But what is cancel culture? Isn’t that a rightwing term used to excuse bigoted behavior and avoid accountability for said behavior? Yes, that’s how the right uses the concept — as a weapon against the rest of society.
And that’s all I’ll say about that. Now to the left. Cancel culture on the left also exists. The people claiming otherwise are part of the left’s version of cancel culture. (Note to anarchists: when I use the term “left,” this includes you, too. We can argue about the semantics of that later.)
Who are these people?
Cancel culture on the left is not easily described or easily dismissed. It takes on many forms, and of course my use of the term “cancel culture of the left” is intentionally provocative. There are many different reasons why people gravitate towards simplistic solutions to complex problems, but I’ll keep using the term anyway, because, at the same time as it may provoke, the term is perfectly appropriate to use to describe a significant element of the left — whose significance is often wildly amplified by the algorithms and other properties of social media, and by the fear or acquiescence of the rest of us.
Left cancel culture is be a complex phenomenon with origins in all kinds of different forms of discrimination and trauma. The basic impulse is one of self-protection and protection of one’s community. The desire to create a safe space, a safe world, where people can grow up without being attacked for their race, gender, sexual orientation, etc., and even without having to endure the sorts of microaggressions that are part of daily life for so many of us humans, whether or not we’re subject to harsher forms of aggression. It’s a great basic impulse, and one that any of us raising children think about all the time.
However, it’s a really shit basis for a political culture.
By definition, politics and political activism of any kind is going to be a messy business. Everyone deserves to be safe from major aggressions or microaggressions, and neither of these things should be discounted in their impact on individuals, communities, and societies.
But if, for example, you’re trying to help build a grassroots movement for housing justice, but some people think whatever you do is illegitimate and somehow wrong because they disagree with your position on the role of Jewish culture and historical discourse in the formation of the state of Israel, that’s not how you’re going to build a successful movement.
What are my opinions on Jewish culture and historical discourse in the formation of the state of Israel, you wonder? If you’re really interested, I would recommend my friend Gilad Atzmon’s excellent book, The Wandering Who. It’s available as an ebook on Amazon. I won’t waste any more of this article on my opinions on Jewish culture and historical discourse in the formation or maintenance of the state of Israel. I’ve written lots of other essays on that sort of thing, along with dozens of related songs.
Suffice it to say, regardless of whether some people have a different opinion than mine on the motivations and political philosophy of David Ben-Gurion, I am neither an anti-Semite nor a holocaust-denier, nor any of the other things of which I am repeatedly accused, mainly for transgressions of association, in the form of interviewing or doing gigs with the wrong people.
The point is not that I’m not a fascist, however. That’s obvious to anyone with a brain. The point is, who are these people who say that I am one, and why are there so many other people who are either scared they might be right, or, if they think they’re wrong, are scared to say so publicly?
That’s the left’s cancel culture, right there. The people who are spreading the lies are part of it, of course, but so are the people who are afraid to call the lies out. Not that I blame anyone for being afraid, but when you know something is bullshit and you don’t say so — when you’re close enough to it to see what’s going on and you stay silent — you’re making a decision, you’re participating by not participating, even if the reasons for your silence are perfectly easy to understand. No one wants to deal with being publicly denounced.
The flyer that was put on car windshields all over my neighborhood on the morning of May 2nd reads:
KNOWN HOLOCAUST DENIER ANTI SEMITE
DAVID STEFAN ROVICS
Let him know anti semites are not wanted!
EMail the piece of shit: [email protected] or [email protected]
Give the turd a call or two, or three! (503) 863-1177
David Rovics is known to harass the homeless community.
A bad photocopy of a picture from the Contact page of my website appears in the middle of the flyer, which was obviously made without the use of a graphic artist.
I’m not personally too concerned with being “doxxed,” because my address and phone number are publicly available anyway, as I am what we call a Public Figure, constantly advertising my whereabouts, like any working performer must do regularly, among other reasons. The allegations (all completely false) are concerning, however.
And it is concerning is that anyone would think it’s remotely acceptable to engage in this extremely escalatory practice with someone who is otherwise clearly in your camp politically. It’s nothing short of extremely sectarian behavior, of the sort that can — and regularly does — lead to very dangerous places.
