Or, How I Became "Controversial"
K. Rambo, the recently-hired Editor in Chief of the local Portland paper, Street Roots, apparently thinks anonymous Twitter trolls engaging in a cancellation campaign are a legitimate source of public opinion, and that if you interview someone, that means you agree with their views. This is my response to Rambo.
I haven't had much of a chance to finish writing this piece because, perhaps ironically, I've been very busy -- writing, traveling, performing, recording, raising children, and doing the things a professional artist and human being with kids does in life.
One of the reasons I haven't gotten around to addressing the hit piece that ran in Street Roots last March is that I'm much more interested in far more significant and larger-scale cancellation campaigns being waged in this world, against people like imprisoned journalist, Julian Assange, or former British Labor Party leader, Jeremy Corbyn. For every smear spread online about me by disingenuous actors, a thousand smears are spread about folks like them.
But with a bit more time on my hands now that summer is ending and school is starting up again for the kids, I'm starting to notice some of the loose ends from the past half a year or so, and that piece in Street Roots is one of them. It's also an instructive case in how character assassination works, in terms of the actual details of this process.
It began with an article that almost never got published. If it hadn't been published, of course even fewer people would be aware of its subject material than the few people who probably actually read the meandering, bizarrely-edited article. In the scheme of things, neither the article or the fact that it nearly didn't get published are of particular significance. But as a teaching aid in unpacking the power of rumors and suggestions, it's a useful and true story.
This little story begins last March. I was in Iceland, about to be performing at a conference of the Icelandic federation of trade unions, when I got a call from a journalist in Portland, Oregon, named Latisha Jensen. Latisha said she was writing an article about my friend Mic Crenshaw, a brilliant organizer, writer, and hip-hop artist also based in Portland, with whom I recently put out an EP called Take the Power Back.
She interviewed me for about 30 minutes, during which time I talked about my experiences living in the same town as Mic, talking about the wonderful role he has played in this town for so many people for so long, as a mentor, as an artist, and as an organizer. I talked about his past as a founder of Anti-Racist Action, about performing together at Occupy Wall Street, about the fairly groundbreaking musical collaboration we had just been involved with, and many other things. Latisha was talking with other folks Mic had recently collaborated with as well, and seemed to be doing the kind of ground work you'd hope a journalist might do when they're going to write an article featuring a local artist.
Sometime after doing this interview, I got the word that this article would not be published, because of Mic's association with me.
One of the other folks who was interviewed for the article was Adam Carpinelli, who was also very much a part of the Take the Power Back recording, as both a producer and a musician, along with Opium Sabbah, who contributed both lyrically and musically to the project as well. When Adam got word about the retraction of the article from publication, he called Street Roots. The editor responded by saying that the article could now run, but only if it included a statement from Mic about his opinions on me and the supposed controversy about me.
Mic wrote the statement as requested. It was as eloquent and on point as one could imagine, including the part that was ultimately quoted in the article that did run in Street Roots on March 23rd, 2022.
I'm sure because of the fact that the article was clearly written by committee, it's very disjointed, and probably did not go viral, to say the least. It's more or less divided in thirds, which is only of particular note to folks who have some awareness of the background here.
The first third is about Mic's background in activism and views on life. The second third focuses on interview material with some of Mic's recent artistic collaborators. Mic is very productive and has many artistic collaborators, to be sure. But as for the album we just put out, if you look it up on any of the platforms, it reads:
Take the Power Back
Mic Crenshaw & David Rovics
The cover photo is a picture of Mic and I sitting together at Big Red Studio, where we recorded everything. The only musicians that appear on every one of the tracks are me and Mic. So, a bit odd to only talk to two of the other artists on the album and to omit any of the interview with the main collaborator, but that's what the editor decided was best for this article, so there were no quotes from me about Mic, or about anything.
The last third of the article focuses on Mic's association with me. This is the section that I'll quote at length:
In Crenshaw’s newest project, ‘Take the Power Back,’ he blends folk music and hip-hop for the first time in his musical career. The album was made in collaboration with controversial folk artist David Rovics.
Rovics, a figure in leftist music for decades, has been accused of antisemitism due to support for controversial jazz musician and author Gilad Atzmon. Rovics also interviewed Matthew Heimbach, co-founder of a neo-Nazi group found guilty of civil conspiracy by a jury for aiding in the organizing of the deadly 2017 Unite the Right white nationalist event in Charlottesville, Virginia. Rovics denies accusations of antisemitism and addressed his ties to both men on multiple occasions, including an apology for interviewing Heimbach, though he maintains his support for Atzmon's work as a writer and musician. Crenshaw said he doesn’t agree with accusations that Rovics is an antisemite or Holocaust denier, but also said it’s not his job to defend Rovics or explain his actions. Crenshaw said his choice to work with Rovics is based on his personal experience.
