Commemorating a Non-Conformist

, Malcolm A. Kline, Leave a comment

Just one of the many misconceptions about conservatives, particularly in the academy, is that we all come off of an assembly line. To preserve this fiction, academics prefer to study us from a distance, if at all.

Thus we get studies with bizarre conclusions about how much we love authority figures. They read us backwards: Conformity is the antithesis of our ethos. I’ve been to left-wing and right-wing events and found infinitely more diversity at the latter than at the former.

“For all the cant about ‘openness to ideas’ (that word again!), they cooperate to impose an ersatz consensus on the rest of us,” columnist and author Joseph Sobran wrote more than a quarter of a century ago.  Indeed, Sobran spent a good deal of his writing career inveighing—to use a verb beloved at National Review, his place of employment for nearly two decades—against authority figures.

The Fitzgerald-Griffin Foundation has published a collection of Sobran’s  NR articles in Joseph Sobran: The National Review Years. In these dispatches, the authority figures Sobran inveighs against run the gamut from then-President Jimmy Carter to Shakespeare (he loved the works but disputed the Bard’s authorship of them).

Although Sobran’s old boss, William F. Buckley, Jr., may be better known for his epigrams,  Joe tossed off some pretty good ones himself. “A ‘bigot’ can be defined as a guy who gets caught practicing sociology without a license,” he wrote in 1987.

Although much of Sobran’s writing focused on issues of the day, the startling thing about his analyses is the degree to which they remain timely even when they were focused on current events of decades past. For example, see if his assessment of Jimmy Carter’s one term in office could be applied to any other chief executive’s first foray into the West Wing.

“He used the media more than any President ever had, used them to break down barriers of formality between the office and his people: the fireside chat in the caridigan, the radio phone-in, the frequent press conferences, the town meeting,” Sobran wrote. “He kept a pollster by his side too, thinking that was the way to maintain contact.”

“While lusting for popularity, he nonetheless complained that he wasn’t appreciated when he made unpopular decisions.” Other than the cardigan, does that remind you of anyone?

Another riff that sounds eerily contemporary is Sobran’s memory of a professor whose class he took in the 1960s. “Things went smoothly as long as we agreed with him: all smiles and nods,” Sobran recalled. “But lo the poor fool who uttered a reactionary thought: suddenly the hapless student was made to feel like a piece of detritus left over from one of the less-bright generations.”

“The professor’s head froze in mid-nod, he glared silently, then (if he thought meet) delivered a cutting remark. The incidence of reactionary utterances fell off considerably over the semester.”

“Which was my way of discovering that the widely advertised intellectual training is only half the story of a modern college education. The other part is a subtle initiation into a set of trans-disciplinary liberal attitudes, effectively enforced by little more than the tacit threat of minor public humiliations.”

“For most people, that’s enough.”


Malcolm A. Kline is the Executive Director of Accuracy in Academia.
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