Now here’s a guy whose work seems worth looking into: historian Thaddeus Russell. I hope American heretics here will excuse Heretic TOC for only now catching up with the daringly iconoclastic Russell, but such is the smothering ubiquity of the dominant narrative he may have passed largely unnoticed even in his own country. A couple of items made it under the radar and into the media though: in 2009 a Daily Beast piece on film director Roman Polanski’s “unlawful sexual intercourse” with a girl of 13, called How young is too young?, and in the following year a Huffington Post article, Why I Got Fired From Teaching American History.
The titles alone suggest fireworks, and when he tells us he was “raised by pot-smoking, nudist, socialist revolutionaries as an egghead white boy in black neighbourhoods” we just know we are in for an exciting ride. Dubbed “Bad Thad” by his students at elite Barnard College, Russell showed them:
… that during the American Revolution drunkards, laggards, prostitutes, and pirates pioneered many of the freedoms and pleasures we now cherish – including non-marital sex, interracial socializing, dancing, shopping, divorce, and the weekend – and that the Founding Fathers, in the name of democracy, opposed them. I argued not only that many white Americans envied slaves but also that they did so for good reason, since slave culture offered many liberating alternatives to the highly repressive, work-obsessed, anti-sex culture of the early United States. I demonstrated that prostitutes, not feminists, won virtually all the freedoms that were denied to women but are now taken for granted. By tracing the path of immigrants from arrival as “primitives” to assimilation as “civilized” citizens, I explained that white people lost their rhythm by becoming good Americans. I presented evidence that without organized crime, we might not have jazz, Hollywood, Las Vegas, legal alcohol, birth control, or gay rights, since only gangsters were willing to support those projects when respectable America shunned them….I wanted to show that the more that “bad” people existed, resisted, and won, the greater was what I called “the margin of freedom” for all of us.
And how about this for ringing bells of recognition:
My students were most troubled by the evidence that the “good” enemies of “bad” freedoms were not just traditional icons like presidents and business leaders, but that many of the most revered abolitionists, progressives, and leaders of the feminist, labor, civil rights, and gay rights movements worked to suppress the cultures of working-class women, immigrants, African Americans, and the flamboyant gays who brought homosexuality out of the closet.
The suppressive activities of “good” feminist and gay leaders, especially, have stretched, as we know all too well, somewhat beyond the list of cultures listed here!
Barnard College, as we will gather from the article’s title, would ultimately feel Russell was too hot to handle. He was fired. Barnard’s loss is our gain, though, as he has since written a book, A Renegade History of the United States: How Drunks, Delinquents and Other Outcasts Made America (Simon & Schuster, 2010).
Now, this is all very colourful, rollicking stuff, and Heretic TOC is sure he will enjoy reading it. But can it be enjoyed with a good conscience? After all, one man’s freedom may be another’s enslavement – literally so in the days when white Americans were free to own black slaves. In the Introduction to his book, though, which is as far as I have got at the moment, Russell makes it clear that although he might be fascinatingly “bad” he is not plain evil:
This book does not advocate a renegade revolution. Were the heroes of this book to take control of society, it would be a living hell. No one would be safe on the streets, chaos would reign, and garbage would never be collected. The social guardians are enemies of freedom, but there is no claim here that they are morally wrong. They chose to take the role they believed was best for them, a decision I would like to treat as autonomous of moral claims. More importantly, they provide essential functions that nearly all of us value: safety, security, and clean streets. The argument here is not that “bad” people should replace the disciplinarians but that in American history the struggles between the two have determined the breadth of personal liberty. I make no claims for other parts of the world, where at times renegades have overwhelmed the guardians of order, but in this country the more “bad” people existed, resisted, and won, the more freedom was expanded…
So, we have an element of subtlety and sobriety along with the more free-wheeling themes. That’s intelligent, that’s cool. I can’t wait to see in more detail where Russell is going with all this, and I look forward to telling you all about it – but by all means beat me to the draw if you can, all you crazy, gun-toting, freedom-loving, Wild West cowboys out there!