Things You’re Not Supposed To Know About American History

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Thaddeus Russell, A Renegade History of the United States (New York: Free Press, 2010), 382 pages.

At the risk of oversimplifying, we could divide American leftist historical scholarship into two basic strains. Both have historiographical origins in progressivism and attempt to speak for the downtrodden and for the common people, to amplify the voice of those allegedly silenced by conservative institutions. But they part ways in their interpretation of where this voice is to be found.

For the more boring, dominant and conventional leftists, the savior of mankind, the equalizer of social disparities, is in formal leftist institutions — unions, left-leaning political parties, mass political movements directed by great leaders who sought to integrate minorities into mainstream culture, and especially the federal government. Thus Lincoln addressed America's original sin of slavery; Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, while imperfect, took working conditions seriously; the suffragettes and official Civil Rights movement are history's great engines of political, racial and gender equality — a yet-to-be-won battle, but a much fairer fight thanks to marches on Washington and federal legislation. Franklin Roosevelt, despite some flaws, gave "economic democracy" a real chance for once. The Great Society brought the United States a step closer to the bare standard of modern civilization, to be found in the administration of democratic socialism. Obama represents the last of this narrative, which is why even most antiwar leftist intellectuals can't bring themselves to despise him as they did George W. Bush.

But then there is the more interesting, the less typical, and the more illuminating strain of American leftist scholarship — the tradition that goes back to progressives who had some classical liberal impulses, like Henry Elmer Barnes, and that came of age in the 1960s through such refreshing New Leftist historians as Gabriel Kolko. While he dabbled in both schools of thought, the late Howard Zinn, venerated hero of college and high school students nationwide, was, at his best, an example of this more radical interpretive impulse: to see large institutions, especially the state and most particularly its warfare organs, as enemies of the common good. Militarism and imperialism should not be given a free pass, even if sold in the name of globalizing human rights. Economic regulation should be seen, not as egalitarian blessings, but more often as tools of the corporate establishment to consolidate its own power. Just as important, in the realm of cultural history, progress is not made for the disenfranchised mainly by unions, bureaucracies, do-gooder social workers and agitators, much less the federal government — but by individuals themselves, working within their communities, defending their rights, asserting their dignity, pursuing their interests, and creating alternative networks of economic and social progress that lie outside of Washington's accepted avenues. This is a tradition of leftist scholarship that is most fascinating, and certainly of most use to those of us who aim to defend individual liberty.

In our time, no historian better encapsulates this interpretive radicalism than Thaddeus Russell. His A Renegade History of the United States is gold. It is provocative, idiosyncratic and iconoclastic. It does not balk at violating the gospels of political correctness, even as it shatters every conservative myth of American history that rightwing authors, seeing themselves as rebels against left-liberal academia, cling to. While libertarians might find some or even much disagreeable, they cannot help but walk away from this book with a somewhat different outlook on history.

The Founding Fathers are the first official heroes targeted, appropriate in both chronological terms and in considering the civic mythology of the United States. And so who were the true heroes? According to Russell, it was the rabble. John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, Sam Adams, John Jay and the rest of them looked upon the common American people, populating Philadelphia where they were holding their conspiratorial meetings, as "vicious," "vile" and otherwise unsavory folk. "But what the Founding Fathers called corruption, depravity, viciousness, and vice, many of us would call freedom" (p. 3–4).

Indeed, "On nearly every block in every eighteenth-century American city, there was a public place where one could drink, sing, dance, have sex, argue politics, gamble, play games, or generally carouse with men, women, children, whites, blacks, Indians, the rich, the poor, and the middling. The Founding Fathers were keenly, painfully aware of this" (p. 5). Places of inebriation were especially progressive in their social politics. "Lower-class taverns were the first racially integrated public spaces in America" (p. 9). But despite these virtues, the Founders saw such freedom as the enemy. "There was virtually no moral or legal proscription against drinking until after the War of Independence" (p. 7) but fuddy-duddies like Ben Franklin were unhappy with this libertarian status quo: "During the Sugar Act crisis, [he] and other prominent Pennsylvanians repeatedly and fruitlessly petitioned the colonial government to take action against taverns and drinking" (p. 25). These prohibitionist gestures were but the beginning, for the respectable classes continued to push for temperance, many of them hoping the war would force it upon the people. "In 1784, Benjamin Rush, America's founding doctor, published An Inquiry into the Effects of Spirituous Liquors, which became one of the most important of the Founding Fathers' many antipleasure manifestos during the early national period" (p. 30). This founding generation's movement lasted throughout the 19th century and eventually culminated in the authoritarian and disastrous 18th Amendment.

