Independence Day book review: renegades
This is a history of our country told from the other side, without any pretense that it should be the only side. It's the story of those who resisted and rebelled -- culturally rather than politically -- against the stuffed shirts, the respectable, the scolds, both right and left. Renegade culture is the culture that has always sought pleasure and individual fulfillment, scorning the "values" of thrift and toil for their own sake, whether preached by the establishment or by its respectable opposition. It's the story of those who kept the taverns and brothels thriving in the face of the Carrie Nations of history.
Russell starts with the early days of American independence, when the founding fathers themselves worried that Americans were too raucous and depraved for full self-government -- and based on Russell's descriptions of the society of the time, they had a point. Drunkenness and casual sex (including inter-racial sex, forbidden as it was) were popular recreations among the masses, with the dignity and sobriety favored by the upper crust definitely a minority inclination. Reading of this contrast between the gentry and the hedonistic urban proletariat, I couldn't help thinking of Britain, from which most Americans of the time (or their recent ancestors) had come -- if you've seen movies like Rita Sue and Bob Too or The Full Monty, you know there's another side of British culture than the stiff-upper-lip image in most Americans' heads, and the America of 230 years ago must have been somewhat like that.
The story continues with groups such as slaves and free blacks, Irish and Italian immigrants -- people who were excluded from respectable society and responded by building a defiantly non-respectable society of their own. The contributions of prostitutes, gangsters, juvenile delinquents, and gays to renegade culture are each examined in their turn. From Russell's perspective, even forces such as the unions and the Civil Rights movement were part of the "establishment" in that they tried to destroy renegade culture and spread establishment values among the downtrodden as a path to acceptance into mainstream society.
He himself acknowledges that the renegades should not be celebrated without reservation. "Were the heroes of this book to take control of society, it would be a living hell. No one would be safe in the streets, chaos would reign, and garbage would never be collected." Society needs order and structure too. But it was renegade culture that, working within and even against that order and structure, gave us most of the freedom we have today, ensuring that the United States would not stagnate into the kind of society idealized by people like the John Birch Society and Rick Santorum. You'll actually shudder at the realization of what this country could have ended up like if there had never been blacks or immigrants here. A final look at the subversive role of American renegade culture in the Soviet Union, and the pitiful efforts of officialdom in that country to suppress it (so evocative of the similar efforts of similar people here!) reminds us of its global impact, which I suspect will yet make itself felt in places like the Islamic world.
Thanks to "EH" for sending me this book.