What follows is the text of a talk I gave on September 23 in Tysons Corner, Virginia, at an event organized by the publisher to promote my new book, Give Speech a Chance: Heretical Essays on What You Can’t Say, or Even Think (FGF Books, 2022). More on the book in subsequent posts…
It is a great pleasure, and a deeply-felt honour, to be here today–though I must confess that it is also somewhat intimidating to address so distinguished an audience. Alas, I haven’t had much experience of late speaking to people who are educated, literate, rational, or even demonstrably animate: I have been teaching, you see, at an elite university for the past two decades. But then, I’m probably not qualified to differentiate between the animate and the inanimate; I’m not a biologist, after all.
I know that there are many people to thank for my being here, and since it is related to my theme this afternoon, I also know that gratitude, like mercy, should be undiscriminating. So, let me begin by thanking Canada’s Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, for not consigning me to prison even though I supported Canada’s Trucker Convoy and am guilty of other thought-crimes and insurrectionist velleities, besides; while I’m at it, let me thank Justin for permitting me to leave my country, which is a privilege that totalitarian dictators have rarely bestowed upon their ungrateful subjects since October 1917.
As a Canadian, whenever I talk to Americans in despair over the Biden administration, I always mention Justin Trudeau, because it seems to cheer them up instantaneously, on the principle, I suppose, that those who are undergoing root canal are happy to know that they won’t require a complete set of dental implants.
And so, Americans might feel at least relative gratitude for President Biden, as I certainly do whenever I watch a YouTube montage of his latest gaffes and reassure myself that, in spite of the rampancy of cancel-culture, the art of stand-up comedy remains alive and well.
As a frequent final speaker at conservative gatherings, a very funny Canadian writer named Rex Murphy–intentionally funny, unlike Joe Biden–invariably begins by solemnly promising that his talk will be an anticlimax; and after listening to all who have preceded me, I am not likely to disappoint if I make a similar promise.
To convey my gratitude for your generous comments about my book I might have to invoke the medieval inexpressibility topos. The best I can do in words is to say that your praise ranks as one of the highest honours of my life, every bit the equal of one I received at the conclusion of the final class of an undergraduate course I taught on Chaucer, when my students paid tribute to me by way of a loose paraphrase, in mock Middle English verse, of the description of Chaucer’s unworldly and impecunious Clerk in the General Prologue. Like the Clerk, I may have “getten me yet no benefice”, but I am transcendently richer for having had such intellectual benefactors as have guided and encouraged me over the years, and are here today.
I was somewhat relieved when Fran Griffin asked me to talk about Joe Sobran this afternoon, rather than my book. If ever you want to see someone reduced to stammering, blithering, panic-stricken inarticulateness–Joe Biden level inarticulateness–just ask him to tell you what his book is about.
I thank Fran sincerely for sparing me that ordeal; I thank her for publishing my book. But above all I thank her for her noble dedication to keeping the literary legacy of Joe Sobran alive.
My book is both an epiphenomenon of Joe’s legacy and a scarcely worthy tribute to it. Its dedication reads: “To the memory of Joe Sobran, whose satirical vivisections of the liberal hive will inspire conservatives for generations, though none of us will approach his brilliance, eloquence, or wit.”
Since Joe’s passing, the liberal hive has regressed down the evolutionary ladder into a progressive hornets’ nest, and one wishes fervently that Joe were still with us to help swat those primitive, swarming, depredatory pests away. But then I’m probably not qualified to distinguish between bees and wasps, men and women, or any other of Lord Darwin’s creatures; I’m not a biologist, after all.
I am, however, at least an amateur taxonomist of political and moral commentary, and Joe’s was unquestionably sublime. Reading brilliant prose is one of life’s great pleasures, simultaneously sensual, intellectual, and ecstatic, like beholding a quattrocento fresco or listening to an early Netherlandish motet. Needless to say, I rank Joe as one of the most profound exponents of conservative thought and finest prose stylists in the history–well–in the history of prose.
Joe’s writing has often been compared to that of his beloved G.K. Chesterton and Dr. Johnson; but that, in a way, is to confine him to modernity, whereas anyone who has read his contributions to Human Life Review, or his majestic “Pensées”, will know that Joe’s was a mind for the ages, and that his epiphanic genius was the equal of any of the West’s finest moral essayists, including Montaigne, Epictetus, and Seneca.
Since many of you knew him better and longer than I, my purpose this afternoon is scarcely to offer an account of Joe’s life and work, except by way of a few irreducibly personal recollections, though one hopes for posterity’s sake that someone will step forward before it’s too late to be Joe’s Boswell.