“He told me he (interviewed Heimbach) because he wanted to use his platform to understand what the ‘other side’ was thinking,” Crenshaw told Street Roots in a statement. “David stated to me that he felt that, if there was ever to be a successful, revolutionary, mass movement for social change in this society, that people were going to have to come together based on what they have in common and overcome divisions based on demographic differences. I agree with this, by the way.
“David has been a friend, colleague and comrade for close to 20 years, but he is not me.” (Read the full statement here)
OK, so let's unpack this stuff a bit. Here is where I am first mentioned, though the previous several paragraphs were basically about the EP Mic and I just put out. Now, this EP is mentioned again, as if it had not just been discussed for several paragraphs already. And, more importantly, it is first established that I am "controversial."
The next paragraphs go on to discuss why I'm controversial, and perhaps even that there may be some controversy about whether I am in fact controversial, but that's just more controversy -- the fact that I'm controversial is stated and established, and then repeated. There is no real explanation given, aside from guilt by association. The closest thing given to any explanation for anything in these statements are links to things I wrote. This may be some new kind of journalism that's supposed to be OK in the modern era -- putting in a link instead of any kind of real explanation -- but it doesn't work, because the links they put in don't make the statements they claim I'm making. (I use the term "they" here to reflect the obvious fact that this article was not written by one person alone. They often aren't -- editors are a thing, you know -- but here it's a whole different level of written-by-committee.)
I am guilty of interviewing former white nationalist organizer, Matthew Heimbach, and of both interviewing and "supporting" jazz musician and author, Gilad Atzmon. No explanation is given for what constitutes "support."
When the article was published, I contacted the editor, someone by the name of Rambo. Did Rambo really think it was bad practice to interview and otherwise ascertain the opinions of and understand the views of people who organized white supremacist events, or people accused -- rightly or wrongly -- of antisemitism or other toxic orientations? In a country that was recently literally run by Donald Trump, is it not a good thing to try to understand his base of support? Do we not want to try to communicate with them?
To these questions, Rambo said nothing, though they did respond to other things I wrote. Specifically regarding the fact that the overwhelming majority of the people who have denounced me as an antisemite have done so as anonymous Twitter or Reddit accounts, with the exception of a handful of people who have made it their mission in life to root out "left antisemitism" (a phenomenon they largely fabricated from hot air), Rambo did have something to say, in an email from March 24th:
I'm not making a value judgment of the people who have an issue with you or the choice many of them make to remain anonymous online, nor am I making a value judgment of you or your defenses, and neither does the article.
No value judgements -- just relying on anonymous trolls as good judges of the alleged fact that I'm controversial, being OK with the fact that the source of the controversy is that I'm guilty of interviewing people who are said to be controversial, and that the evidence that there is a controversy is that I am regularly attacked by overwhelmingly anonymous Twitter and Reddit accounts, who constantly and blatantly lie in the process of making their attacks.
What Rambo may or may not know is that those who make it their life's work to try to destroy mine -- of which there appear to be at least a couple (for the full background go to davidrovics.com/trolls) -- spend inordinate amounts of their time and effort trying to rewrite the entries that refer to me on Wikipedia, when they're not writing personal emails and messages to anyone who says anything positive about me online, to make sure they all know I'm an antisemite.
The Wikipedia editors, for years, rejected the efforts of my trolls to update my Wikipedia listing, to reflect the fact that I am supposedly controversial, let alone antisemitic. Where's the evidence, they would ask, with each new rejection. But after the Street Roots article was published, this changed. Now, my listing on Wikipedia introduces me as "controversial," with a section that appears to be lifted right out of the Street Roots article.
Where's the evidence? None required. Or, rather, the evidence that is required is a claim made in some kind of news source -- not just someone's blog or Twitter account -- that a controversy exists. Once this reference is made, the existence of a controversy has been established, by Wikipedia's standards. And I am not here complaining about the management of Wikipedia at all -- I think they do a great job. But eventually, if trolls try hard enough, and have willing assistants in what they view as legitimate press, a controversy can be manufactured.
K. Rambo, the youthful Editor in Chief at Street Roots, for their part, denies manufacturing a controversy, and is sorry I'm upset by the article.