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A Renegade History Of The United States: A Non-Fiction Book Review

Updated on November 17, 2015
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The first step is to know what you do not know. The second step is to ask the right questions. I reserve the right to lean on my ignorance.

We are reviewing a book by historian, Thaddeus Russell: A Renegade History Of The United States. I need to start by saying that this book teaches us many, many lessons:

1) You do not know what 'freedom' is. I know that you think you do, but I'm sorry to tell you that you most emphatically do not!

2) The reason that you labor under the erroneous assumption that you do know what freedom (especially 'American Freedom') is, is because you think you know what America's 'Founding Fathers' stood for and what the Revolution was all about. You think that you know what they, other revolutionaries, reformers, and liberal activists have stood for in this country's history; but Dr. Russell show us, most catastrophically, that you do not.

3) Because you are ignorant of the first two points, you do not understand how the Founding Fathers and successive generations of its guardians, have always conceived of the project of Democracy, and precisely why it is that they proposed it as their preferred alternative to monarchy.

4) As you read the book, stick with it, and integrate the first three points, you will be hit with the jarring realization that many, many of America's heroes are not who you thought they were [Do we ever truly KNOW another person?]; happily, though, neither are the typical villains of the American story, necessarily who you thought they were. For example, do you think of the words Mafia and gay liberation as belonging in the same sentence? Well, after you read this book you just might.

5) You will learn that both 'freedom' and 'enslavement' are to be found, historically, in the most seemingly unlikely places. In fact, you will learn---if you didn't know already---that, again, historically, that one form of enslavement has opened up space for a certain kind of freedom; and one kind of freedom has actually opened up space for a certain kind of enslavement (or at least repression). Russell demonstrates this amply in chapters 2 and 3, which are titled respectively, "The Freedom of Slavery" and "The Slavery of Freedom." I'll come back to this point later.

6) If you didn't know this already, you will learn about the folly of stereotyping (not just the inherent lack of civility of "judging a book by its cover" and so forth). It is very important that the reader learn or re-learn this lesson. I cannot stress this point enough because it bears directly upon the method by which southern and eastern Europeans, who immigrated to the United States, have historically become integrated and assimilated as officially "white," and therefore, officially "American."

What am I talking about?

Well, let me ask you this, and please be honest with yourself. In the American context, today, what group of people do you think of as "natural" athletes, particularly in basketball and boxing? The answer is African-Americans, is it not?

I know, I know, you're not supposed to say that. But that is what you are thinking, isn't it? You are thinking that because you believe the notion is based on what you "see." There is "clearly" a certain demographic who dominates basketball and boxing.

And how do you account for the evidence of your eyes? That is to say: Why do you think it is that African-Americans dominate basketball and boxing? Is it because you believe that African and African-descended peoples have "more of a natural ability" for athletics, particularly in basketball and boxing?

Perhaps you think it is "some combination of nature and nurture." Perhaps you think that the situation has always been this way.

But what if I told you that in the beginning of the sport of basketball, Jewish men dominated the game, wiping the floor with their Gentile adversaries at both the professional and collegiate level? You don't have to imagine it because it happens to be true. The first professional league was the ABL, the American Basketball League.

From the year of its founding in 1925 into the 1950s, Jewish players were preeminent, as I said, in both the pros and college. The league's dominant teams were the Cleveland Rosenblums, the all-Jewish Brooklyn Jewels, the Philadelphia SPHAS (South Philadelphia Hebrew Association), and the New York Celtics.

In the 1930s and 1940s, about half of the ABL's players were Jewish. Furthermore, in a compilation of the top scorers for the 1940-41 season, we read that: "36 of the 61 names listed are clearly identifiable as Jewish." It was the same deal with college basketball, as I said. In 1921 the American Hebrew wrote that the "immigrant boys" on college teams had achieved 'supremacy of brawn, speed and skill.' The Jewish Chronicle let their readers know that 'basketball and Jewish stars are synonymous.'

How about boxing? All you need to know (for the purposes of this essay) is the fact that between 1900 and 1940, more Jewish me won world championships(26) than Irish, Italian, German, and African-American competitors. And by the way, Barney Ross (born Dov-Ber Rasofsky), the son of a rabbi, was the first prizefighter in history to win the title in three different weight classes(lightweight, junior-welterweight, and welterweight).

