sobran flirted with the crown. “At least we know that a hereditary monarch didn’t seek the job and didn’t need a sociopath’s skills to get it. If power must be given to someone, maybe it’s wisest to impose it on someone who has no choice about it.” But in the end—after making the acquaintance of Hoppe and his mentor, Murray Rothbard—Sobran settled on a philosophical anarchism.
He can hardly be blamed for this. If the two tasks of government are maintaining traditional order and preserving the freedom of citizens, the state had manifestly failed on both counts in Sobran’s lifetime, and can hardly have expected to keep hold of his faith. (The situation has certainly not improved.) That Sobran at last abandoned the state is not, in fact, entirely surprising, given that the chief goods of life—the proper ends of politics—as he saw them, were effectively outside its purview. The scene that opens Pensees is indispensable:
At certain moments I find myself enjoying life in a certain way. I may be alone, or with friends, or with my family, or even among strangers. Beautiful weather always helps; the more trees, the better. Early morning or evening is the best time. Maybe someone says something funny. And while everyone laughs, there is a sort of feeling that surges up under the laughter, like a wave rocking a rowboat, that tells you that this is the way life should be.
Moments like that don’t come every day, aren’t predictable, and can’t very well be charted. But the main response they inspire is something like gratitude: after all, one can’t exactly deserve them. One can only be prepared for them. But they do come.
This may seem a thousand miles from politics, and such moments rarely have anything to do with politics. But that is just the point.
This is, for Sobran, the beginning and end of the political: to foster and protect the good life. Anything that cannot do that is utterly useless, and anybody who refuses to is pretty much the same. Sobranite politics are about escaping politics altogether, about preserving the kind of world in which people are properly free—not merely free from direct impositions, but free to live well. Whatever you call that—libertarianism, fusionism, anarchism, crackpottery—is all I want to call myself, and all a decent conservative movement should ever aim to be.
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