Joanna's Reviews > A Renegade History of the United States

A Renegade History of the United States by Thaddeus Russell
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's review
Dec 28, 2010

did not like it
bookshelves: books-read-2011, non-fiction
Read from December 28, 2010 to January 10, 2011

Thaddeus Russell is not so much a historian as he is a contrarian. Whatever you think you know, he disagrees. That does not mean that he doesn't make some interesting points, but his thinking is so fuzzy, his examples so selective, and his statements so unsubstantiated, that it is a stretch to take this book seriously as a history.

His thesis, loosely defined, is that renegades are responsible for most freedoms in the United States because whatever the law says, renegades will disregard and ignore said law or social more until eventually the law or the society changes to accept it. But he never actually defines what, specifically, he means when he talks about freedoms. He talks extensively about drinking, dancing, sex, enjoying leisure, and not working. These, it would seem, embody freedom. And certainly, they do. But he disregards things like, for example, voting. He actually comes across as being extremely contemptuous of the basic right of Americans to choose the way that they want to live. He characterizes anyone who is not a renegade as an enemy of 'freedom,' including, for example, abolitionists (who want to free the slaves) because of their Christian principles.

I should say, at the outset, that I enjoyed the section on how whores owning bordellos in the west was a trailblazing victory for the right of women to own property. I also thought that the section on FDR as an American dictator made some interesting points that go against the standard historiography of his presidency. (He did, after all, run for four terms as President, and tried to expand the number of justices on the Supreme Court so that he could stack it with loyalists.) His remarks about how government sponsored hemp production during WWII led to the start of the marijuana farming industry in California are also on point. It is these inclusions, along with the fact that he used to teach at Columbia, which demonstrate that he is capable of serious and insightful scholarship. And that is what makes the rest of the book equal parts embarrassment and travesty.

Renegade's History is packed with sweeping generalizations, too broad statements, sketchy anecdotal evidence, and often reprehensible conclusions. In the chapter titled "The Freedom of Slavery," he posits that "slaves enjoyed pleasures that were forbidden for white people," and that "slaves were often the envy of America." One of his major supports for this argument? The popularity of black face minstrel performance. Now, who are the black face minstrel performers? White people. But he attributes their routines as representing a desire to be black, or to be slaves, living on a plantation. I would actually argue it represents their desire to be entertainers. And say that you can't take a white man's view of slavery as being an accurate assessment of life under that institution, being that he has not actually, you know, _been a slave_.

Russell also makes statements like, "Contrary to what popular images of emancipation tell us, when given the opportunity to leave the plantation, most slaves stayed." To back this up, he uses an anecdote from one woman who was interviewed circa 1937 (age not given, so if she was BORN in 1865, that would make her at least 72 - her age would be kind of an important indicator for how old she was when emancipation came and how long she lived under slavery and how well she remembered it). He also cites WPA interviews with ex-slaves done in the late 1930s, and says that Paul D. Escott tabulated them to learn that "9.6% stayed with their master after freedom but were uncertain as to how long, 18.8% stayed for one to twelve months, 14.9% stayed for one to five years, and 22.1% stayed for more than five years. By contrast, only 9% left immediately after emancipation." First of all, what date are we marking time from? If it is the date of the Emancipation Proclamation, which decreed freedom for all slaves in the Confederacy, the Federal Government of the United States had no way of enforcing or communicating that to slaves in the South. You might not hear about it, or be able to act on it, until the end of the war two years later. Also, under what conditions did they stay? Did they stay on as paid workers? If they stayed for a week until they figured out where to go, where does that fall? And all of the percentages in this survey only account for 74.4% of a total. What did everyone else do? This is extremely selective presentation based on scant historical evidence. But at least for that statement he used actual statistics.

