Matthew Heimbach is Not the Wallet Inspector

David Rovics, a folksinger and long-term anarchist/leftist, has recently been criticised, including on It’s Going Down, for some questionable decisions, and especially his decision to interview Matthew Heimbach, the Traditionalist Workers’ Party leader and supposedly ex-fascist. He’s now responded to his critics, but unfortunately his response still seems pretty confused on some points of major importance.

To start off with, a note on anonymity: Rovics complains that “These individuals, or collectives, also are often totally anonymous, with no indication of the actual names of the people involved…  It’s outrageous, under most circumstances, to be denounced by an anonymous individual, and even more so by an anonymous collective.”

There’s an interesting irony here, as Rovics repeatedly denounces his critics as the “neo-anarchist US identitarian crowd”, and yet seems to be upset that they refuse to make their identities clear. But nothing could be more identitarian than to accept or reject a criticism based on the identity of the people offering it, so you would expect someone like Rovics to welcome anonymity as a radical anti-identitarian gesture, enabling him to focus on the content of the ideas without being distracted by personal identities.

More generally, it’s worth offering a very quick refresher on anonymity and some of the principles around it: as any good class war anarchist or libertarian socialist should be aware, most of us have to sell our labor to survive. A few people are able to make a living by selling radical ideas as some kind of commodity, in the form of academic writing or folk songs or whatever else. For these people, the risks and disadvantages of having radical ideas publicly attached to their name are dramatically decreased. For the rest of us, leaving aside any risks related to state surveillance, or harassment from the likes of Matthew Heimbach and his friends, we can expect to spend the rest of our lives dependent on our ability to find waged employment, which in turn is linked to gaining the approval of bosses who are not unlikely to be particularly sympathetic to anarchists or socialists or antifascists or whatever, and who usually have the option of firing us for “activities likely to bring their brand into disrepute” or similar.

I don’t really have any particular grudge against academics or folksingers, because in many ways those jobs sound like they’re probably more fun than what most of us do and I am always in favor of people having fun, but at the same time, it is always a bit irksome when people in that position, who have a public brand based around their relation to radical ideas, chide the rest of us for not being willing to have a public record, easily accessible to our employers, of our subversive ideas and activity.

Rovics objects to the title of the It’s Going Down article, saying “The first lie, strangely, is in the title.  “No, it is the children that are wrong.”  In whatever context that quote came from, I’m sure it was nothing I ever said.  Why the quotation marks then?  Who are we quoting here?”

For the benefit of Rovics or anyone else who is unaware, it’s a line of dialogue from the Simpsons, originally spoken by the character Seymour Skinner in an episode that first aired in May 1994, which has become a meme, frequently used to mock people who refuse to accept criticism. The Simpsons is a popular animated sitcom, developed by Matt Groening, which is frequently referenced in contemporary culture, in case anyone hasn’t heard of it.

Throughout the piece, Rovics sets up a binary between the proper sensible grown-ups, who are open to dialogue and discussion, and the neo-anarchist identitarian cancellers, whose strategy apparently consists of “denouncing everyone who is attracted to rightwing or fascist ideas as a hopeless and unredeemable piece of human garbage”. As if you either want to interview Matthew Heimbach, or else you’re some kind of puritan purist who regards anyone who’s ever used a slur as being the absolute enemy. What’s missing from this worldview is nuance.

To expand a bit: plenty of antifascists will endorse a strategy along the lines of trying to separate out soft right-wing support from the hardcore, to divide our enemies and leave the real ideologues isolated. Many of us will work alongside people who hold some bigoted or rightwing ideas in the course of union struggles, tenant organizing, or whatever other projects we may be involved in. But to organize alongside our neighbors and coworkers who may hold objectionable ideas is not the same thing as wanting to work with Matthew Heimbach, Richard Spencer or Tucker Carlson, in much the same way as we might well organize alongside fellow workers who identify as Democrats or Marxist-Leninists, but we would be much less likely to organize with Joe Biden or Bob Avakian.

To conflate “everyone who is attracted to rightwing ideas” with a hardcore, dedicated nazi organizer like the former leader of the Traditionalist Workers’ Party isn’t the mature, sensible approach that Rovics seems to think it is, it’s actually a refusal of nuance and complexity.

In his own words, Rovics says that one of the main accusations against him is that he “fail[s] to see why it is that Matthew Heimbach is still considered to be a white nationalist now, when he isn’t, as far as I can tell, from my many resources, I will add — not coming from the self-appointed Experts of Antifascism.”

So what are these resources? Rovics doesn’t tell us here, but in a previous article, he mentions that his opinions are “based on my admittedly limited reading of… in Heimbach’s case, several dozen very long emails and one very long interview.”

