Confessions of an Ecumenical Leftist
By David Rovics
It seems a ridiculous thing to have to say, but I think intellectual discourse is generally a very good thing, rather than something to be stopped at all costs. You can also read this on my blog.
I’m realizing that most people who come across something I wrote don’t seem to have read anything else I’ve ever written, and haven’t listened to my music. This post is going to be especially personal, so it’s important that you have some idea who I am first.
I’m 54 years old, and I’ve been some kind of an activist since I was 12. I learn a little more with each passing year on Earth, but lately the pace has accelerated, along with everything else. I was raised by musicians, and I became one myself early on. When I started writing songs about different social movement activities and notable moments in history from around the US and the world, I started meeting more and more people from everywhere, and touring everywhere, too. As a songwriter and performer I’ve been able to participate in social movements on an ongoing basis in a dozen or so countries, spending most of my adult life on the road, doing that.
When I was a kid, up until my early twenties, I went to protests and participated a very little bit in some actual organizing, but mostly I guess I thought that constantly haranguing people to come around to my worldview was activism. Mostly it just turned people off, and I lost a lot of friends, and didn’t enact any social change in the process either, as far as I could tell. Once, when I guess I was around 22 years old, I shouted from the audience to a couple of my favorite folk musicians, because they said something nice about pacifism. They didn’t know who I was, and they looked frightened. There were many other instances like that.
In the midst of the personal crisis that resulted from the complete failure of my haranguing to actually result in anything positive, I started trying to look at things from different perspectives more, reading authors who weren’t necessarily Maoist, which at the time was my preferred political orientation for an author to be. I also got into songwriting, because I was increasingly discovering the power of more subtle forms of communication, like telling stories while playing the guitar. There was an awkward transition period, but pretty soon I was entertaining and engaging people with these radical notions, rather than turning them off and making them run away from me. It wasn’t the revolution, but it was much better than what I had been doing.
As I was seeing more of the world, being part of more social movements, meeting more people, and reading more books over the years, I moved further and further away from any notion of a rigid ideology, as I increasingly realized that all those Buddhists, Taoists, Marxists, Leninists, Maoists, anarchists, etc., who talked about different historical circumstances calling for different sorts of strategies for living, or for movement-building, were right.
Over time, any hesitation I had initially felt about doing gigs for groups whose perspectives I didn’t entirely share vanished. I developed the orientation that anyone who wanted to have real, open dialogue — or in my case, if anyone wanted to organize a paying gig so that I could have the attention of their social network for a couple hours somewhere in the world — that was a good thing.
When you write songs about something that happened in history — like for example the mostly Irish soldiers who deserted from the US Army and joined the Mexican Army during the Mexican-American War — there are people from many different political persuasions to whom such a story can appeal. Specifically, this story has an appeal to anyone from Ireland, but particularly Irish Republicans or nationalists (a term that means very different things in different countries, I’ll note here). It appeals to most anyone from Mexico, especially to those on the left or those with an interest in history or those who don’t like US policies towards their country. It appeals to anyone who is critical of US imperialism, from anywhere in the world where they might understand English lyrics (who likes acoustic music, perhaps). Those opposed to US imperialism make up a vast swath of the globe’s population, which very much includes the overwhelming majority of anarchists, communists, socialists, democratic socialists, libertarian socialists, and even loads of people who don’t think of themselves as anywhere on the left. There are lots of Mexican capitalists who don’t like US imperialism, too, let me tell you.
The communists who are inspired by the story of the St Patrick Battalion include every strain of communism, whether we call them or they call themselves Marxists, Trotskyists, Leninists, Stalinists, Maoists, etc. And whenever I sing this song to any audience of any political persuasion, people sing along. The entire audience may or may not agree with the sentiments presented in all of my songs, but they hear my libertarian socialist or anarchist leanings in some songs, they hear my admiration for the sacrifices made by those who gave their lives in the struggle against fascism in Europe, or the struggle against imperialism in Asia or Latin America or Africa, and they share this admiration, regardless of their political background. I make Trotskyists and anarchists cry at songs that might be considered sympathetic to “tankies” all the time.
The groups that keep inviting me back to perform for them may or may not know the details in terms of my political perspective — and honestly, I don’t either, because it’s been decades since I was a rigid ideologue. I long ago rejected that nonsense, as did many of my intellectual guiding lights. But what the groups do know is they believe in solidarity, and I do, too. They know I believe in internationalism, and they do, too. And self-determination, anti-imperialism, a belief in the liberation of all people regardless of what kind of people, and many other things. We have all the common ground we need to explore history together, to laugh and cry together, to keep on keeping on together, to form and foster community.
