(May 10, 2018)
The many good folks who read what I write, watch my videos, and listen to me every weekday know who I am and what I stand for: nonaggression, free markets, and peace.
A handful of folks who do none of these things have tried to portray me, by contrast, in rather an unflattering light: why, Woods was associated with the League of the South!
(You can imagine the rational commentary that then follows.)
In general these folks dislike me because I belong to the Ron Paul/Murray Rothbard wing of libertarianism, and the League of the South accusation is simply a helpful bludgeon against an opponent.
Meanwhile, people who don’t know anything about me one way or another, when faced with this issue, may wonder what’s up.
So in case anyone is interested, here is the story.
Back when I was 21 (I’m about to turn 46 as I write this), my old friend Jeffrey Tucker, whom I was visiting in Alabama, drove me to a meeting of scholars and journalists who were concerned that the federal government was out of control. We had just lived through the disappointing Reagan years: here was a president committed to reducing the size of government, yet the federal government in 1989 was much larger than it had been in 1981.
We were told that these folks were looking to start an organization that would reassert the Jeffersonian idea of local self-government, which by that time had essentially dropped out of our vocabulary.
One of the key figures to be present at that meeting was the esteemed historian Forrest McDonald. McDonald held the highest scholarly honor the U.S. government bestows: he was the Jefferson Lecturer of the National Endowment for the Humanities.
Let’s pause right there.
The idea that Forrest McDonald — of all people! — was a “white supremacist” (the standard term of demonization thrown at anyone and everything these days) or otherwise reprehensible is preposterous, of course. The U.S. government may be clunky, but in the 1990s it wasn’t bestowing its highest academic honors on Klansmen. In fact, I’ve never heard even my worst critic say an unkind word about McDonald — who, in their version of the story, is mysteriously absent from this 1994 meeting.
In fact, the New York Times wrote a laudatory story about McDonald when he died not too long ago, and never even mentioned the League, because they recognized it was of zero significance in assessing the man’s life.
At one point the discussion at that meeting centered around whether the organization being founded should focus on the South or whether its scope should be more broad and look to encourage decentralist ideas wherever in the country, at the state or local level, an interest in them could be found. In other words, nobody gathered in 1994 for the purpose of founding a southern organization per se (not that there would have been anything wrong with that). We gathered to discuss decentralism.
At that point I had lived in the North my entire life, so I took the second position: the organization we found should be focused on the entire country, I said.
The vote was taken, and I did not get my way.
Yet despite my objection, the establishment of a southern organization with a cultural and educational focus was something I could live with. At Harvard I had just taken American intellectual history with Professor Donald Fleming, who had introduced me to the thought of the Southern Agrarians. After reading I’ll Take My Stand, I became convinced that in spite of those aspects of Southern history that all reasonable people deplore, there was much of value in Southern civilization that deserved a fair hearing. Moreover, conservatives (and I was a conservative at the time) had traditionally had an appreciation for the South; that was certainly true of Russell Kirk, and I have yet to meet someone who did not profit from reading The Southern Essays of Richard M. Weaver.
Also at Harvard I’d had the opportunity to be present at a special series of lectures delivered by Eugene Genovese, one of the century’s most celebrated southern historians. Genovese had come to Harvard to speak about the value of the southern tradition.
Now bear in mind: what you are about to read was uttered by the same person who had said he welcomed a Viet Cong victory in Vietnam, so we’re not exactly dealing with Jesse Helms here.
Genovese said, “Rarely these days, even on southern campuses, is it possible to acknowledge the achievements of the white people of the South…. To speak positively about any part of this southern tradition is to invite charges of being a racist and an apologist for slavery and segregation. We are witnessing a cultural and political atrocity –- an increasingly successful campaign by the media and an academic elite to strip young white southerners, and arguably black southerners as well, of their heritage, and, therefore, their identity. They are being taught to forget their forebears or to remember them with shame.”
In other words, the state of ignorance about and prejudice against the South was so great that even a man of the Left like Genovese felt compelled to say: enough is enough already.
Genovese, incidentally, observed that when you address the question of southern history before a southern audience they’ll call you on every misplaced semicolon. But when you do so before the Ivy League? “Don’t worry,” he said. “Nobody is going to know anything.”
(Not much has changed on that front, as I can attest from personal experience.)
In addition to meeting Forrest McDonald — what young historian wouldn’t go to a meeting with Forrest McDonald? — I also got to know the brilliant Clyde Wilson, whom Genovese called one of the top ten southern historians in the country, which he certainly was and is.
Between 1994 and today, though, something happened. And that something continues to cause me grief.
People who are determined to dislike me will claim that the League was always vicious, but that’s just a knee-jerk opposition to anything southern — a common enough prejudice. To them, no southern organization could ever have merit, or be anything other than a “hate group.”
That’s just idiotic and anti-intellectual.
