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Antipodean Antipathies
October 4, 2010

An Aussie Remembers Joe
by R. J. Stove
fitzgerald griffin foundation

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA —These words are being written en route from Adelaide, home to a Melbourne whose already thuggish public culture has been rendered that little bit more desolate by the news that Joseph Sobran is no longer with us. Others undoubtedly shall bring their expertise to bear regarding Joe’s importance to America. Perhaps a few words might be appropriate on the topic of Joe’s importance to Australia (a country he never visited), or, at least, on his importance to one particular Australian.

It presupposes a real imaginative labor to reconstruct the nature of intellectual life for an aspiring antipodean wordsmith during the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s. 

There was neither Internet access nor the faintest prospect of same. Credit cards were for all practical purposes unknown, so subscribing to a U.S. periodical in U.S. dollars involved endless parley with the local bank. Even in the bigger Australian cities, most news agents thought they had done their duty by Western Civilization if their inventory ran the gamut from Playboy to Penthouse. Admittedly, we had the occasional and expensive issue of Britain’s Spectator, where we could relish Taki’s exploits among what he himself called “princes, playboys, and high-class tarts.” (Once The Speccy — as we soon learned to call it — established a Taki Parody Contest, the winning entry in which began: "I haven't had much to say lately about Eddie's Place, because with my new and sober lifestyle I've only been partying there six nights per week.") Other than The Speccy and the Times Literary Supplement, the somber fact remained: to be impoverished, and a would-be essayist, and an Australian was to possess no affordable foreign models at all.

Unless … well, unless you had, as many of us (somewhat mysteriously) acquired, entrée to the U.S. Information Service Library, run in Sydney by the American consulate. There, we young blades would undertake escapist binges on the consulate’s back-numbers of National Review, Human Life Review, and The American Spectator. The library’s sets of such publications, while seldom complete, were far more comprehensive than any other local institution could be bothered to stock. Devouring these issues resembled witnessing a wonderful party to which one had not been invited oneself, but which grew all the more alluring on that account. Among all the distinguished monikers therein — Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn, Joe Queenan, Frederick D. Wilhelmsen, Chilton Williamson, Ralph de Toledano, Patrick Buchanan, Thomas Molnar, and the mighty Russell Kirk, not to mention Taki on occasional transatlantic furlough — one name stood out, even in this galère, for the hyperathletic prose which its appearance always portended. That name was “Joseph Sobran.”

Reading Joe’s stuff back then became both exhilarating and saddening. Exhilarating, because of the seeming ease with which he eviscerated totalitarians of every hue. Saddening, because one knew that one could never write half as well as he. On the whole, the exhilaration outweighed the sadness, or else I would have ceased to study his output. But if anyone had told me in those days that I would actually come to know Joe in person, I would have responded with some embryonically paleocon remark like “Pull the other one, it plays the Habsburg imperial anthem.” (Protracted exposure to Kuehnelt-Leddihn tends to induce this type of metaphor.)

In Renaissance Tuscany, the term used to denote such writing as Joe’s was sprezzatura, that almost untranslatable noun that can be only approximately rendered in English as “staggering erudition worn with the utmost nonchalance.” I never quite dared to talk of sprezzatura to Joe (because I could imagine his scornful response: “Sprezzatura? I always did hate Italian food!”). Yet that quality was what I most cherished in Joe’s thought. Insofar as I can trace my own authorial evolution to something like a stylist, increasing exposure to Joe’s articles had much to do with the development.

Still, the very effortlessness of Joe’s literary manner seemed to preclude anything like personal acquaintanceship with him. Besides, for the polymathic, unaffectedly devout, and quintessentially Midwestern Joe, my background (that of a non-American nurtured among unbelievers and with the patchiest sort of formal education) surely ticked all the wrong boxes. Of how I originally made contact with him, I no longer recall the details. I think that I was so staggered by the exceptional brilliance of one Sobran column — “Victims of Music” — that I overcame my habitual shyness and wrote to him in care of Universal Press Syndicate, which then syndicated his work, to say that he had surpassed himself with that piece. His response, far from being bearish, encouraged me to write more frequently (it was at his insistence that I started calling him "Joe" rather than "Mr. Sobran"). E-mail proved a means of communication well attuned to his free-wheeling approach. How often of a morning, after a fairly horrid previous day, did I turn on my computer and have my spirits raised by the sight of those welcome boldface words “Joe Sobran” in my inbox.

