Sunday, July 16, 2023

Sharing Trolls with Andy Ngo

What do a popular conservative journalist and a little-known leftwing musician have in common? Ask our trolls.

I met someone.  I'll refrain from describing them further, for their safety.  They had been scanning the area carefully before they approached me, both of us in the same physical location.

"I wanted to contact you a while ago," they began, "but I was afraid to use a messaging app or send an email.  I know it sounds ridiculous."

It felt very much like talking to someone who had been part of a mafia family or a cult, who was worried if they said anything or in any way identified themselves as a dissenter, they would become a target for constant harassment, like they knew well that I was, and am.

"You know that list you came up with, it's pretty good," they went on.  "You've basically mapped out Rose City Antifa." 

They were talking about the list of mostly anonymous Twitter accounts that a friend of mine put together in a graphic.  

My friend had also done a lot of research on all of these accounts, which represent most of the accounts that were actively engaged in harassing me and anyone who supported me on the platform, at the time the graphic was made.  They're also the same accounts most actively engaged in harassment campaigns of other people, and their supporters, as well.

Rose City Antifa guru Shane Burley likes to regularly announce on his many platforms that I doxxed the group with that graphic, and with the publication of my friend's research on the campaign of harassment against me and others.  This is a new use of the term, "doxxed," which means to reveal the actual names and addresses of people, not the list of anonymous accounts that have been harassing you.  Most of what Shane ever says or writes is of this nature -- untrue, misleading, inaccurate, and said with the intent to manipulate. 

Interestingly, as with many other things, Shane's acolytes are indeed responsible for having doxxed me, later proudly taking credit for the action on Twitter. They put flyers on car windshields all over my neighborhood in Portland, Oregon, with my picture and a picture of my car and with my home address, denouncing me as an antisemite, holocaust-denier, and harasser of homeless people, all completely bizarre and completely unfounded accusations.

This person was not the first or the last one I would meet in the city of Portland who was living in fear of retribution for having found themselves on the wrong side of this group's leaders and followers.

A few days later, as often happens, after I published something I had written about these kinds of problems on the contemporary left, I heard from another one.  We met up somewhere.  This was unusual.  Not unusual to hear from another person online who was terribly traumatized by experiences with associates/members of Rose City Antifa, but unusual to be in touch with someone who was willing to meet up in the real world.

This was at least the third person I have met in Portland who has been involved with the movement, only to find themselves on the wrong side of it.  At which point they all, like me, become targets for constant, sophisticated forms of online harassment involving lots of very intentional efforts at gaslighting, sealioning, and catfishing, lots of cancellation campaigning -- that is, public statements and efforts to contact employers and associates in order to cause loss of employment or damage to one's reputation -- as well as stalking, destruction of property, physical intimidation, and much more.

Good friends who used to live in town moved years ago because of the same group's efforts.  Unable to reliably do a concert tour with gigs in this kind of scene without being constantly harassed and sometimes physically attacked, they basically retired from the music scene, their cancellation effectively accomplished (and then they went and got less public jobs that also pay better).

What would happen if I tried to do regular live gigs in Portland under the current circumstances, the way they were doing before they left town, I don't know.  It's been many years since I've regularly done gigs in Portland, or more broadly in the US.  This situation predates being the subject of constant cancellation campaigning, and is more related to the dismal state of the arts economy for most independent artists in this country.  But it's also related to the collapse of the social movements -- the global justice, antiwar, and environmental movements, primarily -- that used to largely support my touring here even after the arts economy was collapsing.

"I actually feel bad for Andy Ngo," a friend recently told me.

This is a theme among a fair number of people I know around here, who are starting to reflect on some of the excesses of attack-mob mentality that was so much a part of 2020, and really the whole Trump presidency, among a certain element of society often on the streets during that time in Portland.

Andy Ngo is a conservative journalist who is now a frequent guest on Fox.  He's the sort of journalist that would be working for the tabloid press if we had one to speak of.  He's published in the New York Post, the last of the rightwing tabloid press we have in the US that's still in print.  Having read on Wikipedia that he's recently moved to London, England, where they do still have an active rightwing tabloid press, I'm not surprised.  Plus he's surely a lot safer there than he is in Portland.