To show that the organization has undergone a dramatic change, I don’t exactly need to hire a private detective. The League’s president himself wrote of having made a “conscious change” to the League, such that “we have radicalized by openly and directly addressing the Negro (and general dark-skinned) Question and the Jew Question. We are de facto and openly professed White/Southern nationalists, meaning that we seek to restore the South to the dominance of the White man and to make it our own ethnostate for our posterity.”
I’ll say that’s a change! Would Forrest McDonald have attended that meeting?
Here, therefore, is express admission of what was already obvious to anyone of good will: this is not the League Jeffrey Tucker and I joined in 1994. Anyone who says otherwise has no idea what he’s talking about. This in fact is why all the PhDs present at the League’s founding (including one of the world’s top David Hume scholars, by all accounts) are long gone — as even the Southern Poverty Law Center, which never concedes anything, now concedes.
Stymied there, my critics have had to resort to digging up a few articles I wrote in the mid-1990s (all of which are now over 20 years old). Yes, via the Wayback Machine you can find two or three articles in which (like many utilitarians, traditional conservatives, and a host of others) I reject the natural rights tradition. I even wrote a scholarly article critical of capitalism, though my critics have for some reason never taken me to task for that one; I wrote that in the peer-reviewed journal American Studies.
Well, there’s a newsflash: back before I was a libertarian, I wasn’t a libertarian! You caught me!
Having emerged from my paleocon phase — and by the way, I happen to like the paleocons, who oppose war and the empire, which is more than I can say for some libertarians and much of the Left — I’ve long since abandoned those ideas, as anyone who reads or listens to me has known for years. In fact, I gave a public lecture on natural rights theories for Campaign for Liberty nearly 10 years ago (and I in turn made that talk into an episode of my podcast last year), and I teach them in my government course for the Ron Paul Curriculum.
I would further guess that it is an odd “neo-Confederate” who holds, as I do, that according to libertarian theory the slaves had the right to kill their masters and confiscate their land.
No, I didn’t come forward and offer the world a solemn apology at the time. I just changed my mind and moved on.
Unless you think the world is suffering from a dearth of drama queens, I think I made the right choice.
The single easiest thing in the world would be for me to beat my breast publicly for ever having been associated with the League. That sure beats having to trot out a lengthy explanation about the League’s academic origins and its later change, a change that caused the original academics to depart.
But you know what? I can’t be alone in despising the contemptible cowards who do that.
Yes, that means I’m going to take abuse that I could easily avoid. And if they’re still dishing it out 24 years later after over 1100 podcast episodes, 12 books (including two New York Times bestsellers), and hundreds of video lessons on history for homeschool students, they’re probably still going to be dishing it out 24 years hence.
But better that than being a bootlicking loser who begs forgiveness from people who will despise him no matter what he does.
(On the other hand, if it’s been 24 years and my critics can’t find anything else to pin on me, I must be doing pretty well.)
Not one of my critics has any idea what it’s like to hold a view he will actually be reviled for. Not one. They would die a hundred deaths before saying anything that would seriously displease the New York Times.
They strike me, if I may speculate a bit, as the very last people who would have opposed slavery when it really counted. Their eagerness to disassociate themselves from perceived “extremism” would not have served them well in the 1850s, when abolitionism, which had zero electoral success, was the most notorious extremism of the day.
Indeed I can readily imagine them condemning the radical libertarian Woods as an unrespectable “extremist,” and urging every newspaper that would listen that of course they, the responsible ones, favored gradual emancipation over 50 years.
And yes, I agree with Eugene Genovese — not exactly a right-winger! — that there is much that is valuable in the southern tradition. I realize there are some people who will dismiss me on those grounds alone — why, their seventh-grade teacher assured them that the South was about slavery and nothing else.
But there is a reason that the rightly esteemed Liberty Fund published The Southern Essays of Richard M. Weaver, and a John C. Calhoun [!] anthology called Union and Liberty.
Tom Woods didn’t do that. Liberty Fund did.
If I really am what they pretend I am, it would seem at least anomalous that I’d be published by Columbia University Press, Basic Books, Rowman & Littlefield, and Random House, or endorsed by so many leading libertarians, or enjoy such a large audience, or indeed be awarded the Hayek Lifetime Achievement Award (an honor bestowed on such luminaries as Deirdre McCloskey, Peter Thiel, and Arthur Laffer) by the Austrian Economics Center and the Hayek Institute in Vienna. This is not generally true of the kind of person they are accusing me of being.
If so many libertarians appreciate and defend me, moreover, and I’m actually a terrible person, then the libertarian movement couldn’t really be worth defending, could it?
I’m proud of my record of accomplishment, and of the many friends I’ve made in the libertarian movement and beyond. I receive a hero’s welcome wherever in the world I go to speak. If I have to endure some unjust criticism, it’s a small price I pay to lead a very comfortable, pleasant, and rewarding life.