Reason Podcast

Renegade University's Thaddeus Russell Wants To Blow Your Mind

This historian and online-education entrepreneur says runaway slaves, ladies of the evening, bootleggers, and other dropouts and discontents made America free.


"It's time for a revolution in higher education. It's time for a renegade university."

That's the sales pitch for Thaddeus Russell's Renegade University (RU), a radical, innovative experiment in higher education that is inspired by his 2010 book A Renegade History of the United States. Russell argues that it wasn't the Founding Fathers, straight-laced business tycoons, or moral crusaders that made America great, but runaway slaves, ladies of the evening, bootleggers, and assorted other dropouts and discontents who defined and created our freedom. In online courses and events held around the country, Russell, a Columbia-trained historian, who has taught at Barnard, Occidental, and other colleges, and his faculty offer bracing, engaging alternative takes on U.S. history, political philosophy, postmodernism, the war on terror, and more. Russell also hosts the Unregistered Podcast

He spoke with Nick Gillespie while visiting New York to participate in a Reason/Soho Forum debate about postmodernism and libertarianism.

To read Thaddeus Russell's Reason archive, go here.

Last fall, he debated legal blogger Ken White at a Reason event about censorship and social-media platforms.

Audio production by Ian Keyser.

NEXT: John Paul Stevens Was a 'Liberal Champion,' Except When He Wasn't

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  1. Runaway slaves really made sacrifices so they could be subject to what Marxists would call “wage slavery” – or what bohemians would call a square existence. You know, job and family, that sort of thing.

    If they wanted cultural boundary-breaking, they could have remained slaves and experienced a culture of extramarital (even extra-voluntary) sex, alternative family structures, and an attitude that work is for suckers (since you have to be beaten to do it).

    If I recall Russel’s book, the villains included Victorian-values types (black and white) who encouraged former slaves to work hard for the sake of their families, rather than just to avoid beatings.

    Am I misremembering?

    1. I read his book, and mainly remember thinking it interesting in a kook kind of way. Not persuasive in his extreme form. He pushed his thesis as if the oddballs were the main reason for America being great; instead of them playing a violin or too, they were the conductor and principals, relegating all the squares and straight-laced wage slaves to the peanut gallery.

      I checked the debate link: he argued for the proposition that companies which take federal dollars owe the public kindness and consideration. Fuck that noise.

      He’s all wild talk, funny ideas, and no respect for hard work or boring people. Fuck him.

      1. He’s all wild talk, funny ideas, and no respect for hard work or boring people. Fuck him.

        I wouldn’t go that far; he’s not all wild talk, and a lot of his funny ideas square well with libertarianism. His actual historical work is very good. I think you encapsulated his main fault very well though – he has no respect for “boring people.” He’s not great at understanding people with different values, and he’s a huge asshole in his treatment of many people outside his tribal comfort zone – a characteristic he would surely excoriate those same people for having.

        I think Thaddeus Russell is a really smart, insightful guy. His podcast is one of the few I listen to. Unfortunately, I think he thinks to much in terms of group conflict as a paradigm, possibly because of his Marxist roots. Despite knowing so many libertarians, he seems to genuinely not understand that many people do not think and act in that way.

  2. I’m concerned about the dropouts and discontents what are making America not free.

  3. Here he is complaining about marriage laws:

    “Other state governments followed that lead. By the end of the 19th century it was nearly impossible in all the states to dissolve a marriage unless one upheld what one historian has called “ideal spousal behavior” and one’s spouse was adulterous, sexually dysfunctional, or chronically absent. No longer could an unhappy wife or husband simply walk away from a marriage.”


    1. I like the scare quotes that suggest that adultery, impotence and desertion violate some ethereal, impractical “ideal.”

      1. I think those are regular quotes, not scare quotes. It appears to be a direct quotation from one historian (whoever that is).

        1. By choosing a misleading quote rather than just saying “adultery, desertion, impotence,” I think it’s very much like a scare quote.

          When I think of ideal marital behavior I’m thinking of more than just “hooray, you didn’t commit adultery, desertion or impotence, let’s give you Spouse of the Year!”

          1. “Ideal spousal behavior,” I think, simply means clean hands – you can’t complain about your spouse cheating if you’re doing it yourself, for instance. Those laws didn’t require you to be the Perfect Spouse in order to complain about adultery, you just couldn’t be an adulterer yourself.

          2. I think you have a different definition of scare quotes than I do. I though scare quotes were when people improperly use quotation marks to indicate that a statement is questionable. Sort of like “so called…”.

    2. Beware of governments granting the “right” to enter onerous lifelong contracts.

      I disagree with this characterization, it’s an onerous contract of undefined length. If it were lifelong, I think people would be far more careful about entering it.

