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Platforming Fascists

Some apologies, awkwardly paired with some critical analysis.

It has now been two weeks since I posted a certain interview on YouTube.  It has been six days since Twitter exploded in my face — to which I reacted with the most classic array of adolescent defensiveness I have exhibited online in years — and five days since I took the video down from my YouTube channel.  Then several days followed, consisting largely of an extremely awkward combination of apologizing for my many mistakes in this process, as I began to learn what at least some of them were; listening to friends and comrades I had either upset by posting the video, or who were upset by my reactions to what people were accusing me of on social media; listening to other friends and comrades upset because I took the video down; and probably wasting my time and energy defending myself against accusations of racism, anti-Semitism, sympathizing with fascists, being duped by fascists, or perhaps even being one myself.

Of course, apologizing for what I did wrong while defending myself against false accusations is an impossible combination, especially on social media, where only the shortest posts that inspire the most controversy are the ones most people might see.  I’m constantly finding that people I know well, of every age, are continually impacted both emotionally and intellectually by these social media algorithms, but I’ll leave that topic aside for now.  In any case, I now resort to the forum that many people seem to think is extinct, for reasons I have yet to grasp, my blog, where there are no discussion threads to speak of, where there’s a beginning, middle and an end to the articles, and no one is likely to drop in on the most incendiary sentence somewhere in the middle, and see only that one.

For those who are thinking, when is this idiot going to get to his apology, and stop diverting attention to complaints about social media algorithms, take a couple deep breaths and keep reading.  This isn’t Twitter, everything is not going to happen in the first paragraph.  I need to tell a story first.  You may have your own ideas about my actions — whether strongly in support, strongly in opposition, or somewhere in between — but if I am to draw any conclusions from the past week that make any sense, first I need to tell you a bit about what preceded it, for the present only makes any sense at all when understood in the context of the past.

First of all, briefly going way back, while I completely reject any notions that you have to be from any particular background in order to deeply understand the experiences of someone from a very different background — and actually I can prove that theory, and regularly do — it is also the case that my interest, or perhaps obsession, with things like history and politics is partially rooted in my personal efforts to come to terms with and perhaps even grow to understand my own family history in this troubled world.  If I were from a different background, I might have written just as many songs about the Palmer Raids, the Red Scare, the Great Depression, the rise of fascism, the Second World War, xenophobia, as well as the Irish famine and the immigrant experience, among other subjects.  But trying to understand these things was literally completely tied up with trying to understand the experiences of my grandparents.  My grandfather Alvin was born in 1899.  The twentieth century is entirely a matter of oral history, for me.  They’re all dead now, but actual people I was good friends with did things like fight against Franco’s army in the Spanish Civil War.  My nanny in New York City got out of Germany in one of the last kindertransports in 1939, and lived through the Blitz in London.

More recently, in my adult life, many friends and comrades have been killed or maimed in the struggles to make the world a better place, both within the US and around the world.  There are empty seats at many of my concerts — or there were, prior to the pandemic — because the people who would have been sitting in them are were killed in Rojava, Palestine, or elsewhere, or may be soon.  And yes, I admit to being proud that a significant little slice of the folks who join the YPG in Syria or the YLF in Seattle get a little solace from my music, assuming my inbox can be believed.  It’s why I do what I do, and none of this is abstract to me.

Over many years, but especially over the past few, I’ve written many songs and essays related to the subject of why fascism has been popular in the past, and why it is popular today in many parts of the world.  I’ve written a lot about what fascism is what it isn’t, because there’s a lot of confusion around that, currently and historically.  Politics and history are often over-simplified in convenient ways for the people doing the over-simplifying, and I have been pushing back against this tendency, which is prevalent now in the mainstream press as well as much of the more alternative press, and rife on social media.  Particularly as of earlier this month, I have been told by some that the arguments I have been making around the question of understanding the attraction of fascism or fascist ideas are racist, since they question the preeminence of racism as the main attraction for people who become fascists of one kind or another.

