Pundit Joe Sobran honed the definition of pithy—and used it tactically—better than anyone I’ve read: “The U.S. Constitution poses no serious threat to our form of government.” That’s my favorite, but there are so many more. There’s his definition of a bigot as “one who practices sociology without a license,” and his observation that in America “freedom is coming to mean little more than the right to ask permission.”
Joseph Sobran, author, commentator, and a former editor with William F. Buckley’s National Review magazine, passed away last month. He was only 64 but, like his culture war colleague Sam Francis, his prodigious production of books, essays, and syndicated columns—Joe’s writing style was often compared to P.G. Wodehouse and G.K. Chesterton—ensures his legacy will be a long one.
Joe will be remembered for several flash points in his career, one being his relationship with Bill Buckley who, for 21 years, featured and promoted Joe in National Review. WFB once observed that “Joe Sobran is unquestionably the wittiest, most trenchant—and yet, lyrical—moralist to have appeared in my lifetime.” In 1993 however, Buckley fired Joe, charging him with the politically pungent label of being an “anti-Semite,” a deadly misnomer. Joe summed-up the contention this way:
“I couldn’t understand what the fuss was about. I’d merely applied conservative principles—the things National Review stood for—to Israel: it was a socialist country with no conception of limited, constitutional government, which discriminated against Christians, while betraying its benefactor, the United States, and turning the Muslim world against us. It seemed pretty clear-cut to me, and none of the reasons conservatives gave for supporting Israel made much sense.”
Controversial or not, he had admirers like Pat Buchanan (who called Joe “perhaps the finest columnist of our generation,”) and Ann Coulter (“Every once in a while I think I’m a reasonably competent writer. And then I read a Sobran column. He is the master.”) Even the New York Times conceded in its obituary that Joe Sobran “made his mark with witty, thoughtful essays on moral and social questions. He was an unapologetic paleoconservative, opposed to military intervention abroad, big government at home and moral permissiveness everywhere.”
One sign of a brilliant mind is that its owner can be an expert on more than one issue—perhaps several disparate subjects. Joe’s book, “Alias Shakespeare: Solving the Greatest Literary Mystery of All Time,” (Simon & Schuster, 1997) proved him to be one of best known scholars on Shakespeare’s writings: he asserted that the Bard of Avon was actually poet and writer Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford. The topic is a matter of fierce debate which Joe authoritatively addressed in speeches, columns, and as a featured participant in a forum sponsored by Harper’s magazine.
And then there’s Joe’s take, based on extensive research, on Abraham Lincoln:
“A few books have told the dark story of Lincoln’s suppression of liberty in the North, including the thousands of arbitrary arrests and hundreds of closings of newspapers; his war on the South required a war on the Bill of Rights in the North as well. All in the name of freedom, of course. Maybe it would have happened anyway, but since Lincoln the Constitution has meant not what it says, but whatever the U.S. Government decides it shall mean.”
Finally, I offer this personal observation of my friend: in a bar, with a cigar, there was no better story teller. Joe Sobran could quote Shakespeare (or perhaps it’s Edward DeVere) at length and attach it to such punch lines as “a bribe is an irregular transaction through which the citizen may get his money’s worth of service from the government,” or “when a politician wrestles with his conscience, he usually wins.” In my estimation, a good man is defined by his appreciation of comedy, his consistency in convictions, and his courage to endure. In America’s culture war, we lost a very good man.
This article originally appeared in the November, 2010 issue of Middle American News