MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA —These words are being written en
route from Adelaide, home to a Melbourne whose already thuggish public culture
has been rendered that little bit more desolate by the news that Joseph
Sobran is no longer with us. Others undoubtedly shall bring their expertise
to bear regarding Joe’s importance to America. Perhaps a few
words might be appropriate on the topic of Joe’s importance to
Australia (a country he never visited), or, at least, on his importance
to one particular Australian.
It presupposes a real imaginative labor to reconstruct the nature
of intellectual life for an aspiring antipodean wordsmith during the
late 1970s and throughout the 1980s.
There was neither Internet access nor the faintest prospect of same.
Credit cards were for all practical purposes unknown, so subscribing
to a U.S. periodical in U.S. dollars involved endless parley with the
local bank. Even in the bigger Australian cities, most news agents
thought they had done their duty by Western Civilization if their inventory
ran the gamut from Playboy to Penthouse. Admittedly,
we had the occasional and expensive issue of Britain’s Spectator,
where we could relish Taki’s exploits among what he himself called “princes,
playboys, and high-class tarts.” (Once
The Speccy — as
we soon learned to call it — established a Taki Parody Contest,
the winning entry in which began: "I haven't had much to say lately
about Eddie's Place, because with my new and sober lifestyle I've only
been partying there six nights per week.") Other than The
Speccy and the Times Literary
Supplement, the somber fact remained: to be
impoverished, and a would-be essayist, and an Australian
was to possess no affordable foreign models at all.
Unless … well, unless you had, as many of us (somewhat mysteriously)
acquired, entrée to the U.S. Information Service Library,
run in Sydney by the American consulate. There, we young blades would
undertake escapist binges on the consulate’s back-numbers of National
Review, Human Life Review, and The American
Spectator. The library’s
sets of such publications, while seldom complete, were far more comprehensive
than any other local institution could be bothered to stock. Devouring
these issues resembled witnessing a wonderful party to which one had
not been invited oneself, but which grew all the more alluring on that
account. Among all the distinguished monikers therein — Erik
von Kuehnelt-Leddihn, Joe Queenan, Frederick D. Wilhelmsen, Chilton
Williamson, Ralph de Toledano, Patrick Buchanan, Thomas Molnar, and
the mighty Russell Kirk, not to mention Taki on occasional transatlantic
furlough — one name stood out, even in this galère,
for the hyperathletic prose which its appearance always portended.
That name was “Joseph Sobran.”
Reading Joe’s stuff back then became both exhilarating and saddening.
Exhilarating, because of the seeming ease with which he eviscerated
totalitarians of every hue. Saddening, because one knew that one could
never write half as well as he. On the whole, the exhilaration
outweighed the sadness, or else I would have ceased to study his output.
But if anyone had told me in those days that I would actually come
to know Joe in person, I would have responded with some embryonically
paleocon remark like “Pull the other one, it plays the Habsburg
imperial anthem.” (Protracted exposure to Kuehnelt-Leddihn tends
to induce this type of metaphor.)
In Renaissance Tuscany, the term used to denote such writing as Joe’s
was sprezzatura, that almost untranslatable noun that can be only approximately
rendered in English as “staggering erudition worn with the utmost
nonchalance.” I never quite dared to talk of sprezzatura to Joe
(because I could imagine his scornful response: “Sprezzatura? I always did hate Italian food!”). Yet that quality was what
I most cherished in Joe’s thought. Insofar as I can trace my
own authorial evolution to something like a stylist, increasing exposure
to Joe’s articles had much to do with the development.
Still, the very effortlessness of Joe’s literary manner seemed
to preclude anything like personal acquaintanceship with him. Besides,
for the polymathic, unaffectedly devout, and quintessentially Midwestern
Joe, my background (that of a non-American nurtured among unbelievers
and with the patchiest sort of formal education) surely ticked all
the wrong boxes. Of how I originally made contact with him, I no longer
recall the details. I think that I was so staggered by the exceptional
brilliance of one Sobran column — “Victims of Music” —
that I overcame my habitual shyness and wrote to him in care of Universal
Press Syndicate, which then syndicated his work, to say that he had
surpassed himself with that piece. His response, far from being bearish,
encouraged me to write more frequently (it was at his insistence that
I started calling him "Joe" rather than "Mr. Sobran").
