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America’s Last Renegades?

Historian Thaddeus Russell argues the respectable vs. renegade divide is ignored in American history.

The historic divide between the “respectable” vs. the “renegades” is the subject of historian Thaddeus Russell’s 2011 book A Renegade History of the United States, which argues that when renegade groups gain civil rights and social acceptability, they lose their renegade culture. At least one group of American outsiders, not discussed by Russell, continues to be socially unacceptable, making it easier for them to retain a renegade culture.

Normies is a term you might hear at an Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) or Narcotics Anonymous (NA) twelve-step meeting to describe the non-addict world. The non-normie tent also includes others who may not be substance abusers but who are behaviorally noncompliant, do not take most authorities seriously, and have been labeled as “mentally ill.”

Twelve-steppers routinely poke fun at their experiences in non-normie culture, and for many of them, “recovery” means trying to fit into the normie world. However, many ex-mental patients who have become “psychiatric survivors” and “mad priders” question the value of normie culture and see value in their own—this an outlook which puts them in the tradition of Russell’s historic renegades.

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A Renegade History of the United States

Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States championed the idea that American history is not just the story of rich people, presidents, and generals but also includes class conflict and ordinary Americans trying to gain economic and social justice. For Thaddeus Russell—“Bad Thad” to his students—American history also includes the conflict between those who seek power to either maintain or reform society vs. freedom-loving, pleasure seekers.

The American mainstream has long been an oppressive culture, valuing alienating work and conformity over pleasure and freedom. For Russell, prohibitions against entry into the American mainstream have historically allowed outsider groups to develop and maintain cultures that had far more pleasure and freedom. So, for example, racism and bigotry toward African-Americans’ and their exclusion from the mainstream resulted in a renegade culture that could celebrate pleasure and freedom, and that could create the blues and jazz.

A Renegade History of the United States has two narratives, one uplifting and one depressing.

Russell’s uplifting narrative is advertised on the book jacket: “Russell demonstrates that it was those on the fringes of society whose subversive ways of life helped legitimize the taboo and made America the land of the free.” These renegades include drunken workers who helped create the weekend, African-American slaves who saved America from Puritanism, financially astute prostitutes and madams who set the precedent for women’s liberation, unassimilated immigrants who ushered in birth control, and a bold gay culture that helped break open sexuality.

The depressing narrative of A Renegade History of the United States is how America has become less of a renegade nation since the American Revolution, which ushered in increasingly more moral and legal proscriptions against alcohol use, sexual pleasures, and other personal freedoms that had been far more tolerated in colonial America.

Perhaps even more depressing is Russell’s description of how once renegade groups have become less so with social acceptance, which resulted in them buying into the work ethic, sexual restraint and repression, and less interesting lives. Specifically, in chapters on African-Americans, Jews, Irish, Italian, and gay American, Russell describes their great cultural contributions to pleasure and freedom when prohibited from entry into mainstream society, but how their gaining acceptance resulted in an end of their renegade cultural contributions.

In Russell’s chapter, “Gay Liberation, American Liberation,” he describes the historic clash between gay people who enjoyed the pleasures and freedom of being outside mainstream America vs. gay people who sought to gain mainstream respectability and social acceptance. Russell argues that, ironically, the respectable homosexual civil rights movement in the 1950s failed to end police harassment, but what worked was the Stonewall uprising in 1969—for Russell, “one of the great renegade moments in American history,” where gays couldn’t care less about mainstream respectability as they flaunted their sexuality and physically terrified the police.

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