One of my better efforts at trying to have this uncomfortable discussion, according to some, was something I published in Counterpunch on January 4th, An Open Letter to Patriot Prayer and the Proud Boys (cc: Antifa).  It is a blatant effort to appeal to those elements of these groups who might have joined for reasons other than the ones usually depicted by NPR and CNN.  It’s also a slightly less blatant effort to reach out to certain elements of the street-fighting autonomous movement crowd —  primarily here in the US, but also elsewhere — that it is all too common in this scene to reject out of hand the idea that there’s any point to trying to talk with a member of one of these groups, or that there may be common ground to be found among those elements who are motivated more by complaints about the ruling elite than by that elite’s efforts to divide and conquer us by means of racial division or xenophobia.

I’m not at all good at social media, by my own estimation, but I’m active on various platforms, and when I posted an audio version of the open letter on YouTube, I was not surprised that it was on that platform that I started getting responses from members of these groups, of varying kinds, not all entirely negative.  When a good friend and history professor I know asked me about responses to my open letter, and whether I knew anyone who was or had been a member of one of those groups in question, it was then that I thought of the young man who emailed me a year earlier, with a long email about how he had become a fascist as a teenager and done some terrible things, but that he had seen the errors of his ways, to make a long email short.

It was then that I emailed this young man, who I had not been in touch with for months, to see if he had any feedback on my open letter.  He wrote back, eloquently, with an emphatic agreement with what I talked about in my piece.  Which did not come as a surprise to me at all, since the open letter was not based on wild guesswork or anything of the sort.  It was then that I thought it would be very interesting to interview the young man, and to hear from his own mouth what motivated him to become a member of the far right, and what motivated him to leave, and seek other answers to his burning questions, that did not involve racism and nationalism.

I’ve conducted hundreds of interviews with people, particularly since the pandemic.  They have included people with varying perspectives, but mostly somewhere on the left politically, and those that weren’t have apparently not been controversial enough to capture anyone’s attention.  Usually my interviews are listened to by not more than a few hundred people, sometimes a few thousand.

I listen to a lot of interviews on BBC, NPR and elsewhere, where interviews are conducted with very offensive people on a regular basis, as well as with very sympathetic people, and either sort of interview can be done well or badly, it seems to me.  But I think my first mistake, in this series of them here, was thinking of myself as a journalist.  I do, but there a lot of people who don’t look at me like that, and assume that if I’m interviewing someone — or for that matter, retweeting something someone tweeted — that I’m not exploring a position, but advocating for it.  People who read Counterpunch regularly know that my favorite platforms to write for are ones that embrace a diversity of viewpoints, but it’s easy to see why many people still would see my interviews as advocacy for a particular position.

So you could say that the first mistake was made before I ever uploaded the interview.  The second mistake was uploading it.

I absolutely should have at least done some research online to verify whether there’s any consensus out there in various relevant circles — very much including among my many friends who are involved with antifascist struggle here and abroad — as to whether Matthew Heimbach was “ex” or not, as he has eloquently presented himself to me to be.  And whether I was presenting Matthew as an ex-fascist or not, I should have consulted many people I know about many other aspects of the interview, from re-traumatizing victims to the question of providing sufficient context.  Academics I know are currently working on a written version of the interview which will be heavily contextualized, for an academic journal, which seems like a better way to present the material, for various reasons.

I usually broadcast my interviews live on multiple platforms at the same time, using Streamyard.  I didn’t do that with this interview for various reasons.  I wasn’t sure I’d want to broadcast it, depending on how it went.  Also, I mainly wanted to post it on YouTube, because that’s where I get all the death threats from fascists, on many of my antifascist videos.  I have long noticed that this is the main platform I’m on where there are copious numbers of Nazi trolls watching videos they end up on for one reason or another.  My hope was that they would see this one, and that it would give them things to think about, like embracing internationalism and rejecting racism and xenophobia, in the aim of working class unity, in the aim of preventing a fascist future, in the days just after the Capitol siege.

The different sorts of responses I began to get varied a lot, depending on whether they already knew who Heimbach was.  Those who didn’t, of whatever political persuasion, wrote abundantly to me that it was one of the most interesting discussions they’d ever heard.  From people who knew who Heimbach was, responses were all over the map, but tended towards the denunciatory, the most common accusations being that I was being insensitive to Heimbach’s victims, and that I was platforming a fascist.