That I met Joe at all was through a quirk of providence that has contrived to put me in tangential contact with an improbable number of great men over the years, in spite of the fact that I am person of little note in the world–I still haven’t been condemned by the Southern Poverty Law Center–, and unlike Forrest Gump, I can’t even run fast.
I first met Joe in 1983 when we both spoke at a week-long conference in Europe, whose organizers reasoned, I suppose, that such a gathering might help anti-communists around the world to feel slightly less despised and rejected of men.
Following the afternoon session in London, I found Joe at the hotel bar entertaining a group of delegates by performing scenes from Shakespeare in the voice and manner of famous British thespians. After Joe’s renditions of Gielgud’s Brutus, Olivier’s Henry V, and Burton’s Hamlet, in order to prolong the entertainment, I began shouting out challenges from the cheap-seats–Ralph Richardson’s Falstaff, Paul Scofield’s Lear, Michael Hordern’s Shylock–, of all of whom Joe gave an entirely creditable impression, including a threnodial falsetto as Claire Bloom in the role of Ophelia. It was thus that my week-long career as Joe’s straight man was officially launched.
When the conference decamped to Bonn, Joe and I took in one of the nuclear disarmament morality plays that were touring across Europe during the Reagan years, and as we approached a booth manned by a teenager whose nose, lips, and tongue were garlanded with metal piercings, Joe turned to me and observed, “She’s brandishing far too much hardware to be a genuine pacifist.” At another table, a sign read: “Down with the American Military-Industrial Complex.” Joe walked up to the elderly lady seated there and innocently inquired, “What are your thoughts on the Soviet military-industrial complex?” Joe thus reminded me of his unerring facility for exposing the cant and imposture of the leftist group-mind, and doing so without a tincture of bitterness or rancour.
Like many here, I suppose, I began reading Joe’s work when it first appeared in National Review in the early Seventies, long before NR became the voice of that de-alcoholised brand of conservatism that Professor Gottfried has so evocatively denominated “Conservatism Inc.”– long before, that is, NR’s stodgy founding mission to “Stand Athwart the Tracks of History Yelling Stop” was strategically refreshed to “All Aboard”. To this cradle paleo-con, the NR of the late Sixties and Seventies was still a Parnassus of reason and eloquence; but whenever the latest issue emerged through my mail slot, it was to Joe’s column that I turned first, though I am otherwise quite capable of deferring my pleasures.
Over the decades, Joe confronted every one of what Orwell called “the smelly little orthodoxies that contend for our souls”, stripping them bare, hosing them down, and dressing them in motley for our sport.
Though Joe would probably not have counted psychiatry a science, his analyses of the besetting neuroses of the progressive mind were executed with such clinical precision that I often thought that, could they have been persuaded to spend a few hours on Joe’s couch, innumerable leftists might have been cured of their infantile rage, adolescent antinomianism, victimological paranoia, emotional hemophilia, fanatical certitude, self-righteous smugness, sexual disorientation, self-identified non-binary delusions, Nietzschean will to power, obsessive-compulsive compulsion disorders, civilization-destroying Messiah complexes, Christo-phobia, infanticidal ideations, and multiple voices in their heads demanding to be addressed by different pronouns. But then, to borrow a phrase from Hillary, some people are irredeemable, and in any case, conversion therapy is now illegal.
Of course, it’s hardly my ambition to anatomize Joe’s singular literary and intellectual genius, except to observe what many of us here already know: that Joe had that rare ability to set his readers’ heads oscillating with wonder at the brilliance of his insights, to raise the hairs on the backs of their necks in response to the grandeur with which he evoked the beauty and wisdom of the Western Tradition, and to make them laugh, all within the span of a single essay, and all in prose of apparent artlessness.
Pope must have had Joe in mind when in his Essay on Criticism he defined true wit as “Nature to advantage dress’d, / What oft was thought, but ne’er so well express’d”. Reading a piece by Joe regularly left one with the sense that nothing more needed to be said on that, or any related subject, thereby sending many a would-be political commentator such as myself directly to his stash of Johnny Walker Black.
