My Story


When I saw the giant Roman columns (or are they Greek?) I had a bad feeling I didn’t belong there.

I had essentially snuck into Columbia University’s graduate history program, and on the day I arrived, standing on the plaza of Low Library, I figured my chances of becoming a professional historian were not good. This was in August of 1991, when the Columbia history department admitted virtually everyone who applied but gave fellowships only to those they believed had real potential. I was given not a single dollar but was invited to pay the $18,000 in tuition and told that there might be some leftover funds at the end of the year for second-year students. With a new batch of student loans and a string of odd jobs, I figured I would give it a try and maybe prove that I did belong.

On the first day of classes I saw my chances get slimmer. Of the twenty students in my “Introduction to American Historiography” class, taught by the eminent historian Alan Brinkley, fifteen had graduated from Ivy League colleges and four were fresh out of Berkeley, Williams, Duke, or Oberlin. When we went around the table and introduced ourselves, no one had heard of Antioch College, the tiny hippy school in southwest Ohio with no grades and no history department, where I had gone.

It was also around this time when I realized that not only my education but my childhood as well set me apart from my colleagues. Most of my fellow graduate students at Columbia were children of professors; all came from traditional middle and upper-class homes and had always excelled in school. This was not my story.

I was born in Berkeley in 1965 to professional revolutionaries. My parents were members of the International Socialists, a Marxist organization dedicated to creating a workers’ revolution. To help accomplish this goal, my mother took a job as a clerical worker at the University of California so that she could build a union of socialist secretaries. My father organized a union of his fellow computer programmers at the Northern California headquarters of the National Forest Service, and managed to recruit a few geeks into the IS.

But as I came to learn, a person’s politics is only the surface of the story.

My father was the son of an itinerant minister in the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, the Mormons who were left behind in the Midwest by Brigham Young on his way to Utah. The “Missouri Mormons” rejected their Utah brethren’s belief in polygamy but they shared the intense asceticism of the Mormon faith. My father was raised in a home where alcohol, tobacco, caffeine, dancing, secular music, and movies were forbidden and in which sex was never mentioned and his parents slept in separate beds. But on the day he graduated from the University of Michigan, my father climbed into his 1956 Chevrolet and drove to California, and he never looked back.

He adopted atheism as his religion, grew a bushy beard, and fell in with the young disciples of Leon Trotsky who were the loudest and best-organized of the radicals who were making the UC Berkeley campus the capital of student rebellion in the 1960s. At a meeting of the Young People’s Socialist League he was blown away by a blonde Jewish undergraduate who was railing against the nuclear missiles of the American war machine, which she compared to penises. A year later they toured Europe together, visiting comrades in London and in Paris, where I was conceived. I was born a bastard, just as that term was falling out of use for children born to unmarried couples. During my early childhood our house on Woolsey Street in Berkeley hosted Black Panthers, IRA guerrillas, and Marxist intellectuals from all over the world. In 1969, tear gas that was intended for my parents and other marchers at an anti-war demonstration drifted over my preschool, forcing it to be evacuated.

I suppose that so far this is a fairly sexy personal history, especially for an academic, but the story becomes sexy in a much darker way in the month before I began kindergarten. My mother was the kind of feminist who called into question not just sexism and misogyny but also “the family,” the foundation of patriarchal, bourgeois civilization. This allowed her to take action when she began to feel claustrophobic as a wife and mother. She had an affair with a hunky young comrade who had just been expelled from the University of Chicago because of a cocaine habit. He was only twenty-two years old — seven years her junior — and while she listened to Broadway show tunes and jazz standards, he was a fan of the Rolling Stones and had just attended the infamous Altamont concert, where Hell’s Angels hired to guard the band stabbed a black man to death. He was from an elite East Coast family; his grandfather was the renowned anthropologist and linguist Edward Sapir and his father was a State Department diplomat in Moscow and Paris, where he spent much of his childhood before going away to Philips Exeter Academy. Despite — or because of — this tony upbringing, when my mother met him, he was working as a steelworker so that he could organize a “revolutionary vanguard at the point of production.” He was later “reassigned” by the International Socialists to work as a truck driver for Safeway.

