October 4, 2011

Thaddeus Russell's Dead Horse; or, Philosophizing With a Shotgun

A Renegade History goes deeper.  It goes beneath what the new "social history" portrayed as the bottom.  It tells the story of "bad" Americans - drunkards, prostitutes, "shiftless" slaves and white slackers, criminals, juvenile delinquents, brazen homosexuals, and others who operated underneath American society - and shows how they shaped our world, created new pleasures, and expanded our freedoms.  This is history from the gutter up.  -- Thaddeus Russell, A Renegade History of the United States, from the Introduction.
So goes Russell's mission statement from the very first page of the book . . . and he sticks by it relentlessly, starting with a concept and slotting any and all facts at his fingertips to buttress this "radical" view of the world.

Nietzsche said he philosophized with a hammer.  Russell, if he "philosophizes" at all, philosophizes with a shotgun.  A sawed-off shotgun, to be precise.  And like a sawed-off, no matter how much impact there may be up close, once you step back, it largely looses its effect.

In case it's not clear, it is Russell's thesis that the refuseniks of our culture are the ones who have defined our culture.  Further, it is these refuseniks who have defined our freedom by stretching what is allowed by the dominant culture.  All this by simply refusing to play along with the establishment.  See how easy that is? So, maybe those Wall Street protests will work after all . . .

Seriously, though, it is something worth spelling out: how do the refuseniks, the underclasses, the renegades, the "bad" people, whatever you want to call them, create the America we live in right now?  Russell clearly here is not taking the same tack as Howard Zinn; that is, he's not fitting them into a Marxist narrative as to what the history of the "people" is - it's clear that Russell's "people" aren't Zinn's "people", thought they are both, by and large, talking about the same people.  And that is to Russell's credit, even if it isn't necessarily to Zinn's detriment.

There are two basic related problems to Russell's book: first, like Zinn, he's too quick to slot given people and events into his system, to interpret history for his own purposes.  Like Zinn (even more so, I would say), he starts from the conclusion and works backwards.  This, in and of itself, is not a problem: if the "facts" line up with the conclusion, and the conclusion is an interesting and/or useful one, then we could work with it.

That, unfortunately, leads to his second problem: what exactly is this system, this solution, that he is proposing?  Well, as far as I can tell, he simply wants to posit that the common man defines history against the system, that man defines culture in opposition to civilizing (hegemonic mainstream) influences.  He is, of course, defining the monolithic vision of the great American Individualist in frankly libertarian terms, and moreover, making that the centerpiece of American History . . .

 . . . which, to me, far from sounding revolutionary, seems to be the same bill of goods we've been sold since the idea of an American state existed, even if Russell trades whores, queens, jazz musicians, and drug addicts for the farmers and industrialists of the original American myth.  Like the idea of a  new class of mainstream black capitalists as revolutionaries of race in America, it is not convincing . . . the names and faces have changed, but the song remains the same.

At the end of the day, there's no question that Russell's "renegades" have helped define current American culture; it's pretty self-evident, even beyond the whole "flap of a butterfly's wings causes a typhoon in China" sort of complex system dynamics.  It is also self-evident that American culture is equally defined by the millions of people who do very ordinary mainstream things, like working a normal job, going to church, etc.  And while it may be worth discussing exactly how this "renegade" dynamic works, Russell doesn't do it with any kind of insight that might be interesting.  As a matter of fact, it's this lack of insight, accelerated to an unwillingness to even think through the topic that is practically anti-intellectual, that makes this book ultimately not worth reading.  That, and the fact that he could have exhausted the thesis of the book in a short paper.

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All that said, there are some interesting discussions here.  I will (hopefully) pick up one or two of them before the Christmas retail season shuts everything else down.  I do think there is some importance to understanding where and how Russell goes off track.


josh said...

Russell's thesis is like any other. That is, it's his. And, he, for the most part, executes it sufficiently.

Bill Zink said...

I disagree that he executes it sufficiently . . . I'll be getting to that when I get the time to write. I think it's an interesting idea that he gets wrong from top to bottom. I'll start at the top with the next post.

Oh, and good to hear from you again. Hope things are going well in Tucson.

Anonymous said...

Could you be more specific in your criticisms of the book? From what you've written about it I can't tell what any of its arguments are.

Bill Zink said...

I do plan to get back to this, but for the time being, real life intervenes. No promises before the end of the year, but I've got another post started already.