Late in 2002, he and I met. I believe I was only the second Australian he had ever encountered (his lady friend at the time, the New-South-Wales-born Michèle Renouf, would have been the first); he found it staggering that anybody in "Mel-bawn" — his pronunciation — had discovered his name at all. Still more staggering, to him, was the nature of Australia's Servile State, as explained by myself. Like most other Americans of deep and probing intelligence, he readily understood the concept of a nation forced into slavery by foreign conquest; but try as he might, he failed to get his head around the idea of a nation that chooses slavery, as modern post-Christian Australia has done, in the absence of foreign conquest.

To my recital of Australian domestic tyranny's most blatant aspects (no First Amendment, no Second Amendment, libel laws explicable solely as imports from Pyongyang, the spectacle of gun-grabber John Howard being hailed as an authentic conservative hero), Joe listened with a kind of rapt, slack-jawed horror, particularly when he learned that his appearances at seminars under David Irving's aegis had made it impossible for him ever to acquire an Australian visiting visa. (Oddly enough, Sydney columnist Mike Carlton — although in other respects a left-wing atheist of the most conventional type — has lately started displaying sufficient courage to mock Abe Foxman's Aussie stooges. On June 19, Carlton announced to his Sydney Morning Herald readership: "With bottomless irony, the Jewish lobby spent much of last week assuring anybody who would listen that there is no such thing as the Jewish lobby." That phrasing has the authentic Sobran touch.) 

It became necessary to assure Joe, when in the full flight of his Israelophobia, that Australian telecommunications laws rendered inadvisable the more uninhibited descriptions of Likudniks in which his e-mails abounded. Thereafter, instead of abandoning these descriptions, he substituted for "Israelis" the appellation "Tanzanians." Some snooper in the relevant Australian bureaucratic office must have reached the zenith of bafflement if he monitored our cybercorrespondence and learned of Joe's complaints about successive U.S. administrations' truckling to Dar-es-Salaam.

I am not sure if Joe ever really recovered from the hurt inflicted on him by Bill Buckley's 1991 essay "In Search of Anti-Semitism," that masterpiece of dithering dressed up as judicious analysis. Most readers, when trying to plow their way through Buckley's "On the one hand... on the other hand" rhetoric, must have remembered the pointed question which a British journalist once hurled at a more than usually befuddled Archbishop of Canterbury ("What would you do if you only had one hand?"). But by a paradox redolent of Joe's beloved Chesterton, the very feebleness of Buckley's effort as a cognitive exercise ensured its deadliness as a political weapon. Joe laughed off the more childish attacks on him, characteristically calling them "the Protocols of the Learned Juniors of Zion." Still, however jaunty his public attitude — "I'm not an anti-Semite," he once told me, "I'm a pro-Semite who can see the other side" — it is no day at the beach for even the toughest author to be slimed by hacks.

With gratitude I recall Australia's leading postwar Catholic lay activist, Bob Santamaria, condemning the anti-Sobran witchhunt. Mr. Santamaria informed me down the phone (employing the ultra-clipped articulation which he always used when his anger bordered on the apoplectic) that "Buck-ley and Pod-hor-etz make ... me ... vomit." I wish I had passed this tribute on to Joe, but perhaps he discovered it from other sources. Many years later I would acquire further insight into what Joe suffered, via the systematic destruction of my own Australian job prospects. This destruction was not at all the public obloquy that Joe endured. Instead — as befitted its antipodean provenance   it was the political analog to a secretive nocturnal hazing, whose perpetrators (unlike Joe's tormentors) made no protestations of concern for the public weal, but simply operated on the same "principle" of troglodytic anti-intellectualism that prompts many adolescent jocks to abduct the class's bespectacled bookworm and thrust his head down the nearest lavatory bowl. Like such jocks, my persecutors could always depend on the cowardice of those who, living in morbid terror of being thought of as authority figures, either tolerated the victimization or actively supported it.

