By W. George Krasnow STAFF WRITER
On February 23, 2011, Joe Sobran, a prominent American journalist, syndicated columnist, and writer, would have turned 65. He did not live to see this day. He died on September 30, 2010. Below is my eulogy that originally appeared on the site of FGF last November.
Jon Utley, my friend and conservative antiwar activist, calls Joe Sobran an “Antiwar Prophet.” “If Joe Sobran’s [antiwar] warnings had been heeded, wrote Utley in his eulogy in The American Conservative magazine, America would not be on the path to bankruptcy and unending, unwinnable wars.” I, too, regard Joe as an American patriot, man of peace, and personal friend.
A former Soviet defector, I came to the United States in 1966 from Sweden, a country that earlier granted me political asylum. As Sweden was rapidly turning anti-American, I decided to embark on a new adventure and moved to the U.S. Even with my shaky English, I quickly found out that William F. Buckley Jr.’s National Review, where Joe Sobran was the principal writer, was the only intellectual magazine that was unabashedly pro-American. It was also anti-communist, but not in the sense of belligerency. It was so by virtue of its defense of the fundamental American values of individual liberty, free enterprise, limited government, and academic freedom — the values that were under communist assault world-wide.
These values were also under assault on most American campuses. The intellectual establishment raged against “American imperialism,” “capitalist exploitation,” and “racism.” The New Left and Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) agitators– actually refurbished Marxist-Leninists — effectively controlled the ideological and political discourse on the campuses. Domestic terrorism was in vogue. Students were taught to make home-made bombs to use against “police pigs.” Seattle, where I was a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Washington, was a leader in the bombings against the “military-industrial establishment.”
After the debacle in Vietnam, Soviet expansion seemed unstoppable. Were it not for the rise of dissident movement in the U.S.S.R. and Soviet-bloc countries, America might not have come out of the doldrums of defeatism. So strong was the belief among American intellectuals in the “progressiveness” of Soviet system that when the exiled Russian writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn declared, upon his arrival in the U.S., that he hoped to return to a free Russia, he was dismissed as a nationalist dreamer.
The “realistic” ambitions of American politicians did not stretch further than a negotiated division of the globe into two spheres of influence. Joe Sobran and NR were the only consistent champions of superiority of freedom over tyranny. They argued for the primacy of human rights in U.S.-U.S.S.R. relations. They warned that peaceful coexistence Soviet leaders promised were illusory as they refused to coexist with their own citizens.
With the demise of the USSR in 1991, I quit my career as professor of Russian Studies, and moved from California to Washington, D.C. In the hope of providing consulting services to U.S. companies doing business in the former Soviet Union, I then founded the Russia & America Goodwill Association (RAGA). During my trips to Russia I saw that, despite the turmoil and hardships that accompanied economic reforms, Russia was indeed a free country. There, at times, media outlets took a decisively anti-Yeltsin line. But there was a problem: the neoliberal “Washington consensus” monopolized Russian reforms. It also monopolized U.S. television space, banning criticism of either Yeltsin or of “shock therapy” reforms.
Some Americans, including Joe, took a skeptical view of U.S. sponsorship of Russian reforms devised by neoliberal fundamentalists at Harvard, mostly Jewish. However, Sobran and his friends were more concerned with another group of influential people known as the “neoconservatives.” The neocons, most of whom were also Jewish, were actively pushing the U.S. to a global ideological offensive — hence the Persian Gulf War, the expansion of NATO, the dismemberment of Yugoslavia, and the global “war on terror.” Sobran and his friends did not want to be associated with this aggressive American triumphalism.
Learning that, after he had resisted the neocon pressure at NR, Joe was fired, I asked my conservative friends to introduce me to him. Joe struck me as a friendly, generous, and jovial man who came for a light-hearted conversation rather than to pronounce intellectual profundities.