But is it an exaggeration to call the drunken American people the real heroes? "As we already know, the first violence in the conflict occurred in Boston in 1770, when drunkards, ruffians, and gamblers tumbled out of taverns to curse, throw rubbish and horse manure, and assault British soldiers" (p. 26). Today's conservatives cheer the American patriots who sparked and fought the American Revolution. But should such a revolution happen again, who doubts they would be cheering the modern analog of the redcoats, as they subdued the crowd with teargas, batons and riot guns? Who doubts they would have sided with King George's soldiers?

Russell notes that some of the Founders even saw commerce itself as a "bane of patriotism" (p. 29). In defending the market against confusion on the left and disingenuous defenses on the right, Russell writes:

Today, many on the conservative side of the political spectrum like to make the founders into champions of a free-market economy, while many on the left claim that they were simply the tools of the rising merchant class. Neither of these sides understands that the market economy has always been a friend of the renegades and an enemy of moral guardians (p. 37).

If by "moral guardians" we mean the hypocritical social conservatives who wish to trample liberty to maintain their vision of social order, libertarians must agree.

Did the State Save American Minorities?

If the cult of the Founding Fathers is a touchy subject for every American rightwinger, the role of government and conventional political activism as the alleged saviors of African-Americans is an issue where practically the entire American left cannot countenance rational discussion. Russell deserves special recognition for his willingness to question this sacred history.

The common story is that blacks were enslaved, mostly in the South; Lincoln freed them; but it was not until a century later (if it happened at all) that blacks began to gain true equality, and this was again thanks to the federal government and the nationalization of Civil Rights. But the true heroes of black liberation, Russell argues, have always been blacks themselves — and not typically ones in suits giving sermons and speeches, appealing to politicians and effecting legislation. It has always been the ones disenfranchised, seizing what liberty they could and declaring their dignity, who have made the most difference.

The principal way that slaves rebelled on a day-to-day basis was by minimizing how much work they did. This later became warped into an insult of black Americans for being lazy, but on the plantation, refusal to work more than was absolutely necessary, and carving out leisure time, were heroic acts of resistance.

Controversially, Russell also shows how the supposedly free American whites in the early 19th century also suffered under the lash. The cruelty of violence against slaves, while in a special category of its own, in fact shared some similarity with what "free" Americans were subjected to in early America under the criminal justice system:

Among free whites, severe physical punishment, including death, at the hands of authorities was a common occurrence. During the colonial period, not only murder and rape but also arson, adultery, buggery, and witchcraft were punishable by death. In eighteenth-century Virginia, a first conviction for hog stealing brought twenty-five lashes. . . . The third offense sent one to the gallos. In Massachusetts, first-time burglars were branded on the forehead. . . . a third offense made one. . . subject to death. All of the colonies ordered whipping, branding, and other forms of bodily mutilation for crimes such as breaking the Sabbath, petty larceny, and sedition. (p. 59)

Thus the peculiar institution of slavery, while undeniably subjecting a whole race of Americans to a perpetual state of cruelty and injustice, was not as distinct in terms of punishment and physical violence as many might suspect. So long as America has had governments — which is to say, since the Founding of the country — there has been punishment, including for non-crimes, that was on par with the punishment meted out by slaveowners. Russell astutely challenges the commonly assumed idea that private slavery is intrinsically and unquestionably more inhumane than public sector discipline.

Many who opposed the institution of slavery — although they were doubtlessly correct on this matter of unparalleled importance — "were also opponents of freedom" (p. 62). "Of particular concern to the abolitionists was the sexual freedom of slaves" (p. 63). The general worry was that slave culture bred imprudence and lasciviousness. But Russell sees slaves' escaping from the dominant conservative values as something of a virtue in itself.

Russell even goes so far as to question the image of a slave as a completely helpless victim of his master. For example, "While no laws protected the slave from a rapist, masters and overseers had many reasons not to force themselves on enslaved women. For one, such attacks almost inevitably brought reprisals from the victims, their mates, the attacker's wife, or the surrounding community" (p. 67). Government did virtually nothing to protect slaves, of course, but the slaves themselves fought back with what they had. As for the particularly horrendous evil of families being broken up — one of the most brutal aspects of slavery — the author finds that the number of families so disrupted "is certainly smaller than the number of free people who were forced from their homes" by such governmental cruelties as the "War of Independence, the War of 1812, the Mexican-American War, and the Civil War" (p. 69). Slavery was an unspeakable evil, supported until the bitter end by the government at all levels. But even without the participation of plantation owners, the government has always been capable of such extreme crimes against humanity.

