on October 1, 2010
Thaddeus Russell's 'A Renegade History of the United States' succeeds on every level. It is a comical, rigorous, and incisive social and cultural history of the United States, spanning the early colonial era all the way to the Obama Administration. Skillfully utilizing a plethora of primary documents while astutely navigating and critiquing the secondary literature (Russell is a Columbia-trained historian), Russell takes us on a colorful, edifying, and enormously enjoyable tour of the underside of US history. Indeed, taking off from Zinn's people's history, Russell emphasizes that the "people" are neither homogeneous nor pure at heart. Russell in particular shows that, contrary to standard liberal accounts, history's drunkards, prostitutes, and general misfits have a lot more to do with advancing conceptual and material freedoms than has ever been acknowledged. 'A Renegade History' evokes Tocqueville's 'Democracy in America' insofar as it can either please -- or infuriate -- just about everyone. Conservatives will delight in Russell's demolition of politically correct -- but historically dubious -- truisms, but just when they're convinced they've found an ally, they'll be scandalized by Russell's celebration of radical anti-authoritarianism. Liberals will similarly be horrified by Russell's iconoclastic treatment of the Civil Rights Movement. Indeed, ideologues might fear this book. But those who value history, cultural analysis, and an amazing and brilliantly-told story will be elated.
Thaddeus Russell's premise for Renegade History is to look at the people and things in American history have always been left out: particularly how "vices" and those who pursued them have done as much to shape American history - and American freedom - than many political movements and acts. And the results are thrilling! This, folks, is the REAL People's History.
We start at the beginning. Part 1 goes from Colonial America and the omnipresent saloon to the Civil War. About colonial and early American history, we learn that saloons and alcohol consumption were not only common, but many saloons were owned (very successfully) by women, and catered to white, black, slave, and free. Despite efforts of states during and after America's independence to shut them down in the name of patriotism, they kept going.
The Civil War chapters may be the most controversial as they mount an impressive array of evidence to show that slaves may have had more freedom under slavery than as free men and women. Using interviews with former slaves, speeches and textbooks during reconstruction, and references to many secondary sources, Russell illustrates the difficulties in creating a new work ethic among a people who were quite unaccustomed to "fending for themselves." Russell IS NOT saying that slavery was better than freedom, but is pointing out that slavery often elicited less responsibility than freedom and, as such, slavery was often easier than freedom. Of particular importance to Russell's thesis is the idea that many vices flourished under slavery that had to be given up for freedom: serial monogamy, for instance, was the norm during slavery where freemen were expected to marry and stay married.
"Whore and the Origin of Women's Liberation" is another chapter that has the potential for controversy. The claim here is that "women of the night" are the best models the United States has for early independent women. Many not only owned their own businesses, but were the richest people in their towns or cities. Many did not get married until they were older, wore flamboyant clothing (that we now accept as normal), and pushed many other boundaries. All of this because they simply did not care about the "proper" mores. Lo and behold, more of their mores became "acceptable" to future generations than the then-"proper" ones.
Part II is called "How White People Lost Their Rhythm" and deals with four marginalized groups - African-Americans, Irish, Jews, and Italians - and their contradictory struggle to have their own identity in a U.S. that often didn't want them. All of them found ways to be renegades - to live a bit outside the "proper" model that was often both expected of them and told they could never meet. The Irish largely developed the minstrel show not out of disdain, but admiration, for African-Americans' culture as a group "at the bottom" who had adjusted to that life and was less worried and hurried as a result. African-Americans, of course, developed Jazz (along with Jews and Italians), Jews and Italians are largely responsible for organized crime, etc. When being forced to live outside the bounds of "respectability" there is a lot more freedom in what one can do.
The third section - "Fighting for Bad Freedom" - has largely to do with the early and mid-1900's and the overall message that the "progressives" were every bit as morally repressive as anyone on the "right." The temperance movement, eugenics, a longing for fascism and its top-down planning schemes - all of these are found in plenty in the writings of "progressives" of the day.