      1. They are lifelong, but like with all contracts, they are not absolute. One can break a contract and then pay a penalty. It happens every day.

        Some libertarians get way too caught up in the idea of contracts being utter absolutes cemented into the foundations of reality. They are not. In some religions marriage is that way. But not contracts. Except to religious AnCaps.

    3. And he’s criticizing the Freedman’s Bureau for pressuring the former slaves into marriage – though they were promoting the same standards which, at least at the time, applied to white persons. The disregard of marriage was denounced, rightly IMHO, as a relic of slavery.

      Nowadays we’re supposed to believe that marriage itself is slavery-like.

      1. Nowadays we’re supposed to believe that marriage itself is slavery-like.

        We are?

        1. According to Russel, at least. There are dissenters of course.

            1. How about we just say he takes a dim view of the institution.

              , but the institution’s state-sanctioned moral apparatus continued to keep most of us from pursuing our individual desires. As of the most recent count [pdf], 48 percent of married couples are willing to pay lawyers bundles of cash to disentangle from relationships they no longer see as serving their interests. Even today, we pay dearly for that option, not just in legal fees but also from the stigma of having “failed” at what all good Americans are expected to do.

              So let us say to our gay brothers and sisters fighting for the “freedom to marry,” who once led the fight for freedom from marriage: be careful what you wish for—you’ll probably get it.

              And for the record, I’m with Thad!

              1. When my conservative parents found out about gay marriage being instituted by the Supreme Court, the first question they asked was “Does that mean they’ll have to get divorced, too?”

                1. It’s probably too early to get some valid statistics on the longevity of legal gay marriages, but committed gay relationships in the past were quite long lasting.

          1. According to Russel, at least.

            And my ex wife.

          2. Horseshit. He simply believes that the dissolution of a marriage is a decision exclusively for the married. There should be no moral code, enforced by law, that defines the allowable circumstances of such a dissolution.

            1. The post has hookers on a list of heroes and heroines alongside fugitive slaves. I admit that’s not strictly *equating* marriage with slavery, but it’s invoking slavery in a context of criticizing marriage.

              There, is that better?

              1. Last I checked you could be single to pay for a good hooker.

                And hookers are heroes because they exercise agency in spite of the prudish attempts to suppress their willful selling of themselves.

                1. And hookers are heroes because they exercise agency in spite of the prudish attempts to suppress their willful selling of themselves.

                  But they give me the ewwies.

                2. I’d love to see the financial report of a brothel which serves only single customers. If such a brothel exists!

                  And saying the government has bad laws doesn’t automatically make the violators of these laws good. There are laws against selling and using meth, for instance, and you may say those are bad laws, but it wouldn’t make meth dealers and meth aficionados into heroes.

                  1. I’d love to see the financial report of a brothel which serves only single customers.

                    Is this all about how you feel adultery should be illegal?

                    1. I’ve long ago given up on the idea of enforcing, say, NY state’s law criminalizing adultery.

                      Now I’m just hoping the states at least won’t *recognize* adulterous unions and give adulterers government benefits.

                  2. Yes, that is exactly the claim I’m making. Murderers are good because they violate laws.

                    Sometimes you seem to forget in your theocratic haze that this is a libertarian website.

                    If one is willfully exercising agency in an action with a consenting adult, in spite of and under the extreme pressure of, government laws to the contrary, without any direct physical harm to others around them, then yes, you are a Good Person in my view.

                    And pissing of your spouse because you’re sleeping with a hooker is not “direct physical harm”. Unless you buy into snowflake “words hurt” theory.

                    1. I said “saying the government has bad laws doesn’t automatically make the violators of these laws good.”

                      Laws against murder are *good* laws, hence totally outside of the argument I’m making.

                      Another comparison – Bloomberg’s Big Gulp laws were bad laws and interfered with freedom, but you wouldn’t necessarily be a hero to sell unhealthy amounts of soda.

                    2. Prostitution is a specific exercise of Agency that demonstrates both absolute dominion of the self and the ability to be an entirely self-sufficient contributing member of society.

                      What’s not to love?

              2. His contention is that prostitutes, not feminists, were the driving force behind most of the freedoms that women currently have.

                You think prostitutes are gross and icky, so I doubt you could understand his logic.

                1. He can say that if he likes, but the Women’s Christian Temperance Union strikes me as having more to do with, say, winning votes for women than the hookers’ union.

                  1. It can strike you all you want.

                    Or you could actually read his book and address his argument.

                    1. I’d have to re-read the book, but I don’t remember him *proving* that his beloved moral dissenters achieved actual progress.

                      As I said, the WCTU helped push through women’s suffrage, but say what else you will about them, they weren’t exactly a hookers-empowerment organization.

