A Renegade History of the United States by Thaddeus Russell
I think it’s really interesting to take a contrarian view of history and present things from a different point of view from the one we typically learn. This book defines freedom as the ability to do whatever you want, especially drugs, sex, rock and roll, and not working. This seems like a kind of narrow definition of freedom to me, but it’s close enough that it’s worth considering at least for the amount of time it takes to read the book. Its main argument, that the Protestant work ethic is oppressive, is persuasive and far-reaching enough to have a far reach in American history. It was interesting to read about the effect that mobsters, drunks, and prostitutes, had on history. The discussion of the way that Irish, Jewish, and Italian immigrants first befriended African Americans, and were seen by racists as their equals, then eventually fought to be seen as “white” through abandoning certain neighborhoods and lifestyles and seeking respectable middle-class jobs, was also very interesting.
However, I found some of the book’s conclusions suspect or potentially inflammatory, even offensive. The worst one might have been the chapter about how slavery wasn’t really all that bad, since, after all, slaves didn’t actually work as hard as poor white farmers, and beatings and family separations were really pretty rare. I don’t think Russell meant to argue that slavery was morally just or that it shouldn’t have been abolished, but virulent racists could certainly use his information to make those arguments. What’s worse, he didn’t put his argument in context by pointing out that if whites ever treated slaves well, it was because they were convinced of their inferiority, that they were incapable of self-motivation, or because the slaves had actually taken power for themselves in a situation where they weren’t supposed to have any. For example, Russell neglected to say that if slaves were not mistreated, it was because they were considered property, and feeding a slave well was analogous to taking your car in for regular maintenance, a wise investment. He didn’t discuss the dehumanizing effect on slaves’ psyche or spirit, though that is what slave narratives like that of Frederick Douglass focus on. The book’s discussion of slavery is the most problematic in this way, but the chapter about how FDR was a fascist has some of the same kinds of issues.
Nevertheless, it’s a book worth reading for anyone interested in American history, if for no other reason than because this viewpoint is one that is so rarely seen. Considering multiple angles from which to view the past enriches our understanding of the present. Even if we only consider those alternative ideas for a while before rejecting them.