To what degree did we actually create Andy Ngo, and turn him into the person he is today?  I'm not the first to wonder.

Since he was a student at Portland State University, he had been on the receiving end of campaigns from activists from on- and off-campus who were intent on shutting down events involving speakers they were ideologically opposed to.  In return for doing sensationalistic, rightwing, tabloid journalism, Ngo has been physically attacked on multiple occasions on the streets of Portland, and has been subjected to a constant campaign of harassment and intimidation -- often by the very same people who have been harassed and intimidated by rightwingers as a consequence of Ngo's reporting.

He's a human being, is what you can hear a growing number of people saying, if you pay close attention.  A lot of people jumped into the pile-ons on Twitter, saying horrible things along the way.  No person should be treated like that, as a matter of principle, more people are starting to realize, in certain circles.

As increasing numbers of us are discovering, once someone is targeted, all decency goes out the window.  Attacks against those targeted for harassment generally involve bigotry of all kinds.  They're acting anonymously on Twitter, but when you know you're dealing with people associated with an ostensibly antifascist group, it's always strange to be faced with clearcut racism, sexism, and myriad other forms of disrespect.

For many people, it's not until they're targeted like this that they come to realize the tactic just generally sucks, whoever it's applied to.  Others, like me, for example, decided a long time ago it was a bad idea, but tended to remain silent when it was just such a regular part of the scene.  And besides, mostly the targets were members of the right.  Or at least that used to be the case, and is with other groups that do this sort of thing.

This week I finally got around to reading the book Andy Ngo published in 2021.

Throughout 2020 I was mostly enthusiastically sharing posts from the folks who were involved with organizing events on the streets of Portland, and frequently participating physically in them as well.  It was a broad array of people on the streets, with different political orientations as well as different ideas about effective tactics.  While it lasted, there were active groups on Telegram and other platforms for folks to get info out about what was going on.

There were things happening every day, often multiple events in different parts of the city in a given day.  When I did show up for something I often wished I hadn't, because the NPR-sponsored identity politics and the lack of class consciousness that dominated the scene as far as whoever was talking into a microphone made it all so cringe.

Sometimes there'd be an event where even without showing up, I knew it wasn't something I wanted to help promote.  One such event was the protest at Powell's Books in January, 2021, because of the fact that they dared to carry the new book published by Andy Ngo.  The organizers were getting a lot of pushback at the time from other leftists who didn't like the idea of protesting a book store for carrying a book, but they held their protest nonetheless.  I don't know how it went, I wasn't there.

More than two years afterwards, I finally got around to reading it, in audiobook form, my favorite way to read books these days.

The book's full title is Unmasked: Inside Antifa's Radical Plan to Destroy Democracy.  The sensationalism and orientation towards the typical tabloid press reader is apparent in the title.  But despite Ngo's conservative, pro-capitalist worldview, the audiobook made for very interesting listening.  Not because of the author's many inaccurate generalizations and very selective provision of historical background, but because of the many grains of truth lurking within them.

And especially because so many of Ngo's experiences with targeted, incessant online harassment mirror my own.  The harassment is in some cases being conducted by the very same anonymous Twitter accounts, as well as by some of the very same authors and academics that Ngo has accurately observed are some of the luminaries of Rose City Antifa.

For me, getting on the bad side of this little group happened over the course of 48 hours or so in early January, 2021, only days before their protest at Powell's Books.  This also coincided with the rightwing siege on Capitol Hill, which itself coincided with me taking the initiative to interview someone who might know what all those people were doing there.  In early January, 2021 I interviewed Unite the Right protest organizer Matthew Heimbach, because he was willing to do an interview with me and because I wanted to understand what motivated these people.  

It was a fascinating interview.  It's still up on my YouTube channel.  After over two years there, it's been seen only 3,800 times, approximately nothing by internet standards.  Among those few people who have seen all or part of the interview, the overwhelming majority of reviews have been very positive.

But once you've publicly talked to the wrong guy, in the eyes of the "no-platform" activists of Rose City Antifa who organize protests against book stores for carrying the wrong books, you are then just as bad as that guy.  Communication is to be avoided, when you think the way these "antifascist" sectarians do.  Once you talk to a Nazi, whether or not he is still a Nazi, whether he's willingly and fully answering all your questions or not, then you are a Nazi, too, and should be treated as one.  

