Inter Press Network

Sunday, July 24, 2005

A Rich Man's War and a Poor Man's Fight

Book Review by George C. Leef

Dr. Thomas Woods has achieved a tremendous amount in a very short period of time. In fact, many of his contemporaries will be deflated to discover what his age actually is (and he reveals it in one of the answers below). This is for good reason as no self-respecting and self-promoting, self-esteem guru would ever recommend placing oneself alongside his curriculum vitae.

Specifically, Dr. Woods is the author of several books. This spring he released, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, and, last December, The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History was published. Ironically, the latter book became a New York Times bestseller, which must have irritated more than a few of the Gray Lady’s subscribers. Another work, The Church Confronts Modernity: Catholic Intellectuals and the Progressive Era came out in 2004. Between frenetic research and study, he finds time to work as an Assistant Professor at a community college. Dr. Woods obtained his bachelor’s degree from Harvard, and his Ph.D. from Columbia. The analysis he provides below reflects the type of clarity and insight that we expect from him. This interviewer hopes that his line, "the fact remains that an educated person in our day has to be in large measure an autodidact," will be considered by young people across the nation before they invest hundreds of thousands of dollars on degrees that will chiefly enable them to howl the words of Mumia Abu-Jamal or quote from memory passages of I, Rigoberta Menchu.

Chapin: Let me begin by asking about the title of The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History. Your use of the words "politically incorrect" undoubtedly put some intellectuals on the defensive. Did any of your colleagues or associates dispute the existence of political correctness? It seems to be some people’s stance that PC was a product of the eighties and is now defunct. I even had a professor from the University of Illinois tell me that I was obsessing over ancient history when I wore a "Politically Incorrect and Proud of It" t-shirt in public.

Woods: It’s not that political correctness has gone away; it’s that it has become such a fixture of university life that one hardly notices it any longer. People have grown acclimated to it. It seems normal to them that certain opinions are not allowed to be expressed, and that if they are, the offender is shunned from respectable society until he has shown adequate contrition. When some poor soul is so unfortunate as to transgress the boundaries of allowable opinion, the ceremony of expiation he inevitably undergoes – consisting of apologies, followed by various forms of "outreach" to the offended groups – is so eerily similar from one person to the next it’s as if they’re all reading from the same liturgical book.

It’s not a coincidence that religious language – contrition, expiation, liturgical – seems necessary in order to describe this phenomenon. Paul Gottfried discusses this aspect of leftism in Multiculturalism and the Politics of Guilt: Toward a Secular Theocracy.

Chapin: I came across a negative review of your book in the Claremont Review. The author took issue with your stance on nullification. For those of us greatly interested in the Civil War, but not well-versed in the politics of the decades preceding it, could you explain the acrimony among historians regarding the nullification crisis? Also, what is the difference between secession and the right of revolution?

Woods: First, allow me to be gracious and say that I appreciated the very kind review of How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization that the Claremont Review published.

But the Claremont people are quite unreliable on certain central aspects of American history, even if we would agree on issues like the New Deal, the Great Society, and similar matters. They are Lincolnian nationalists with a vengeance, and they read their political preferences into the historical record. Thus they claim to be Jeffersonians, but the Jefferson they admire isn’t the Jefferson who drafted the Kentucky Resolutions of 1798 and favored the right of secession.

The term "nullification crisis" refers to the showdown in 1832–33 between the federal government and South Carolina, which voted to nullify the tariffs of 1828 and 1832, which they considered unconstitutional.

"Nullification" in general refers to an idea developed by Thomas Jefferson (but ultimately traceable to the Virginia ratifying convention) whereby the states could refuse to enforce federal laws they considered unconstitutional. The Claremont people, who are nationalists at heart, are totally opposed to this way of thinking even though they claim to be Jeffersonians. Claremont favors a strong central government that protects the individual rights of Americans, and is kept in check not by nullification or threats of secession but by periodic elections and ultimately by the people’s right of revolution.

As for periodic elections keeping the federal government limited, my question to the Claremont folks would be, "How’s that strategy been working for you?" And surely there must be a less disruptive form of resistance to federal encroachments than outright revolution.

(I discuss nullification at greater length here and here, in a lecture available in audio and video, and in chapter 4 of the Politically Incorrect Guide. As for the Straussians – a designation that includes the Claremont Institute – I address them here and here.)

