Thaddeus Russell on Renegades vs. Conformists

Most mainstream accounts of U.S. history run something like this: 

The King of England was oppressing the colonies — taxation without representation , etc. — which sparked the American Revolution and quest for self-governance. This began a long struggle for democratic freedom that would be continually redefined, first through a civil war and then through a protracted civil rights battle to extend the liberties first won for white males to all of “We the People,” including women and minorities. 

At each step, it’s said to be noble reformers and moral visionaries who took the courageous stand against the oppressive forces of injustice and discrimination. This naive telling may explain how certain civil liberties were gained, such as the right to vote or to be heard in the public square, but it neglects many of the freedoms that a majority of people seem to prefer to the lofty ideals of the founders. 

Consider the freedom to drink, gamble, and cavort with whomever one wishes (not to mention the freedom to take long lunch breaks and summer vacations). None of these were guaranteed in the Constitution, and if it were up to some of the influential colonial leaders, people today might be banned from even more innocuous activities like dancing and celebrating Christmas.

Thaddeus Russell exploded the naive view of American history in his 2010 book, showing that it was the rogues and renegades — prostitutes, drunkards, and laggards — who often pioneered freedoms we now take for granted, such as a women’s ability to walk somewhere unaccompanied, or wear makeup.

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When Russell tried to share his revisionist research with his students at Barnard, his career was derailed. A talk delivered to his colleagues revealed that he wasn’t “one of them.” In other words, he wasn’t afraid to express unpopular opinions that offended the sensibilities of left-wing coastal elites. 

To be sure, Russell is an equal-opportunity offender — dethroning sacred cows on both the left and the right. He joins the show of ideas, not attitude to share his experience working at an Ivy-league university as a heterodox historian.

Why Do We Work?

Furthermore, in a chapter titled “The Freedom of Slavery,” he claims that slaves enjoyed pleasures that were forbidden for white people. Far from defending the institution of slavery, Russell’s point is that following the civil war, the culture among former slaves frequently provided an important source of resistance to the oppressive culture of white Americans — a culture that put labor on a pedestal, and made it the reason for living, rather the means to living. 

In his own life, however, Russell values work highly. He spoke with Reason’s Nick Gillespie about his own mission of challenging the Federal process of university accreditation. He is doing so through “unregistered” courses in history and philosophy, offered through his very own Renegade University. Russell also keeps busy with the Unregistered Podcast, but he will remind you that these pursuits are all a means to an end, not an end in and of themselves.

Is Postmodernism a Threat to Liberty?

If you’ve been following the news around freedom of expression on college campuses, you’ve probably seen stories about young, zealous “Social Justice Warriors,” who have a meltdown when confronted with a perspective that challenges their previous indoctrination, courtesy of politically correct humanities departments. Canadian psychology professor Jordan Peterson is perhaps the best-known opponent of this trend, for refusing to be silenced by students, administrators, or media personalities on the question of transgender pronouns (a kind of compelled speech because of Canada’s new laws).

Peterson has argued that the vaguely defined but sinister ideological movement known as postmodernism is responsible for the destruction of western norms, including free speech and even logic itself. He has described postmodernism as a unified ideology espoused incompletely by many individuals, none of whom perfectly embody or even understand the whole set of doctrines. However, collectively they a pushing a complete worldview, that is the inheritor of the Marxist system for analyzing struggles between the economic classes. Instead of looking at power relationships through an economic lens, postmodernists have shifted their focus to identity politics (perhaps in part because of the horrific failures of communism in the Soviet Union and China). While the ideas behind postmodernism cannot be written down and codified, they share some broad traits such as skepticism of all “metanarratives,” such as those that would place “enlightened man” at the center of history, as told within a story of unrelenting progress. 

Russell, however, identifies post-modernism as one of the greatest achievements of academia to date, offering a course through Renegade University titled, What is Postmodernism?”. He says that thinkers like Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault are being abused when their theories are applied to enforce totalitarian ideals or compelled speech. Instead, post-modernism is supposed to free humanity from alleged social constructs, including race, class, and gender, so that we can become more responsible for our own fate.

Russell believes that the real problem in academia is the cowardice on the part of tenured professors to say and research what they want, rather than what they know will be safe and acceptable to their suprisingly like-minded colleagues (recall that Democratic professors outnumber Republicans 10 to 1).

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Find out what students are really being taught in humanities and social science departments today. Is postmodernism really the pernicious, nihilistic doctrine that Jordan Peterson claims it to be? Before you answer, be sure to tune into Bob’s interview with Thaddeus Russell.

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