Woods Against the Abolitionists

Yesterday I briefly reviewed some of the views of Thomas E. Woods, who will speak at the University of Colorado tomorrow and in Colorado Springs on Saturday. Largely I drew on an article by Eric Muller, who, as I suggested, is not automatically wrong about Woods simply because Muller is a leftist.

I thought it was an interesting irony, given that a jury will soon decide whether the University of Colorado owes Ward Churchill restitution for firing him for academic fraud, that Muller attacked Woods for his Churchillesque foreign policy. (Churchill, you may recall, argued that American foreign policy was to blame for the 9/11 terrorist attacks.) Muller blasts “Dr. Woods’s memorable insistence that the September 11 attacks were ‘bound to’ happen to us because of ‘the barbarism of recent American foreign policy’ in ‘attempt[ing] the hubristic enterprise of running the world -– and not even on Christian principles.'”

I will get to Woods’s essay on foreign policy in due course. But first I want to review another essay by Woods (also cited by Muller) published by the League of the South. The two essays are ideologically connected, it turns out.

Woods’s article, “Dispelling Myths… The Abolitionists,” is no longer available directly through DixieNet.org, the web page of the League of the South (which is a racist, theocratic outfit, as I pointed out yesterday). However, it remains available through Archive.org. The biography with the article states, “Mr. Woods, a graduate student at Columbia University, holds a B.A.in history from Harvard and is a SL Founding member.”

Woods condemned not only the abolitionists but the principles of the Declaration of Independence:

Charles Sumner had equally mischievous plans for postbellum society: to elevate the Declaration of Independence that it might “stand side by side with the Constitution, and enjoy with it coequal authority.” “Full well . . . I know that in other days, when Slavery prevailed . . . there was a different rule of interpretation,” Sumner conceded. This “different rule of interpretation,” which it pleased our Fathers to call “constitutionalism,” was far too restrictive to allow the kind of innovations of which the scheming Sumner dreamed.

The war, he claimed, had established “a new rule of interpretation by which the institutions of our country are dedicated forevermore to Human Rights, and the Declaration of Independenceis made a living letter instead of a promise.” Thus the statement that “all men are created equal,” condemned by John Randolph of Roanoke as a “most pernicious falsehood,” was to become the central organizing principle for the republic. It is to this polluted source that we may trace the scores of crusaders for Equality from forced busing to affirmative action which have been visited upon us ever since. …

Any civilized man must recognize in the abolitionists not noble crusaders whose one flaw was a tendency toward extremism, but utterly reprehensible agitators who put metaphysical abstractions ahead of prudence, charity, and rationality. Indeed, with heroes like this, who needs villains?

Woods argued, first, that some abolitionists were mean, and, second, “that an abstract commitment to Equality and human rights has a way of degenerating into totalitarianism and mass murder.” In essence, Woods argued that the sins of the French condemn human rights as such.

But Woods omitted a couple of key facts. First, whereas some abolitionists may have erred on occasion, the abolitionists accomplished the magnificent goal of abolishing slavery. Shouldn’t that bare fact at some point factor into our evaluation of the abolitionists?

Second, Woods ignored the critical distinctions between the American and French revolutions. The American Founders — those loyal to the Declaration — advocated legal equality — equality before the law — and individual rights for all. This is a far different ideal than egalitarianism, though Woods conflated the two.

I don’t know how Woods’s views have evolved since his years as a graduate student. But Woods’s old essay is profoundly disturbing.

Some will argue that it’s not fair to dredge up Wood’s old writings. However, his more recent writings, while different in substance, share many of the same basic flaws.

In an article published by Pravda (yes, Pravda), Woods discusses the 9/11 attacks.

Woods mocks the view that “the terrorists must hate ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy'” — despite the fact that they have stated as much. He writes, “Pat Buchanan was the only person who warned that the barbarism of recent American foreign policy was bound to lead to a terrorist catastrophe on American soil.” It is American military intrusions, he argues, that “invite terrorist attacks on our citizens and country.” The answer is “extricating the United States from ethnic, religious and historical quarrels that are not ours and which we cannot resolve with any finality.”

To his credit — and this is what distinguishes Woods from Churchill — Woods writes, “I am obviously not suggesting that past U.S. actions somehow justified these unknown savages in their kamikaze attacks on innocent Americans.” Still, Woods is squarely in the “blame America first” camp.

Woods also emphasizes the theological roots of his ideology; he suggests U.S. foreign policy should manifest the “spirit of Catholicism.” He concludes, “God hates the proud. Our leaders have attempted the hubristic enterprise of running the world –- and not even on Christian principles, but on a combination of simple greed and Enlightenment philosophy. That cannot go on forever.”

Woods also approving quotes another professor critical of America’s “Israeli proxy.”

Again Woods ignores the key facts.

First, though U.S. interventionism is a contributer to terrorist activity, the primary cause of Islamic terrorism is the Islamist ideology of theocratic conquest.

Second, while I quite agree that the United States should cease its altruistic military actions around the globe, the United States also needs to protect critical allies, particularly Israel, in the name of American defense. While Israel is hardly a consistently free nation, compared to its neighbors it is a bastion of liberty. Israel has every right to defend itself against its aggressive neighbors, and the United States has every right to help.

Third, trying to resolve some ethnic conflict is hardly the same thing as, say, preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.

Fourth, as Bush made clear, his foreign policy proceeded on Christian principles as he understood them, which promote the sort of altruistic actions that Woods condemns.

Though the subject is different, Woods makes the same basic error in both essays: he condemns state action as such (particularly if the state in question is the United States), regardless of the standard of individual rights. Despite Woods’s arguments, the abolitionists were right, and the south was wrong, because slavery is morally monstrous. Southern states had no right to maintain slavery, and the south is responsible for the primary evil. Likewise, United States responses to totalitarian aggression and to state sponsored terror are not remotely comparable to that aggression and terror. In both cases, Woods makes a crude “moral equivalency” argument — the abolitionists made some mistakes, therefore they were worse than southern slave holders; the United States government errs in many of its foreign policy decisions and is therefore to blame for Islamist terror.

Woods’s antistate fervor causes him to condemn the abolitionists and the Americans and to downplay or overlook the evil of slave states and Islamic totalitarians. In other words, Woods is the quintessential libertarian.