The distinction that you ask about between secession and the right of revolution will seem like a subtle one to many readers. The Straussians argue that although the Lockean natural right of revolution – that is, the right to overthrow the government and replace it with a new one – inherent in the people is legitimate, no legal right of secession (the withdrawal of a state or states from the Union) exists. Typically, those who have defended secession have argued that a constitutional right of secession exists, and that those who exercise that right are acting entirely within the original constitutional framework. The right of secession has been consistently defended in classical liberal circles, and even here we see reference to it as a right in American law rather than as a revolutionary overthrow of the American system. Thus consider the words of Richard Cobden, certainly one of the greatest British classical liberals of the nineteenth century:

I have been reading Tocqueville’s Democracy in America…[in which the author] takes the Southern view of the right of secession. He says, ‘The Union was formed by the voluntary agreement of the States; and in uniting together they have not forfeited their nationality, nor have they been reduced to one and the same people. If one of the States chose to withdraw its name from the contract, it would be difficult to disprove its right of doing so; and the Federal Government would have no means of maintaining its claims either by force or by right.’ …[I]t is a little unreasonable in the New York politicians to require us to treat the South as rebels, in the face of the opinion of our highest European authority [Tocqueville] as to the right of secession.

The Claremont position is that any form of resistance to the federal government is necessarily extralegal and constitutes a break with the constitutional order. If you accept that position, it becomes easier to tar secessionists as "rebels" and "traitors," whereas if you accept Jefferson’s conception of the Union as a compact between sovereign states, secession appears as a perfectly legal exercise of sovereign power by a self-governing people, very much within the constitutional structure as Jefferson understands it rather than a revolt against it.

Chapin: "Paleocon" is a word that has been used to describe you. It has also been said in regards to many of the personas who write at sites like, The American Conservative, and I think these terms came into the vernacular after David Frum wrote an article about the conservative schism in a March of 2003 issue of National Review. Dr. Woods, how do you regard yourself politically? By this I mean, when you are asked, what do you say your beliefs are? Also, do you think the whole neocon/paleocon battle is overdone or contrived?

Woods: My thinking has evolved quite a bit over the past 15 years (I’m about to turn 33).

As Murray Rothbard and fusionist Frank Meyer both observed, libertarianism is a political philosophy only, and since there is more to life than politics, that word alone can’t adequately describe my thinking. I think of myself as antistatist in politics and conservative in most other areas, though I can’t find a term to describe my outlook that’s totally satisfactory.

I’ve heard some people say that the neocon/paleocon split is exaggerated, but I disagree. There is a clear difference between Bill Kristol and Paul Gottfried, and most of the disagreements between these men are replicated across neo- and paleoconservatism more broadly. I’m a contributing editor of The American Conservative, which I think has done a creditable job resuscitating an older, more thoughtful and more dignified conservatism than the lowbrow, jingoistic frat party that the Right in America, under neoconservative influence, has become.

Chapin: You are a professor at a university in the United States, which makes you the perfect person with whom to pose the following question; can a young man or woman still obtain a worthwhile education in one of our colleges today? Has the study of the liberal arts been irreparably damaged by cultural Marxism? I sometimes read works by post-college conservatives and am very disappointed at the full extent with which they are steeped in counter-cultural mumbo-jumbo.

Woods: English departments are pretty difficult for a normal person to navigate, and art history is probably a lost cause. But I don’t want to go to a foolish extreme and say that a decent education in at least some disciplines is completely impossible in the present environment, bad though it is. I learned a lot in college and graduate school and had the opportunity to study with some truly extraordinary scholars. Naturally what I learned had an establishment bias, and a good deal of importance had to be picked up by way of outside reading, but I would never describe it as utterly without merit. I was fortunate to learn from some truly great teachers.

Still, the fact remains that an educated person in our day has to be in large measure an autodidact. The LRC bibliographies are a great help here.

Chapin: It’s ironic that so often religion and science are thought to be polar opposites, yet, in your latest book, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, you illustrate the way in which the Catholic Church has influenced the development of western science – indeed, seismology was regarded as "the Jesuit science." Why do you think so many commentators continue to regard religion as being incompatible with science?

Woods: I can think of two main reasons. The first is that the alleged incompatibility of religion and science has been rammed down most people’s throats practically from birth. One would have to read fairly substantially in the scholarly literature on the history of science to have doubts about this view. In fact, for the most part the scholarly literature itself began to have sustained and serious doubts about this view only in the twentieth century, with the work of the (largely unappreciated) Pierre Duhem, and then with a much broader array of scholars in the latter half of the century.

