Anatomy of a Cancellation

First of all, this is not going to be a screed against the Democratic Socialists of America, or of any chapter of the organization, or of any individuals active within it.  But the story starts with a tweet from the account of the Portland chapter of the DSA:

Again with no ill will towards anyone in the DSA, I’m hoping this might be a teachable moment.  In order for it to be one, we need to do some unpacking.  There is a diverse cast of characters involved.

I’ll just assume everyone knows who the Democratic Socialists of America are.  If not, you can look them up easily enough, but they probably represent the biggest organized political group to the left of the Democratic Party today (or on the left of the Democratic Party, depending).  As any sensible democratic socialist organization would do, they are actively supporting the Portland city workers in their contract negotiations with the city, and their plan for an imminent strike.

Then we need to introduce another prominent character in the sordid tale, me.  Those of you reading this on my blog probably don’t need any explanation on this and you can skip this paragraph, but if you’re reading this on another platform and don’t know much about the author of this post here, I’m a leftwing singer/songwriter, I make a living as such, I travel and perform for a wide variety of leftwing groups in many different countries, I’m in the top 4% of artists on Spotify, with lots of obviously leftwing music that’s been getting recorded and released for the past 28 years.  If you Google my name, you’ll come right up with my Wikipedia entry, YouTube channel full of leftwing music and interviews, my very tame, family-oriented Instagram account, my podcast, blog, songbook, and other things that clearly and unequivocally identify me as a leftwing activist/musician.

Beyond the really broad stuff like that that anyone with a web browser can quickly ascertain, more locally, I’m the guy that sang at the last DSA rally a couple weeks ago, and at lots of other leftwing events in Portland over recent years, and less recently.  If people spend a few minutes looking for details about what I’m up to, they’ll find loads of recently-published essays on leftwing platforms, they’ll find I’ve recently sang at events organized by all kinds of antiwar groups from several countries, leftwing parties from all over Europe, labor unions from several different countries, etc.

But the very first “related searches” suggestion for anyone looking me up on Google will be this one:

“David Rovics canceled.”

Some of you may have been following my own personal saga with a certain wing of what is increasingly referred to as “left cancel culture” or “callout culture.”  The specific details aren’t especially important, as far as analyzing this whole social dynamic goes.  But to the extent that the details matter, I’ll do my best to be succinct:  the day after the Capitol siege, I interviewed Matthew Heimbach, privately, and extensively, wanting to talk to someone who might understand what was going on here.  Matthew was an organizer of the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, among many other awful things he’s been involved with, but more recently his perspective had changed radically (though this is a point of contention).  It was a very interesting conversation, so I posted it on my YouTube channel (which has a diverse audience, not just leftwingers).  I got a lot of people upset at me for doing that, and after ten days of sometimes heated discussion, I took down the interview, in the end agreeing that it should have been better contextualized, and that I should have been more familiar with the background of the person I was interviewing.  To put it very plainly and clearly:  I apologized for fucking up, and I took down the interview.

Almost everyone who was upset about this interview forgave me for my errors once I took it down.  But not everyone.  Enter the anarcho-puritans.  They’re the next set of characters in this play.  Note the hyphenated name.  I am not talking about fine upstanding anarchists here, like the ones that make up most of my mostly youthful audience as an artist.  The million or so songs streamed each year on the streaming platforms are overwhelmingly streamed by people aged between 18-34, and the most popular song I wrote is “I’m A Better Anarchist Than You.”  To be clear, most of my musical social circle is young, leftwing, and has a sense of humor.

The reason why “I’m A Better Anarchist Than You” is my most popular song on Spotify is because the anarcho-puritans are such a toxic and self-destructive tendency within my audience, the leftwing youth of the US, and Germany, to name two countries, and people facing these kinds of attacks themselves on a regular basis find the song cathartic.