I have often been told that the audience at one of my shows represented the widest diversity of leftwing political opinion in town that someone had ever seen gathered in one room. Which is not to say that the audience was all that big. But the Irish Republicans, the black-clad anarchists, the red-clad communists, the Palestine solidarity activists, the Sixties-generation peaceniks, the colorful young environmentalists, the history geeks and the folk music fans were all sitting next to each other, as they do frequently, in the real world.
I long gravitated towards Noam Chomsky’s favorite term, when he’s pressed to describe his political orientation — libertarian socialist. I especially like the term because for anyone that actually knows what it is about, it’s not only an orientation that I actually share, but it’s also one that tends to be acceptable enough in any of the aforementioned crowds. It tends to skirt the anarchist-communist divide, which is my favorite divide to avoid falling into, because I unequivocally love both types of people, since most of them are coming from a place of deep desire to make the world a much better place for everyone. I think that’s great, and we can work out the details along the way.
Playing for such disparate groups sometimes can be pretty weird, though. One of my best friends in Copenhagen (recently deceased, sadly), believed that the Danish government should be overthrown. I don’t think I share that belief. But she had a nice group of mostly elderly Danish communist friends who also believed that the Danish government should be overthrown, and I had a lot of good times singing at their book store (and look forward to more of them).
I often play for groups whose demonstrations I enthusiastically support and participate in musically and in other forms. Other times not so much. But if I’m playing for a crowd that I know is largely made up of people who are going to do things I’m not so crazy about, I’m going to sing for them anyway, and hope that the more nuanced messages in my songs help a little when they’re out smashing up downtown, in choosing the targets of their bricks more wisely. Maybe next time they’re thinking about yelling at the cops, they’ll remember those songs I sang about divide-and-conquer tactics of the state, and they’ll try to talk to the cops as if they were all members of the same working class, instead.
As the ecumenical performer, equally comfortable (or equally uncomfortable?) in a smoke-filled squat as in a sterile union hall or an old playhouse or a coffee-stained folk club, etc., when people asked about my political orientation, I would often refer them to my songs. “You listen, and you decide,” was my basic line. Kind of slippery, I know.
A disproportionate number of the people who might come to one of my shows has had some kind of experience with political violence. I’m not naming names or anything, but it’s fair to say, especially for those who served time in prison for it, that some of them have been members of groups fighting for national liberation, in places like Ireland, Palestine, Kurdistan, or various parts of Latin America. A disproportionate number of people who have been to my shows have been convicted of “ecoterrorism” as well. Some of them are currently in prison. I’ve written many songs in support of these struggles, which is largely why I know so many people involved with them.
Others who come to my shows are involved with other sorts of violence. It spans the gamut, including the sorts of things that most reasonable people would support, like defending refugees from attacks by xenophobes and fascists. Some of the same people involved with those kinds of efforts are also involved with efforts to systematically attack fascists wherever they might appear, preemptively.
And then over time, with some of them, the definition of who’s worthy of being attacked started changing a lot, and soon, the parameters got a lot broader, and some of them started protesting relatively unknown Jamaican reggae bands with lyrics the anarchists deemed sexist that dared perform in Hamburg.
And then some of them started also protesting me, for supporting Palestine, or doing so in ways they deemed to be antisemitic, because certain strains of the antifascist scene had done some wild intellectual gymnastics, and ended up on the side of Israeli apartheid, while still considering themselves on the left, mainly in the German squat milieu.
At this point, around two decades ago, I had to start taking clear political positions on occasion, because I had become a target of a loose network of confused people with an undue influence on elements of the German-speaking left (mainly in Germany itself) known as the Antideutsche.
If they weren’t specifically attacking me, though, I still wanted to reach whoever I could, and even with the Antideutsche, I still admire their commitment to principles, even if their principles are pretty backwards. So with my friends who were and are doing things like doxxing loads of rightwingers and making them lose their jobs, or showing up where an author they don’t like is speaking and shutting down the event, I don’t criticize them, I just sing for them. But I have never protested the author of a book before, unless they’re also maybe running an oil company or bombing another country in the capacity of being the president of the US or something. Generally, I’ve never thought protesting authors is good form, or a good look, or, really, a very good idea at all.
In fact, I’ve long been a bit of a fan of the notion of intellectual discourse, even on controversial subjects, with people who disagree with each other fundamentally. Actually, maybe especially in that case. I can’t say I’ve been a life-long fan of freedom of speech — I have gone through a lot of different phases in this evolving perspective.