If Buckley's denunciation wounded Joe, the tragically early death of Joe's friend Patricia Alvarez — "my little Cuban saint," he called her — was an even greater affliction. Like most others who knew Miss Alvarez, I hoped that she and Joe could get married. Never could he have met a kinder, more attractive, more charming, more elegant, and (in the least hectoring sense) more no-nonsense lady. When she succumbed to cancer, we all mourned her, as if we had known her throughout our lives, but the loss blighted Joe especially. As P. G. Wodehouse said when informed (by Malcolm Muggeridge) that his stepdaughter had passed away: "I thought she was immortal."

Attempting to cope with Joe's absence, I find myself thinking of the pensées — not quite aphorisms  — that he showed such fertility in producing. Some of them have been quoted in obituary tributes elsewhere ("The U.S. Constitution poses no serious threat to our form of government"; "A bigot is someone who practices sociology without a license"). Others are less celebrated:

• "Women and minorities never have a nice day."

• "If termites could talk, they would call what they were doing to the house 'progress'."

• "I miss the serenity of believing I lived under a good government, wisely designed and benevolent in its operation. But, as St. Paul says, there comes a time to put away childish things."

• "Post-Vatican-II sacred music... falls midway between the sound of an old hootenanny and Barry Manilow before his genius had matured.”

• "I can understand why sodomy is a sin, but I can't understand why it's a temptation." (This he said to me at a dinner.)

• "How brainy do you have to be to foresee what's likely to happen when a life-giving organ is inserted into the poop chute? Whose idea of love is that? Normal intercourse produces human life (also under attack); homosexual intercourse spawns only bacterial life."

The last two extracts indicate that if Joe had done nothing else, he would still warrant applause for his unflinching valor in the face of what he called "Organized Sodom." In Australia, the fight against Organized Sodom cannot be said to have been lost, because it was never seriously waged. Mainstream Australian "conservatives" of 2010 adopt toward homosexual bully-boys the same method that Churchill and FDR adopted toward Stalin at Yalta: grovel, grovel, grovel; and if your groveling is made more abject by premature senility, then all the better for you.


Of Joe's biggest projects I am but dubiously competent to speak. In Alias Shakespeare, he did not altogether win me over to partisanship of the Earl of Oxford, though he made the best — and best-tempered — possible forensic case for that partisanship. I am still less of a War Between the States expert than a Shakespeare expert, and I must therefore leave to other commentators a survey of Joe's strictures against official Lincoln myth-making. All I can suggest here is that Joe's interpretation of this myth-making is so internally consistent, and so evidently well-researched, that it could be true: whereas the public-school Yankee legend of Saint Abraham's Immaculate Conception is so obviously fraudulent (and cognitively dissonant into the bargain) as to be beneath adult minds' notice except as an exercise in triumphant statist propaganda.

That Joe should have returned over and over to Lincoln's doctrines is typical, because when everything has been said, Joe remained in his essence wholly American. His existence served to remind the public that the Grand Tradition of witty and lethal journalistic rage — encompassing Mark Twain, Ambrose Bierce, H. L. Mencken, Westbrook Pegler, and George Schuyler — has had its representatives in our time too: Fred Reed is one, and Joe was a second. This tradition, with its strenuous morality underneath all the iconoclastic gestures, operates at the furthest possible remove from anything in Aussie literature. Australia constitutes history's first and (please God) last land where the very concept of truth-telling is considered "hate speech" in and of itself. "What is truth?", said jesting Pilate, and he would not stay for an answer, thereby revealing himself to be the Bible's earliest Australian, in his epistemological slovenliness as much as in his buck-passing. The land that produced — and, for long, nourished — Joe can never quite descend into that moral abyss.

Ave atque vale.

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The Antipodean Antipathies is copyright © 2010 by R. J. Stove and the Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation. All rights reserved.

R. J. Stove, is an Australian writer who resides in Melbourne. He is the author of three books:
• Prince of Music: Palestrina and His World (Quakers Hill Press, Sydney, 1990)
The Unsleeping Eye: Secret Police and Their Victims (Encounter Books, San Francisco, 2003)
A Student's Guide to Music History (ISI Books, Wilmington, Delaware, 2007)

See a complete biographical sketch.

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