Joe Sobran was the most talented writer at National Review when I was a young reader of the magazine. I was privileged to have hosted him as a speaker in my days at Accuracy in Academia. Moderating his debate with Dinesh D'Souza was one of the highlights of my time in Washington, DC. He spoke to our student audiences at Princeton, the University of Michigan, and the University of Chicago, where, conspicuously, William F. Buckley was also on the conference schedule. Though the disintigration of Sobran's relationship with Buckley has been written about ad infinitum, few know that the two men actually mended fences in Buckley's final years. My event had nothing to do with this (they never crossed paths there), though both men were aware of the other's presence at the conference.
For the uninitiated, Sobran worked at National Review for more than two decades, and served as a senior editor for almost as long. He penned a nationally-syndicated column for several decades, and up until a few years ago oversaw his own newsletter, "Sobran's." The Free Press published his book, "Alias Shakespeare" (on one of his many hobby horses!), in 1997. People have described his philosophy as paleoconservative. But other than an alienation from mainstream conservatism he didn't have a whole lot in common with paleocons. He was more of a Catholic anarchist, or, as he described himself, a "reactionary utopian."
Sobran was always a gentleman, always gracious in dealing with students, always cheerful, and always full of surprises. When I scored C-SPAN for a summer conference I had organized at American University, a breathless, sweat-drenched Sobran stumbled in the auditorium with about a minute to spare before showtime. The last time that I saw him was for lunch in 2004. As we walked down the street in the Clarendon section of Arlington, Virginia, where many good-looking young women also walk, he out of nowhere injected: "Breasts." Come again? He explained that God had created them to torment him. A minute later he insisted he needed a new gerbil (What?!), and we walked to a petstore. It was surreal. A fellow young conservative once relayed the story of Sobran spotting him on the street carrying several cases of beer to a conference. Since Joe was the keynote speaker, he offered to help carry the beer. As Sobran hauled a couple of cases, he cracked open a beer and drank it crossing the street in downtown Washington. It is such randomness that made him such an individual.
His judgment, as evidenced by some of the unsavory associations he kept (which ultimately made me rethink my organization's association with Joe) and the hobby-horses he rode, was suspect. But his talent as a writer was not. Just read his child-rearing advice for a taste of how great of a writer he was.
I believe he leaves five kids, numerous grandchildren, many devoted friends (especially Fran Griffin), and a whole host of Sobrans back in Ypsilanti, Michigan (or some place nearby). He takes with him an uncanny knowledge of Shakespeare, the likes of which I have not elsewhere encountered (Maybe Joe was the real Shakespeare).
Joe never appeared as the picture of health. He smoked the cheapest cigars (Dutchmasters!), developed diabetes, and suffered from numerous ailments in his final years. He died Thursday at the age of 64. Michael Joseph Sobran, rest in peace.
Great tribute, Dan.
Joe was a kind man and an intellectual giant. And a huge influence on the development of my own political philosophy. (See my "'The Reluctant Anarchist,' the Constitution, and the Great Commission")
Thanks for this post, Dan. He will be missed.
My apologies, wrong link address. Should have been http://eric.langborgh.com/?p=1171
I encourage the reading of Eric's article.
It's really excellent. For those that don't know, Eric worked with me for several years at AIA, and was also an organizer of several of the conferences referenced in the above post. They were really intellectually free-wheeling, with a whole host of conservatives of various outlooks giving the political philosophy an accent of intelligence that it all too often lacks today.
Anarcho-capitalists only get it half-right. They smugly assert the irrelevance of de facto monopolies, viciously defend corporations (which are protected by big government and creatures of big government) and wasterful, inefficient big government patent protections, and claim that individuals have an infinite claim to property as long as it was acquired legally. The sad joke they fail to recognize is that their precious conception of property rights can only be defended by communities, public enterprise, i.e. The Government.
In short, they love big government when it protects private tyrannies and facilitates a societal regression into feudal bondage, but hate community and public enterprise when it takes care of children and the elderly.
Thank you, Dan. Those were great years.
Mr. Sobran was my patient at the Fairfax Nursing Center. He was a sweet, caring, and very intelligent man. He will be missed by many of us. May you rest in peace Michael!
Sobran's article, "Pensees: Notes for the Reactionary of Tomorrow" should be required reading for all conservatives.
(The article appeared in National Review, 12/31/1985, pp. 23-58)
Sobran also loved G.K. Chesterton, and wrote the introduction to the first volume of Ignatius Press's Collected Works of G.K. Chesterton.
+Requiescat in pace, amen.
When I visited America, on a number of occasions between 2002 and 2006, I came to know Joe Sobran quite well. He showed unfailing graciousness to me, possessed brilliant conversational (as well as authorial) talents, was an often extremely witty E-mail correspondent (E-mail might have been invented specifically to suit his free-wheeling prose idiom), and had that indefinable trait known as charisma. Far from objecting when I or anyone else disagreed with him, he appeared to relish the chance to sharpen his arguments.
Even when I last saw him at a Virginia restaurant - by which time he walked with a cane, and seemed to be already afflicted with the physical ailments that would kill him - he could somehow light up a room by his very presence. Oh yes, and no-one in the world was a better friend to the gerbil community. (One of his E-mails to me began: "Let us now praise famous gerbils ...")
Given that his columns are now but patchily available on the Internet, it is high time that a collection of Joe's best essays was issued in paperback. Maybe the outpouring of cyberspatial loss which has marked Joe's demise is an indication that there exists a ready public for such an anthology. RIP.
Ann Coulter had a nice column recently about him.