As soon as I posted the flyer on social media, I got a call from a friend from Belfast, who has a lot of experience with people who post fliers like these. He was concerned about what might happen next, and wanted to give me a whole bunch of really good advice on how to try to take security precautions.
Another thing that happened soon after I posted that flyer was someone with a local Twitter account that monitors far right activity in the area retweeted my post denouncing these flyers, and chimed in with their own, confirming that I was not, in fact, any of the things being alleged. When I saw the post and was going to respond to it with a “thank you,” I couldn’t, because it had been taken down by the Twitter account that posted it.
Why do some antifascists in Portland not feel comfortable denouncing someone who would call me any of these outrageous things? What the hell is going on here?
What it is, when it comes to the left’s version of cancel culture, is an almost unbelievable degree of acquiescence to the “safe space” concept, to the extent where anyone who has a viewpoint that doesn’t align with what is considered to be the right line is to be canceled. (Although of course the “right line” doesn’t exist, any more than cancel culture or political correctness exists, as these are all figments of the far right’s imagination, according to some deluded members of the left.)
The local antifascist with the Twitter account who can’t bother defending me against these accusations is not alone. This is just the one I saw myself. Who knows how many others are out there. I can only guess, but it’s certainly just the tip of the iceberg.
The band that didn’t want to share a bill with me recently here in Portland, specifically because of these sorts of false allegations floating around me everywhere — it was very good of them to let me know that this was why they didn’t want to share the bill, and they’re not the ones spreading the rumors, but they’re participating in the charade, whether they want to or not, along with all the other protest organizers or festival organizers who I don’t know about, who never asked me to play at their events, because I have become too controversial a figure on the left, evidently. (Note: if you thought being popular enough to draw a crowd was what got you hired at festivals, think again. There are definitely lots of other factors.)
But what is the actual source of the controversy?
Nobody knows, it seems. Or if anyone does, they won’t come out and have a public conversation on the subject, under their real name.
And what is the goal of the person or people engaging in this campaign against me online and on the car windshields in my neighborhood? What is the goal of left cancel culture?
This is also unclear. Generally, the people engaging in left cancel culture have no legal case or anything (like accusing me of things they have no case for accusing me of, like hate speech), and if they did, they wouldn’t want to go to the authorities anyway. They also generally don’t want to go to prison, so for that and perhaps other reasons, they might or might not engage in actions like bodily assault.
The goal, to the extent that there is one, seems to be to ostracize certain individuals from the left. It has worked this way in many cases. What is much, much more worrying to me, though, is not how many lives are ruined by this sort of campaign, but how many people don’t become involved with the left in the first place because of the widespread existence of left cancel culture.
The left, in short, is an alienating environment for a lot of people to even consider being involved with, let alone to stay involved with. The burnout rate is tremendously high, and if you talk with people who have been involved with activism for a long time, figuring out how to deal with all the back-stabbing and cancel culture bullshit was essential to having any kind of longevity in the movement. And many people will attest that they lost far more comrades to back-stabbing than to police batons or attacks from the far right.
Of course, it is the role of police provocateurs — of which there are undoubtedly as many now as there were when Cointelpro was exposed, when I was a child — to do all of the things these left cancel culture people do. It is also the job of the provocateurs to smash the independent businesses, when the real members of the black bloc are focusing on the upscale corporate chains.
But the question is not whether the police and other provocateurs are involved with these campaigns — they most definitely are, whether or not they’re involved with this particular one against me.
The question is how will the rest of the left respond? When will we start to truly call out this shit?
Here’s a suggestion on where we can start: if it wasn’t a cop who put up these flyers, and it was, as I suspect, someone associated with local Portland anarchists, then some of you reading this right now know who did it. Tell me who they are, and let’s have a public conversation, using our real names.
Your security isn’t working. It’s backfiring. Get off of Twitter, and go outside. But not to do that.
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Sounds like Ben Burgis’ book “Cancelling Comedians while the world burns; a critique of the contemporary left” is very timely.