Let me ask you this: Do you think of the Jews are a "funky" people with plenty of "rhythm"?

No? They once were.

As a preface to this, there is something you must understand. It is a thing that goes to the heart of this book: the process by which southern and eastern Europeans eventually won assimilation and integration into "good" society as "white" and therefore "American."

Anyhow, Thaddeus Russell writes: "To many historians, Jewish attachment to jazz, basketball, dance halls, and blackface was evidence of Jewish assimilation into American culture. Yet those scholars do not appreciate that there have been many and conflicting American cultures."

That's the first point to understand. What do you mean by 'American' and 'America'? I will also return to this crucial point at a later point.

To continue, Russell writes: "To understand that even during the Jazz Age 'good' Americans did not have rhythm, we need only listen to the music that was played and the dances that were danced in institutions that trained immigrants to be American. The historian Derek Vaillant has written that social workers among immigrants in the first decades of the twentieth century 'moved swiftly to single out specific musical forms, such as ragtime and jazz, and their audiences for censure if they challenged conventional expectations of self-control, women's place, sexual mores, and youth behavior, or if they appeared to encourage social mixing.'

Furthermore, we read that fearing 'the attendant evil of the modern styles of dancing,' social workers and city officials banned the playing of 'ragtime music or any other music with suggestive titles or words, or with any form of improper dancing' at dances for immigrants. Prohibited dancing included 'close dancing,' 'improper position,' 'a distorted position,' and 'freak, unnecessary or indecent movements,' such as 'suggestive wiggling, frequent low-dipping, [or] extreme swaying.'

So, the process of assimilation into 'white' and 'American' legitimacy was designed to get Jews and other immigrant groups to stop doing all of that 'indecent' stuff on the dance floor.

One more thing before we move on. Again, Thaddeus Russell writes: "Jewish American leaders were among the first to warn that improper dancing and other forms of un-American behavior were more likely to break out among immigrants who lived in close proximity to blacks."

So, in other words, Jewish immigrants were indoctrinated by their own community leaders to stay away from those "un-American" blacks, or else you will catch their deviancy!

Russell outlines the same process that operated with Italian, German, and Irish immigrants as well. We see people immigrating into the United States (whose southern and eastern European cultures had not been affected by the Protestant Reformation) who enjoyed a culture that honored the body as well as the mind. Basically, the leaders of the immigrant groups aided the elite WASP leadership in knocking the sex and rhythm out of the mass of the people.

That is, according to Russell, how we got the present, archetypal image of the Jew, "[a]fter World War II, [as] a physically inhibited, highly talkative suburban family [that] replaced the blackface dancers and basketball players as the most famous Jews in America."

7) You have to be specific when you talk about what is 'America' or 'American' policies. This goes to the point Russell made about there having always been "many and conflicting American cultures." Plural. Let me give an example.

The Cold War

Tell me: Do you or do you know anyone who uses the term cultural imperialism? What do you mean by that? When that term is used in application with a specific country, like, say, the United States, what does that mean? Remember, as Thaddeus Russell points out (and we really ought to know without expert mediation), there are and always have been many, diverse, and sometimes conflicting American cultures.

If, by American culture, you mean that which seems to be sanctioned by the ruling class of the United States of America, then it just so happens that such is not the cultural penetration that exercised such an impact on the former Soviet Union.

In the chapter called How Juvenile Delinquents Won The Cold War, we read: "After World War II, Soviet soldiers brought the virus home from the western front. It soon infected large portions of the Soviet population, then spread to other Eastern Bloc countries. Within a few years, the Communist Party leadership feared it would destroy the socialist fatherland from within. But it was not a biological disease that threatened Communism. Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin and his commissars called it an 'amoral infection' in the minds of Soviet youth. It was 'American primitivism,' 'capitalist cultural imperialism,' and 'bourgeois cosmopolitanism.' But it was really American renegade culture."

American renegade culture. Anything labeled 'renegade,' tends not to be approved of the guardians of decency, social order, national honor, and all that good stuff.

Anyhow, the last paragraph of that chapter sums it up thusly: "Why, then, did the culture of American renegades get so little praise from the would-be evangelists of democracy? If jazz, rock, comic books, and 'vulgar' movies helped bring down Communism, why were they not promoted by American political leaders as beacons of freedom? The answer might be that, by necessity, 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."