This tendency on the left is not new.  Your nearest neighbor is also your easiest enemy.  The Circular Firing Squad has been a depressingly consistent part of the left since the shouting matches between Karl Marx and Henry George, since the so-called “criticism/self-criticism” sessions many left tendencies in the 60’s became known for, since the rise of what we might call Extreme Identity Politics in the 80’s.  With the advent of Twitter, and social media generally, but especially Twitter, the possibilities for spreading disinformation about people has been amplified in previously unimaginable ways.

What the anarcho-puritans do — again, a small minority of what we might identify as anarchists or leftists in the US or any other country, but a very loud one — is any time I (or another of their many leftwing targets) get any attention on Twitter or elsewhere on the internet for anything I’ve done or especially something I’m about to do, like play at a rally I’ve been actively promoting (which is why the trolls heard about it in the first place), they go on the offensive.  What this involves, since January 2021, is reminding everyone that I did this interview with Matthew Heimbach, and blatantly and repeatedly lying that I never apologized for doing it, never mentioning that I took the interview down, or any other such salient facts.  They then go to such lengths as to misquote me, making me look like an antisemite.  Now, if I had actually said the things they quote me as saying, they might have a point.  But they change key words, so the quote looks similar, but is actually radically different from what I really said.

One question we may ask is who are these people who would go to such lengths to defame me for my transgressions, forever bringing them up, keeping track of everything I’m doing and saying?  There is one person, at least, who clearly spends all his waking hours following everything I’m doing, and attacking anyone who associates with me.  One nut like that would be one thing, but if you look at the Twitter accounts of the other folks who join @heyzell in attacking me, many of them do nothing but attack other leftwingers for their perceived transgressions, such as one of the rally organizers that I didn’t sing at, who is guilty of once playing the role of police liaison for a march, and for being an old white man.

But the far more important question is not why there are wingnuts making false accusations and spreading disinformation on Twitter, but why so many other people seem to be so ready to believe what they say.  It should be pointed out that most of the people who are involved with this kind of thing have accounts with very few followers, which are often what are known as sock puppet accounts.  But there are more prominent players in the callout culture, such as a certain anonymously-run anarcho-puritan riot porn platform that I won’t bother to name.  In any case, this tendency exists, and though small, it has an outsized impact.

To wit:  when the anarcho-puritans got wind that I was going to be singing at the rally for city workers organized by the brilliant young folks that make up the local Portland DSA chapter, they started regaling the DSA’s Twitter account with stuff about me, the libelous nonsense about my fascist sympathies and antisemitic orientation, and threatening to heckle me if they dared fail to cancel my appearance at the rally.  So Portland DSA issued the tweet that I began this article with, and publicly disinvited me from performing at the rally, due to unnamed “concerns” about me.

If the organizers had been afraid of being physically attacked by the anarcho-puritans as well as heckled, according to precedent, this would not be an entirely unreasonable fear.  The most recent death threat I have received from someone who appeared to be from the anarcho-puritan camp was yesterday.  (I get death threats from fascists regularly, too.  Who knows who’s who, but it’s easy to tell how they see themselves, whatever their political stripes.)

But unfortunately, I have the inside scoop, and, as in many other past instances with me and others under constant attack by these trolls, unsurprisingly, fear of heckling and whatever else was only part of the process that led to the decision.  As in many other instances, their decision was also rooted in some people within the organization being worried that the allegations had truth in them.

Now, if one was actually worried that allegations about a guy being a fascist sympathizer who has recorded 500 songs, not one of them pro-fascist or antisemitic, with at least 100 of them being explicitly antifascist in nature (I’m just guessing), then one would think the appropriate response to a bunch of anarcho-puritan threats and hatred on Twitter would be to say, wow, Twitter sure sucks, and hey, we should maybe look into that, but it seems he’s alright, he’s been doing this shit for 28 years, maybe we’ll just give him the benefit of the doubt, since the rally starts in a few hours.  But instead, a public cancellation.

What motivates such a response?

