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On the Reservation

Joseph Sobran, Joseph Sobran: The National Review Years (Vienna, VA: FGF Books, 2012), $26.95, Hardcover, 216 pp.

Reviewed by James G. Bruen, Jr.


I approached Joseph Sobran: The National Review Years with trepidation, fearing that the title might as well have been Joseph Sobran: While on the Reservation. A Joe Sobran retrospective that ignored his ignominiously engineered departure in the early 1990s from National Review at the hands of Norman Podhoretz and the sycophantic William F. Buckley amid accusations of anti-Semitism seemed rather like telling the story of the Titanic without mentioning the incident with the iceberg.

The well-deserved praise in Pat Buchanan's Foreword did nothing to allay my fear, nor did Tom Bethell's Preface. Fran Griffin published Sobran's monthly newsletter beginning in 1994; her graceful Introduction mentions only that Sobran "left" National Review and thereafter "Joe, at last, did not feel constrained by pesky editors." I still feared the book might be an obsequious attempt to rehabilitate Sobran posthumously without mention of his supposed offense.

But the first article in this collection — a December 1975 Sobran piece entitled "My Days at National Review" — left me in stitches. In a marvelous bit of mischievousness, the editor, Griffin, leads off with Sobran praising but also damning Podhoretz's Commentary as "another magazine whose excellence I toast" though it is "humorless" with a "tone that is a little too solemn and troubled. … Commentary has always reasoned intelligently, but so have the men who have done the great mischief of this century." In the same piece, Sobran says National Review, in contrast, "was always fun," had "courage in standing its ground even when the authoritative ideas of the day were against it," and deflated those who "cooperate to impose an ersatz consensus on the rest of us." Such irony, when one considers Buckley's later treatment of Sobran and his ideas. The book thus declares itself not a fawning attempt at rehabilitation but more a defiant demonstration of what National Review lost when Sobran was exiled.

In these collected essays and book reviews, Sobran addresses media bias, liberal biases and pieties, Elvis ("as na´ve as his own music"), the Rolling Stones ("Stony Rolls: hard to get into, not much flavor"), Woodstock, Chesterton ("a living challenge to today's reader"), stereotypes, racism ("What's that?"), censorship, Hugh Hefner ("a man waiting in line at he world's biggest gangbang … self consciously tasteless"), liberal Catholics, Jimmy Carter ("Martyr-In-Chief"), Ronald Reagan ("To call him simplistic is simply simplistic."), journalism, and much more. There's the seemingly obligatory ode to baseball, and, of course, a large dose of Shakespeare, or this wouldn't be Sobran.

Sobran was stylish, witty, and often insightful: "The business of the mass media, whatever good intentions may modify it, is to attract and stimulate mass reaction. This makes them natural tools of totalitarianism, which has only come into its own with the electronic age. Even in free countries they are increasingly given over to advertising and pornography: forms of manipulation which, whatever their moral value, shouldn't be confused with the habits of reflection we associate with reading. And as I have said, reading is itself overrated."

In the eighties Sobran wrote an essay for Fidelity, the predecessor to Culture Wars; in a single extraneous sentence he called for the legalization of homosexual activity. The pesky editors insisted on deletion of the sentence, but, unconstrained, Sobran insisted on its inclusion, so the essay never ran. There is no advocacy for the legalization of homosexual activity in these National Review essays either. Nor does one see much of Sobran's libertarian and anarchist streaks or the issue that ruptured his relationship with National Review. Pesky editors constrained him, I suspect. In an Afterword, though, Ann Coulter addresses the issue directly: "And no, he was not constantly muttering about Jews."CW

James G. Bruen, Jr. writes frequently for Culture Wars.

This review was published in the December 2012 issue of Culture Wars.

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