After abolition, black Americans continued to face extreme institutional and socially maintained hardships, which is regularly recognized. But Russell takes on Reconstruction itself, describing the Freedman Bureau as an agency concerned with indoctrinating freed blacks and turning them into good, hardworking citizens, as much as it was inclined toward giving them a simple hand up. One typical piece of propaganda, a story of recently emancipated slave John Freeman, has "a Yankee lieutenant" handing down the federal lesson: "You have come out from your bondage, my friends, to enjoy the blessings of freedom, and have put yourselves under the protection of the United States government. . . But, if you come to this flag for protection, you have to do service for the flag" (p. 81).

Drawing on W.E.B. DuBois, Russell writes that "slaves created a uniquely liberated culture that valued pleasure over work and freedom over conformity" (p. 99). Much of the Reconstructionist project was about stamping out that value of freedom and instituting conformity. The state was actively attempting to wipe out elements of African-American culture, many of them not just understandable or admirable, but ultimately enriching to America. "If Reconstruction had been fully realized," Russell concludes, "many of the freedoms and joys given to us by the slaves would have been taken away. If the freedmen had been made into citizens, there would be no jazz" (p. 100).

Much later in the book, Russell grapples with the 20th Century Civil Rights movement. He characterizes it, by the chapter's title, as at least in part being an "attack on African Americans" (p. 295). What does he mean by this? He cites condemnations of black culture by Martin Luther King, Jr., who attacked blacks for being lustful and violent and for listening to music that "plunges men's minds into degrading and moral depths." Many lesser known Civil Rights leaders are shown for all their puritan authoritarianism and desire to control black Americans in their voluntary behavior. Moreover, many movement leaders were whites attempting to force blacks to conform to a nationally accepted conception of citizenship and Americanism.

But black Americans had, by and large, been heroic in at least some of their refusal to abide by white cultural norms. For example, "Draft evasion as well as insubordination against commanding officers in the military remained far greater among African Americans than among whites from the two world wars through the Korean and Vietnam wars" (p. 305). This tendency to reject arbitrary and immoral authority is undeniably a positive cultural trait. This tied in to a tendency to want to defend individual and community diversity in a true sense, rather than national identity. Russell writes:

The nonviolent civil rights movement sought not just desegregation, not just access to space and to the privileges of whites, but integration, which for King and the leaders of the civil rights movement, meant the complete merger of the races. . . . But what is missing from the narratives of the desegregation of Birmingham is the majority of black people in the city, namely those who did not participate in the movement. (p. 316)

This majority was more characterized with fights against the police, in direct "defense of autonomy" and liberty — rather than integration with the nation-state's majoritarian conception of society. Some of this violence was also directed against civilians, and not all of it was strictly justified on libertarian grounds — but much of it was, in defense of person and property. We rarely hear about this movement of anti-racist resistance, because it was directed against the establishment from below, rather than imposed above from Washington, and because it sought freedom rather than integration as a principal value.

Other ethnic minorities in America are treated with chapters in Renegade History. In each case, we learn about a white minority that at one time was more associated with blacks only later to be assimilated into American WASPish culture — the Irish, the Jews and the Italians. The Irish, one of the most persecuted of the European races in American history, are "now rarely even considered as u2018ethnics,'" although at one time they were regarded in approximately the same way blacks were. They also share with blacks an important role in developing jazz music and culture. They furthermore created dozens and dozens of slang terms and everyday words, likely including everything from "brisk," "feud" and "swoon" all the way to "pet," "racket" and "jackpot."

Jews, too, were seen as ethnic outsiders, far more than today, and they used to dominate in jazz, basketball and boxing. And Italian immigrants "settled in neighborhoods in New York, Chicago, and New Orleans that were populated by African Americans, and many shared tenement buildings, workplaces, and recreational facilities with blacks" (p. 186). And of course, before their image was that of crooners, Italian-Americans were seen as the first example of modern gangsta culture. A whole chapter in Renegade History is dedicated to how Italian and Jewish gangsters benefited American society with huge contributions in bar culture, gambling and film.