I was publicly told in a tweet that I should be treated as a fascist collaborator, on many occasions by most of these accounts, including by "antifascist" guru Spencer Sunshine.  This is a death threat, in no uncertain terms, whether legally recognized as such.

As I listened to Unmasked, knowing that the author and I are being targeted for constant harassment and defamation efforts by many of the same individuals and anonymous trolls, it was so striking to hear his account of recent and less recent history, his version of the origins of Antifa in Europe, and especially his versions of the recent history of police killings, killings of police, and the daily protests and riots that rocked many parts of Portland throughout 2020.

As I listened to him infer that people like Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and George Floyd were criminals or drug addicts who basically got what they had coming to them, I thought, oh, I wrote very positive songs about all those guys ("Trayvon," "His Hands Were In The Air," "As I Watch Minneapolis Burn").  

As I listened to him describe the activities of the young folks trying to burn down police stations in Portland in 2020 as terrorists, I thought about the songs of praise I had written about them ("The FOP on Fire," "Anarchist Jurisdiction," "With Masks Upon Their Faces and Leaf-Blowers In Their Hands").

As I listened to him condemn people who were proudly associated with Antifa and in one form or another gave their lives in the struggle, such as Willem von Spronsen and Michael Reinoehl, I thought of the songs I wrote about them.  One person's terrorist is another's martyr.

After I finished the book, I quickly put together a playlist of over twenty songs I wrote about people and events discussed in the book.  It makes for an interesting and extremely contrasting perspective on all of the people and events in question!

But of course none of that matters for the sectarians who believe that good activism means purging the ranks of the movement of  anyone who doesn't think exactly like Shane Burley, when it comes to which people we're allowed to talk to in a public setting without getting condemned as collaborators and subjected to harassment campaigns that never end.

As I listened to the audiobook there were so many moments where I thought, oh yes, they do that to me, too.

There are the frequent public announcements full of disinformation about my transgressions.  There are the anonymously-written screeds in It's Going Down and other publications that are accurately described as riot porn websites and Twitter accounts, but which shocking numbers of people seem to think are reliable sources of news.  

There are the successful efforts to edit Wikipedia to introduce lots of "people say" this or that about me, all of it unverified and untrue, though sometimes sourced, with links to articles that are on platforms with no editor, which are chock full of disinformation, but which were somehow considered good enough to make it onto Wikipedia, after the 25th attempt at getting past the otherwise good judgment of the volunteer editors.

And then there are the many personal messages that appear to be from someone who genuinely wants to engage with you in discussion but then turns out to be a troll who just wants to call you a Nazi, after a few exchanges.  This tactic, often called sealioning, seems to be an effort to drive the victims crazy.  It's something that could easily be done by slightly intelligent bots as well.  It seems to me to be a very effective way to cause someone to feel like the world out there on the internet is full of bad-intentioned people lurking around every corner, both in public spaces and private ones.  It's also the kind of tactic that has led to actual suicides, and to people considering suicide, including a number of people I know.

One of the ways Ngo gets it wrong is he inflates the size and scope of Antifa, attributing far more organization than it's actually capable of or involved with in the US.  (As Ngo also points out, the phenomenon is bigger and better-organized in Europe.)  But one could almost understand his distorted perspective on the size and scope of Antifa in the US, given the city he grew up in and at least until recently lived in -- Portland, Oregon -- and his experiences in it.

Here and in some other cities in the US, Antifa is, in fact, an organized group.  They are not ideologically connected to the bulk of people around the world who would identify with either the term Antifa or the idea of opposing fascism, most of whom would not participate in a protest against a book store for carrying the wrong book, nor would most think it's a good policy to target leftwing artists for incessant harassment campaigns for committing a thought crime.

But with regards specifically to Rose City Antifa in Portland, officially, they organize protests, mutual aid, and educational events, and promote the wisdom of their luminaries.

It's what they do unofficially that is especially troubling for me and many others.  Most of those affected are blissfully unaware of what's going on.  

Unofficially, it is increasingly clear, they run a very active and tactically sophisticated troll farm, targeting anyone who has crossed them, whether for being a rightwing journalist or for having interviewed the wrong guest on a YouTube channel with a very small audience.  Or in the case of some former associates currently fearing for their safety and perhaps for their lives, for offenses so minor and so personal they don't even know what they are.

