A Renegade History of the United States
© 2010 Thaddaeus Russell
In A People’s History of the United States, Howard Zinn delivered the hitherto-untold story of the common man, the poor and oppressed, fighting nobly for equality, liberty, and justice. Chumps! Thaddaeus Russell’s A Renegade History is a celebration of the unruly side of the common man, a tribute to those who just don’t behave the way they oughta. It’s a prickly history, guaranteed to irritate to some degree just about everyone who reads it. At its best, it demonstrates how ‘progress’ is a subjective label, and something that happens herky-jerky, from a maelstrom of confusion and strife; at its worst, it hails man’s cravenness as heroic.
The stage is set when, in the first chapter, Russell delights in how utterly depraved pre-revolutionary America was. There were more taverns than churches; prostitution, drugs, and dancing abounded, and whatever appetites existed in man’s nature could be fed. And then came the American Revolution, and there went freedom. With the war came sternness, moral discipline, and announcements that men must gird their loins not only for the martial fight against the Royal army, but for war against the sins of sloth, cowardice, and gluttony that would smother liberty in its cradle. After independence, the nation’s leaders were not distant bureaucrats in London, turning an indulgent eye toward the shenanigans of their colonists, but influential scolds like John Adams, who strolled the harbors noting with pleasure the growing American navy, and ignoring with great dignity the whorehouses behind him. The American nation took another direction, a more disciplined one — but ever since, there have been those who swam against the current, who attempted to turn the drums of a forward march into the beat of a ragtime dance.
Russell’s offensive is two-fold, first sneering at both great men and the dignified minorities fighting for rights, and then Russell’s chapter titles give away his delight in overturning expectations — “The Freedom of Slavery”, “How Gangsters Made America a Better Place”, and “How Juvenile Delinquents Won the Cold War”. Although the Founding Fathers might, in defining freedom, look back to the hoplite-citizens of Greece and wax poetic on freedom’z ennobling effect on the human character, for Russell freedom is the ability to gorge, drink, rut, and sleep. Slaves, he writes, were often better off than free men. To be sure, they were beaten for misconduct, but their legal status as property meant owners were bound by self-interest. They couldn’t dismiss a slave, or stop feeding him for slacking on the job: they would forfeit every dime paid, every resource given before. Compare that to the northern factoryman, Russell urges, who worked long hours to the ruin of his body, who — if he was injured, sick, or otherwise unable to continue — was dismissed into the cold entirely. The apparent perversity continues throughout, as when Russell honors the Mafia; their fun habits of extortion, murder, and theft aside, they saw profit in opening gay bars in the 1970s, so more power to them. That they were doing this for selfish motives (a la Adam Smith’s butcher) is Russell’s concealed point: humans at their worst can create an environment where people are ‘better off’ in general. The obscene becomes the respectable, as when First Ladies began sporting the makeup that once belonged exclusively to Ladies of the Night. ‘Better off’ will be a point of contention, however, since Russell’s idea of a good life is Pleasure Island from Pinocchio.
Civilization is the taming of human nature, the domestication of it — perhaps even its suppression. If there is any hope in A Renegade History, it is that human nature is simply too wild to remain in fetters for long: regardless of the dystopian nightmares of Orwell and Huxley, or dreams of politicians to inflict their favored order on us, humans are an unruly race. A Renegade History is infuriating, but I knew even as I held my nose going through, utterly unforgettable. Not only are there gems to be found shifting through the garbage of history — startling facts, like that the FBI raid on the Stonewall Inn had more to do with its Mafia-owned status than a campaign of anti-gay persecution, or that Martin Luther King’s success was predicated on being the alternative to the violence already sweeping American streets — but there’s some slight comfort in knowing how contrary we are. Russell’s heroes aren’t protestors; they don’t whine. They retaliate. They kick over tables, throw up middle fingers, and charge off. There’s ferocious energy here, the energy of a riot. But while it was a disorderly, drunken mob that initiated the violence of the American Revolution in Boston, the prosperity that sustained them came from the peaceful, disciplined farms of civilization. It’s refreshing to take a draft of the human spirit here — there’s such a kick to it — but as always our best hope is the path of moderation — a little work, a little play.
The Redneck Manifesto, Jim Goad