Joe Sobran and the Wages of “Respectability”

Andy Nowicki

Self-christened advocates of cultural harmony, equality, justice, and ideological soundness have long insisted that in order to prove oneself truly tolerant one must “NEVER tolerate INtolerance.”

Of course, this notion of redefining a concept as its very opposite is purposely obfuscatory. What it means, laid bare, is, “WE, your betters, decide which positions are tolerable, and which are beyond the pale. If you offend our sensibilities, we will come down on you hard. So watch your step, little man, because WE call the shots, not you.”

This subterfuge is easily uncovered by all enthusiastic flouters of insufferable contemporary norms, a hearty group of heretics whose company no doubt includes most readers of this publication. It’s well known by now that taking certain stances is “wrong” and “indefensible,” not because of any self-evident moral law – as with rape or murder – but because the opinion-molders and shapers of the age have, in a series of ex cathedrapronouncements, insisted that it be so. Thus, certain types, most notably White race-realists and critics of multiculturalism, are shunned outright as mere bigots, and an earnest attempt is made to cordon off their views from the general public.

What is less known, however, is all of the intricacies and permutations inherent in this injuction never to tolerate “intolerance.” After all, it’s one thing to blaspheme against the holy Zeitgeist on some matter; it’s quite another to genuflect properly and dutifully recite the creed, while at the same time TOLERATING those who dissent from these mandatory dogmas. What are we to think of those who aren’t “intolerant” themselves, but who tolerate “intolerance”? What do the opinion-shapers and guardians of proper discourse do with those who, while not thought-criminals themselves, refuse to cast said thought-criminals into the outer darkness?

All of this comes to mind in considering the latter stage of the career of Joe Sobran, the brilliant columnist and fearless thinker who died last Thursday. Sobran enjoyed smooth sailing for years as a writer on William F. Buckley’s staff at National Review, before hitting a patch of turbulence at the time of Iraq War I in 1991, when Sobran’s opposition to American intervention put him into conflict with his editor and co-workers. As everyone knows by now, an acrimonious period ensued, ending with Buckley obliquely accusing Sobran of anti-Semitism due to the latter’s increasingly dim view of Israel’s actions and growing contempt for its “amen corner” in the United States. When he parted ways with Buckley and NR, Sobran quite understandably felt stabbed in the back. He would later allege that he was forced out because Buckley was overly beholden to neoconservative Jews (most prominently Norman Podhoretz) who zealously backed Israel and would brook no dissent.

In the last two decades of his life, Sobran’s fiercely independent mind took him in an increasingly radical direction. In time, he became a full-throttle anti-state anarchist, though he always remained a stauch social conservative, an orientation fed by his never-wavering Catholic faith. More vexing, for the sake of his reputation as a “respectable” thinker, was the fact that he more often discussed what he came to see as the enormous influence, and largely baleful effect, of Jewish power in the modern world.

Post-World War II Westerners have been trained to construe any less-than glowing portrayal of Jews as an ominous preamble to a likely commission of a large-scale hate crime, and Sobran was already on sensitive ground when he wrote the following in a 1999 column:

“In intellectual life, Jews have been brilliantly subversive of the cultures of the natives they have lived amongst. Their tendencies, especially in modern times, have been radical and nihilistic. One thinks of Marx, Freud, and many other shapers of modern thought and authors of reductionist ideologies. … Jews have generally supported Communism, socialism, liberalism, and secularism: the agenda of major Jewish groups is the de-Christianization of America… Overwhelming Jewish support for legal abortion illustrates that many Jews hate Christian morality more than they revere Jewish tradition itself.”

In 2002, Sobran addressed a conference of Mark Weber’s Institute for Historical Review, a group which believes that the number of Jews murdered by the Nazi regime has been vastly exaggerated. Distancing himself from advocacy of Weber’s claims, Sobran nevertheless praised Weber as a decent person and a conscientious scholar. As for himself, Sobran said he remained a “Holocaust stipulator”: he pleaded ignorance as to the actual merits of the case, but generally accepted the traditional, non-revisionist assessment of widespread Nazi genocidal depradations against European Jewry. (He also made clear that he stood strongly against murder of Jews, or anyone else, no matter what the circumstances.)

Sobran, then, never actually took that full, final step into total ignominy (in the hive mind of the collective Zeitgeist) by actually denying the historicity of the Shoah himself. At the same time, though, he was never appalled enough by the notion of revisionism as to sever his friendship with Weber, or to refuse to speak warmly of him, or even to shun addressing his conference of largely like-minded people.

Now that Sobran has passed, many mainstream conservative outlets of a neoconnish orientation, such as First ThingsThe American Spectator, and (of course) National Review, have written online eulogies that take the angle of an examination of a tragic figure, so bright, witty, and capable, who spun out of control and became a bit of a crank in his later years. Other commentators are not nearly so generous. It seems, then, that even from the nominally “conservative” point of view, the PC-jeremaid against “tolerating intolerance” still holds sway.

It’s not enough, it seems, not to be a thought-criminal; you must also not be friendly with anyone deemed a thought-criminal. That person’s ideological deviation must be denounced, and he must be publicly shamed.

And if you are sickened by the idea of such show-trial theatrics, this obviously means that you’re ONE OF THEM. Your unwilingness to fling your friends under the bus, in fact, demonstrates not your loyalty, but your lack of principle. If you had greater dedication to the cause, presumably, you would have no such scruples.

Though I never knew Joe Sobran personally, I have had the privilege of calling him a “label mate” of sorts. (His columns appeared on Thornwalker, the same domain which publishes The Last Ditch, where I’ve contributed columns since 2004.) I find his refusal to be a team player with spineless “movement conservatives” quite inspiring, even as I grieve for the lonely road he’s had to ride these last few years.

Joe’s career has been a testament to courage, nerve, and gumption. He could tolerate not being tolerated just fine indeed. We should all aspire to be like that.