But I’ve come to realize that the main problem with speech is not that it’s free, but that it’s expensive. It’s largely controlled by hegemonic corporations — our communication, that is, along with much of what we ever read or see or hear, such as on TV or radio. The solution to this has never been shutting down speakers, but changing the overall rules of the game, while countering false consciousness with well-communicated doses of reality in as many different forms of possible.
I think this practice of shutting down speakers and performers, or trying to cancel our gigs or intimidate people into not organizing any, is a really bad, divisive tactic, that only serves the interests of the right. And I also think this is abundantly obvious, and doesn’t need much explanation to most people reading this. The tactic consistently backfires, and helps build the right, along with left cancel culture, generally.
And yes, I don’t care what term you want to use, but those of you who just bristled when you read the term “cancel culture” should look in the mirror and ask yourself some hard questions. Are you part of it? I know I have been, to various degrees, when I was young. And rejecting rejection as a tactic has taken a long time for me to figure out.
Part of the reason disavowing disavowal has been a long process for me is that the idea of rejecting rejection — the idea of really building an ecumenical, inclusive movement that’s capable of actually winning real gains — while a longstanding notion, has not been the norm on the left for the most part, in much of the world.
Marx was big on personal attacks. He kind of set the tone. Later, Trotsky was stabbed to death by Stalin’s agents, with an ice pick, in Mexico. Stalinists with really bad taste still make icepick jokes today, almost a century later. During the Spanish Civil War, anarchists, Trotskyists, and communists faced off with each other in the barricaded neighborhoods of antifascist Barcelona at various points. In 1930’s Germany it was not uncommon for communists to denounce social democrats as “social fascists.” There are innumerable other examples like these I could highlight, but you get the drift.
We’ve been attacking each other since at least the 1840’s on the left in the countries I’m active in, and that’s well-documented. I’m sure people more knowledgeable about history prior to the 19th century can tell us how much further back this sectarianism goes.
There is a basic impulse present in so many people towards inclusion, solidarity, mutual aid, towards building. But this impulse is tempered by many other factors, such as divide-and-conquer policies of governments, corporations, and other entities. It’s also tempered by the Puritan tradition of boiling everything down to questions of guilt and shame and penitence. And by the endless hours of TV footage showing us all that the way you do social change is by yelling at cops in the streets, or yelling at somebody else.
When movements don’t get what they are going for, there is a tendency to turn inward and cannibalize. Movements, and this sort of cannibalistic behavior, go in waves, amped up massively by various factors like anti-social media algorithms and state agents out to disrupt. But what I have seen in the past few years, and particularly in the past year, has been an unprecedented acceleration of this kind of idiocy, nationwide, and internet-wide. (Though perhaps much less so in the countries with the good sense to ban Facebook and Google.)
Along with the campaign against me for “platforming” — a concept I disagree with in principle, because what it means is having public discourse with people you disagree with — I have seen so many other campaigns against other people, that have had so much more impact.
I’m sure this extreme and ideologically rigid wing of the anarchist scene in the US is a very fringe element, very small numerically, even if they can look big on Twitter. But it does exist, these are real people, or at least many of them are, and they are genuinely part of a political tendency, and a very confused part, in my view. (But one that goes way, way back! Like at least to the 1840’s.)
Although few in number, the political climate is such that a lot of people are terrified of the cancel campaigners. Including me!
This is the element of the anarchist scene that very seriously beat up the founder of the iconic punk band, the Dead Kennedys, at a concert he was attending in Berkeley. Jello Biafra was a “sellout,” evidently — a very common refrain any musician will hear, if they ever share the stage with famous people or have the chance to play for a big crowd now and then. Sometimes you can hear the label thrown at artists that sell merch for anything over the cost of production. In the confused minds of certain teenagers, this constitutes “capitalism.”
One could laugh off this kind of stuff off as adolescent, as it generally is. But however fringe they may be, such rumors spread around can lead to someone as most solidly anti-establishment and progressive as Jello Biafra getting his bones broken.
Also, if a rumor can be a very large opening for the agents of the state or other provocateurs to do their provoking, as a rumor most certainly can be, then they’ll take that opening. They don’t even need to duck as they walk in, because the door is wide open.
If it is an acceptable tactic to physically assault people you disagree with, because you deem them to be the enemy on the basis of the fact that they don’t think like you, and they are therefore some kind of fascist, that’s incredibly dangerous.
And it is a pervasive notion on certain prominent fringes of the left today, no doubt. It’s not new, it’s not all provocateurs, these are real people, you can find them in lots of different countries, I know them. I say this because I’m tired of so many people saying these are all rightwingers or agents of the state. The reality here is a bit more complex.