Quite possibly, the most offense I caused involved my various tone deaf arguments in defense of keeping the interview up, before I took it down.  I regret all of those comments unequivocally and completely, both their content and their timing.  I hope I didn’t lose any friends as a result, but I’m sure I lost fans.

After I began to realize how much offense the existence of the interview was causing, regardless of the content of it, when the criticism began to come from people I actually knew in what we used to call the real world, I took it down.

What began immediately afterwards were people (I assume) on Twitter with larger followings than mine who began to circulate wildly misquoted versions of things that were actually said in the discussion, openly and publicly daring me to put the interview back up, and prove that I did not in fact say that a “majority of capitalists are Jews,” which of course I never said.  The person on Twitter who initiated this false rumor mostly posts GIFs of various fascists throughout history being hit by projectiles, but posts also include attacks on people like me.  This misquote was retweeted dozens of times by accounts with large followings, probably seen by hundreds of thousands of people altogether, many of whom indicated through comments on the thread that they believed it on face value.

In the course of a two-hour discussion about why some people become fascists, one of the many sensitive subjects that will tend to arise will include the question of why the number of billionaires in the US of Jewish lineage is clearly disproportionate according to their population, although most Jews are working class, as with every other racialized, ethnic, or religious group in the US.  When an alleged antifascist intentionally confuses words like “disproportionate” with words like “majority” to their large audience, they are aiming to discredit, and they’re serving the interests of those who wish to keep us all divided — whether they are well-meaning but sectarian anarchists, FBI provocateurs, Russian agents, or some combination thereof.

I have serious regrets for going about posting this interview the way I did, and for lashing out against my critics as I initially did.  I’m especially sorry for any pain caused to my friends and comrades in Appalachia, where Heimbach is from, who have had to deal with him and his racist friends in his racist party over the past decade or so.

I’ve been in relationships where after we broke up and I realized I had some serious stuff to apologize for, my ex assumed my apology meant I was sorry for everything else she ever got mad at me about, too.  But this isn’t that sort of apology.  Because as much as I may have missed the mark, what I was trying to do with that interview is have a dialogue.  The kind of dialogue I’m talking about is one that is currently not happening, as far as I can tell — not in the ways it needs to happen.

What has become ever more clear to me over the past week is that regardless of my role in provoking anger and causing hurt among some people in the antifascist community in particular, the way things are going now isn’t working.  When people are protesting with guns, it’s not a protest anymore, it’s something else.  People are carrying guns on both the left and the right at protests now, as anyone can tell you who has been to one lately, in Portland and elsewhere in the US.  No one seems to even be trying to communicate, and when they do, almost regardless of how they go about it, it seems, they will be vilified.

To the extent that dialogue happens, at least of the sort that manages to reach my attention, it is mostly coming from what I would call a dangerously mainstream perspective.  The reformed members of the far right that we are exposed to on NPR became some kind of Democrats.  They reject QAnon and the Elders of Zion, only to embrace bourgeois democracy.  Otherwise they’re irrelevant, and we don’t hear about them.

I’ve learned through a veritable torrent of feedback from people recently, primarily on Twitter, that there are many people out there who represent themselves as antifascists who make it abundantly clear in many ways that they don’t believe in communication with the right, or in the concept of winning the hearts and minds of people whose current belief system appears to be so divergent from theirs.

But I would propose that the strategy of just being oppositional, whether during the Trump era or not, was a failed strategy to begin with, as I also argued (in Counterpunch and elsewhere) when he first was elected.  The only way social movements win is by being inclusive, inviting, broad-based, and forward-thinking, with a vision for the equitable future we want to see, that recruits far more than it shuns, that builds far more than it smashes.

We’re so far from that point.  I’ll keep on making my little efforts to get us there, for the love of humanity.  But I’ll try to do it in such a way that doesn’t alienate quite so many anarchists next time.

David Rovics is a songwriter, podcaster, and part of Portland Emergency Eviction Response.  Go to artistsforrentcontrol.org to sign up to receive text notifications, so you can be part of this effort.  Another Portland is possible.  

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