In other words, jazz, rock, comic books, 'vulgar movies,' and especially erotically suggestive dancing, and the like, are things that release the inhibitions of the body, the sensual aspect. Ruling classes of all countries and ideologies dislike them because---in their eyes---such things promote social anarchy, unmanageable, or, as they say sometimes, 'ungovernable.'

8) The last lesson (and there may be many more that I can't simply think of at the moment) I took away from the book is this: Not only do we not know what 'freedom' is, as I indicated in point number one, but even the effort to conceptualize what complete freedom should look like, is a matter of an ongoing investigation.

Reading Guide

Let me give you a simple conceptual guide to reading the book; one that will provide you with an unbroken chain of logic (or "chain of evidence," as its called in criminal investigative and prosecutorial procedure), that will help you see the constancy, or invariable pattern beneath the "façade of events."

From the time you open the book and look at the first page, I want you to remember these words, and keep them firmly and constantly running in your mind. The first word is Protestant Reformation (just know that there was one in Western Europe in the 16th century); the second word is Calvinism (just know that one of the two principal reformers of the Protestant Reformation was John Calvin); the third word is Capitalism; the fourth word is Work.

Please remember that Work has two definitions! For the sake of brevity I am going to be brutally, hideously, and almost unforgivingly crudely simplistic.

A. Pre-capitalist Work: Think of the cliché "Work to Live."

B. Capitalist Work: Think of the cliché "Live to Work."

The fifth word is Ethic. And since we all know what an 'ethic' is, let us move on

So, the term I would like you to hold in your head as you read the three-hundred-forty-one pages of this book: Protestant-Calvinist-Capitalist-Work-Ethic. Please remember that sociologist consider Calvinism to be an enabler of capitalism.

If you do that, if you keep that term in your head, it will be "Steady-As-She-Goes" for you as you learn about the "Founding Fathers" who "were part of a transatlantic movement in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to replace the external controls over subjects In absolutist regimes with the internal restraints of citizens in republics. This movement began what is now called the Modern Age. The modernist movement required not just the overthrow of monarchs but also the repression of what was called 'man's animal passion.' The problem with the discipline of the gallows, the lash, and the sword, according to these revolutionaries, was that it was far less effective than individual self-discipline in keeping social order. Even though peasants, slaves, and the colonial subjects... [who frequented the] "taverns and bawdy houses held no formal political power, they were, according to this view, actually too free because they had no reason to control themselves."

The reason they would be given to "control themselves": Protestant-Calvinist-Capitalist-Work-Ethic.

If you hold that term in your mind, you won't be thrown for a loop when you read that: "The generation of 'progressive' intellectuals---the founders of what is now called liberalism---differed with business, religious, and labor leaders on many issues but shared the belief in the evils of leisure and consumption. Writing at the turn of the twentieth century, during the first great thrust of industrial production, these thinkers hoped to find a way to keep a society newly awash in pleasure from sinking into chaos. They faced what the historian David Horowitz calls 'the dilemma materialism posed to the values of hard work, saving, and self-discipline.' Simon Patten, one of the most influential economists of the early twentieth century, argued for an increase in the material wealth of ordinary Americans, but only so that they would not seek solace from their poverty by succumbing to 'debasing appeals to pent-up passions.' With stomachs full and heads adequately instructed, workers would be able to resist the temptations of the nickelodeon, the burlesque show, and the amusement park." 'Raised above grinding necessity,' as Horowitz describes Patten's argument, 'immigrants and the poor would become willing puritans.'"

And the beat goes on, throughout American history, for all the periods that Thaddeus Russell surveys in his book. What we find ourselves looking at is a tactical disagreement by the liberal and conservative elite about how to best get the masses of Americans to toe the line of the Protestant-Calvinist-Capitalist-Work-Ethic.

One More Point

Thaddeus Russell's thesis is that the reason we, In the United States, enjoy the privileges, freedoms, and prerogatives that we do is thanks to the renegades; more precisely it has been the struggle between the guardians of purity, social order, and national honor, and all that, and the rogues, renegades, outliers, and criminals. It was the struggle between the former and those who ignored social norms, determined to do their own thing as well as provide the people what they really wanted (as in the case of the Mafia battling Prohibition).

Understand that "[r]enegades made illicit joys not only possible but real. They didn't intend their actions as a gift to us. But now is our chance to accept them as gifts, take the side of the renegades when the guardians of social order try to keep them down, and take more."


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