As I’ve noted before, the death of a bigot presents a problem for obituary writers. Politeness dictates that we skimp over the misdeeds of the dead while honesty requires a fuller reckoning with the past.
Joseph Sobran, onetime National Review editor, died earlier this week. Outside the circles of the far right, Sobran was known, to the extent he’s known at all, as someone who made repeated statements about Jews that were so embarrassing that his mentor William F. Buckley had to upbraid Sobran in the pages of the magazine they both edited. Eventually, Buckley’s magazine severed its ties with Sobran over the Jewish question.
Here is how William Grimes of the New York Times dealt with the controversial aspects of Sobran’s career:
Mr. Sobran’s isolationist views on American foreign policy and Israel became increasingly extreme. He took a skeptical line on the Holocaust and said the Sept. 11 terror attacks were a result of American foreign policy in the Middle East, which he believed that a Jewish lobby directed. Not surprisingly, he spent much of his time defending himself against charges of anti-Semitism.
“Nobody has ever accused me of the slightest personal indecency to a Jew,” he said in a speech delivered at a 2002 conference of the Institute for Historical Review. “My chief offense, it appears, has been to insist that the state of Israel has been a costly and treacherous ‘ally’ to the United States. As of last Sept. 11, I should think that is undeniable. But I have yet to receive a single apology for having been correct.”
I hate to nitpick another journalist’s work, but this does seem to me to be remarkably mealy-mouthed. The fact is, Sobran did more than “take a skeptical line of the Holocaust.” Sobran, to be blunt, became a Nazi fellow-traveler. Most readers of the Times won’t know what the Institute for Historical Review is. The name is certainly benign enough. It is in fact an organization devoted to Holocaust denial and other forms of Nazi apologetics. (At a recent talk Mark Weber, director of the Institute, argued that had England made peace with Nazi Germany the result would have been “an Axis-dominated Pax Europa … [which] would have been prosperous, socially progressive, politically stable, and technologically advanced, with an extensive, continent-wide transportation and communications network, conscientious environmental policies, and a comprehensive healthcare system. At the same time, the continent would have remained ethnically and culturally European. Large scall immigration of non-Europeans would have been unthinkable.”)
Leaving aside the issue of Holocaust denial, anyone who takes the time to read Sobran’s writing will immediately notice that he shared many of the ideas of the European far right from the early 20th century, in particular the belief that Jews are an alien, nearly monolithic and subversive force whose main goal is to destroy Western Civilization. I usually avoid emotive language but there really was a Nazi thread in Sobran’s thinking (combined of course with many other arguably related threads like his defense of the Confederacy, his anti-feminism, and his belief in all sorts of conspiracy theories).
From Sobran’s essay 1999 essay “The Church and Jewish Ideology”:
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. Even Einstein, the greatest of Jewish scientists, was, unlike Sir Isaac Newton, no mere contemplator of nature’s laws; he helped inspire the development of nuclear weapons and consistently defended the Soviet Union under Stalin.
Jews have generally supported Communism, socialism, liberalism, and secularism; the agenda of major Jewish groups is the de-Christianization of America, using a debased interpretation of the “living Constitution” as their instrument. When the Jewish side of an issue is too unpopular to prevail democratically, the legal arm of Jewry seeks to make the issue a “constitutional” one, appealing to judicial sovereignty to decide it in defiance of the voters. Overwhelming Jewish support for legal abortion illustrates that many Jews hate Christian morality more than they revere Jewish tradition itself. This fanatical antagonism causes anguish to a number of religious, conscientious, and far-sighted Jews, but they, alas, are outside the Jewish mainstream.
History is replete with the lesson that a country in which the Jews get the upper hand is in danger. Such was the experience of Europe during Jewish-led Communist revolutions in Russia, Hungary, Romania, and Germany after World War I. Christians knew that Communism — often called “Jewish Bolshevism” — would bring awful persecution with the ultimate goal of the annihilation of Christianity. While the atheistic Soviet regime made war on Christians, murdering tens of thousands of Orthodox priests, it also showed its true colors by making anti-Semitism a capital crime. Countless Jews around the world remained pro- Communist even after Stalin had purged most Jews from positions of power in the Soviet Union.
Anyone who is familiar with the ideological roots of National Socialism will understand that in this passage Sobran is echoing the major arguments of Nazi anti-Semitism. As should be clear, Sobran’s views on Jews have nothing to do with Israel and everything to do with the ideas that Jews are inherently alien and destructive wherever they live, which is the classic basis of anti-Semitism.
I understand the impulse to not speak ill of the dead and I’m told that Sobran had family and friends who loved him dearly and mourn his death. But those who don’t know the man personally have no reason to grieve or to be shy about describing him in accurate terms. He spent much of his life articulating evil ideas, which deserve to exposed and opposed as much now as when he was alive.
Post script: a friend made the point, which I agree with that I cought to have been more explicitly critical of this line in the obituary: “He took a skeptical line on the Holocaust…”
A “skeptical line on the Holocaust”: What does that mean? Scepticism is in general a good thing, a sign of a curious mind. All good scholars are to some degree sceptical of prior research, wanting to push knowledge farther. But the pose of scepticism that Sobran adopted towards the Holocaust (and for that matter towards Darwinian biology and the Shakespeare authorship question) was not truly a scholar’s scepticism: rather Sobran’s pseudo-scepticism was a persona he adopted in order to debunk the standard and accurate view of a subject and promote his own counter-narrative (that the Jews got what was coming to them because they were undermining Western civilization, that the Book of Genesis rather than Darwin offers a true account of the origins of species, that Hamlet and King Lear were written by Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford). Sobran’s “scepticism” was not the honest scepticism of a mind who wants to check the evidence of all the competing theories but rather a dishonest rhetorical stance of agnosticism, designed to befuddle the innocent into believing that things that are true should be considred as open questions. This is a standard technique among Holocaust deniers, so it’s much more accurate to call Sobran a Holocaust denier rather than accept his own account of himself as a sceptic.