E-mail proved a means of communication well attuned to his free-wheeling
approach. How often of a morning, after a fairly horrid previous day,
did I turn on my computer and have my spirits raised by the sight of
those welcome boldface words “Joe Sobran” in my inbox.
Late in 2002, he and I met. I believe I was only the second Australian
he had ever encountered (his lady friend at the time, the New-South-Wales-born
Michèle Renouf, would have been the first); he found it staggering
that anybody in "Mel-bawn" — his pronunciation — had
discovered his name at all. Still more staggering, to him, was the
nature of Australia's Servile State, as explained by myself. Like most
other Americans of deep and probing intelligence, he readily understood
the concept of a nation forced into slavery by foreign conquest; but
try as he might, he failed to get his head around the idea of a nation
that chooses slavery, as modern post-Christian Australia has
done, in the absence of foreign conquest.
To my recital of Australian domestic tyranny's most blatant aspects
(no First Amendment, no Second Amendment, libel laws explicable solely
as imports from Pyongyang, the spectacle of gun-grabber John Howard
being hailed as an authentic conservative hero), Joe listened with
a kind of rapt, slack-jawed horror, particularly when he learned that
his appearances at seminars under David Irving's aegis had made it
impossible for him ever to acquire an Australian visiting visa. (Oddly
enough, Sydney columnist Mike Carlton — although in other respects
a left-wing atheist of the most conventional type — has lately
started displaying sufficient courage to mock Abe Foxman's Aussie stooges.
On June 19, Carlton announced to his Sydney Morning
Herald readership: "With
bottomless irony, the Jewish lobby spent much of last week assuring
anybody who would listen that there is no such thing as the Jewish
lobby." That phrasing has the authentic Sobran touch.)
It became necessary to assure Joe, when in the full flight of his
Israelophobia, that Australian telecommunications laws rendered inadvisable
the more uninhibited descriptions of Likudniks in which his e-mails
abounded. Thereafter, instead of abandoning these descriptions,
he substituted for "Israelis" the appellation "Tanzanians." Some
snooper in the relevant Australian bureaucratic office must have reached
the zenith of bafflement if he monitored our cybercorrespondence and
learned of Joe's complaints about successive U.S. administrations'
truckling to Dar-es-Salaam.
I am not sure if Joe ever really recovered from the hurt inflicted
on him by Bill Buckley's 1991 essay "In Search of Anti-Semitism," that
masterpiece of dithering dressed up as judicious analysis. Most readers,
when trying to plow their way through Buckley's "On the one hand...
on the other hand" rhetoric, must have remembered the pointed
question which a British journalist once hurled at a more than usually
befuddled Archbishop of Canterbury ("What would you do if you
only had one hand?"). But by a paradox redolent of Joe's beloved
Chesterton, the very feebleness of Buckley's effort as a cognitive
exercise ensured its deadliness as a political weapon. Joe laughed
off the more childish attacks on him, characteristically calling them "the
Protocols of the Learned Juniors of Zion." Still, however
jaunty his public attitude — "I'm not an anti-Semite," he
once told me, "I'm a pro-Semite who can see the other side" —
it is no day at the beach for even the toughest author to be slimed
With gratitude I recall Australia's leading postwar Catholic lay activist,
Bob Santamaria, condemning the anti-Sobran witchhunt. Mr. Santamaria
informed me down the phone (employing the ultra-clipped articulation
which he always used when his anger bordered on the apoplectic) that "Buck-ley
and Pod-hor-etz make ... me ... vomit." I wish I had passed this
tribute on to Joe, but perhaps he discovered it from other sources.
Many years later I would acquire further insight into what Joe suffered,
via the systematic destruction of my own Australian job prospects.
This destruction was not at all the public obloquy that Joe endured.
Instead — as befitted its antipodean provenance it was
the political analog to a secretive nocturnal hazing, whose perpetrators
(unlike Joe's tormentors) made no protestations of concern for the
public weal, but simply operated on the same "principle" of troglodytic
anti-intellectualism that prompts many adolescent jocks to abduct
the class's bespectacled bookworm and thrust his head down
the nearest lavatory bowl. Like such jocks, my persecutors could
always depend on the cowardice of those who, living in morbid terror
of being thought of as authority figures, either tolerated the victimization
or actively supported it.