Joe knew me as the author of Solzhenitsyn and Dostoevsky, so I presented a copy to him. Joe admired Solzhenitsyn as a great novelist whose forced exile to the United States stiffened the backbone of résistance against global Soviet expansion and inspired the Reagan revolution. Solzhenitsyn, he said, was a Russian gift to America. “By the way, even though I am a good Catholic and product of American melting pot, I am partially a Russian by blood,” said Joe referring to his family name. In Russian “Sobran” means “gathered,” “concentrated,” and “ready to go.”
Thanking me for the gift, Joe pulled a book from his own briefcase. ‘Do you like Shakespeare?’ he asked, laying an off-the-press copy of his Alias Shakespeare: Solving the Greatest Literary Mystery of All Time on the table. His book’s thesis was that the real author of the tragedies was not the man from Stratford, but Edward de Vere, the seventeenth Earl of Oxford. I found Joe’s argument persuasive.
Departure from National Review
I asked him about his departure from NR. It was an outcome of a protracted process, Joe told me; over the years, neocon publishers Norman Podhoretz and Midge Decter pressured Buckley to stop Sobran from writing columns critical of Israel. Buckley finally caved in. However, Joe evinced neither bitterness nor grudge against the boss who fired him or the people who tipped the boss’s hand.
“The neocons did what was advantageous to them,” Joe said. “They wanted to take over NR as an influential voice of conservative opinion. They wanted to turn it to a pro-war propaganda tool. I happened to be there, so they had to eliminate me in the struggle for Buckley’s soul. The best way to do so was by labeling me an ‘anti-Semite.’ The term is a misnomer, and the charge is unfair. But people are so afraid to be around ‘anti-Semites,’ of giving them jobs or prominence, that the accusation automatically becomes a verdict. I’m fortunate to have a group of friends whose livelihood does not depend on jobs. In fact, I enjoy my new independence. Now I don’t have to tailor my opinion for one editorial policy or another.”
Attitude toward Jews
“Are you anti-Jewish?” I asked him point blank. “Goodness no,” Joe replied. “I am aware that Jews played a prominent role in Russian revolution. I know how active they were in the antiwar and civil rights movement here. Many of them were pro-socialist and pro-Soviet. They never raised the issue of human rights in Russia, Eastern Europe, or China. At that time, they were anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist, and anti-American. They were not particularly pro-Israel. But I also know Jews who are as American as can be. They are not just my personal friends. They are allies in a struggle against Zionist extremists who equate U.S. national interests with those of Israel. I am intellectually indebted to my Jewish friends, and I’d never turn against a Jew simply because he is a Jew.”
Joe made it clear that his case transcended his person. It was indicative of a dangerous social malady — stifling all debate in favor of political shibboleths. Joe asked me if I remembered seeing how the Prime Minister of Israel was received by the joint session of Congress. I did. After the speech was over, the camera showed that everybody stood up and applauded not knowing when to stop, afraid to be the first to sit down. “Didn’t that remind you about the country from which you defected?” Joe asked.
Our conversations ranged from the late 1960s to the fall of communism. We discussed the Destructive Generation: Second Thoughts About the ‘60s, a book written in early 1990s by Peter Collier and David Horowitz, two former editors of the New Left magazine Ramparts, in which they admitted their philosophy then was “we murdered to create.” Joe knew the book as well. Alas, David’s enlightenment did not last long. He became a right-winger, racist, and avowed pro-war Zionist. David’s life curve was typical of many American Jews who switched from antiwar radicalism of the Sixties to today’s pro-war propaganda, believing that the war now is in Israel’s best interests.
Religion and Politics
Joe and I met several more times, but eventually we each got immersed in our own daily routine. I knew that he ran as a Vice Presidential candidate for the U.S. Taxpayers Party (which changed its name to the Constitution Party) in 1999. However, he dropped off the ticket in most states in the Spring of 2000. I wonder why. Was it because the Party insisted not only on strict adherence to the Constitution, but also on consulting the Bible?