Although the campaigners may be few, I have seen these campaigns work again and again. You spread enough rumors, they dominate the narrative. There are already people updating my Wikipedia entry to inform people that accusations of my alleged antisemitism are “in the news.” Of course, they’re “in the news” because there have been news stories written about the campaign against me — not because any serious person has ever accused me of antisemitism, with any basis for their claim, aside from failing to find the antisemitic bits in a book, and wanting to talk to people with disparate viewpoints who may have deep insight into how we might prevent a fascist future in America, regardless of anything else.
The cancel campaigners — yes, the same ones who say every day that cancel culture doesn’t exist — push a narrative about safe space, guilt, redemption, and restorative justice. While safe space and restorative justice are really important concepts, there are other really important concepts, too. Like if we’re just trying to create safe space on the train that’s heading to the concentration camp, maybe it’s not so helpful, since the train is about to bring us to the gas chambers, where we all die. Maybe better to focus on stopping the train, or at least agree that we can all come together to try to do that, even if we have other differences.
Given that safe space within a resistance movement is now clearly considered to be more important by some than the movement actually accomplishing anything external to itself, the movement begins to eat itself alive because of this inherent, unresolved contradiction, that everything is not going to be safe.
Some examples, just within my circles, starting with myself.
If I participate in any social movement activities in Portland, trying to boost the message of a group fighting against the sweeps of houseless communities or whatever else, the trolls will attack anyone who associates with the group I’m trying to support, thus rendering me completely toxic to associate with. So I can still do concerts for organizers and audiences who know me and my music well, and don’t fall for this nonsense — but when it comes to plugging in to campaigns where everyone doesn’t already know who I am, it’s become much more challenging at this point — if the social circles intersect at all with the cancel culture elements of the left, as they so often do. This thing is pretty fringe, but pervasive.
People who have nothing to do with what’s happening on the street are harassing and intimidating houseless people on Twitter in order to try to convince them to completely disassociate themselves from me — that is, not to accept my support in supplying or defending their camps — on the basis of their perception that I’m “unsafe.”
One of the best organizers in the city of Portland, or anywhere, was attacked by a campaign that rendered her unable to effectively organize, run for office, or even keep her job as a teacher. Smeared with the extremely toxic slander of racism, on the basis of someone within her organization made an off joke, and she and her group failed to spend thousands of dollars to hire a firm to train them how to be better antiracists, while they tried to organize for tenants’ rights. Now the accusations against her have escalated to even more ridiculous extremes.
Another of the best organizers in Portland apparently got drunk at a party and asked some overly-nosy questions to one of the other folks at the party. Rather than just having a talk with him privately the next day, or just chalking up the nosy questioning to the lack of inhibitions that alcohol is fairly well-known to induce, this person chose to attack the organizer publicly on social media repeatedly, and organize a cancel campaign against him. He was kicked out of the organization he started, and is now some kind of toxic, as far as I can tell. A transphobe, even — for being a little too much not from the west coast, and a little too curious at the wrong Portland party.
If you ask someone the question, to take an example, if in the most rent-burdened city in the US, a multiracial, multigender organization fighting for tenants rights includes one person who made an off joke during a camping trip, what should be done, you might be surprised to find that there are people out there who think that the organization in question should then have to spend thousands of dollars they don’t have on antiracism training, as they fight this unprecedented wave of gentrification and ethnic cleansing of the city of Portland. But there are people who think just like that.
Other people might say that someone should talk to the one who made the joke, and thank him for all his good work, and encourage him to keep on being part of the movement, but refrain from the dumb jokes. I’m in that camp. Most people would be, if they took the time to understand the thousands of words of accusations that pile up year after year. But most people will never do that, and most people aren’t personal friends with these organizers, and most people have never seen them in action. So screw the tenants of Portland, cancel their advocates, they have a bad joker in their ranks.
This same kind of reasoning — both in favor of canceling anyone trying to do anything useful, for the slightest microtransgression, in some circles — applies to most of the cases with which I am familiar. Victims are believed whether or not they are actually victims of the person in question, or of anyone. Anyone who claims they are a victim is to be believed, or anyone who perceives themselves to have been somehow victimized.
Some of the best organizers around who don’t give up, but keep on trying, as they’re being called out for various perceived microtransgressions, become overwhelmed, emotionally and physically, by the constant sniping. No small number of them have left the country altogether.
How is this atmosphere different from the Witch Trials, or McCarthyism?
As far as I can tell, the main difference is during the Witch Trials or the HUAC hearings, unaccountable people in positions of power were exercising total authority over people’s lives, who were found guilty on the basis of association with “known communists.” With these cancel campaigns, unaccountable people with very little power are attacking other people with very little power, on the basis of perceived transgressions, such as talking to “known antisemites” or “known racists” or being a racist or a transphobe, whether any of the accusations have any merit.