Lastly, we come to the final section - "Which Side are You On." It starts with the Cold War and how it was, in effect, won by the young people who, at every turn, refused to obey the orders and dictates of the Soviet bloc. No jazz, rock and roll, zoot suits, "loud" hair, etc? Yeah right! This section also contains an interesting chapter on the Civil Rights movement of the 1950's and 70's where Russell notes, ironically, that icons such as King and Malcolm X exhibited a moral conservatism that often gets overlooked when discussing their contribution to history.
In short, this book was eye-opening and challenging from start to finish. One could dismiss Russell as simply a contrarian "revisionist" were it not for his bevy of evidence including ample primary quotes. Two small complaints about the book though: first, the notes are not organized in a footnote or endnote structure. The sources are listed at the end of the book, but are not linked by markings to individual quotes or facts given in the book. Footnotes or endnotes would have been nice (but would likely have made the book about 100 pages longer).
Secondly, Russell says throughout the book that he is not advocating for his subjects' immoralities - not recommending or condoning drunkness, prostitution, organized crime, profligacy, etc. I confess, though, that it is really hard to come away believing him on that. Quite often - when the talk was over lack of work ethic, desire for material goods, disdain for saving, etc - I found myself concerned that maybe Russell was not seeing (or was choosing to ignore) the fact that many of those traits that he seems to celebrate may be directly tied to our current recession and overall financial difficulties. I understand that he SAYS he is not advocating these traits, but he sure seems to revel in them.
Anyhow, those are small grievances for such an interesting book. This is a history that everyone (except for grandma, the local chaplain, and those prone to conventionality) should read.
on February 21, 2011
I told an acquaintance of mine today that I spent most of this weekend reading this book, getting all riled up and outraged only to have the author calmly point out how this or that molded many of the Amendments we have on our Constitution today.
I must say, his take on slavery is a bit... unorthodox and tying in minstrel was just... unbelievable, but at the end of the chapter he makes it work. You see the truth of his words when you look back or even look out your office window. More than that, you cannot deny the words of the people themselves who were recorded for posterity during the FDR Administration.
As for prostitutes and womens rights, it's a stretch with a kernel of truth to it. However, it is true that pre-Revolutionary women had far more freedoms than after.
Read it with an open mind and if you doubt, check his facts. I did and was flabbergasted at what I was never taught in school or through extensive reading.
on December 23, 2010
I was particularly intrigued by the argument that slaves were more free than working whites. You have to be more well read and intellectually gifted than your typical 'merican to understand the nuance of the argument and grasp the full context of the freedom that Russell is discussing.
But Russell's defense of his premise relies on anecdotal evidence, and he does not give proper weighting to the suffering imposed on slaves or on ex slaves in the decades that followed the Civil War. His suggestion that most plantation owners treated slaves delicately because they did not want to lower production by angering their slaves is just not adequately defended with hard evidence. There is plenty of evidence to counter this proposition, but you won't find it refuted or even acknowledged in this book.
There are many interesting aspects of American history discussed in this book that make it a worthwhile read. But it is lacking in rigorous scholarship. Being revolutionary and anti-establishment doesn't make the arguments true, it just makes them provocative.
This book made me stop to think and reconsider, but it did not leave me with the feeling that there was a kernel of a great revelation here, and that it is something I would like to dive into more deeply.
on October 21, 2010
What if the author of this book came back some day to apply his analytic methods and writing style to the history of the last 20 years? It might read something like this ...
The internet, originally a project of the U.S. Defence Department, had by 1995 become the notorious home of hackers, flamers and trolls. Individualists and non-conformists ruled the day. In fact, the internet had become the last, best home of fun in a repressive American society. Because of its apparent cloak of anonymity, everyone could dare to be provocative, profane, and uninhibited on the internet. They could be drunk, or at least act drunk, even while at work. They could be a girl, or at least pretend to be a girl. On the internet, Americans could live out their fantasies in public from the privacy of their keyboards. In short, they could be "black" whenever and wherever they wished, without giving up their day job.