Partly fear of facing this kind of vitriol as an individual or an organization, if they don’t distance themselves from the person being attacked.  This fear is widespread, people tell me about it every day.  This is very understandable, and a form of cowardice that I will readily admit to engaging in regularly in the past myself.

But what also prompts such a response is the belief that because someone makes an accusation, thus claiming a state of victimhood, that they should automatically be believed — especially when there are several dozen other people (or Twitter accounts) that clearly share this orientation, and are amplifying the “believe me, I’m a victim of David Rovics” message that anonymous Twitter accounts like the mysterious @heyzell put out there.  In this particular case, the apparent feeling is that there’s a Jewish person who feels unsafe around me.  For anyone to believe that a guy with no violent record, who was raised by Jews, among Jews, and today lives with Jews, to say that a Jew feels unsafe around a Jew, what the hell is this?  And how could it possibly be believed by anyone?

And yet here we are.  This is what the extreme end of identitarianism has brought us.  One anonymous, allegedly Jewish person on Twitter says he feels unsafe, and another Jew gets his gig canceled publicly because someone “raised concerns.”  This is believe-the-victim culture gone completely off the rails.

If it were just happening to me, it would be outrageous enough.  But this is happening to musicians, comedians, politicians, labor organizers, antiwar activists, tenants rights organizers, and other people all across the US, right now, every day.  As anyone who has been around a few years can attest, many of the best organizers in communities across the US have gone into hiding, unable to effectively do anything, because showing their face in any public forum online will result in this sort of stuff happening.

In addition to causing so many of the best activists to retreat one way or another, these kinds of public disagreements between members of a group like the DSA are completely destructive to the group itself.  Regardless of how they emerge from the disagreement, it will not be one that strengthens the group, but one that causes more people to leave.  I can already see it happening, and this is also what has happened within the group in other situations in recent years, according to many people I’ve talked to who have been deeply involved.  This is happening in other DSA chapters across the country, as well.  You can hear identical stories from Green Party chapters, IWW branches, student groups, and so many other corners of society.

This tendency to assume the worst, to believe accusations flung around on Twitter hours before an event might have real merit, and then to react like this, is an example of a widespread phenomenon.  At least in some ways its roots lie in the puritan tradition of moral purity, moral outrage, moral supremacy, and generally boiling everything down to questions of morality, and then excluding and exiling those who don’t appear to share your moral purity, rather than having a movement-building, bridge-building, ecumenical orientation — the sort of orientation that built the labor movement, in its most radical and successful historical periods in the US.

The first step in the direction of overcoming the stifling, toxic impact of anarcho-puritanism, perhaps, could be for society to somehow adopt the radical notion that if something smells like shit, it probably is shit.  If you get a message from someone whose Twitter account does little other than attack other leftwingers, don’t engage with them, just block them, and move on.  Give people who are being attacked the benefit of the doubt, especially when their attackers are obviously ignorant lunatics.

We don’t have to give someone an important position in our organizations when we just meet them or something, but we can assume someone who appears to be a leftwing performer who’s been consistent about his political analysis for the past 28 years is in fact that, and anyone saying otherwise might be considered dubious, at least until we’re absolutely sure they’re not.

The idea can be very problematic, depending on the situation, but it’s a very good concept related in Article 11, Section 1 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights:  the presumption of innocence.  Without it, we too easily end up with a situation where we are easily manipulated into playing by the rules of the puritanical ideas of cancel culture, and being ruled by a small anarcho-puritan minority, most of whom will develop a more nuanced perspective when they grow up a little more.

I know something about these things, having been an intolerably arrogant Maoist in my youth myself, back in the 80’s.  I still feel guilty for heckling Utah Phillips once when I was around 22.  Now, with that man who became my friend and colleague long gone, I’m around the age he was when young David was heckling him from the audience in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  Full circle I guess, though Utah never had to contend with Twitter.

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.