So my mother left us when I was four and my brother was two. My father, even though he was now in charge of two children, seized the breakup as an opportunity to conduct his own sexual revolution. Women paraded through our house, loud sex was an almost nightly activity, and “fuck” entered my vocabulary before I could write a complete sentence. My father took up photography, built a darkroom in a closet, and became an amateur pornographer, using his girlfriends as models. In an apocalyptic act of rebellion against his parents, he photographed his penis lying down the gutter of his opened copy of the Book of Mormon, framed it, and displayed it on our mantel. At about this time he also declared himself a nudist. He rarely wore clothes in the house, sunbathed in the buff in our backyard, and became an aficionado of nude beaches. This was California in the early 70s. So in addition to the fornication and undress, part of our backyard became a cannabis farm, mostly for personal consumption. This came in handy when I reached adolescence. I didn’t have to rely on my friends’ suspect supply of weed or blow my allowance on getting high. During my grade-school years my father also experimented with psychedelic mushrooms and LSD, which he didn’t like, because, as he told me, “by the time I could figure out what time it was I didn’t know what time meant.”

All of this might make me uniquely qualified to write a book about rebels and miscreants but it didn’t prepare me very well for school. I think kindergarten went fairly well, but in first grade I organized an insurrection against our teacher and pulled a bookcase onto her head. That was when I began a long series of acquaintances with the assistant principals responsible for maintaining discipline in the Berkeley public schools. In third grade I began regularly playing hooky to go shoplifting with my hoodlum friends and picking fights with the black Christian kids over the existence of God. By fifth grade I was so disruptive in class that teachers began physically throwing me out of classrooms. I stopped doing homework during middle school and my grades were so bad I was nearly held back a year. At Berkeley High, one of the best public high schools in the country, where professors’ children make up a large part of the student body, I was tracked into remedial math and English and was often the only white kid in my classes. And, God, I hated history classes, which I passed only because I plagiarized my term papers. I love to tell my academic colleagues that I graduated from high school with a 2.44 grade point average, a solid C.

No one told me to go to college, but I applied to Antioch because a friend went there and said I might like it. I was over the moon when I got the acceptance letter, not knowing that Antioch was so desperate for students that they accepted 100 percent of their applicants, including several people recently released from psychiatric institutions. Dave Chappelle, whose father taught at Antioch and whose sister was my classmate while I was there, once told James Lipton on “Inside the Actors Studio” that Antioch is “THE hippy college.”  This is true, but when I was there it was also the punk-rock college, the transgender college, and the college of co-ed gang showers. So the second chapter of my unusual history began when I arrived in Yellow Springs, Ohio. I felt right at home in my freshman dorm, where Cheech-and-Chong-sized clouds of marijuana smoke blotted out much of the light, and where, during thunderstorms, groups of naked students danced and rolled in the mud on the quad. Antioch students took their rebelliousness very seriously. When we hired a new president of the college, several students welcomed him by breaking into his office in the middle of the night and defecating on his desk. While I didn’t fully understand the usefulness of the act, I did admire the extreme irreverence it represented.

I thought I had lucked into a libertine heaven until I learned that Antioch exerted a moralism as fierce as anything I have found in American history. During my senior year three students were expelled for throwing a wooden cross into a fire at an art performance, which was an anti-Christian expression but was censured for the possibility of it being “hurtfully perceived” as an act inspired by the Ku Klux Klan. Most famously, several of my classmates wrote a “sexual offense prevention policy” which mandated that “verbal consent should be obtained with each new level of physical and/or sexual contact/conduct in any given interaction.” The policy was spelled out with amazing — and depressing — specificity. “Asking ‘Do you want to have sex with me?’ is not enough,” the policy stated. “The request for consent must be specific to each act.” This meant, administrators declared, that “each step of the way, you have to ask.” During freshman orientation, male students were instructed, “If you want to take her blouse off, you have to ask. If you want to touch her breast, you have to ask. If you want to move your hand down to her genitals, you have to ask. If you want to put your finger inside her, you have to ask.” Penalties for violating the policy ranged from formal reprimand to expulsion.