So, the many resources on the subject of Matthew Heimbach turn out to all be coming from Matthew Heimbach. Which makes sense, in a way – after all, who would know more than the man himself? But on the other hand, it does all seem to depend on the idea that Heimbach is a reliable and trustworthy guide. If we start to consider the possibility that a violent fascist might also be willing to behave dishonestly and misrepresent himself in some way, then these resources start to seem a bit less impressive.

In passing, Rovics also dismisses the criticism that he helps to promote conspiracist thinking, writing “Conspiracism?  Aside from being a newly-invented word (that’s fine), it’s nonsense.  The United States is run by a conspiracy of plutocrats.  This is obvious to anyone who has studied the workings of the corrupt US capitalist system.”

This is hardly reassuring. One of the key points of difference between radical, liberatory accounts of capitalism and reformist or reactionary ones is that we understand the capitalist system as being precisely that, a system, with a logic of its own that is not reducible to the actions of specific individuals or groups. After all, to complain about a “corrupt capitalist system” is to implicitly argue in favour of the possibility of an honest, non-corrupted one, where the free market will be able to work its magic. This is a fantasy that appeals to many reactionary, right-wing critics of the current system, but a genuinely anti-capitalist approach has to start from the recognition that what we’re dealing with is, in many ways, not a corrupt system but one that’s working exactly as it’s supposed to. There is, after all, a good reason why Marx’s masterpiece was called Capital, not Conspiracy.

Rovics objects to his critic “clearly intimating that I have actually talked to people who are currently any of these terrible things”, but then, a few paragraphs later, starts arguing in a wildly different direction, saying that “the author lays out why they think Heimbach is still a fascist, and what he did over the years as a fascist.  None of this is relevant, given that I think talking to members of the far right, under the right circumstances, is something that needs to happen constantly, daily, all the time, and in public, whenever possible to have reasonable discourse”.

This is a drastically different argument to the one made above. After all, if you think that “talking to members of the far right” should “happen constantly”, then why would you object to someone saying that you “have actually talked to people who are currently” fascists and so on?

And getting to the point: is Matthew Heimbach currently a fascist or isn’t he? To state that you “fail to see why it is that Matthew Heimbach is still considered to be a white nationalist now, when he isn’t” is one argument. To say that the question of whether “Heimbach is still a fascist” is irrelevant, because “talking to members of the far right, under the right circumstances, is something that needs to happen constantly, daily, all the time” is a completely different one. Even if, for the sake of argument, one were to hypothetically admit that talking to people who are still actively fascists is something that should be done sometimes, under certain circumstances, then at the very least those conversations should be very different to the conversations that can be had with ex-fascists.

After all, no-one objects to talking to people who have genuinely left the far-right. It’s Going Down has interviewed Faraday Speaks and Christian Picciolini, for example. But it’s possible to speak to those people on friendly terms, because those people no longer hold far-right views, and whatever else we may still disagree with them on, they at least share a common interest in stopping the growth of fascist movements. If Matthew Heimbach is still a fascist, and is looking to revive his old far-right group, then he pretty clearly does not share that common interest, and will be looking to recruit for fascist politics rather than steering people away from them. Given all of this, it’s hard to see why Rovics thinks the question of his current commitment to fascism is irrelevant.

Rovics also takes issue with the characterisation of him as attacking his audience, writing that “My audience is not attacking me… These neo-anarchist identitarians are attacking me.” But earlier in the same article, he writes “many of the people who come to my concerts in many different countries come out of the “burn the dumpster now and ask questions later” camp.  Many of my fans, especially some of the more black-clad teenage ones from certain parts of the world, really like to yell at cops, and they think they’re doing something useful when they yell at cops.” So, “neo-anarchist identitarians” are part of Rovics’ audience, except when they aren’t. Perfectly clear.

Rovics then explains why he took down the Heimbach interview:

“The Fifth Estate is the oldest ongoing anarchist publication in the United States. The editorial collective, all of whom are real people with names, thought it best if I took down the interview.  I am accountable, and I am a team player, and I also had reservations about the lack of context I provided in the course of the interview, and so I took it down.”

This seems like a significant bit of backpedalling, in that after putting a lot of effort into defending why it’s good to interview Matthew Heimbach and people who criticize that decision are wrong, he now concedes that there are valid reasons to criticize it.

Returning to the major point, Rovics writes:

“I am not “missing the point” that Heimbach is using me.  I do not agree with it.  I have a different perspective.” Which is fine, but I still don’t understand what that perspective is.

