Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The Renegade Professor Gets Fired

Thaddeus Russell, lately a history professor at Barnard College, has a long rant at Huffington Post about his denial of tenure:

Five years ago, I had every reason to believe that my job as a history professor at Barnard College was secure. I had been teaching there for four years, I had published my dissertation with a major publisher, and because I had tripled the sizes of the introductory U.S. history course and the American Studies program, colleagues told me they "would be shocked" if I were not promoted to a tenure-track position.

But that was before my colleagues knew what I was teaching.

I had always been a misfit in academia, partly because of my background, partly because of my personality, and increasingly over the years because of my ideas -- ideas that are now a book called "A Renegade History of the United States."

Ah, the radical professor, the renegade, the outsider who sees the truth that the establishment insiders are trying to cover up. How shocked those dweebs are by his cutting insights!

What was his particular truth?

I showed them that during the American Revolution drunkards, laggards, prostitutes, and pirates pioneered many of the freedoms and pleasures we now cherish -- including non-marital sex, interracial socializing, dancing, shopping, divorce, and the weekend -- and that the Founding Fathers, in the name of democracy, opposed them. I argued not only that many white Americans envied slaves but also that they did so for good reason, since slave culture offered many liberating alternatives to the highly repressive, work-obsessed, anti-sex culture of the early United States. I demonstrated that prostitutes, not feminists, won virtually all the freedoms that were denied to women but are now taken for granted. By tracing the path of immigrants from arrival as "primitives" to assimilation as "civilized" citizens, I explained that white people lost their rhythm by becoming good Americans. I presented evidence that without organized crime, we might not have jazz, Hollywood, Las Vegas, legal alcohol, birth control, or gay rights, since only gangsters were willing to support those projects when respectable America shunned them.

Thaddeus Russell may be an entertaining teacher who pulls in the students, and he might be fun to talk to over a beer, but he is a lousy historian. In this screed, and in the amusing list article he links to, he mixes up unrelated things in a baffling way and skates around important historical questions without ever coming to grips with them.

History is the discipline of context. It means understanding what things meant in the time and place in which they were said, and it means getting things in the proper order so you can understand what led to what. How do you suppose the riffraff of revolutionary America managed to "pioneer" dancing and non-marital sex, both of which have been around for at least as long as Homo sapiens? The rest of Russell's list mixes up bits of old European artisan culture like "Saint Monday," the freedom of life on a chaotic frontier that faded as civilization was established, a view of marriage advanced by certain radical Protestants and accepted by some New England Puritans, the general naughtiness of the eighteenth century, and things that are simply not true. The notion that the culture of early America was "anti sex" is downright weird; look how many children they had!

Russell also thinks he has made some radical discovery by noting that the leading American revolutionaries opposed much of what the common people did for fun. They did. Many of them believed that political freedom had to be accompanied by an increase in personal virtue, because lazy drunkards would inevitably fall back under the rule of tyrants. The revolutionaries ran for office on this platform and gave speech after speech on this theme. How, then, could this be a "secret" that only a radical like Russell could ferret out? It cannot have escaped anyone that in some ways life in the nineteenth century was more restrained and repressed than it had been in the eighteenth; that is pretty much what we mean by "Victorianism." I might point out that besides drinking, lewd dancing, and inter-racial carousing, the reformers also opposed dog fighting, bear baiting, judicial torture, the exhibition of mental patients for entertainment, and numerous other things that Russell probably does not celebrate.

Russell, the bad-boy rock-and-roll renegade historian, is also a bit late to this particular party. There are dozens of historical books about the unending effort to reform popular culture, reduce drunkenness and illegitimacy, and get people to work harder and go to church. And there was such an effort, although how much difference it made is open to question. Historians of Russell's ilk have long imagined that at some time in the past, before the agents of repression took power, people were liberated, funky, and fun. As one famous French historian put it, the peasants were out "joyfully upending each other in the fields." But, really, it wasn't like that. Before effective birth control, carousing led to babies, which tended to dampen the rowdiness:
I thought if I could marry I would have song and dancing; what did I get, though, but to rock the cradle and hush the baby?
As a 17th-century Welsh epigram has it. Drunkenness also led to violent brawls, ill health, and various other routes to an early death, which was the fate of all too many of those happy, rowdy commoners.

I would have voted to deny him tenure, too.


ArEn said...

You go, John!

Unknown said...

This post IS pretty brilliant. Maybe you should post it also in the comments section under the Huffington Post article.