One of the many crazy-making qualities of being the target of such a campaign is it's pretty much invisible to most everyone else, other than the victim and the perpetrators.

Even if you're a big fan of my music, for example, you can go on listening to me on Spotify and never know the reason why I may not be playing in your town any time soon.  If you're not the person who organized a gig, ran a venue, or shared a stage with me, you wouldn't have gotten that little flood of angry messages telling you that you're organizing a gig for, hosting, or playing with, a Nazi.  If you follow me on a social media platform, you may not have seen those hateful messages that I deleted, or the users I blocked.  And you certainly didn't receive the ones destined just for my inboxes.

Ngo wildly exaggerates Antifa's actual size across the country, overlooking major ideological and tactical divisions between different groups depending on time, place, and a lot of other factors; and lumping lots of different groups and networks in that actually have little or nothing to do with Antifa, especially in its warped, specific, and peculiar Portland form, aside from having a penchant for marching in the streets.  

But where Ngo really hits the nail on the head is in his understanding of the way a relatively small network of organized individuals with a steady funding source -- which would seem to be a very accurate description of Rose City Antifa -- can mobilize so much sentiment for their side of an argument, because of the prevalence of believe-the-victim-no-matter-what thinking across so much of society these days, especially among liberals, anarchists, and the left.

The notion that anytime someone says they're a victim they should be believed is patently absurd, and an orientation obviously easy to manipulate opportunistically, and that's a tactic that Shane Burley and affiliated trolls engage in methodically.  Most recently by successfully convincing the management of our local community radio station that I should be banned from the station, on the basis that if I'm allowed on the air I'm going to say negative things about him.  (Now why would anyone do that?)

Ngo points out something which I have also observed first-hand.  A very significant number of the most militant dumpster-burners around here are living on the streets or in some state of housing insecurity.  They are young, and they are poor, by any measure.  For the luminaries it may be a different matter, but the kids burning the dumpsters, shouting obscenities at Proud Boys or evangelical Christians or whoever they're trying to disrupt, or stalking other, ostensibly fellow leftists, are generally a very troubled bunch, both emotionally and financially.

As anyone can surmise who listens to the playlist of songs up there, they will give you a very different rendition of Andy Ngo's take on history and current events than his.  I've embraced what we could call a far left perspective for a long time, and that hasn't changed.  For over twenty years now, when I find myself walking among a crowd of masked Black Bloc types in the US, Canada, Denmark, and many other countries, I'm recognized happily on a first-name basis.  This is, in fact, the crowd in which I'd be most readily recognized by people, in many different countries.  

And I still think just as I did ten years ago, twenty years ago, or forty years ago -- we here in the US live in a crumbling capitalist hellhole with a criminally outrageously huge divide between the rich and the poor, where the government is too corrupt to look after the environment, or most of its population, where the powers-that-be use race, gender, sexual orientation and other things to keep us all divided and fighting each other.

I will admit, however, that the experiences of the past 2-1/2 years of being targeted incessantly by these people has helped further clarify my thoughts regarding cancellation campaigning, the always-believe-the-victim mentality, the Oppression Olympics of identity politics, and especially regarding the notion of targeting undesirable people with incessant harassment.

Life as I've lived it, and history as I've studied it, tells me a couple things.  

One is that when you take this kind of rigid, exclusionary thinking and focus on purging the left of anyone you don't like -- which is what these people are doing on a daily basis -- you just end up with a paranoid and extremely weakened left all around, and one where everyone has to justify their existences before anyone might give them the time of day.

Two is that when you go after the right with these kinds of tactics, you only make it stronger.  Andy Ngo has 1.3 million Twitter followers.  That's at least a million more followers on Twitter than he would have if no one had ever taken the bait and assaulted him on the streets of Portland.

The "no-platform" orientation has been consistently backfiring for a century now, and it continues to backfire today.  That's another thing Ngo and I apparently agree on, though I did not learn this lesson from him.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Reflections on Singing for Wikileaks

My takeaway from the recent welcome news of Julian Assange's release from prison is that collective action works. When the news broke th...