If Buckley's denunciation wounded Joe, the tragically early death
of Joe's friend Patricia Alvarez — "my little Cuban saint," he
called her — was an even greater affliction. Like most others
who knew Miss Alvarez, I hoped that she and Joe could get married.
Never could he have met a kinder, more attractive, more charming, more
elegant, and (in the least hectoring sense) more no-nonsense lady.
When she succumbed to cancer, we all mourned her, as if we had known
her throughout our lives, but the loss blighted Joe especially. As
P. G. Wodehouse said when informed (by Malcolm Muggeridge) that his
stepdaughter had passed away: "I thought she was immortal."
Attempting to cope with Joe's absence, I find myself thinking of the
pensées — not quite aphorisms — that he showed
such fertility in producing. Some of them have been quoted in obituary
tributes elsewhere ("The U.S. Constitution poses no serious threat
to our form of government"; "A bigot is someone who practices
sociology without a license"). Others are less celebrated:
• "Women and minorities never have a nice day."
• "If termites could talk, they would call what they were
doing to the house 'progress'."
• "I miss the serenity of believing I lived under a good
government, wisely designed and benevolent in its operation. But,
as St. Paul says, there comes a time to put away childish things."
• "Post-Vatican-II sacred music... falls midway between
the sound of an old hootenanny and Barry Manilow before his genius
• "I can understand why sodomy is a sin, but I can't understand
why it's a temptation." (This he said to me at a dinner.)
• "How brainy do you have to be to foresee what's likely
to happen when a life-giving organ is inserted into the poop chute?
Whose idea of love is that? Normal intercourse produces human life
(also under attack); homosexual intercourse spawns only bacterial
The last two extracts indicate that if Joe had done nothing else,
he would still warrant applause for his unflinching valor in the face
of what he called "Organized Sodom." In Australia, the fight
against Organized Sodom cannot be said to have been lost, because it
was never seriously waged. Mainstream Australian "conservatives" of
2010 adopt toward homosexual bully-boys the same method that
Churchill and FDR adopted toward Stalin at Yalta: grovel, grovel, grovel;
and if your groveling is made more abject by premature senility, then
all the better for you.
Of Joe's biggest projects I am but dubiously competent to speak. In
Alias Shakespeare, he did not altogether win me over to partisanship
of the Earl of Oxford, though he made the best — and best-tempered
— possible forensic case for that partisanship. I am still less of
a War Between the States expert than a Shakespeare expert, and I must
therefore leave to other commentators a survey of Joe's strictures
against official Lincoln myth-making. All I can suggest here is that
Joe's interpretation of this myth-making is so internally consistent,
and so evidently well-researched, that it could be true: whereas the
public-school Yankee legend of Saint Abraham's Immaculate Conception
is so obviously fraudulent (and cognitively dissonant into the bargain)
as to be beneath adult minds' notice except as an exercise in triumphant
That Joe should have returned over and over to Lincoln's doctrines
is typical, because when everything has been said, Joe remained in
his essence wholly American. His existence served to remind the public
that the Grand Tradition of witty and lethal journalistic rage — encompassing
Mark Twain, Ambrose Bierce, H. L. Mencken, Westbrook Pegler, and George
Schuyler — has had its representatives in our time too: Fred
Reed is one, and Joe was a second. This tradition, with its strenuous
morality underneath all the iconoclastic gestures, operates at the
furthest possible remove from anything in Aussie literature. Australia
constitutes history's first and (please God) last land where the very
concept of truth-telling is considered "hate speech" in and
of itself. "What is truth?", said jesting Pilate, and he
would not stay for an answer, thereby revealing himself to be the Bible's
earliest Australian, in his epistemological slovenliness as much as
in his buck-passing. The land that produced — and, for long,
nourished — Joe can never quite descend into that moral abyss.
Ave atque vale.
The Antipodean Antipathies archives
The Antipodean Antipathies is copyright © 2010
by R. J. Stove and the Fitzgerald
All rights reserved.
R. J. Stove, is
an Australian writer who resides in Melbourne. He is the author of
• Prince of Music: Palestrina and His World (Quakers
Hill Press, Sydney, 1990)
Unsleeping Eye: Secret Police and Their Victims (Encounter
Books, San Francisco, 2003)
Student's Guide to Music History (ISI Books, Wilmington, Delaware,
See a complete biographical sketch.
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