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The Conservative Curmudgeon
December 3, 2012

Joseph Sobran: The National Review Years —
Articles from 1974 to 1991

hardcover, 216 pages, limited edition (FGF Books, 2012)

A Look at Late 20th Century America from a Perceptive and Talented Observer
by Allan C. Brownfeld

ALEXANDRIA, VA — New York Times columnist James Reston once noted that writing newspaper columns about the events of the day is like making “footprints in the sand,” quickly covered by something new.

Some writers, however, have the ability to focus on their own time, yet write for the future as well. They apply their philosophy and worldview to the events of the day, in the light of the timeless principles that infuse their view of the past as well as of the future.

One such writer who graced late 20th-century America was Joe Sobran, who died in 2010. Pat Buchanan referred to him as perhaps “the finest columnist of our generation.”

In 1972, Sobran began working at National Review and stayed for 21 years, 18 as senior editor. He also spent 21 years as a commentator on the CBS Radio’s “Spectrum” program series and was a syndicated columnist, first with the Los Angeles Times and later with the Universal Press Syndicate.

In a new book, Joseph Sobran: The National Review Years, the Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation has gathered together some of Sobran’s best articles from 1974 to 1991. These cover a wide range of topics, including Christianity, the media, the Constitution, motion pictures, Shakespeare, and baseball. In the foreword, Buchanan writes, “What is extraordinary about this book of essays is the range of Joe’s interests and the quality of his insights.”

One essay deals with an incident in 1987 when a gang of young toughs in Queens, New York, beat up three young men. When one of the three, trying to escape, was hit by a car and killed, Mayor Ed Koch called the crime a “racial lynching,” because the perpetrators were white and the victims black. The media referred to America as an increasingly “racist society,” even though all indications pointed toward improving race relations.

In what came to be known as the “Howard Beach Incident,” Sobran saw a built-in bias on the part of the media at work: “All news is ‘biased’ in that it’s the selection of information in accordance with tacit standards of relevance. We notice the bias when the news is chosen to fit a ‘super story’ the audience doesn't necessarily subscribe to.... The super story behind the Howard Beach Story was Racist America. The very fact that it was empirically atypical made it all the more dramatic as a synecdoche.... The media are so saturated by myth that it’s fair to see ‘news’ as an early stage on the assembly line whose final product is a New York Times editorial.”

In a review of Whatever Happened To The Human Race? by Everett Koop and Francis Schaeffer, Sobran confronts the growing advocacy of abortion, infanticide, and euthanasia — what he calls the “cheapening of life.” He declares, “... as the abortion issue shows, the definition of ‘defective’ has quickly broadened to mean anything not wanted by people in a position to kill. There is the case of a young couple who asked for a prenatal test to determine the sex of the child they are expecting: they said they feared a boy would be a hemophiliac. When the test showed it was a girl, they admitted they actually wanted a boy, because they preferred a boy. The girl was aborted.”

In an essay on censorship and stereotypes, Sobran points out, “Religion is still a real and vital part of American life, but it is amazingly ‘underrepresented’ (to use the liberal term) in mass communications. This is not a matter of conspiracy or even conscious avoidance, but of unconscious habit, much like modes of dress: religion simply isn’t in the intellectual wardrobe of media people.”

Sobran’s 1990 essay, “The Republic of Baseball,” is accompanied by a picture of the author on National Review’s cover in Yankee uniform at Yankee Stadium. To all Americans who grew up in the mid-20th century — particularly men — baseball was central, as Sobran shows: “Not to play means missing out on the common experience of the male sex. And once you get into it, it’s easy to get absorbed. In Ypsilanti, Michigan, I spent long winters studying baseball statistics to while away the endless cold grey days until the snow melted. Then, around mid-March, we started our new season in the park, or any empty field.... Baseball wasn't just something we played and watched. If was something we lived.”

Beyond this, writes Sobran, “The statistics, discreteness of individual performance, set against the game’s stable history, gives achievement in baseball a permanence and stature that other sports can seldom confer.... The rules are really impartial.... There are no ‘racist’ balls and strikes... only balls and strikes…. In politics, men are elected to bend the rules in someone's favor. It shouldn’t surprise us when they break them, too. A key difference between baseball and democracy is that in baseball the winners don’t get to rewrite the rules. And it never occurs to the losers to blame the rules for their losses.”    
"A key difference between baseball and democracy is that in baseball the winners don’t get to rewrite the rules. And it never occurs to the losers to blame the rules for their losses.”

Sobran was an admirer of the British author G.K. Chesterton, to whom he has been compared. He reports about his attendance in Toronto in 1979 at a meeting of the Chesterton Society and recalls Chesterton’s early opposition to “the science of eugenics” whose “consequences he foresaw.” Advocates of eugenics included Oliver Wendell Holmes, who supported mandatory sterilization. Of Chesterton, Sobran wrote: “His defense of the poor was rooted in a defense of the family and of liberty against those state planners who pined for population refinement. It is not hard to see the likeness to those enlightened souls who think the state should now promote contraception and abortion among the poor.... It reminds us that we who are alive today are the lucky survivors of Nazism and related evils; those of the next generation will be the lucky survivors of abortion ‘reform.’”

There is, of course, much more excellent writing — and thoughtful insights in these essays, including several advancing Sobran’s thesis that the 17th Earl of Oxford was, in fact, the author of the works attributed to William Shakespeare.

In the Afterword, author Ann Coulter states, “Joe could say in a sentence what most writers would need an entire column to express. His specialty was to make blindingly simple points that would cut through mountains of sophistry.” One need not agree with all of Sobran’s views to appreciate the keen intelligence and moral perspective he brought to his work.

Fran Griffin and the Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation are to be congratulated for publishing this collection of Joe Sobran’s essays. Hopefully, through this book a new generation of readers will be made aware of some of the best writing of the recent past.

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The Conservative Curmudgeon is copyright © 2012 by Allan C. Brownfeld and the Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation. All rights reserved. Editors may use this column if this copyright information is included.

Allan C. Brownfeld is the author of five books, the latest of which is The Revolution Lobby (Council for Inter-American Security). He has been a staff aide to a U.S. Vice President, Members of Congress, and the U.S. Senate Internal Subcommittee.

He is associate editor of The Lincoln Reveiw and a contributing editor to such publications as Human Events, The St. Croix Review, and The Washington Report on Middle East Affairs.

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