And so, what I found at Antioch was the starkest form of the American cultural contradiction that is the theme of A Renegade History. It was where I could see most clearly the fight between the community and the individual, responsibility and freedom, sacrifice and pleasure. I also found that the fight fascinated me. I decided the only way to understand it was to search for its origins. And so I sat down on the floor in front of the Greek philosophy section in the stacks of the college library and read The Republic, in which Socrates declares that the human soul is divided into competing sections, one ruled by the calculating, dispassionate mind and one ruled by base, animalistic “appetites.” Socrates insisted that the rational mind was superior to the desires of the body and was always at war with the “animal side” to keep the person, as well as the city-state, under control. And so I began to understand that the belief that sensual pleasures were “lower” than other pursuits was not “just the way it is” but in fact invented by a little old man with a white beard who wanted to be the “philosopher-king.” Over in the section of the stacks on the philosophy of the Enlightenment, I learned that these ideas were developed into what is known as the “mind/body dualism” and have been the basis of Western “high” culture for centuries.

Then I did a little digging into my parents’ heroes. Sitting cross-legged in front of the Antioch library’s well-developed collection of Marxist texts, my heart broke. These were not my kinds of rebels. Marx himself, by arguing more forcefully than anyone else that human experience could be fully understood through rational analysis, created the totalitarian term “social science.” I learned that Trotsky and his co-leader of the Russian Revolution, Lenin, announced that the “new Soviet man” had to renounce the “decadent and déclassé” pleasures enjoyed by both Russian workers and the heroes of my book. “Promiscuity in sexual life is bourgeois,” Lenin declared. “It is a sign of degeneration.” Soviet leaders promoted abstinence for youth and monogamy for adults. They called for a prohibition against alcohol, distrusted dancing, were contemptuous of popular entertainment, and called for Soviet youth to devote themselves to the study of science. Under socialism, everyone would conquer their non-rational selves through self-engineering. “Man will make it his purpose to master his own feelings,” Trotsky said, sounding an awful lot like Socrates. Above all, he said, “The destiny of Soviet youth is to be Soviet workers.” Fun was not a revolutionary value.

Trotsky and the Bolsheviks were a severe bunch because they understood that overthrowing capitalism and building a socialist society required profound self-discipline. When I understood this I quit being a socialist. If workers were going to work on the assembly line and manage their factory and attend regional planning councils and serve as delegates to the Communist International, when would they live? On the other hand, my parents’ comrades were a severe bunch because they had no lives outside the fantasy of revolution. They dressed like Russian proletarians not because they were preparing to seize the factories but because they had no idea what else to wear. They wore thick, black-rimmed glasses not because they were doing the hipster ironic-geek thing but because they were sincere geeks. They had no taste, but, more importantly, I came to believe, they were on the wrong side of history.

In recent years I’ve come to understand that my early life was split by the same conflict I read about in my philosophy books and also the split that I saw all around me at Antioch. My father did his best to leave Mormonism, but the ascetic spirit of Mormonism did not entirely leave him. I could see the great American contradiction at work inside my father, often with both competing impulses directing him at once. We did not own a clothes dryer and he hung laundry, often in the nude, on a clothesline next to the pot plants in our backyard, because dryers made clothes “too soft.” Our clothes, furniture, and car were all beige “because it doesn’t show dirt.” Every night my father sat reading for hours — always with a six-pack of beer — at the kitchen table in a hard wooden chair, in the erect position of a parochial-school test-taker. He said he “couldn’t concentrate” in a comfortable chair or in bed. With the house reeking of pot, he issued lectures on foolish people who used painkillers and cold remedies, which “only make you feel better.” He denounced “Hogan’s Heroes” for “not being true to history” and “The Flintstones” for “not being true to science.” He read only books about science or history, never fiction, and watched only documentary films because he was incapable, he acknowledged, of suspending his disbelief. No wonder Trotsky turned him on.

Five years after my mother left, her guilt got the better of her. So my brother and I moved into her two-bedroom cottage behind a furniture factory near the Ashby BART station in the West Berkeley ghetto. It was less than ideal living in a hovel with two people who were full-time commies and part-time parents, and I was at first uncomfortable being the only white kid on the block. But it began my lifelong love affair with black culture. It also showed me that black people were even more polarized in the clash between freedom and responsibility than were whites.

I drank in the linguistic and sartorial stylings of Julian, Hootie, Mondee, Boots, and other members of the Otis Street crew. I loved that they cared about style, that they wanted to look and sound bad. They listened to disco and were not ashamed to dance. And I will always be grateful to them for giving me rhythm. Which is not to say that I merely shook off my whiteness and got down with the brothers. Like all things for white Americans, acquiring rhythm became a question of work. I spent 99 cents on Taste of Honey’s 7-inch single, “Boogie Oogie Oogie,” and practiced dancing to it, alone in our living room, over and over and over.

