I recently got the chance to catch up with Thaddeus Russell, this year’s most talked about historian. Russell’s new book, A Renegade History of the United States, offers a view of the American past with an entirely new set of characters. Those names and events that have been kept out of school textbooks for too long are examined as America’s real history. Critics are comparing it to Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States –- a thrilling, controversial read with the potential to change the way we view history.

 

David S. Wills: A Renegade History of the United States seems to have generated quite a lot of interest already, with glowing reviews. Why are so many of them are using words like “controversial”?

Thaddeus Russell: The book is controversial for a number of reasons. First, it argues that the lowest, most “degenerate” inhabitants of American society actually produced many of the freedoms and pleasures that most of us now cherish. My chapters on slavery and race have been especially controversial (see below). The book also shows that the enemies of what I call “renegade freedoms” included not only the usual suspects — conservative politicians and business leaders — but also many of the heroes of the left-liberal history that is now dominant: abolitionists, feminists, civil rights leaders, progressive activists, and gay rights leaders. My chapter on the civil rights movement shows that Martin Luther King and other leaders of the movement led the call for African Americans to “reform” themselves, assimilate into white culture, and live up to deeply conservative “family values.” It has already caused quite a stir in academic circles, and led several prominent professors at Columbia to call for my firing from Barnard College, where the ideas for the book were developed. I was in fact let go from Barnard because of my ideas — but that also led me to consider writing A Renegade History, so it might have been a blessing in disguise.

 

Joyously Obscene

By Mary Hendrie

Essay

I learned to curse from the kids down the road. I don’t know where they learned it. Maybe they snuck into the living room late one night and watched Cinemax. Or maybe someone let them listen to that George Carlin bit (Carlin, of course, has become my cursing idol – what an appreciation for language that man has). They knew all the basics and a few interesting combinations. I didn’t know what “fuck” meant but understood it to be foul and taboo, so the combination “buttfuckers” struck me as joyously obscene. We were the kind of kids who integrated new words into our vocabulary by shouting them while jumping on the trampoline, leaping off the bed or bounding from one piece of furniture to another trying not to touch the floor — lava, obviously. If you had first encountered cursing in such a magnificent, joyful, wild atmosphere, you would love it, too. Few things entertain me more than the thought of my eight-year-old self in mid-air shouting “buttfuckers” with glee.

I love cursing the way I love beer. It is a guilty love, one that cannot possibly be good for me, one that concerns my mother a little. In high school, she heard me singing along with Ani DiFranco: “I may not be able to save the whole fucking world, but I can be the million that you never made.” Mom sighed. “I guess you and your friends all talk like that, don’t you?” I recently sent an invitation to a small sampling of my rather large Catholic family — only to the ones who already know i don’t go to church — inviting them to read my blog. It was another tentative step into the online world of self-promotion in which the line between enthusiasm and shamelessness is thinning by the day. The invitation included a suggestion that my family members could share the blog with anyone they know who might be interested, but it also came with a warning: “If you know anyone with a strong aversion to four-letter words, this may not be the kind of thing they’ll want to read.”

This e-mail lead to a conversation with my Mom in which I explained how I really do need to improve my vocabulary and she said how she loved Julie and Julia except for all the cursing, which she found not so much offensive as simply unnecessary and distracting. I could relate. I’m always talking about how writers have annoying and distracting habits that they seem to have been trying out for effect, but the effect just didn’t come out so well.

But I also believe cursing can be used to great effect, like the time my brother talked our mom and sister into a staged argument in the mall parking lot. My sister Katie, generally recognized as the polite one in the family, called shotgun as we all went to get in the car. My mother, more commonly known as the nicest lady ever born, voiced her objection.

Mom: No, I want to ride in the front.

Katie: But you always get to ride in front.

Mom: Fuck you, Katie.

Seriously, it was priceless. Just the briefest moment of shock passed until we all realized our mom would never use that word. John, who had orchestrated the scene, couldn’t contain his smile. Mom has probably blocked it out, but to me it was completely unforgettable.

Cursing does a lot for me, actually. There are those who call it cheap, low class, anti-intellectual, a sign of a weak mind, a foul temper and a lacking vocabulary. All these things are true, of course. But sometimes, my mind is weak, my temper foul, and my vocabulary lacking — there’s no getting around it — I run out of words sometimes.

In college, I took a women’s self-defense class for credit. I was OK at sparring. I learned the moves and did the exercises, even lost a couple pounds. Found out I could hit pretty hard, too. For the final exam, we had to fend off an attacker (a former cop or something, a man paid to show up in padding and a cup and threaten us). I was terrified. I had stage fright, for one thing. I knew I could hold my own against a classmate; I’d even given my friend a bloody lip by accident one time. But I was afraid of the pressure of not getting mugged (or raped or killed) in front of the whole class. I was afraid I couldn’t let fly witht he fists on a total stranger. Our teacher had instructed us to keep shouting “no” at the attacker as we fought him, and being raised in the polite tradition of “yes,” I was afraid I couldn’t raise my voice against him.

When my turn came, we stood in the center of the room, encircled by my classmates, acting convincingly like total strangers until he said, “Hey lady, can I play with your titties?” No kidding. Fucker gets paid to say this shit. I was shocked, but the adrenaline rushed in like a title wave as I shouted, “Fuck no!”

My classmates laughed a little. We were all surprised by my voice, considering I’d been labeled as “the nice one” by our teacher. The attacker grabbed my arm, and then I fought him. I fought him like hell, and I didn’t care anymore if he had a cup on. My classmates were chanting, “No! No! No!” with every punch, and I was going to ruin his day. Ruin his life. Ruin his family tree. After class, he took off his protective gear and we all talked for a few minutes. He was a nice guy, in his 50s, a grandfather, but still terribly fit. He was harmless after all, and he’d been there to help us learn our own strength. He helped me find my own voice, that’s for sure. And as vulgar as anyone may think it is, I know exactly what I’ll say if a real attacker ever tries to touch me.

What I told Mom was that when you’re trying to hang with geniuses, professional journalists, people with PhDs and book contracts and all you’ve got going for yourself is a spunky attitude and a foul mouth, it leaves something to be desired. It can make you feel pretty ignorant. And yet, there’s something satisfying about being a high school girl and using the word “cunt” to unsettle boys who’d never seen one. Truthfully, after exchanging e-mails with certain very literate friends, I do hit dictionary.com pretty hard, but let us never underestimate the power of a well-placed “fuck.”