During these years, the leading names of the internet (at least the ones the history books record) were doing everything they could to dampen animal spirits and enforce sobriety. Flame wars were banned from many Usenet groups, and flamers and trolls were often banished. Even Al Gore declaimed in an obscure Senate speech "I did not invent the internets in order to promote the greater dissemination of pornography and mindless discourse. If there is not some self-imposed restraint, I may need to consider regulation."
As it turned out, neither restraint nor regulation were needed. The internet's renegade renaissance lasted only ten years before it was squashed by a complete corporate takeover between 1998 and 2001. After that, when the RIAA began tracking down Napster "pirates", and ISP's started naming names, addresses and phone numbers of their not-so-anonymous-any-more internet subscribers, the jig was up.
But before you settle back into the comfort of your safe, corporate-controlled internet with its ubiquitous spell checking and massive NSA supercomputers endlessly sifting every phrase you write (or perhaps auto-completing your phrases so it can analyze them before you've even finished writing or thinking them), spare a thought for the renegades, the pirates, and yes even the whores of the early internet. They're the ones who expanded our freedoms. Without their pluck, our goose would already be cooked.
on October 2, 2010
This is a book that will shake the foundations of anyone's world view.
Thaddeus Russell has written that rare book that is absolutely guaranteed to annoy right-wingers and left-wingers alike -- but centrists will probably find it the most disconcerting.
Thoroughly-researched, well-written, and persuasively argued, this one is a classic. If you only read one history book this year, make it A Renegade History of the United States.
on February 9, 2015
So said Henry Ford, and this book continues in said entrepreneur's fine tradition. I wish I could give it a better grade, because there is much in Thaddeus Russell's basic thesis to commend it: that human progress owes as much to the selfish and hedonistic streak in man as it does to the high-minded Gandhis, Christs, and Kings of the species. That the latter (or disciples and apostles) often turn into repressive beasts indeed, thwarting their own idealism when trying to restrict the basic nature of lesser men; that Joe and Jane Six-Pack with their base desires for simple pleasures will drill horizontally through any moral high ground and reduce it to a level playing field.
That said, Russell's attempt to laud the rogues and renegades among us turns into libertarian revisionism at its queasiest, with the predictable tropes of whores and pirates as vanguards of freedom and the New Deal = fascism: all the talking points of a Cato Society monograph, delivered in fun themes for the undergrad fratman to use against his liberal professor. Taking some of these to task reveals an extremely slanted view of history and society that ends up falsifying the very evidence he marshals.
In posing the frontier whore as the real feminist, Russell lauds her entreprenuerial "genius" at exploiting sexually frustrated men; forgetting that violence toward and exploitation of the women involved was more the norm than the few successful madams who elevated themselves above the puritanical gender limitations of their time. He sees prostitution as an act of emancipation from desperate poverty, with little regard for the kind of society that would create poverty desperate enough to seek such a desperate solution. The profit involved did not come without great risk to safety and health in an age before penicillin and civil service reform of the police.
Russell will have us believe that Reconstruction was a failure because its state paternalism encouraged an early form of shiftless dependency. The freedman's attempt at citizenship and liberty was thus not really broken by disfranchising white supremist legislatures or the gunbarrels of the Triple K Society. But we know by all human evidence that ex-slaves did *not* "choose a different kind of freedom" (p. 86). Rather, the promise of freedom was stolen as opportunities for meaningful and self-profiting labor were appropriated by white conservatives claiming all freedom and profit for themselves, as such elites do today under the guise of their own "freedom to choose." Thanks to the ex-slave's "hatred" of work (ie, raw exploitation little different from chattel status) wealthy libertarians can today enjoy jazz at after-hour clubs, freely donated to them by shiftless blacks who also donated their own citizenship after fighting and dying for it.