The second reason is that there is a superficial plausibility behind the alleged incompatibility of religion and science. After all, isn’t religion based on faith and science based on reason? I get this in email correspondence all the time. My science chapter – the book’s longest – argues that the matter is not so easily resolved.

The scientific method itself takes certain features of the natural world for granted. The scientific method cannot work unless experiments are repeatable, and experiments are repeatable only if the universe is orderly. If I cannot expect to get the same results when I perform the same experiment multiple times under identical conditions, it becomes impossible for me to do science.

The idea of an orderly universe operating according to fixed natural laws is more likely to develop in some civilizations than in others. It flourished in the Christian West largely because God’s orderliness had been taken for granted for so long as a sign and feature of His goodness and reliability. St. Anselm was not alone among theologians in distinguishing between God’s potentia absoluta and His potentia ordinata – His absolute power and His ordered power. In other words, although God possessed the sheer power to bring about such anomalies as starlight without stars, or to govern the universe whimsically, in practice He would not exercise such power, since it did not befit His nature to behave that way.

Moreover, the Christian world was especially sympathetic to the idea that the universe could be understood quantitatively, which is an essential ingredient of modern science (if perhaps one that, as Anthony Rizzi notes, has been taken to unreasonable extremes). Already St. Augustine is conceiving of God as a great geometer, and making fruitful use of Wisdom 11:21, which notes that God has made all things in measure, number, and weight. That has been called the most quoted biblical verse of the entire Middle Ages. Twelfth-century scholars at the renowned cathedral school at Chartres made particularly good use of it since it was they, according to Thomas Goldstein, who really set about to try to understand the universe at least partly in mathematical terms.

But there is more to all this than simply the conviction that the universe was orderly and could thus be understood mathematically, important as that insight is. Stanley Jaki, in his work on the history of science, has quite a profound discussion of the subject of why, for instance, pagan cultures failed to develop the concept of inertial motion, while the Christian civilization of the West did. I touch on this point as well in How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization.

Now it will be objected that these ideas could have developed independently of Christianity. Perhaps. The point is that it was within a Christian milieu, in which such ideas had become second nature to scholars who lived in such a milieu, that they did develop in a serious and sustained way.

Chapin: In the last question I mention the Jesuits. They were once the Pope’s shock troopers. How do you regard them today? Have they notably changed in essence, and, if so, do you have any idea why this change occurred?

Woods: Although my most recent book devotes substantial attention to the achievements of the Jesuits, I am less able to speak about the order today. What is obvious to just about anyone, though, is that the Jesuits are a pale shadow of what they once were. They used to be serious, disciplined, and extraordinarily intelligent men. (The Jesuits’ scientific accomplishments over the past several centuries are quite extraordinary, if entirely forgotten by students today.) If you have a chance to meet an old Jesuit, who received his training prior to Vatican II, you’ll know what I mean: you are in the presence of an unusually impressive person.

Today, unfortunately, the order has degenerated into a moral morass, and seems interested in just about anything other than traditional Catholicism. Moral and spiritual laxity, liturgical irreverence (among the most contemptible forms of immaturity to which a man can succumb, in my opinion), and left-wing "social justice" nonsense are now the order’s characteristic features. And they wonder where all the vocations have gone.

Chapin: Speaking of the church, I wanted to mention your first book as some readers may not be aware of it. How has its reception been?

Woods: With all the attention that the Politically Incorrect Guide got, the more academic book fell through the cracks a bit: The Church and the Market: A Catholic Defense of the Free Economy. I think it’s the best work I’ve ever done. It vigorously defends the market economy from some of the typical (but, I think, misplaced) criticisms of both left and right. It also contains the only chapter-length critique of distributism of which I am aware. (If anyone knows of another critique of comparable length, please let me know; I’m eager to get my hands on whatever is out there.)

I’m told it’s being assigned at Christendom College and that at the University of Dallas a new course being offered by the department chairman will devote a third of a semester to it, so I’m quite pleased.

Chapin: What’s next on the agenda? What can we expect from you in the future?

Woods: As for the future, I’m still thinking about my next project. I have plenty of material for a follow-up volume to the Politically Incorrect Guide, though if I wrote one it would be in a more standard format rather than part of the Politically Incorrect Guide series. Whatever I decide, I’ll probably want to maintain the element of surprise.

Chapin: Thank you very much for your time, Dr. Woods.

July 23, 2005

Bernard Chapin is a writer living in Chicago whose book about his experiences in the public schools, Escape from Gangsta Island: The Progressive Decline of an Alternative School, will be finished in July.