Not Oprah’s Book Club: Republic of Outsiders

In journalist Alissa Quart’s new book, Republic of Outsiders: The Power of Amateurs, Dreamers, and Rebels, she repositions the world. Reading it, you get a sense that the true power brokers are not the Wall Street hotheads or the arrogant doctors or the record label moguls, but those brave and brilliant enough to see these false gods for what they are and re-imagine and remake unapologetically. Add in the catalytic force of the Internet to bring these brave and brilliant social rebels together, and you’ve got a very interesting moment and a very “of the moment” book.

Quart was, she claims, searching for the “America within America”–the places and spaces where people are using various forms of cultural entrepreneurship to buck convention. It’s perhaps more accurately described as the “world within the world”–after all, the Internet’s capacity to link folks rejecting gender binaries from Bangalore to Boston, or neurodiverse activists from Anchorage to Accra, transcends any national boundaries. Much as Andrew Solomon’s much-discussed book Far From the Tree doesn’t link people by geography, but by experience (in that case, what he calls “horizontal identity” in parenting), Quart’s subjects are united by their inclination for rebellion. They don’t swallow mainstream’s cultures maxims and build a life accordingly; they chew and spit back the parts that strike them as dehumanizing, rotten with limitation, patently unjust.

Her rebels are demographically diverse in what they reject: sanity, feminism, normalcy, Hollywood, the Top 40, even meat and mass markets. Of course it’s easy to romanticize the rebel; as ironies would have it, that’s sort of become it’s own mainstream practice (co-opted by many an Apple commercial). But Quart is too smart to fall into the trap of painting overly simple pictures of the rebels she gets to know. Instead, she approaches them as philosophical communities, soberly looking at the struggles they face in living counter cultural lives–economically, logistically, emotionally, spiritually. She’s not an academic, however, so the subject matter is safe in her hands–there are real colorful characters here, real painful conversions, real struggles to realize what can often amount to fantastic but impractical ideologies.

In the afterword, Quart writes: “The people in this book have turned their disabilities, limitations, or seemingly marginal positions into strengths. Living in the digital age has helped them do so. The Internet has supported people who tend to extremes to express themselves and allow them to be read by others who would otherwise be far beyond their reach, sometimes becoming more wholly themselves in the process.”

And that, in the end, is our highest calling–to become “more wholly ourselves.” Reading this book is a strengthening exercise toward that goal.

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