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The Power to Reshape the Status Quo in America Lies With Amateurs, Dreamers and Rebels

An interview with author Alissa Quart about her new book 'Republic of Outsiders.'

In her new book, Republic of Outsiders: The Power of Amateurs, Dreamers and Rebels, journalist Alissa Quart dives into American subculture, talking to vegans, trans-feminists, bipolar pride activists, amateurs, indie filmmakers, rebels, do-it-yourselfers, and various misfits. These are people failed by authority figures, and for whom traditional roles and paths don’t work. In her book, late-state capitalism is a place where, through the Internet and new technologies, outsiders can flourish and transform society. I caught up with Alissa to ask her about the triumphs of these outsiders, and some of the pitfalls they face in navigating the 21st century.

Lynn Stuart Parramore: What made you want to want to write about outsiders at this particular time?

Alissa Quart: I grew up around the edges of the counterculture in New York. My parents’ friends were activists, Marxist historians, things like that. We lived near the East Village. In a way my parents were connoisseurs of outsiders. We’d go to screenings of avant-garde films where the directors would be around. I’d yearn for some normalcy — I wanted pink sneakers and Atari, but instead I got difficult art and foreign films. I was reading esoteric books. I guess you could say I was primed to be a specialized kid, writing poetry from an early age. I was inculcated to become an appreciator of outsider artistic culture, if not political culture.

But Manhattan changed from a place of outsiders into a place of franchise stores and incredibly expensive apartments. It became a city of money. I was looking, I guess,  for Atlantis, that lost world of my childhood. I wanted to know what had happened to the counterculture.

Right now, we see structures failing us – banks, responses to Katrina, people falling through the cracks with healthcare and mental healthcare services. I became interested in how people were caring for themselves at a time when established figures were no longer there for them.

I was also a journalist who had studied and taught journalism. I’d written two books and I felt really encroached upon by bloggers and amateurs who were making my profession no longer economically feasible. There was a complicated set of issues for me.

So that’s it: I wanted to see where counterculture had gone, to look at positive stories of people coping—the dandelions in the cracks of our society—and also to make peace with what was happening in journalism.

LSP: How would you say normal is defined at this point in our American history? What does normal look like?

AQ: We’ve seen an exponential rise of diagnoses of mental conditions, and in a way you could say “normal” is people who are not being diagnosed. Normal would also mean people buying into branded goods, accepting labels that they’re being given, eagerly going home to eat their steaks.

The norms I feel uncomfortable with are the pressures to succeed in a rigged culture. To some extent, normal is being able to take care of yourself even though there’s so much systemic inequality. Normal is being able to work in groups, getting great metrics for your company, aspiring unquestioningly to status bearing and monetary goals.

LSP: Your discussion of autistic individuals who celebrate their differences reminds me of the culture of the deaf, where many do not necessarily wish to be cured. One austistic woman you interviewed was said to “shudder at the idea that money is being poured into a cure instead of being directed toward services for autistic people.” Does that make parents who are searching for ways to cure their autistic children wrong? Would it be better to just let their kids develop without interference?