Women, too, are celebrated. But, as with the other sections, we are not treated to hagiographies of the usual textbook heroines that made groundbreaking strides in politics or brought the vote to women. A controversial chapter, sure to earn the resentment of social conservatives and many feminists alike, looks at prostitution in the Wild West, a business that empowered women, often at the very top of the industry — women who became some of the richest Americans around, who undermined social controls and readily defended themselves and their property with firearms. The right to bear arms gets a consistent implicit defense throughout Renegade History.

Heroic Consumers and the Awful New Deal

Another unusual cause of celebration in a leftist historical work is commercialism, and here Russell masterfully weaves it together with women's liberation. Taking on the Progressives of the early 20th century, and their counterparts today, the historian cheers on the boom of shopping — "the real American Revolution." There is nothing wrong with the masses being able to consume a lot, despite what the ascetic anti-capitalists will say. "Opposition to shopping grew especially severe during World war I, when bourgeois disgust over the new working-class culture took the form of well-organized campaigns against drinking, prostitution, and venereal disease, and in the moral condemnation of working-class spending habits" (p. 214). Single women and men began to mingle as never before. Governments responded with crackdowns on subversive dance styles. Feminist leaders were often at the forefront, condemning the free-spirited women. "When feminists spoke of u2018freedom' for women, they did not mean the freedom of desire" (p. 221).

If not for this principally female-driven consumer revolution — a revolution that spat in the face of progressives and most official feminists — "Coney Island and American amusement parks as we know them would not have existed." Everything from modern dancing to grocery stores would have never sprung up. "The generation of working-class women who drove the American revolution of leisure and pleasure. . . broke through the common belief that women seeking pleasure in public spaces were immoral and degenerate. . . . They created the weekend. . . . Against all odds, they created American fun" (p. 228).

If Russell is willing to revere the uncommonly celebrated elements of American social development, he is equally willing to question the events that are almost always put on a pedestal. His chapters on the New Deal and World War II, in particular, demonstrate a very sharp and unusual willingness to take on the conventional wisdom.

Chapter 11 is called "u2018Behold a Dictator': Fascism and the New Deal." The chapter is worthy of its title. In one of the best summary treatments I've seen on the similarities and even intimate connections between the New Deal and fascism, Russell has written a short masterpiece of radical leftist anti-statism. He does not cite the usual libertarian and Old Right authors. Nevertheless, Russell compellingly explains why it is "absurd to ignore, as all our textbooks do, the fact that the New Deal and European fascism grew from the same ideological roots, produced strikingly similar policies, and fostered national cultures that, if not identical, bore the resemblance of siblings" (p. 240).

Echoing libertarian economic historian Robert Higgs, Russell finds precedents for the New Deal in America's World War I economic policies. But he also finds a lot of similarity between the U.S. system and that of Italy and Germany in the interwar period. The head of General Electric, Gerard Swope, wrote the first draft of the National Industrial Recovery Act, the crown jewel of the early New Deal, which "created an economic system that was virtually identical to the national economies established in Italy and Germany, and further consolidated power in the hands of the president" (p. 245). The similarities were not lost on American commentators: "George Soule, the editor of the New Republic, wrote, "We are trying out the economics of Fascism without having suffered all its social and political ravages'" (p. 243).

"But when the New Deal was created," writes Russell, "few of its supporters in the United States were as effusive in their praise as were German and Italian Fascists." And the commonality among the systems was clear:

The New Dealers, Mussolini, and Hitler were united in the belief that the conditions of the working class had to be greatly improved. The Fascist and Nazi regimes outlawed trade unions, but they worked hard to make factories safer, cleaner, and more pleasant workplaces, and also provided subsidized housing, low-cost vacations, and sports programs to millions of German workers. . . . The Nazis instituted a full employment program. . . . (p. 254)

But surely the similarities to not extend to areas of civil liberties? In fact, Russell shows how the New Deal was a time of increased censorship in film — through the Hays code and the near-purging of Jewish identity from Hollywood pictures throughout the 1930s — as well as governmental social control over family life. Perhaps most ominously, "racial purity was a prominent theme in New Deal culture," which made sense given that "American eugenics and the New Deal were both progeny of the progressives. . . . [M]ore sterilizations took place during the New Deal than at any other time in American history." Given all this, Russell concludes that "the New Deal and Fascism went to war not over ideas or values or a way of life. Rather, it seems, the war was a struggle between brothers for control of the world family (pp. 268–70).