Joe and I never discussed the role of religion in foreign policy. The separation of state and religion has served this country well. Why let religion back into affairs of a state composed of people of different confessions? The Bible has already been abused by narrow-minded Christian Zionists, who support Israel’s claim to the land, including Jerusalem, on strictly religious grounds. That clearly impinges on the freedom of conscience of the majority of Americans, whether religious or not. Joe would certainly not have wanted to see U.S. military adventures slide to religious wars at home and abroad.
Buckley’s Second Thoughts
I was pleased to learn that Joe and Bill Buckley had reconciled before Bill died in 2008. In the spirit of forgiveness, Joe wrote a graceful eulogy for his friend. Yet, historically speaking, Joe was proven right. According to Wikipedia, before he passed away, Buckley changed his view of the Iraq war. He “saw it as a disaster and thought that the conservative movement he had created had in effect committed intellectual suicide by failing to maintain critical distance from the Bush administration.”
“Joe’s fate did not have the consequence that the neoconservatives intended… Joe’s outrageous reduction to a pariah generated resistance to the bullies who had gone after him,” wrote Paul E. Gottfried, Joe’s friend and intellectual ally, in his eulogy “The Inspiration of Joe Sobran.” Concluded Gottfried: “The young admire him for having fought back, not only against the American global democratic empire but against the neoconservative commissars of the present conservative movement.”
Jon Utley’s eulogy for Joe was just as forceful. As son of Freda Utley and Arkady Berdichevsky, a Russian Jew executed in 1938 during the mass purges of Trotskyites, Jon knows full well what it meant to be smeared “anti-Soviet” for no reason but political expediency. That’s why he feels especial compassion to those smeared “anti-Semite.”
Israel Shamir, a former Soviet dissident, immigrated to Israel in 1969. During the 1973 war he served as Israeli Defense Forces paratrooper. Now he is a tireless champion of equal rights for the Palestinians. To lament Sobran’s death, Samir ran one of Sobran’s early articles, “For Fear of the Jews.” It thus sums up what has happened in Joe’s life and in the life of America in the past fifty years. “Zionism has infiltrated conservatism in much the same way Communism once infiltrated liberalism.”
The Honor Roll Call
Joe Sobran now joins the roll call of honorable people, living and dead, who were smeared as “anti-Semites”:
- Professor Albert Lindemann, for suggesting in his book, Esau’s Tears: Modern Anti-Semitism and the Rise of the Jews, that just because it is wrong to blame Jews for everything, we do no favor to them by the opposite conclusion that a Jew can do no wrong;
- Professors John Mearsheimer and Steve Walt, for their 2008 book, The Israeli Lobby; when The Washington Post accused them of “anti-Semitism,” I defended their academic freedom on the RAGA site;
- Karl Marx, for his youthful idealist condemnation (too harsh, in my opinion) of “the practical religion of the Jews” as the belief that money rules the world. Alas, later Marx became a progenitor of 20th century revolutionary violence;
- John Sack, for his book, An Eye for Eye: The Untold Story of Jewish Revenge Against Germans in 1945;
- Norman Finkelstein, for his 2000 book, The Holocaust Industry: Reflections on the Exploitation of Jewish Suffering;
- Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who in his novel, August of 1914, portrayed Dmitry (Mordko) Bogrov, the assassin of the Russian Prime Minister and reformer Peter Stolypin, as a Jew, which he was;
- Fyodor Dostoevsky, a Russian novelist, for arguing that revolutionary theories and sentiments attracted a disproportionate number of Jews and for warning, correctly, that the revolution will harm both Jews and Gentiles;
- Lev Tolstoy, a prophet of nonviolence, for refusing to condone violence of Jewish revolutionaries, even while condemning the czarist government;
- Mahatma Gandhi, for converting Tolstoy’s principle of non-violence to an effective political strategy and censuring violent foundation of the Jewish state;
- Albert Einstein, for signing a letter to The New York Times in which the founders of Israel were compared to the Nazis and fascists;
- Patrick Buchanan, an adviser to President Reagan, for arguing in his book, A Republic, Not Empire, that the Republican party was taken over by the neocons
- Israel Shahak, a professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, for his book, Jewish History, Jewish religion: The Weight of Three Thousand Years, and for being an outspoken critic of the Israeli government and Jewish chauvinism;
- Shlomo Sand, Professor of History at Tel Aviv University, for his book, The Invention of the Jewish People
- Jimmy Carter, U.S. president and Nobel Peace Prize winner, for stating in his 2006 book, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid, that Israel’s control and colonization of Palestinian land have been obstacles to a comprehensive peace agreement
- Cynthia McKinney, a former six-term U.S. Congresswoman, for her fight for the rights of Afro-Americans in the U.S. and of Palestinians in the Middle East.
