Thaddeus Russell, “A Renegade History of the United States” (2010) – We’ve burnt through hyperbole like fossil fuels, and it too creates an obnoxious smog: this is the worst, that’s the best ever, etc etc. That said, on careful consideration, I am pretty sure this is the single worst work of history I’ve ever read, certainly the worst work of history by a historian serious people have praised to me. One of the smarter people in my grad program had “Big Bad Thad” (as she informed he was nicknamed) Russell as an undergrad instructor. She disagreed with his politics — back then, near when this book came out, more or less down-the-middle libertarianism, strolling down history’s lane to its rendezvous with Trumpism — but thought he was a good instructor and that his book sounded interesting.
Well, I could kind of see the instructor thing. Russell’s out of the academy now, a podcaster, looks like he’s backed by someone’s money, and given that he’s tight now with “Moldbug” Yarvin, it’s probably Peter Thiel’s money. He’s trying to be some kind of “intellectual dark web” don, sitting his high table with “race realists,” various reactionary mystics, and other purveyors of the “renegade” and forbidden. I haven’t listened, but there’s certainly a tone in this book of his — conversational, imaginative, committed — I could see getting across to both podcast audiences and undergrads.
In that year of years 2010, Russell published this history that purports to tell the history of the United States from the perspectives of “renegades.” This isn’t any Howard Zinn stuff, though, or a retelling of slave rebellions and labor uprisings. Russell, as it happens, did write an earlier book on the labor movement- specifically, about how Jimmy Hoffa was actually a great labor leader, more or less because was a crook. “A Renegade History of the United States” is about, more or less, how laws regulating various pleasurable activities rose and fell over the course of US history, specifically from the point of view of the “renegades” who did not allow “reformers” – here understood as a straight up pejorative – who would regulate them to do so easily.
Would it be possible to write a good history from this perspective? Good histories have been written from worse ideas, or anyway, readable and informative histories, histories that reflect some kind of thought worth having. There’s definitely a lot of historical material in the political battles over assorted recreational activities in American history, and you can probably do a good synoptic history of that, too- I bet someone has. But that’s not quite what Russell did here. In attempting to tell this story as the story of American history, he is trying to advance various deeply stupid and tendentious ideas, where the stupidity and tendentiousness involved reenforce each other in such ways that you probably couldn’t get anything like a good work of history out of Russell’s project.
The bullshit begins in the presentation. You don’t want to be a dweeb, do you? A bluenose, all offended at the raunchy pleasures of the poor? Do you want to be like John Adams, the fattest and least glamorous of the founding fathers, who Russell depicts for us walking through Philadelphia circa 1787 and wrinkling his nose at all the wonderful sin Russell details- the taverns, the brothels, the streets full of glorious, dirty, interracial life? You don’t want to be like the right or the left, right, with their self-righteous insistence on their moral values? You’re smarter than that- importantly, you’re cooler than that. You’re a renegade.
Don’t buy it. Never buy it. Because if you have a brain in your head, you know what’s next, the same kind of come on that untold generations of hucksters and missionaries have been using forever. That inevitable “therefore…” To the extent Russell has a claim on anything other than a line of shit that can hook undergrads and “intellectual dark web” habitues (I wonder if he cried when that stupid Times article about the IDW didn’t mention him…), it’s a slightly more adept shell game than many libertarian ideologues… back then, at least, I think he’s gotten less subtle as time has gone on. Accepting his positive vision is comparatively unimportant, and mostly an easy ask- after all, Prohibition was a bad idea, a lot of regulators of public behavior were bigots or petty tyrants, etc. But the idea is to slide in his negative vision with the positive vision: that anyone who has politics beyond “let me smoke weed and/or pollute this river in peace” is a nasty regulator type, an enemy, and moreover, an enemy sans any pathos, almost sans humanity.
And that regulator type extends to just about anyone pressing for any kind of power, regardless of the power differentials involved. It’s not just John Adams and J. Edgar Hoover. As elsewhere in this book, tendentiousness and sloppiness reinforce each other. So the abolitionists were just out to ruin everyone’s good time on the plantation (the opening riff of The Rolling Stones’ slave-rape anthem “Brown Sugar” kept coming to my mind unbidden in that section- though at least the Stones were talented) and the civil rights movement was the same but with ghettos, largely through the device of defining both movements through decontextualized moral exhortations by some of the preachers involved. He extends that game to just flat out ignoring any movements for suffrage, including the extension of the suffrage to poor people, who presumably could have used the vote to stop the busybodies from telling them not to be drunk all the time?
I tried to get at this in one of my birthday lectures (I should have read this book for that- I didn’t realize quite what it was at the time), but there is a sort of countercultural take on American history that holds that the American past was not just more free than its present – this is common enough, mostly with conservatives, and has been almost since the country’s founding – but also weirder, funkier, looser. Russell also despises the counterculture, because it was anti-consumerist and consumerism is one of the pleasures he goes to bat for, but he gets at the mood of this school of thought, and really, it was always about mood more than anything. Russell wants to get across the idea that everyone was just getting down, drinking and fucking and spending money, in the taverns, men and women and white and black having a true, unforced equality in the absence of formal rules or even serious discussion about the matter. Anyone who brings up power or organization or anything like that, it’s like a record scratch ending the party. “Aww man, who invited this square?!”
It’s stupid, but it’s not an altogether uninfluential vision of history. That Russell manages to export this vision, always questionable, to goddamn slave plantations… whatever else it is, this book represents what happens when tendentious assholes with stupid ideas they’re trying to get over on suckers walk through the doors opened by scholars with naive ideas about structure and power. Like a completely open internet forum, it gets taken over by racists and creeps.
All of this, with the sloppy argumentation and sourcing of an undergraduate term paper and a tone by turns smug, revelatory (he really thinks he did good spadework here, but relied largely on other secondary sources), and faux-outraged by the depredations on freedom by the political types of the world. I can do evil, and I can even do stupid if it’s interesting enough, but every aspect of this that’s morally and politically bankrupt hooks into some aspect of the book that is stupid and sloppy. It’s no good saying I’m not a bluenose, because you automatically are to Russell or anyone who takes him seriously if you object to anything they say, but frankly, after this, I kind of want to be. No more whiskey and squalor for you fucks, because we know what the likes of Russell and his masters will use the nth-generation copy of a copy of a bad understanding of what that looked like to convince people that black people don’t really need to vote. Especially when you consider Russell defends possibly the least compelling set of pleasures imaginable, i.e. those preferred by American blockheads – bashing your own brain in with booze, sex with equally gross and poorly-bathed people, spending money on shit you don’t need and that doesn’t generally work as advertised – the spiteful position is awfully tempting.
Russell is pals these days with Yarvin and other open racists and homophobes (had both Red Scare gals, individually! He’s definitely the type of older Xer know-nothing who goes gooey eyed over nothings like them) now, but still postures as though he’s the defender of the little guy against. Generally, the trash bigots he has on are the kind who like to pretend they want what’s best for those lesser types (invariably, the opposite of what said types fight and struggled for, historically). I haven’t bothered to listen to his podcast, but I feel I can almost see through some shitty version of The Force that he got “redpilled” by people like me not immediately giving him all of the awards for his book on pleasure (though he got serious historians, like Alan Brinkley and Nancy Cott, to blurb it, along with historical trailblazers like the guy who wrote “The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History”). Who could be against pleasure, and a book defending it? Who wants to be a dweeb? Globalists with agendas, that’s who! Well, honestly, I’d be down to play the villain if this pathetic charade is what needs heroes to save it. ‘