As for that war, Russell questions the unchallenged and pervasive assumption that World War II was virtually invincible in its popularity. Indeed, it was especially unpopular among the disenfranchised. Despite politically correct tales of how black Americans gallantly fought in the war, such history books "ignore the fact that African Americans comprised 35 percent of the nation's delinquent draft registrants and more than 18 percent of those imprisoned for draft evasions" (p. 271). Thousands of Americans were jailed for not wanting to fight. Japanese-Americans were not particularly thrilled to be corralled into concentration camps. As to the common workers who were supposedly blessed by the wartime "prosperity":

The Office of Price Administration, which had been created during the war to control inflation, and the War Production Board, set strict limits on wages in most industries. Many workers made less per hour than they would have without the controls, since the labor market was so tight. Because of this, but also because of the strict discipline that had been instituted in the war industries, including mandatory overtime, there were more than fourteen thousand strikes involving more than six million workers during the war. Most of these strikers were in defense industries (pp. 276–7).

We often hear about labor acting up and striking in the early 20th century, but rarely do we hear about these fourteen thousand strikes during the supposedly wonderful days of World War II. Russell celebrates the liberalization of culture, especially for gays, that came as an unintended result of World War II — but finds very little other reason to call it a "war for freedom."

Modern American Renegades

Russell's iconoclasm continues into his analysis of recent American history. He credits "juvenile delinquents" with winning the Cold War. As much as conservative American anti-communists hated rock u2018n roll, the Commies actually hated it much more. In the 1950s, youth from East Berlin crossed the border to watch Hollywood films, inspiring them to demand more cultural liberty. In the Eastern Bloc, "the introduction of reel-to-reel tape recorders in the 1960s helped create a vast underground culture of fans of rock, rhythm and blues, and later disco and hop-hop" and "by the 1970s, desire for music frequently turned to hatred for the Communist regime. Riots broke out at several rock concerts" (p. 293). "When the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, East Germans flooded West Berlin record shops" (p. 294). But youthful rockers get little credit for undermining communism, because, as Russell suspects, "leaders of all political varieties — from the American presidents to Communist commissars — share a devotion to social order and are therefore natural enemies of renegades" (p. 294).

In addressing gay rights, Russell takes the unusual position that gay marriage and other attempts to integrate gays into heterosexual culture are counterproductive in a sense, 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" (p. 331). Instead, he cheers on the legacy of the Stonewall rioters, who in 1969 in Greenwich Village fought for their right to be left alone. Rather than seeking acceptance or equal political privilege, they sought only to defend their rights and private property against the police state.

In his final chapter, transcending the typical culture-war nonsense, Russell casts a similar interpretive eye upon hippie and redneck culture, demonstrating especially their similarities in being devoted to the work ethic as a first principle. For those skeptical of this, the author reminds us of how devoted hippies are on their communes to work, almost as an ascetic end in itself.

Opposing the state’s encroachments on our lives means undermining its lies — especially about history. The establishment thrives on the historical propaganda taught in schools, advanced at universities, distributed uncritically in the texts, adopted by the media and propagated by all the conventional thinkers, left and right. Thaddeus Russell’s A Renegade History of the United States scrutinizes the unquestioned narratives and raises neglected, often uncomfortable, truths about America’s past. It smashes through the mainstream myths spewed by court intellectuals who offer a sugarcoated, oversimplified and dangerous vision of our nation, its founding, its wars, its legacies in economic central planning, its social crusades and cultural history.

A Renegade History is not a typical tract in praise of the free market or the Randian heroes throughout the U.S. experience. Indeed, there is a clear tension between Russell's belief that American conceptions of liberty and self-restraint are all-too-compatible, and the paleolibertarian respect for self-restraint as a possibly important, and not necessarily undesirable, component of a free society. But this disagreement on values does not negate the wealth of information and explanatory power in Russell's interpretation. Here we have a book that celebrates individual freedom against the state, community and self-determination against coercively maintained nationalist identity, peace and commerce instead of war, freedom of association rather than mandatory integration, voluntary commercialism for the pleasure of the masses rather than corporatism or progressive asceticism for the sake of the nation-state. It is far more compatible with libertarian philosophy than the more typical tracts from the left, far more interesting and radical than almost anything you'll find on the right, and even more illuminating than what our closer allies produce in the way of cultural history. It is difficult if not impossible to read this book and not come away looking at America a bit differently.

Anthony Gregory [send him mail] is a research analyst at the Independent Institute. He lives in Oakland, California. See his webpage for more articles and personal information.

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