Monthly Almanacs

A Renegade History of the United States

Thaddeus Russell

Free Press, Simon and Schuster, New York, 2010

In this insightful book, Thaddeus Russell takes a controversial look at the evolution of American freedoms that are often attributed solely to the Founding Fathers.   He argues that many of these freedoms evolved from actions of the renegades of society, those who refused to follow the accepted social norms of established upper classes.  Renegades include the gamblers and drunks, the prostitutes and gunslingers, slaves and freed blacks of the 19th century, immigrants from many countries, working class women and flappers of the 1920s, civil rights activists and black nationalists of the 1950s and 1960s, homosexuals and hippies of the 1960s and 1970s.

Each generation had those, for a variety of reasons, failed to happily endorse the Protestant work ethic encouraged by the conservative establishment.  This has often focused on attitudes towards alcohol, various styles of music and dance, racial integration, sexual relations outside of marriage, organized crime, prostitution, smoking marijuana, and homosexuality.

Race Relations from Slavery to the Civil Rights Era

Two consecutive chapters, entitled “The Freedom of Slavery” and “The Slavery of Freedom,” focus on slavery and its aftermath. The author recounts that the Master, or Plantation Owner met most immediate needs of food, shelter, and health care.  This changed overnight, when slaves were suddenly “free” to work much harder and longer than they had as slaves without any of the perceived guarantees of security they had taken for granted as slaves. The author relates race relations through Reconstruction into the early 20th Century, far too complex to relate in detail in this brief review.

Race relations and black society of the mid 20th century remained complex.  From the 1930s to the 1950s, there were two immensely popular black ministers, James Francis Jones (Prophet Jones) and Charles Manuel Grace (Sweet Daddy Grace). With the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement, these cult like figures who lived a life of excessive flamboyance supported by contributions from religious working class blacks, were criticized by other factions of black Americans society:  the more conservative religious leaders including Martin Luther King and Jesse Jackson, and black nationalists, Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam.  These groups had conflicting views on integration vs. segregation and black nationalism, the decadent excesses of Sweet Daddy Grace and others of his kind, and violence vs. non-violence.   The conflict between these factions is an era of our modern racial history that is not well known to many Americans.

Immigrants and Racial / Ethnic Relations

The author traces the history over several generations of different immigrants, particularly the Irish, the Italians, and the Jews.  In all three cases, these immigrants suffered much discrimination,  often living among blacks in the urban tenements of the Northern cities (and a few southern cities, such as New Orleans).   This intermingling between new immigrants and blacks led to a fusion of their music, entertainment, and culture.  This includes the “black face” white entertainment, usually with music and dance, quite common in the late 19th century and into the early 20th century Vaudeville. 

Gradually, over about two generations, the Irish, Italians, and Jews moved into respectable niches of policemen, teachers, entertainment, and sports.  They became “white enough” to move into “mainstream” American white society from which they had been shunned.  For obvious reasons of skin color, this was not a true option for the blacks, largely descended from former slaves and visibly distinct from the European “white.”

Prostitution in the Wild West

Like slavery, the history of prostitution in the Wild West from after the Civil War into the early years of the 20th century is difficult to understand seen through modern eyes.  Women composed a very small portion of the western population.  Russell sees in the madams of the bordellos the origins of women’s liberation.  In the various boomtowns of the west, the madam was sometimes the wealthiest member of the community.  While providing a legal  (or at least tolerated) service for the community, the Madam often assured her girls were well maintained, well dressed, and generally well fed and cared for when ill. 

As anti-prostitution forces organized, in the early 20th century the bordellos were closed down, leaving these women to fend for themselves.  Losing the security and safety of the organized house of prostitution, they were often forced into the streets, and into control of pimps and organized crime, and their life became much more difficult and dangerous.

World War II and Japanese Internment Camps

Despite the popular belief to the contrary, there were many who did not support the war effort during the 1940s, a war that had to be fought with a large contingent of draftees.  There were many “illegal” strikes during the war supported by factions of the labor movement, who were often depicted as “unpatriotic.”

During World War II, there were indeed several thousand Japanese-Americans who were sympathetic to the cause of Japan.  This in part led to the internment camps for Japanese Americans in remote areas of the west.  Many of those detained were “patriotic” Americans of several generations.  This event is a cautionary tale of what some fear could still happen today with “Arabs,” who are perceived by some as synonymous with “terrorists.” 