Is that the perspective that Heimbach is now an antifascist and a friend to liberation struggles, and so it’s possible to work constructively with him? Or is it that Heimbach is still a fascist, but Rovics is using him rather than vice versa? The latter is an argument that could be made – Rovics states that he thinks it’s fine to talk to fascists, because he doesn’t agree that “fascist ideology is actually more attractive to the average working person than libertarian socialism… These ideas are already normalized.  I want to unpack them, and show people why they suck”.

But “I’m interviewing Heimbach because he’s now an insightful member of the radical left and the ideas he has now are good” and “I’m interviewing Heimbach because he’s a fascist and I want to show people why his ideas suck” are two very different arguments, and Rovics seems to be flipping between them.

Rovics next moves on to discussing his appearance on the Holocaust denier Kevin Barrett’s show, stating:

“With the interview on Barrett’s show, and some others as well, I did not share it with any of my people, because I didn’t like some of his talking points, and didn’t think they needed an audience beyond the one he already has.  If I were to do anything different with regards to appearing on Barrett’s show, I would not.”

That’s fine, I think not going on Kevin Barrett’s show is a good decision to make, but it’s also an example of the logic that Rovics condemns as neo-anarchist cancel culture when coming from anyone else. After all, if discussing things with fascists is so good and harmless, then why not share the Barrett interview with your audience? Or, on the other hand, if there are good reasons to not go on Barrett’s show or share it with your audience, perhaps there might also be good reasons to not interview Matthew Heimbach?

Returning to lashing out against his critics, Rovics continues:

“My anonymous critic suggests that because I did not “push back” on all of the stupid things Barrett said, I am therefore agreeing with it all.  I suppose when I did an interview on Fox News Radio during the second invasion of Iraq, to try to speak out against the war in that forum, I must be agreeing with everything the idiot who interviewed me for that stupid show on Fox thought?”

Except that going on Fox News, while it may or may not be a good idea, is not remotely comparable to going on Kevin Barrett’s show. Fox News already has a very large platform and reaches a great number of people, and so going on Fox, unless you’re a really major celebrity, is not going to help them to reach a larger audience than they already have access to. This line of argument does not apply to an obscure Holocaust-denying crank like Kevin Barrett, whose current audience is limited to a small number of other Holocaust-denying cranks.

He continues:

“The author then uses the term “mealy-mouthed” to describe my “defense” of my position — otherwise known as explanation.  What “mealy-mouthed” even means, I have no idea.”

For the benefit of anyone who hasn’t encountered the term, Grammarist defines mealy-mouthed as “to be mealy-mouthed is to tend to say things in indirect, evasive, or deceptive ways. A mealy-mouthed statement is one that is indirect or evasive. The word is usually meant negatively; when people speak in mealy-mouthed ways, we tend to think they’re afraid to speak plainly, are trying to trick us, or are avoiding saying what they really think for reasons of self-interest. The term comes up often in reference to politicians and their statements.” Glad I could help clear that one up.

Skipping over Rovics’ defense of Gilad Atzmon, because I don’t want to make this any longer than it already is, he then objects to another criticism:

“”When Rovics hosts these people and defends their right to have access to leftist spaces” — this is a load of identitarian nonsense right here.  I am not defending anyone’s right to have access to any space here.”

But again, this is contradicted by what he wrote about Kevin Barrett above:

“I did not share it with any of my people, because I didn’t like some of his talking points, and didn’t think they needed an audience beyond the one he already has.” Rovics didn’t share the Barrett interview because he didn’t want to give Barrett access to his audience. Which is a legitimate decision, but, by the same token, if he does share interviews with Atzmon or Heimbach, he is giving them access to the audience he decided to deny Barrett.

Regarding his fondness for conspiracy theories, Rovics writes “I reject any and all bigoted conspiracy theories!  I only believe in real conspiracies, not bigoted ones, and the only ones I want to “give a pass” to are the real ones.”

This is a bit unsatisfying, because I can’t help thinking that, if you asked Alex Jones what he thought about the subject, he would probably say something like “I reject any and all bigoted conspiracy theories!  I only believe in real conspiracies, not bigoted ones.” There aren’t many people who would say “yes, I believe in made-up, bigoted conspiracy theories”, and so Rovics’ statement feels a bit meaningless.

The rest of the article mostly covers the same ground again, until the conclusion: “I have been an antifascist, raised by a holocaust survivor, my whole fucking life.  Anyone who would suggest otherwise has no idea who I am, and is, at best, an extremely confused individual.”

I’ll readily confess to that point. I am certainly an extremely confused individual, not least when it comes to the question of what Rovics is actually claiming about Heimbach. Is it that Heimbach has been won “over to the side of internationalism, class consciousness, and liberation for all people”? Or is that the question of whether or not Heimbach is still a fascist is irrelevant? I doubt that I’m alone in finding Rovics a bit confusing on this point.