The end result of career destruction is the same, however, for many. For young people whose whole social circle was the left cancel culture milieu, getting rejected by it can be especially, tragically devastating. For people with a wider social circle and more life experience, it might be a bit easier. But for many in either kind of position, if their careers aren’t destroyed, they leave them “voluntarily,” because they become emotionally overwhelmed by all the harassment and the constant resurfacing of old, nonsense allegations, deliberate misquotes, and so on.
It is, of course, a shame that these campaigns have long ago descended into the cesspool of guilt-by-association attacks, and attacks equating microaggressions or alternate interpretations of an academic thesis with support of the Third Reich. It’s a shame because victims should be listened to, and when wronged should have justice. And it’s extremely frustrating in a society like ours that the victims of people like Bill Cosby or Jeffrey Epstein don’t generally get justice.
That doesn’t mean anyone should be automatically believed because they claim to be “harmed” by perceived antisemitism coming from an antifascist musician, or on the basis of some mysterious calculation rooted in how marginalized someone claims to be, in relation to the accused. That’s just Witch Trial mentality, and can lead to nowhere good.
My critics will now say with this piece I am further “entrenching my position” or “digging in.” Some of the more reasonable among them will beseech me to “retract” my position, as if it were a switchblade or something, rather than a perspective rooted in knowledge, and a desire to avert fascism, along with the end of the fucking world.
But I don’t share my critics’ basic worldview. I think understanding why people join fascist movements is more important than shunning people because you can’t decide whether they’re still fascist or not. The idea that I’m being recruited, rather than the other way around, is laughable. Because I’m not apparently a member of the self-appointed clique of experts on fascism, and can’t possibly understand the nature of the beast, and how subtle it can be. The condescension I get from these people is astonishing.
In addition to those campaigning against me on the basis of nonexistent antisemitism, holocaust-denialism, and fascist-platforming, now that I have publicly expressed my unequivocal support for “A Letter for Justice and Open Debate” that appeared in Harper’s magazine last summer, the accusations of transphobia have already begun.
My fairly now extensive history of writing very positive songs about trans people and otherwise being part of the movement for trans rights are of no matter. I am now a virulent transphobe, being yelled at in capital letters on Facebook. Why? JK Rowling also signed the letter.
Perhaps these alleged trans rights activists attacking me now are the same people who brought an end to the London Anarchist Book Fair several years ago, by physically assaulting a woman they disagreed with who had a booth in the main hall. I was there.
This madness really has to end, before the next pogrom. We have been performatively attacking each other on the left for way too long. There is no generation alive today that has the solution for you, for us. This tendency has been rife for much longer than anyone who is alive today. You can’t look to the elders for solutions, and you sure can’t look to the youth — not as monolithic groups, because neither of them are, and both contain lots of elements of our Puritan, moralistic, performative, cancel culture American traditions.
But throughout these periods there have also been voices of reason, calling for everyone to come together and join a social movement with teeth. It’s at times when that element is dominant that things tend to get accomplished, if you check out history. When movements are eating each other alive, the fascists win. Let’s avoid that fate.
Listen to “In the Name of Freedom (En Nombre de la Libertad)” here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=12ycpESGF8M
Vicente Feliú and Simón Bolívar wrote the chorus, I wrote the verses. Viva la revolución. Studio version with Vicente Feliú also singing coming soon. Download MP3.
Rebel Songs WORLD TOUR 2021
This Friday kicks off the first live gigs I’ve done, aside from singing a few songs at a few protests, since I came home early from Australia in March 2020. If you know anyone in any of these places, please please tell them about the gig! That’s basically how I get audiences, when I’m lucky enough to have one. Up-to-date info on all the gigs at davidrovics.com/tour.
I have plenty of available dates for more gigs over the next few months. Places I’ll be where I’d love to have a gig (or more gigs, depending) include anywhere in Denmark, southwestern parts of Sweden, northern Germany and Bavaria, western Austria, anywhere in England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland, the San Francisco bay area, and the Pacific Northwest (if it hasn’t turned into a glowing cinder by then).
30 Boston, Massachusetts
12 Holbaek, Denmark
14 Skanderborg, Denmark
17 Odense, Denmark
20 Aarhus, Denmark
21 Vejle, Denmark
24 Copenhagen, Denmark
19 Birmingham, England
21 Stourbridge, England
22 Liverpool, England
30 Newcastle, England
1 Brighton, England
5 Edinburgh, Scotland
12 Dachau, Germany
13 Munich, Germany