Gay Liberation, Viet Nam and the Hippies

In more modern times, Russell discusses the events leading up to the 1969 Stonewall Rebellion in New York, when police violently cracked down on homosexual nightclubs in New York.  This was the beginning of the modern gay liberation movement.  Four decades later, this debate has shifted to include issues of same sex marriage and custodial rights of children by gay couples, and the recently repealed “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy of the military.


The Viet Nam War led to social unrest of those opposed to the War. The peace movement and youth movement, personified by the “hippies” led to a small “back to the land movement.” Some hippies developed communes, often working much harder physically in achieving (or often failing to achieve) a more natural life-style.

Alcohol, Women’s Liberation, and the Working Man

Russell explores other issues as well.  These include the history of alcohol in American society, the Temperance Movement and Prohibition, Organized Crime and gangster days in Chicago, the suffragists and more recent women’s liberation, and labor history. 

The Cultural Wars Continue

Not surprisingly, the mingling of various nationalities, races, religions, and political and sexual persuasions has often been violent. We have a long history of posses, police officials, or corporate goons bashing or shooting protesters and renegades of various stripes. This is true of our labor history, mentioned only briefly in most high school history texts, and a topic that Russell covers only slightly. Many social issues have caused conflict and violence.  The use of alcohol or marijuana, sexual freedom, and “provocative” music and dance have all been repressed by the establishment at times, perceived as dangerous and threatening to society.   Many varieties of music and dance have been strongly criticized by the elders as “barbaric” or worse over the years, ranging from jazz to swing, rock and roll to hip hop to disco.  It is the free spirit of these renegades that has produced  “American standards” of jazz, improved legal rights for women and laborers, religious freedom, and greater social justice for blacks, Hispanics, Asians, and other immigrants and minorities.  If not for these renegades, we would live in a very bland society where everyone danced, lived, dressed, and acted, and thought alike.  

The “cultural wars” and “family values” debates have a long history in this country.  Debates over slavery and women’s rights were once argued with the greater passion (and violence) than we see today over same sex marriage and abortion.  Any given era has its lightening rod issues, often with puritanical forces on one side wishing to impose their conservative religious / social views on the society as a whole.  In opposition are the renegades who often choose to largely ignore social stigma and live their lives as they see fit.

Some may see this book as an overly romanticized view of various segments of our society that many would perhaps prefer to ignore.  But I don’t think the author is trying to “glorify” slavery, or prostitution, or the days of bootleg liquor and “flappers”, or organized crime as the real founders of Las Vegas.  He is trying to reveal a largely untold history of the renegades of society and how they have had an important influence in making our lives what they are today. Whether one agrees or not with Russell’s analysis, this fascinating book tells many stories of American history that were not taught in your high school history class.  It importantly relates missing chapters of the evolution of American society,  helping to more fully explain how America became a vibrant 21st century multi-racial, multi-religious, and multi-cultural society. 

The World is Flat:  A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century

by Thomas L Friedman

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2006

Tom Friedman has written a brief history of globalization since 1987.   It explains how economies around the world have become very integrated over the past quarter century, focusing on many “events” that were not recognized at the time as being so important or crucial.  In this particular book, he largely ignores the reality of the ecological and environmental constraints that are fast approaching in a world of over seven billion (and increasing) population.  He devotes a later book, Hot, Flat, and Crowded, published in 2008 to that topic.  That book will be a focus of a future review. 

Friedman starts The World is Flat with ten things that flattened the world.  While he fall of the Berlin Wall, and the attack on the World Trade Center on September 11 are “geo-political” events, most items covered are advances in computer technology.  Most people understand many of the terms he uses, such as downloading, uploading, outsourcing, and insourcing. 

The development of the Internet began with CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research in Switzerland in 1991.  The public appearance of Netscape as a browser on August 9, 1995 was a pivotal event.  Now there was a user-friendly means of browsing the World Wide Web.  It quickly became possible for information to be exchanged by people from around the world.  This quickly led to all types of innovative systems of cooperation among people, often complete strangers and becoming “known” to each other only through e-mail or various Internet tools.

This cooperation on software development and other people connected due to common interests be they scientific, social, literary, education, of business interests has quickly become an essential feature of doing business in many different fields.  Just one of many examples that Freidman describes throughout his book: the images or raw data of an MRI done on a Thursday someplace in California may well be transmitted via computer networks / Internet to India.   There someone in India interprets it during the American overnight, then retransmitted back to the source as a final report by the next morning.