I suppose that, unlike many whites who admire black culture, I was able to see that the greatest enemies of the freedom of that culture come from within. I saw Julian’s grandmother whup his ass with a hairbrush when he used a curse word. Black kids at school tackled me to the ground and lay on top of me until I thought I would suffocate when I mentioned that I was an atheist. And those assistant principals who cracked down on my wildness? I was one of very few white faces who appeared in front of their desks. Most of their inmates were black and Chicano kids from the flatlands. In counter-cultural Berkeley they wore stiff business suits. In the center of groovy education they were pitiless authoritarians who trafficked in old-school terror. They were selected to be heavies because they scared the shit out of us. And they were all black. So I had questions about Martin Luther King when I saw him in his suit preaching about good and evil.

During these years my mother’s inner renegade staged an insurgency against her Bolshevik super-ego. To tell the truth, she and my stepfather were never cut out for socialism. My mother got a hold of Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking and developed a love for haute cuisine, as did my stepfather, who attended the California Culinary Academy at night while driving tractor-trailers during the day. On working-class wages they somehow managed to buy clothes from the best stores in San Francisco — my stepfather was on first-name terms with the clerks at Wilkes-Bashford, where the best-dressed gay men shopped. They dreamed of fancy cars and fancy homes. My mother once said, in a moment that must have been a turning point for her, “You know that black guy down the street who shines his Cadillac every Saturday? I identify with that.” But Trotsky did not, and so my mother and stepfather left the movement and got real jobs. They started playing golf, driving German cars, and living in lofts overlooking the leather bars of Folsom Street in San Francisco. They became, I am proud to say, terminally degenerate and déclassé.

At Columbia I found a lot less pleasure and freedom than I did in Berkeley and Antioch and an asceticism that was subtler but more deeply ingrained.

The Greek and Roman architects who created the design for the granite columns on Low Plaza intended them to project both the grandness and austerity of power. The classical style glorifies civilization and obscures the individual. It tells us that our small bodies and trivial desires will die but empires built on work and science will live forever. The same sensibility, I discovered, infused the culture inside the buildings at Columbia, where I was taught to make history into gray stone.

Graduate students at Columbia were taught that there are two basic schools of historians: “idealists,” who follow Hegel, and “materialists,” who follow Hegel’s oedipal student, Marx. Idealists believe that ideas and culture — what Marx dismissed as “epiphenomena” — make history. At Columbia, we were all materialists. This meant that we were preoccupied with political institutions, economics, and “material conditions.” All the Columbia historians claimed to study “social history,” but this always meant the ways in which ordinary people practiced what we considered to be “real” politics — through labor unions, political parties, and organized social movements. The behaviors of the antiheroes in the book I later wrote were rigorously ignored. “Culture” in general and popular culture in particular were considered to be, in the words of one of Columbia’s leading scholars, “not fruitful subjects.”

Despite my absurd pedigree and feelings of alienation, I made myself into an arch-materialist that first year in graduate school, and apparently I did it well enough to impress my teachers. I was the only one of the ten non-funded graduate students that year to receive a fellowship. The following year the department gave me a multi-year fellowship, and later I was appointed to teach the famous “great books” course at Columbia College, “Introduction to Contemporary Civilization.” Alan Brinkley hired me to write the first drafts of his best-selling U.S. history textbook and a memoir for his father, the iconic television news anchorman David Brinkley.

Anyone who takes historical materialism seriously knows that the most important question is what we called “the labor question.” And so, informed by my Marxist genetics and training, I chose to study what no American outside a handful of universities could give a toss about: labor history.