And on it goes. The American consumer culture was also created purely by free choice, especially the vain, pleasure-seeking female. Thus the corporate order was created as mere servant of humankind; not, of course, as a monopoly entity with legalized "personhood" hedging the resources and markets of human trade, forcing you to come to them to quench your desires, overcharging you in spades for said human completion. You may be another day older and deeper in debt, owing your soul to Master Card - but by god you're fulfilled!
Before Russell's questionable thesis that gay liberation created the sexual revolution - rather than gay and straight sexual freedom marched hand in hand on college campuses, though often hostile to each other - we reach the piece d'crapola of Russell's exegesis: that the New Deal was a variety of fascism. Thus World War II was "not over over ideas and values or a way of life" between the two, but a "struggle between brothers for control of the world family." This is a variant of the bogus Hitler was a leftie tripe, under which thesis German National Socialists were coequal with Zionist Laborites and had nothing to quarrel about. As proof Russell shows us workerist posters on p. 255, with little thought that both are appropriating revolutionary proletarian imagery, in vogue among Marxists and anarchists for a generation before. The glorification of manual labor was, of course, also the founding image of Soviet Socialist poster art and by Russell's "logic" the CCC should equal the Gulag. He does give credence to opinions equating the Civilian Conservation Corps with Dauchau. Well, I find no evidence that CCC inmates were beaten, tortured, worked to death, and then buried in unmarked graves in the back lot. These practices were in fact routine at state and county chain gangs, long predating the New Deal and having nothing to do with centralized national power. The closest the US ever came to totalitarianism was during WW I, when "one hundred per cent Americanism" made life a living hell for deviants and dissenters (See David Kennedy's "Over Here.") This does not set well for Russell's blinkered nonsense of liberal fascism, so must be blithely overlooked.
So mafiosi thugs made America a better place as they trafficked in heroin and Cuban prostitutes; and rock and roll brought down the Iron Curtain. Russell concedes that rock was anathematized by American conservatives as well as opposing commissars. But Communism in the hands of old men reveals a generation gap, not an ideological one, as witness the many religious opponents of both Marxism and rock in the "Captive Nations." But while extolling mafia-owned Caribbean prostitutes as vanguards of liberty, there are in fact two renegades and rogues of 1960s counterculture that Russell studiously avoids: Fidel Castro and, most especially, his companero Che Guevara. The beards and flowing locks of hippiedom were originally a conscious imitation of the original barbudos, as rebellious campus youth sought to bring the guerrilla struggle of the Sierra to suburbia. But since these particular rogues could not have made America a better place, nor did they wish to, their contribution to the decade of freedom is (h)airbrushed from the record. :)
on September 22, 2013
This is one of those books that has disturbed my view of the world. Personally and politically. It is not that it has tried to persuade me to change my mind so much as it shown me I have been looking at things 'sideways'. I had never noticed progressive attitudes permeating my thinking. I have a lot of 'weeding' to do.
Had I read this book 40 years ago my life would have been very different. I am pretty sure of that.
BTW. When I read about slaves' attitude to work and to their masters I was staggered. I had been drafted for the VN war and our attitude towards our commanders was exactly the same. For example, We avoided as much work as possible. We did not go where the wanted on patrols if it was too dangerous or too much work. When I left, a collection had started to frag a particularly gung ho commander. I shouldn't have been surprised; we were slaves.
on March 13, 2015
This is an interesting work, a good read, a fact-based (though maddeningly un-footnoted) history, but... it is a frustrating book.
Why? Russell is adept at bringing into the light the underbelly of civilization, in this case, American civilization. For example, colonial and revolutionary era madams and whores, saloons that catered to a multiracial patronage, and so on. He wonderfully illustrates that slaves "rebelled" or "got back" at their masters in innumerable ways, but then controversially claims that slavery was often easier (in some sense "freer") than life as, say, a poor white sodbuster who had to work hard or starve. He claims that slaves were free to indulge in vices they had to give up (or were supposed to give up) during Reconstruction such as serial monogamy or working the least amount possible. He states that Gilded Age prostitutes were harbingers of women's lib because they were owners of their own businesses and bodies and did what they want. (How many women were forced by person or circumstance to enter into prostitution is never surmised by Russell.) Another part of his book called "How White People Lost Their Rhythm" discusses how blacks, Irish, Jews, and Italians were each considered evil and outside the bounds of respectability, but then they were slowly respected and brought into mainstream society.
Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.
The problem is that though Russell makes some good points, and a heck of a whole lot of insight, it is his overarching thesis that "rebels" bring us all the wonderful freedoms we have today. How he puts it:
"If you were a typical American living in the early part of the nineteenth century, you had to plant, tend, harvest, slaughter, and process your own food. You had to make your own clothing, and all of it had to be strictly utilitarian; no decorations, unnecessary colors, or 'style.' You worked from before dawn until late at night. Your only source of entertainment was books, and most that were available were moral parables. You spent your entire life within a fifty-mile radius of your home. You believed that leisure was bad. There was no weekend." (p. 207)
"By the end of the nineteenth century Americans bought attractive clothing from stores, ate a variety of pleasing foods, read for fun, attended amusement parks and vaudeville shows, went dancing, rode trains, greatly decreased the number of hours a day they worked, and believed that leisure was good." (p. 207)
Without the Puritans, the Founders, the police officers, the 9-5ers, the hard-workers, the frontiersmen, the bankers, the moralists, the religious, etc., the mainstream he derides in every era as dictatorial buzzkills, there would be no civilization. Just chaos. If everybody shirked work, sabotaged factories, played jazz all day, were common whores, were petty crooks, etc., then what civilization would we have? None.
Renegades and rebels have a role in society, and a profound effect on culture, especially the common "low-brow" culture that drives the masses. But to deride Christian morality, the Protestant work ethic, the average worker, etc., you deride all the progress society has made. The eight-hour work day owes less to slaves and striking union members and lazy bums than it does to inventors, investors, and capitalism. But that book would be boring, would it not?
Buy and read, I heartily recommend it, but don't buy the argument whole.
on March 7, 2011
Like many Americans, I'm pretty ignorant about stuff like history. So what if we're condemned to repeat the past if we don't know it? "It's new to you!" as NBC promised us a few years ago in promoting network reruns. And a whole lot more people know NBC than George Santayana, so I think we know who won that argument.
This week marked the 150th anniversary of Lincoln's first inauguration, and so stories about Lincoln's "controversial" desires to colonize the slaves in Central America were in the news. And I thought, what's controversial? The argument about slavery among the white folk was never really about the "morality" of slavery. It was about whether former slaves could function as "free" white men at the time, which meant seven-day work weeks, no sex, no music, no dancing, and no fun, just livin' the Protestant Work Ethic Dream. In that light, the AP's quote from Lincoln's speech to African Americans that "For the sake of your race, you should sacrifice something of your present comfort for the purpose of being as grand in that respect as the white people" makes perfect sense.
That's what this book has done to my brain.
I've seen Mr. Russell's name on some right-wing list of the most dangerous professors in America in the past, but I gotta think it's the libertairan in you who will enjoy this book. I don't think I've read anything that has so engagingly made the argument that it's the individual who truly makes democracy work, not the politcal parties, not the political movements, not the high ideals nor the moral crusades. And we're not talking about Great Men or mythological heroes. This book celebrates the Gabby Hayes over the John Wayne.
It's an entertaining read with a fresh perspective that will enrage you at times, regardless of your political views, but will make you think about your culture in new ways, for good or ill. Me, I'm disturbed about the whole consumerism thing -- this book makes a case that it was mostly women wanting to buy useless and petty crap, and then go dancing at night, that moved us forward as a nation. The next time I see a woman with 100 pairs of shoes, I feel like it will be my patriotic duty to thank her.
I don't think I've enjoyed reading a contrarian view this much since Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson. If you read stuff to primarily confirm your world view and tell yourself how smart you are, stay away. If you like to read to be surprised about how ignorant you may be after all, you should enjoy this quite a bit.