In her book A Nation of Outsiders: How the White Middle Class Feel in Love with Rebellion in Postwar America, author Grace Elizabeth Hale traces the evolution of the “rebel” concept. Starting with its modern genesis in J.D. Salinger’s A Catcher in the Rye, Hale’s well-laid-out book places the outsider in a chronology.
Each group of rebels evolves almost in resistance to what came before it – folk as rebellion against manufactured pop, or conservative Christianity against hippie free love – while, at the same time, using the tactics of the previous group for their own purposes.
Also, in the development of her theory, Hale positions some groups as both rebels and oppressors simultaneously. For example, while white activists for civil rights had good intentions, their activism “reasserted the supremacy of the person acting, even when a person worked to change the very conditions that granted this status.”
In essence, when a person is acting as outsider, or siding with the actual outsider by choice, they still have the ability to go back whence they came. They can stop participating, and this asserts a sense of power, whether intentional or not.
All of this analysis comes to a head in the last chapters, when Hale shows how conservative fundamentalists use the tactics of the civil tights movement – namely, positioning one’s self as being in opposition, instead of trying to assert dominance. These chapters have a textual feeling difficult to place into words. While the previous segments of A Nation of Outsiders had a pastoral, gentle sense to them, Hale appears to be distinctly unsettled by the operations of the Moral Majority or Operation Rescue.
It’s in these final chapters that Hale makes her point most effectively. Summed up, the outsider is, at heart, desperately trying to shape the world to their vision. While they exist in opposition, they are convinced that if they’re visible enough, they will convert the world, regardless of the context in which they’re working. Decidedly well-written, A Nation of Outsiders is a most-own. If you’ve read Jon Savage’s Teenage, this is what comes next.