A Renegade History of the United States

Just finished reading this book by Thaddeus Russell, borrowed from (and now returned to) a friend.  It’s a lot of fun and incredibly frustrating.

First the fun part: Renegade History is spectacularly well-executed iconoclasm porn.  (I’m told by my friend that, in the Humanities, they call this “Critical Theory”.  I don’t care.  Porn.)  It’s by and large a collection of well-referenced anecdotes that gore, butcher, grind, and grill sacred cows into delicious, juicy hamburgers.  If you get a little (or not so little) schadenfreude chubby when you explain to people that Thomas Jefferson was a censorious puritan slaveholding asshat or that the principal sociopolitical influences behind the New Deal were the ongoing totalitarian projects in Italy and Germany, Renegade History might give you a fatal case of priapism.

Now the frustrating part: That’s basically all there is to it.  Renegade History reads like one of my undergrad philosophy papers, where I was so excited to fill the page with references supporting my argument that I ran out of space to make my fucking point.  Russell presents thousands of anecdotes of “leave me the fuck alone” individualism — which he attributes to the titular “renegades” — but doesn’t bother to generalize them.  He talks about liberty and freedom, but leaves behind a swarm of small anecdotes readily rebutted in detail.  He credits iconoclasts and misbehavers with preserving these liberties, but never bothers to explain how.

So what the hell, I’ll take a crack at it.  Russell’s anecdotes all speak to individualism, and his villains — from the Puritans through the anti-slavery movement* all the way up to country music and the gay marriage movement — all insist that Society owns the individual.  Are people getting so drunk on the weekend that they slog unproductively through Monday’s workday?  We can’t have that; we must maximize productivity among the elements of the working population; ban saloons and dance-halls and tax the fuck out of whiskey.  Are those Irish immigrants singing and dancing and cohabiting with blacks and demanding more pay for less work?  We can “prove” with the “science” of phrenology that they’re not actually white themselves, turn them back at the borders, and hive them off into slums until they start acting like good little productive citizens.  Are young women getting jobs and buying nice clothes and bobbing their hair and going out and having fun?  Better re-educate them into the joys of subservient motherhood — or, hell, just sterilize them.  Society owns the individual, and the individual is obliged to work from dawn ’til dusk, remain sober and pious and just intellectual enough to internalize his or her obligation, fuck only for propagation, vote in legitimate elections, strongarm nonconformists into conformity, and occasionally march off and die on another continent at Society’s behest.

Russell’s “renegades” give Society the finger and drink, dance, slack off, play jazz, burn their draft cards, and above all fuck like bunnies as and when they choose.  They create space for the nonconformists to do everything Society says they shouldn’t until Society realizes that suppressing that particular “bad behaviour” is not worth the trouble.  (As the War On Drugs will show you, this is an ongoing effort.)  They refuse to suffer for the good of a group that wants them to suffer, to erase themselves, and to stay quietly and well-behaved at the margins.  And, oh yeah, they make the market go:

“It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self-interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own neccessities but of their advantages.”

Who, then, is this Society I keep capitalizing as if it’s a proper noun?  Obviously not the rebels.  It’s the ideological mainstream, the crony corporatists, the political power blocs, the state church**, the Gladys Kravitzes, the union thugs beating the shit out of hippies in Chicago and the riot cops beating the shit out of drag queens outside the Stonewall Inn.  It’s the guy at the Tea Party rally waving a sign that says “Keep your government hands off my Medicare!” and the guy at Occupy Wall Street waving a sign that says “Forgive student debt now!”.  It’s Michelle Obama scolding an Olympic gymnast for eating an Egg McMuffin and Nancy Reagan scolding the country to “Just Say No”.  It’s everyone who suffered because they were told to suffer and can’t bear the thought that someone, somewhere, isn’t suffering as much and as self-righteously as they did.

In his excellent review from last year, Jeff Riggenbach points out that the hedonism Russell (mostly) praises is ultimately self-destructive:

I have no use for puritans. I agree with H.L. Mencken that puritans are people bedeviled by “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, might be happy.” But I also agree with Gustave Flaubert, that great hater of the puritanical bourgeoisie, the man who said, “What a horrible invention, the bourgeois, don’t you think?”

Flaubert considered it axiomatic that “hatred of the bourgeois is the beginning of wisdom.” He believed that “the whole dream of democracy is to raise the proletarian to the level of bourgeois stupidity.” But he also counseled a young Bohemian of his acquaintance to “be regular and orderly in your life like a bourgeois, so that you may be violent and original in your work.” Flaubert knew in the 1870s that what Thaddeus Russell calls the “renegade” subculture was inimical to the long-term success of those who practiced it.

Renegade History‘s biggest failing, to my mind, is that it doesn’t account for Flaubert’s second point.  By contrasting “renegade” libertines with greyfaced puritans, it misses the critical middle ground — the practitioners of bourgeois virtue who suffer not for Society but for themselves.


* Yes, I went there, and so did Russell.  Neither one of us is arguing that slavery was anything but evil, merely pointing out that the lesser of two evils is still pretty fucking unpleasant.

** Not in America, at least not officially.


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