Compare to his theory that, "Many shiftless slaves were sold by masters who could no longer afford their inefficiency. Indeed, in an era when the vast majority of free Americans lived on family farms, were born to their employers--their fathers--and were morally prohibited from leaving their jobs, it is entirely reasonable to argue that slaves possessed more occupational mobility than the average free American." To recap: they were 'freer' in terms of job mobility because they could be SOLD. And, while free Americans might feel obligated to stay and work the family farm, he is rather overlooking the point that slaves were LEGALLY obligated to stay in their jobs as the property of their master. Which, I feel, seems to indicate that he is more concerned with being provocative than he is with being serious or accurate. The only other conclusion is that he has no capacity for rational thought.
Which could, maybe, also have something to do with it. Page 67: "Statistics further suggest that rapes were rare on plantations." The statistics that he cites are related to the 1860 census regarding how many mulattoes were living in the South. Any information regarding how the census data was collected, who was reporting it, and how accurate we can take it to be - not mentioned. Are the percentages adjusted for the 3/5ths of a person clause of the Constitution? Acting like this information is either accurate, or related to rape statistics, would be laughable if it weren't so disgusting. He concludes that paragraph by stating "There is also evidence of significant numbers of consensual relations between white men and slave women, which would make the percentage of children produced by rape even smaller." No actual evidence is cited at this point, no discussion of what a 'significant' number would be, and no discussion of whether a slave woman has the ability to consent to sex with the man who has the right to beat, kill, or sell her if she refuses. He also leaves unremarked the ways in which slavery, from an economic standpoint, promoted widespread rape because the children of slave women were born into slavery, and thereby increased the master's work force. This is the historical equivalent of junk science, and these omissions are a clear signal that his conclusions fail any simple test of logic, much less academic or moral challenge.

The sections on dancing, jazz, and immigrant culture are less egregiously offensive, but are all quite similar to one another, and lack rigor in their continual use of secondary sources - quoting the newspapers and words of the white, the powerful, and the moneyed to describe what they thought the lives of immigrants were like. There is a difference between a popular cultural stereotype and a historical reality, which is a distinction that Thaddeus Russell never seems to bother with noticing, and which would not pass muster in a freshman history seminar.

The chapter on gay liberation reads as if the Stonewall riots mainly served to allow straight people to enjoy oral sex. Russell brushes aside everything accomplished by homophile organizations in the 1950s because they were not radical enough (as if to be homosexual in the fifties was not renegade in and of itself), and credits the mythologized flash point of gay liberation with ending police harassment, and making gayness a "common theme" in Hollywood movies in the 1970s. He also veers off from the (granted, at this point, largely insane) facade of himself as a historian to declare that, "Today's movement for gay marriage...ended gay liberation, is helping to end straight liberation, and seeks to return all of us to the 1950s." And that "Advocates for gay marriage insist that such a reform is necessary to acquire many long denied rights, yet virtually all of those rights have been won in Europe through 'domestic partner laws' and in the majority of major companies in the Unites States, which give full benefits to non-married domestic partners." What a whiny load of white privileged opinion, masquerading as something deeper or more important to America. Unless he is, perhaps, ironically demonstrating how oppression in America can stem from white guys who think they know what is best to be done with minorities.

The thing that is really missing from Russell's history (well, one thing) is a respect for the freedom of choice in America. All non-renegades are considered anti-freedom, as opposed to being portrayed as people who simply have a different view of the country, or who choose to use their freedom for other ends. I am sure he considers himself quite the renegade historian, but he's not. He's just an idiot provocateur.
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Comments (showing 1-4 of 4) (4 new)

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Petroglyph Joanna's points are very well taken...
When I was reading the book, some of the same points hit me with a sort of breathtaking nausea.
Russell has no empathic capacity or will in evidence when making some of the very sketchily grounded assertions...especially the sort of general gist of "slaves loved their slacker hedonist lives and had it so good!". (Paraphrasing there)
There are still so many interesting factoids and many of them told well...that I give it good general marks for being a good step (with albeit sever flaws) in finding out more of the untold, non-canonical herstory and history.

message 2: by David (new)

David "historical equivalent of junk science" absolutely! He is doing the a priori shuffle here. Just because someone breaks the law doesn't mean they make the law. That would be like saying the Zetas in Mexico are the reason that marijuana is being legalized in some states. Yes, they are indirectly involved, but they are the chief beneficiary regarding the war on drugs.

Lettie I had to choke down the chapter on slavery~ beyond ridiculous.

message 4: by Jack (new)

Jack Clare i’ve not read this, the guy is on the record as saying he doesn’t believe that truth exists. so by even writing this book, before you evaluate the content, he’s already a hypocrite.

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