I’ve only subscribed to two newsletters ever, one being former National Review editor Joseph Sobran’s “Real News of the Month.”
In the mid-1990s, I was in my early 20s, and the discovery of past conservative thinkers like Russell Kirk and Richard Weaver encouraged me to seek out their contemporary intellectual descendants, of which Sobran was one of only a handful. Most right-wingers in the ’90s, including many pundits and intellectuals, were so obsessed with Bill Clinton that conservative principles took a backseat to partisanship and conspiracy theories. Neither interested me.
At the time, I realized that if being a conservative simply meant hating Democrats, then it meant nothing. But if being “conservative” was to think like Sobran, it had immeasurable meaning precisely because he constantly encouraged his audience to remember and re-examine what that term meant.
Learning of Sobran’s passing last month at the age of 64, I began to recall so many of his conservative reminders, particularly his Jeffersonian views on foreign policy. One of the beautiful things about the Tea Party is it now encourages conservatives to remember and re-examine what they stand for — Sobran’s specialty. Sobran had to leave his 18-year job as editor of National Review in 1993 in part because his traditionally conservative views clashed with the neoconservatives’ agenda for the Middle East. In his final column before his death, he wrote:
“I saw 30 years ago that we were headed for needless war with the Arabs, and I had two boys in their teens. By 1991 I hated Bush with a murderous fury. He was willing to get young men like my son Mike killed for no clear reason. I didn’t want them dying in the Middle East, where we always seem to be defending democracy and freedom these days.”
He added, “Nobody else at National Review seemed to have this worry.”
Today, the neoconservatives that so worried Sobran are worried themselves about a Tea Party movement hell-bent on cutting spending, particularly if grassroots conservatives begin critiquing the big government program of American empire. Recently, columnists representing the American Enterprise Institute — Danielle Pletka and Thomas Donnelly — warned in the Washington Post that Tea Partiers should stay away from the likes of Ron or Rand Paul, Sen. Tom Coburn, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, and any other Republican who dares question our current foreign policy. Neoconservatives Pletka and Donnelly seem to believe that America’s superpower status is what makes it great, forever spreading “freedom” and “democracy” around the world through perpetual war. Needless to say, the conservative Sobran took a more traditional view:
“[M]any Americans admire America for being strong, not for being American. For them America has to be ‘the greatest country on earth’ in order to be worthy of their devotion. If it were only the second-greatest, or the 19th-greatest, or, heaven forbid, ‘a third-rate power,’ it would be virtually worthless,” he wrote. “This is nationalism, not patriotism.”
Sobran continued, “When it comes to war, the patriot realizes that the rest of the world can’t be turned into America, because his America is something specific and particular … But the nationalist, who identifies America with abstractions like freedom and democracy, may think it’s precisely America’s mission to spread those abstractions around the world — to impose them by force, if necessary.”
He added, “For the nationalist, war is a welcome opportunity to change the world. This is a recipe for endless war.”
As long as the neocons continue to define the Right’s foreign policy, the Tea Partiers will be prevented from truly achieving their limited-government desires. As George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Joseph Sobran once warned, a state of perpetual war is simply incompatible with republican government. The neoconservatives now fear too many conservatives are beginning to waking up to this. Sobran spent years trying to wake them up, reminding his right-wing friends that “War has all the characteristics of socialism most conservatives hate: centralized power, state planning, false rationalism, restricted liberties, foolish optimism about intended results, and blindness to unintended secondary results.”
The countless examples of Sobran’s wit and wisdom are too many to revisit here. His genuine patriotism informed his conservatism, and as a result, he was at odds with the neocons for the last decades of his career. If traditional conservatives want to take back their movement from the big-government neocons, they would be wise to remember that they will be fighting the same battles as the late, great Joseph Sobran.
Catch Southern Avenger commentaries every Tuesday and Friday at 7:50 a.m. on the “Morning Buzz with Richard Todd” on 1250 AM WTMA.