One of the more important developments of the past 3 decades is supply chaining.  Wal-Mart is a key developer of this phenomenon.  Using a diversity of suppliers around the world, on a very large scale Wal-Mart has been a leader in developing the ability to track goods through the whole process, ensuring whatever the item of the season might be (snow blowers in late fall and swimming pools in the spring, or seasonal apparel, there is a system in place to assure that the item in question arrives on the shelves of local stores “just in time” for consumer demand.

Wal-Mart is indeed quite controversial.  It is seen variously as a job creator, and the destroyer of local mom and pop commerce.  For the working poor and much of the middle class, it is the cheapest place to purchase almost anything, from food to clothing, house wares to electronics, sporting goods to music.  By keeping prices low and affordable, Wal-Mart is heavily patronized by the working poor, and increasing, the middle class.

Opponents of Wal-Mart complain about their discriminatory employment practices against women, keeping many employees part time and thus deprived of employer sponsored insurance, and dominating a local grower’s expanded market, then cutting what they will pay, ultimately forcing some small to medium scale farms or orchards out of business.

Be that as it may, there is no doubt that supply chaining has served Wal-Mart and its customers well.  In the regional disaster of Hurricane Katrina, in Wal-Mart was one of the few institutions up and running in Biloxi, providing the survivors with a variety of emergency supplies from shovels to buckets to boots and cleaning tools that were virtually unavailable elsewhere.  Victims of the hurricane along the Gulf Coast were urging outside donations of Wal-Mart cards in lieu of food or clothing.

One of the great weaknesses of Friedman’s book is his lack of acknowledging one basic economic fact:  While supply chaining has worked well in the past, inevitably rising energy costs, particularly the price of oil, will make this distribution of the Wal-Mart products to local store shelves “just in time” economically unsustainable.

Despite his largely ignoring environmental constraints that are approaching fast, Friedman does propose three basic areas where the United States must place more attention if we are to retain our economic and social importance on the world stage. 

Perhaps the largest and most controversial of these is drastic reform of our health care system.  His views on this are generally vague, and He admits that a focus on this issue could easily be an entire book.  Providing health care benefits through the employer places a burden on businesses trying to compete in a global market where their foreign counterparts do not have this expense.  Friedman falls short of calling Medicare for all, but recognizes that we should and can do much better.

A second idea is the portability of pensions.  Retiring after working at the same company for 40 years is not a realistic option for most people.  Friedman feels that all employees should have the option of starting a portable retirement account that would follow them from job to job. This would be in addition to social security, and would provide nearly everyone with an additional “pension” upon retirement after a varied career of working for 5 or 10 different companies.

Friedman correctly notes that the two issues of health insurance based largely on the benevolence of one’s employer and the lack of portability of pension plans both discourage many people from taking the risk of changing jobs.  This stifles innovation, limiting the options for entrepreneurs.  Losing one’s job often includes losing health insurance and rights to a pension at a time when most vulnerable to economic hardship.

A third focus is on education.  By most standards, the United States is failing in academic achievement in secondary education, particularly in sciences and technology, but also in history and foreign languages.  Our universities have a large number of foreign students from China, Korea, Russia, and many countries from around the world, many of whom outshine their American counterparts. In secondary education the preparation of university students for the next decades, we are falling behind many Asian countries.

This newly flat world is full of paradoxes.  It is likely that millions will remain behind a digital divide, impoverished, often residing in failed states with constant war, violence, famine, and disease. There will be pockets of domestic digitally disconnected, having great difficulty navigating day to day mainstream society, with good employment opportunities only a dream.

We have to realize the importance of a universal health care system, preferably a single payer system, and some type of simplified and secure form of independent retirement fund. Only with strong systems supporting the elderly, adequate health care for all without fear of bankruptcy, and a strong reinvigorated educational system can we expect to retain a role of world leadership in the coming decades. 

As history of an era, this book succeeds very well.  Despite its lack of insight on the impacts that higher energy costs and rapid climate change will have on the globalization process, its historical perspective on modern rapid technological change is refreshing.  Friedman has written a very good survey of major developments in computer technology of the past quarter century and how they have affected every day life in many ways now taken for granted.   Written during a time of rapid change and innovation, it describes how we have arrived at this point of having American technological and economic advantages seriously challenged from around the world.  It also prescribes very important domestic changes needed if the United States is to retain its leadership role and not be surpassed by India, China, and other innovative economies around the world.  

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