1. My brother and I loved to torture and kill things when we were kids. With a pair scissors we’d snip off the wings of butterflies and moths until only their stubby bodies were left. With the same scissors, we’d bring the “praying mantis” to its knees, its little body flopping forward from the sudden loss of its big head. Someone told us that caterpillars and worms grew back the part you lopped off. We tested one after another until lay scattered on the dirt like cigarette butts. Who would have guessed that with a sprinkle of salt a snail would bubble up and melt like the Wicked-Witch-of-the-West? In the summer, when you could cook an egg on the sidewalk from the heat, we’d take a magnifying glass and steady its pinpoint beam over ants. Smoke would rise as their little bodies shriveled up. Our backyard in Fresno, in old Armenian town, was chock full of fruit trees. Birds found it a good place for putting up their nests. We had Easter egg hunts all Spring long.

2. There is a Polaroid of us standing at the end of a walkway that stretches to the front porch of our house. We look just shy of school age, four and five years old. Shadows stretch from our feet, and on the curb in back of us a black Buick is parked. We wear tidy white shirts buttoned to the neck, roomy shorts, ankle length socks and shiny dress shoes. Our hair glistens as though a wet comb has just been run through it, and we are standing at attention with toy army rifles at our sides. My best guess is that we were on our way to Church, and with a few minute to spare our mother probably thought “how cute” and ran in to get the camera. We in turn fetched the rifles. Go ahead, mom—- you shoot first.

3. I felt sorry for the Jews, enslaved to the Egyptians that way, but I felt pretty bad for their enemies too. First, you had the flood; then the Tower of Babel. The people of Canaan and Bethel were all slaughtered, but worst of all is what happened to the citizens of Sodom: burned alive. When the Jews took a city, they even killed the animals, cows and goats and pigs, as though they had something to do with it. There were so many wars and killings I couldn’t keep track of them. Our Sunday school teacher taught us: “Thou shalt not kill,” and then we sang songs about the people in Jericho getting buried alive.

I was happy when Jesus came around. He didn’t kill anybody. Only himself, sort of.

4. Why were people afraid to die if they were close to God? The bible said they were going to the bosom of God. How many people could fit in one bosom? Maybe they were scared they’d suffocate in there.

5. On Thursday nights, we watched Wild Kingdom. Marlin Perkins was the fearless host of that show. He bravely stalked savage animals, all in order to give us a window onto their world. Sometimes he would show how beautiful the wild was; a field of Flamingos, all on one leg; antelope coursing over the plains like a river; giraffe with necks long as palm trees loping into the horizon where the setting sun was colossal and turned the whole sky blazing pink. Mostly, though, these were backdrops for what we all wanted to see: one animal killing another. I remember the lion waiting in the grass, crouched. How, low to the ground and with stupendous patience it crept and suddenly bolted. It pounced on the gazelle, went for its throat, and within minutes the bucking and kicking stopped, and all on the Serengeti was calm. Then it began feeding, remorselessly. The way it calmly stared at the camera, its muzzle all covered with blood, left no doubt: it had done what it had done, and it had the right.

6. Murder: when someone bad kills someone good.

Capital Punishment: what they do to murderers where the president lives.

Massacre: when a whole bunch of people gets killed at the same time.

Genocide: what they did to the Armenians.

Slaughter: what they do to animals (or people who they think are animals).

Execute: when someone shocks you to death

Suicide: when you kill yourself.

And now what happened to Robert Kennedy—-assassination: killing someone important.

It was in the newspaper, a picture of a man cradling Kennedy’s head in his arms. It reminded me of the way the Virgin cradled Jesus when he was pulled off the cross. A dark cloud descended over the whole school. The Mexican kids were so upset you’d think they were relatives of Kennedy. Some of the girls cried on their desks. Later, I learned that they like Kennedy were Catholic—all of them went to Catechism.

“The Kennedy family is cursed. I feel bad for Jackie,” my mom said.

Dad said the Kennedy family, way back, made their money “bootlegging liquor.” It had to do with how every bad thing you do eventually comes back to get you.  Martin Luther King died the same year on a balcony. King was the one who told us “I have a dream.” His face was child like, but his voice was big as a river. Even my dad said, “He was a good man, King.”

I’d barely heard of Robert Kennedy or King before they were assassinated. Now everybody talked about them. I was amazed at how important people became after they died. I thought it was unfair that they should become famous without being around to appreciate it.  My dad said it always went that way.

“Not only that,” he added, “but the meanest people live the longest.”

He named a few of the meanest people he knew, and said that they had strong “constitutions.”

Just like America, I thought.

I went to sleep after CNN broke the news of Osama Bin Laden’s death and before Obama’s speech. I drifted off remembering the incredible relief I felt many years ago when a person who committed a great crime against me died, and I wished the same for the Sept 11th survivors and families.

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.