And then it happened. Like water seeping into a flooded house, my doubts began to overwhelm and wash away the worldview I had built. I noticed a bizarre fact: while the vast majority of American workers over the past 150 years have A) voted for non-radicals, B) never joined a union, and C) if they joined a union were three times as likely to join a conservative union as a left-wing one, the labor history shelves in Butler library were filled with books about this socialist union or that Communist labor federation or such-and-such revolutionary general strike. So I chose to write my dissertation about the most-shunned — and largest — labor union in American history, the notorious Teamsters. Upping the ante even further, I decided I would write about the most famous, arguably the most popular, politically the most retrograde, and historically the most ignored labor leader ever — Jimmy Hoffa. Amazingly, not a single biography of Hoffa had been written by a historian. Why? Because he was all about making money for his members, using gangsters to win fights, and supporting whichever politicians — even Republicans — gave the Teamsters what they wanted. The fact that he was wildly popular among the members made it incumbent upon lefty labor historians to ignore him.

At my dissertation defense, a prominent member of the department scolded me for writing an “irresponsible” history. Nonetheless, one year later my dissertation was published by Alfred A. Knopf as Out of the Jungle: Jimmy Hoffa and the Remaking of the American Working Class. Journalists and non-labor historians gave it warm reviews. Labor historians and left-wing academics went ballistic. When I saw that professors with endowed chairs were calling me names in print, before I even had a job, I knew I was onto something.

And so, when I was hired by Barnard as a visiting professor and asked to teach the American history survey course, I decided to let fly.  I wrote the lectures as a completely new history of the United States, and taught them as myself.

I hated being "Professor." I cursed in class. I talked about sex. I used politically incorrect terms. My students said they had never heard the things I was teaching them. They called me "Bad Thad."

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.

This was not the standard left-liberal perspective my students had heard, and it certainly wasn’t a conservative one, either. It was informed by an unlikely mix of influences, including the hippies and other cultural radicals I had encountered in my early life, black and gay cultures that showed me a way out of the self-imposed limitations of being white and straight, and libertarians who caused me to question the commitment to freedom among the left that I had been born into and which employed me as a professor.

I gave my students a history that was structured around the oldest issue in political philosophy but which professional historians often neglect: the conflict between the individual and community, or what Freud called the eternal struggle between civilization and its discontents. College students are normally taught a history that is the story of struggles between capitalists and workers, whites and blacks, men and women. But history is also driven by clashes between those interested in preserving social order and those more interested in pursuing their own desires—the “respectable” versus the “degenerate,” the moral versus the immoral, “good citizens” versus the “bad.” I wanted to show that the more that “bad” people existed, resisted, and won, the greater was what I called “the margin of freedom” for all of us.

My students were most troubled by the evidence that the “good” enemies of “bad” freedoms were not just traditional icons like presidents and business leaders, but that many of the most revered abolitionists, progressives, and leaders of the feminist, labor, civil rights, and gay rights movements worked to suppress the cultures of working-class women, immigrants, African Americans, and the flamboyant gays who brought homosexuality out of the closet.

I had developed these ideas largely on my own, in my study and in classrooms, knowing all the while that I was engaged in an Oedipal struggle to overthrow the generation of historians who came of age during the 1960s and 1970s, controlled academic history, and had trained me. They were so eager to make the masses into heroes that they did not see that it was precisely the non-heroic and unseemly characteristics of ordinary folks that changed American culture for the better.

So I was quite anxious when I was asked to present my work to colleagues in order to get a long-term contract and be moved into line for a shot at tenure. A friend in the history department told me that given my publishing record and popularity among students the talk would be “really just a formality.” But I knew it would be trouble.

Several distinguished professors from Columbia showed up, since the university has final say on all tenure decisions at its sister college, Barnard. During my talk, a Columbia professor who had been named by a national magazine as the most important public intellectual in the United States, stared at me with what I took—rightly, it turned out—to be disgust. Another walked out before I finished. One of my graduate school advisors asked a series of hostile questions. Other colleagues told me after the talk that I was “courageous,” that I was “wonderfully, relentlessly revisionist,” and that I made some famous historians “look like dinosaurs.”

But emails came into the hiring committee from “important places,” I was told, calling my ideas “improper,” “frightening,” and “dangerous.” They said my ideas had no place in the academy and insisted that I be terminated. It was simply not okay for me to describe the “oppressed” in the terms used by their oppressors—“shiftless,” “sexually unrestrained,” “primitive,” “uncivilized”—even though my argument transformed those epithets into tributes.

After I was told that I would be leaving Barnard, hundreds of students protested in faculty and deans' offices and the Columbia Spectator devoted an editorial to my case, but to no avail. There did indeed seem to be no place for me in the academy. So I wrote a book.

And the rest is renegade history.