                  2. I really do enjoy your posts Eddy, but I have to tell you, the members of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union were probably some of the absolute worst scolds, prudes and least freedom loving people ever to live in this country.
                    And while being a prostitute is not necessarily glamorous (although for some high end girls, it probably is), but is it really so bad that women can make a living by making men feel good? Sometimes, believe it or not, men go to hookers for more than just an orgasm.
                    Robert Kraft, old widower goes for a rub and a tug. Why is this so wrong for you? I go to a masseuse who rubs many parts of my body, except my genitals to make me feel good. That is a noble profession. I go to a hooker who rubs the parts that the masseuse won’t, to make me feel good. And she is a dirty, immoral person who should be run out of town on a rail.
                    Why? Because there is seminal fluid involved? Or is the sex ok, but it is the money that taints it?

                    1. From what I recall of Russel’s book, he was attributing far more virtue to the hookers than simply getting people off. They were supposed to be the bold moral pioneers while the squares were just, square.

                      For the WCTU, I said “say what else you will about them.” Really, the worst that can be said of them is that votes for women was a softening up phase for the goal of banning booze.

            2. Yes. I think marriage is a fine thing. But I don’t want government determining what the obligations and duties of marriage comprise, or when or how it is acceptable to dissolve it.

            3. He simply believes that the dissolution of a marriage is a decision exclusively for the married.

              It’s a noble goal, really it is. But the primary feature of modern marriage: divorce gets in the way of that. 50% of the union probably does want to dissolve and keep the whole affair between them. But there’s another 50% who doesn’t, so the state gets involved and divides the spoils which… leads to the complexities in dissolution of the marriage.

              There was a time when marriage kind of was between the married, but someone wasn’t happy with that and demanded things like alimony, child support, division of assets acquired during the marriage etc. The “counter-culture” left will never let marriage return to just being between the married, because there’s a patriarchy that needs to be smashed.

              1. I’m not sure why those complexities matter. Sure, if two parties enter a contract with no explicit “out” clause, then one wants out, negotiating a separation is a painful process. But that’s entirely separate from saying that the State can dictate justifiable vs. unjustifiable reasons for wanting “out”.

                1. Agreed, I’m not arguing on Eddy’s side. But I do see some blindspots in Thad’s characterization of how marriage has evolved. Especially in the 2012 article Eddy linked.

              2. > so the state gets involved and divides the spoils which

                That’s the process of arbitration, which would occur even under an anarchist legal system with wholly private arbitrators. Heck, it happens even today! Get with the times. Private arbitrage to settle legal disputes is a thing, if you’ve written it in your contract.

  4. “It’s time for a revolution in higher education. It’s time for a renegade university.”

    It’s funny how many people are doing that right now and they’re considered “problematic”.

    1. It’ll be interesting to see how they award someone an ‘A’ for properly implementing the heckler’s veto.

    2. I don’t know about this. Is Renegade University on the reverend’s approved universities list?

      1. It’s For Profit, so no.

  5. i come from bootleggers, and prostitutes rock. USA.

  6. At the 23:45 mark, didn’t anyone get a tinge of suspicion at Russell’s holocaust revisionism in his answer to Matt’s question about US involvement in WW2?

    Putting aside the fact the US could have avoided entering the second world war, and giving Russell a pass on his inability to prove his thesis, ‘US Military Intervention in WWII guaranteed the holocaust,’ according to his own (paraphrased) timeline…

    Hitler’s anti-Semitism is irrefutable. Using the failed Russian purge of Jews as his barometer, and knowing their violent pogroms helped foster the Bolshevik revolution, Hitler originally chose a more practical solution. Labeling the perpetrators of the Slavic / Russian holocaust “the anti-Semites of emotion,” Hitler decided Aryan anti-Semitism would be one of reason.

    Nazi policy started with a methodical push and pull policy against German Jewry. Simultaneously pulling away basic civil rights, confiscating Jewish property in 1933, and funding a massive relocation program to remove Jews from Europe.

    Nazi and Zionist organizations were in league with one another, with Germany moving Jews to Palestine and training them in agriculture – leading to the establishment of Israel. The plan was scrapped with Churchill increasing Royal Navy attacks on ships carrying displaced Jews on German vessels– with British policy focused appeasing Arabs and the oil reserves they controlled. The Nazis then instituted the “Madagascar Plan,” which entailed moving Jews from Europe to and island off the east coast of the African subcontinent.

    There are quite a few holes, mangled timeframes, misstatements, and errors of omission there, which are fine in an off-the-cuff interview, but not as easily overlooked when a man is a history professor.

    1. I turned the podcase off when he started his rant – not sure I ever want to listen to the reason podcasts again.

      Reminds me of why I canceled my subscription to the magazine years ago – someone wrote an article that was just completely wrong – and the next issues – they said never mind.

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