In remembering Joe, I can hardly fail to mention the injury through which, by providential indirections, he came to enjoy Fran Griffin’s muscular patronage: the 1993 neo-Stalinist purge conducted by Bill Buckley (Conservatism Inc’s self-appointed heresiologist and Inquisitor), that made Joe a journalistic non-person, on the risible charge of anti-Semitism. “Anti-Semite” has long been a word of mana (as the Cambridge anthropologists used to employ the term) and is arguably the ur-form of those career-blighting calumnies–racist, sexist, homophobe, transphobe, and so on–that today’s progressives wield like Medusa’s head, to strike their terrified opponents dumb.
In becoming a proto-martyr of cancel-culture–from the Right, ironically enough–Joe was, whether he liked it or not, an epochal man: a premonitory type of that remnant of the normal and the sane who are now reflexively denounced, smeared, silenced, terminated, and ostracized for questioning the least article of the aberrant dogmas of the State-established Church of Progress.
I’m not certain that even his admirers have entirely appreciated the archetypal significance with which Joe’s scapegoating by the father of modern American conservatism is freighted. With Joe’s love of Shakespeare in mind, I can’t help recalling the sub-plot in Lear, and imagining Joe in the role of Edgar, Norman Podhoretz as Edmund, and Bill Buckley as the foolish Gloucester, who “stumbled when he saw”.
In any case, Joe bore that injustice with Boethian equanimity, even while refusing to trim his sails to the winds of polite opinion for the sake of his career. As it happens, he wrote some of his finest essays in exile from the beau monde, for The Wanderer, for Chronicles, and above all, for the newsletter and website set up by Fran’s indispensable Foundation, in the absence of which almost twenty years of his brilliant commentary might never have appeared. To Fran, Joe’s late friends Tom Bethell and Ronald Neff, and the many others who stood by him, we owe a profound debt of gratitude; and if my book steers a few new readers to Joe’s opus, I will count it a great success.
Finally, I should like to think that an acknowledgment of my indebtedness to Joe is an expression of the gratitude that he himself identified as the quintessential conservative virtue. Gratitude for the moral, religious, and philosophical heritage of the West is a recurrent theme in Chesterton, C.S. Lewis, and Joe, all of whom recognized that the modern revolutionary project to abolish the civilizational norms and institutions ratified by the greatest minds and tested by the immemorial experience of humankind is the symptom of a monstrous presumption.
Gratitude has always been recognized as a natural and normal human response, a pre-notion or common idea, as Cicero called it, deposited in the human reason as a fragment of the Universal Reason, whence it is also a ubiquitous obligation of religion. The Christian liturgical formula is Gratias agimus Domino Deo nostro; the Christian concept of grace–gratia, from which our word gratitude is derived–, presupposes that everything including our happiness and being is a gift from God.
But thankfulness needn’t presume a Deity. To be grateful is merely the sane and sensible recognition that the most important things we enjoy–health, home, the love and sustenance of family, the freedoms and protections of a constitutional republic, the beauties of nature and art, not to mention life and the quotidian miracle of existence itself–that these are things we have for the most part received, rather than created ourselves.
We are all familiar with the analogy attributed to Bernard of Chartres by John of Salisbury, in the latter’s 12th century Metalogicon; but the immediate context is rarely quoted. There John expresses gratitude for the authorities (the auctores) of classical antiquity–Homer, Plato, Cicero, Virgil, Ovid–who were the foundation of the liberal arts curriculum in the medieval university and throughout the Christian centuries thereafter, reliably failing to trigger students in spite of being dead, white, male, heterosexual, and idolatrous pagans besides:
These earlier authors [John writes] bequeathed to an indebted posterity the fruits of their labours, with the consequence that the truths which countless men have expended innumerable lifetimes discovering and rationally demonstrating can now be quickly and easily learned by one person. Our own generation enjoys the legacy bequeathed to it by those which preceded it.
If we know more, it is not because we have moved ahead by our own natural ability, but because we possess riches that we have inherited from our forefathers. Bernard of Chartres used to compare us to puny dwarfs perched on the shoulders of giants. He pointed out that we see further than our predecessors, not because we have keener vision or greater height, but because we are lifted up and borne aloft on their gigantic stature.
What an attitudinal reversal has come about in only the past few decades! Unlike their grateful forebears, today’s puny graduates of Self-Esteem U exalt themselves as moral and intellectual giants, condemned by the semi-fascist, white-supremacist, Euro-hegemonist patriarchy to drag behind them a dwarfish past.
It has been more than a decade since Joe entered the company of those other Dead White Males who have enriched, preserved, and defended the civilized norms, traditions, and truths that are now everywhere under attack. Let us thank them, and let our gratitude resound defiantly in the ears of the progressive brigands who would rule over us.