- Last but not the least, Joe’s favorite Edward de Vere qualifies to be abused as “anti-Semitic.” Didn’t he hide behind the cloak of a Stratford commoner so he could shake his “anti-Semitic” spear more effectively? For even in the 16th century England, it would have been politically incorrect for a person close to the royal court to portray Shylock, a Jewish banker in “The Merchant of Venice,” as a money grabber. A Bernie Madoff of today has an easier time, for he can rob Jewish charities too.
Many others deserve to grace this list, so I apologize for its brevity and apparent randomness. Critical of one or another aspect of Jewish life or political role, none of those on the list would deny the extraordinary contribution the Jews made to the development of Western civilization. No wonder that several of Sobran’s intellectual allies were Jewish.
An Honorary Jew
In view of the above, I’d like to nominate Michael Joseph Sobran to be proclaimed an honorary Jew. He was right in the prophecy that the “war on terror,” while wreaking death and destruction in the countries for which we are self-proclaimed benefactors, fails to enhance security for either Israel or the United States. Like many Jews, Sobran suffered persecution and ostracism. His antiwar prophecy was wholly consistent with the Biblical tradition of a quixotic man standing alone against the mighty rulers and their numerous sycophants. “I would much rather be in the tradition of great American cranks like Thoreau, Ambrose Bierce, Lysander Spooner, and H.L. Mencken,” Joe wrote in the preface to his Shakespeare book, “than belong to the mass of scholars who, ever mindful of tenure, promotion, grants, and that last infirmity of ignoble minds, respectability, never deviate from scholarly consensus.” Even though Joe lived and died as a faithful Catholic, I’m sure he would not mind the title of honorary Jew.
Ban the word “Anti-Semite”
I also propose to declare the words “anti-Semite” and “anti-Semitic” to be hyper inflated, outdated, and totally unfit for modern use. Incompatible with his dignity, these words should be buried in a cemetery far away from that of Joe Sobran. Or perhaps they should be cremated and literally turned to dust. Any substantive content found in this dust should be archived for the benefit of future generations.
But won’t we thus deprive English of its richness and expressiveness? As any Shakespeare scholar would vouch, we can still find ample use for such words as anti-Zionist, anti-Judaic, or Jew-hater. Only the first would partially apply to Joe Sobran. He was a person of great integrity; kind, clever, civil, and quietly courageous. He was a positive man of peace. The only “anti” he deserved was anti-extremist.
W. George Krasnow (also published as Vladislav Krasnov), Ph.D., runs the Russia and America Goodwill Association, a non-profit organization of Americans for friendship with Russia. Formerly, he was a professor and director of Russian Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies in California.
Under the name of Vladislav Krasnov he published three books:
- Solzhenitsyn and Dostoevsky: A Study in the Polyphonic Novel (University of Georgia Press, Athens, GA, 1979)
- Russia Beyond Communism: A Chronicle of National Rebirth (Westview Press, 1991)
- Soviet Defectors: The KGB wanted List(Hoover Institution Press, 1985)
His op-ed columns have appeared in The Wall Street Journal, New York Times, International Herald Tribune, San Francisco Examiner, San Diego Union, and Dallas Morning News.
Recent articles, signed W. George Krasnow, can be found online, as well as in Johnson’s Russia List, Russia Blog, Russia: Other Points of View, OpenDemocracy (UK) and a number of Russian-language outlets.