Tuesday, August 29, 2023

The Mind-Warping Effects of Rabbit Holes

If you spend most of your time going down rabbit holes, it's easy to develop tunnel vision.

Looking at the broad expanse of history as it's occurred, rather than the kind some people like to make up in order to suit a narrative, it's pretty clear that material conditions tend to produce reactions on the part of people experiencing them.  What happens with those reactions, how they are channeled, then has a lot to do with the specifics of what's going on in a given society at that juncture in time and space.

There are any number of great historical examples we could use to illustrate this point with.  One would be events that took place in the USA in the spring and summer of 1921.

Certain conditions were the same across the country, though they varied by region, and they varied radically in terms of how individuals experienced them, depending on factors like class, race, gender, etc.  For example, the rich generally avoided the draft that called men up to serve in the army in World War 1 in Europe.

With the aftermath of World War 1 combined with the Russian Revolution and the US's participation in the "expedition" to that country in response, the Red Scare was having a serious crescendo, with attacks on union halls across the country, arrests of union members, thousands of deportations of "outside agitators," and laws passed to prevent more of them from emigrating to the US.  

The tabloid press of the day was obsessed with blaming certain groups for all of the country's problems, and at the time these groups particularly included Black Americans migrating north, people from eastern and southern Europe coming to the US, and "reds" in general.  

While large numbers of people moving into a city or area from somewhere else can be destabilizing to a society and create tensions of various sorts, it's generally much worse when it's all happening in the aftermath of a very traumatic bloodbath of a war that so many of the men had just experienced (those who came home alive), and in combination with a very high rate of unemployment compounded by a chronic lack of decent housing for so many people.

The conditions I'm outlining are the sorts of conditions that make some people want to find radical solutions to their oppressive situations.

Two events that transpired in two different parts of the country in 1921 couldn't be more different from each other, aside from both of them involving the actions of organized groups of many thousands of people.

One took place in West Virginia, the other in Oklahoma.

One of the very important ways conditions were different in these respective states is in Oklahoma the radical labor movement in the form of the Working Class Union had been successfully repressed, its leaders in prison or in hiding since their aborted effort to march to Washington, DC in 1917.  Whereas in West Virginia the United Mine Workers of America were still fighting hard for the welfare of the working class, in a murderously repressive environment, so much so that the period of 1920-21 in West Virginia became known as the Coal Mine Wars.

My intent here is not to boil down complex events to only two salient factors, but just to say that while there was a racist massacre and systematic destruction of an entire community in Tulsa, Oklahoma, during the same year in West Virginia there was the biggest armed multiracial uprising in US history, against the mine-operator authorities who were holding a hundred union organizers in a prison on no charges.  Why such radically different events like this, both in the same year, in the same country, both involving mostly hard-pressed working class white people?

Reality is often too complex for neat little summaries and tidy conclusions to anything that actually happened.  But we can be sure that across the USA people were being fed the same pro-war, anti-immigrant, anti-Black, anti-communist propaganda in 1921, by the same sorts of tabloid press outlets.  We can be sure that Oklahoma and West Virginia both had a recent past full of red flags and radicalism.  We can also be sure that both states were steeped in the same traditions of American racism.

But in one state there was active, above-ground leadership by union members and union officials who were overwhelmingly coming from a conscious, strategically antiracist tradition of organizing the entire working class regardless of skin color or immigration status, whereas in the other state, the forces in society that had that kind of orientation were far more likely to be in prison or in hiding, in 1921.

Maybe if the very consciously multiracial Working Class Union had not been repressed in Oklahoma in 1917, nothing in Tulsa would have gone down differently four years later.  But by the same token, it may be no coincidence that the multiracial uprising was in West Virginia, and the racist massacre was in Oklahoma, under the circumstances.

I could keep going with other, similar examples of how things can go very differently in places where circumstances are otherwise very similar.  People who are desperate are inclined towards desperate acts of all sorts, but such acts can be radically different from each other, as we can see.  For the sake of argument here I'll just assume we can take it as a given that circumstances make a big difference, and dramatically affect what goes on in a society, even if the society is otherwise made up of very similar people to the next one.

And then, what if the circumstances themselves are radically different?  Not just in terms of one place having a still-vibrant labor movement, and the other not?  What if there are other major differences, like one society is prosperous and most people are members of unions and cooperatives, while another society is hungry, recently defeated in a war, and suffering from a big disparity between the rich and the poor?

While fascism had serious adherents around the world and certainly throughout Europe and the Americas when the phenomenon hit the world stage in the 1920's, by the 1930's, when people driven by the ideology were running governments, repressing all sorts of people, invading other countries, etc., in other countries the fascist phenomenon never became very popular, and never came very close to seizing state power.

Given what we know about where fascism took hold (by means other than being invaded by a fascist power) and where it didn't, we can see that the combination of prosperity, competent governance, and an active civil society in the form of cooperatives and unions have been the more successfully democratic ones, whereas the ones more susceptible to the national socialist phenomenon are more characterized by economic stratification and political polarization.

Knowing what we know about how things have gone down in the past, it's pretty obvious that the most effective way to have a happy and stable and relatively free society is to have competent governance, with cooperatives and unions playing a big role in the day-to-day functioning of society.  That is to say, having a society like this is the best way to prevent fascism, as well as the best way to drain the swamp in which any national socialist ideologues or organizers may be trying to build a movement.

And what is the best way to rehabilitate a society that has been taken over and run by violent fascists who killed untold numbers of people, invaded their neighbors, etc.?  If we put aside notions of justice or vengeance, and just think about how to most effectively get things going in a positive direction, the swamp of resentment, poverty, and powerlessness that fascism can thrive on must be drained, and to do that what we need most of all are those things that make a society happy and functional (competent governance, prosperity, and lots of unions and cooperatives).  Which is not to suggest that there's anything easy about making such a transition, which in reality is a wildly complex phenomenon, like so many things are in the real world.  But the basic principle holds, regardless.

These are the kinds of things that come to mind when I think about my fear of a fascist future, and when I ruminate on the history of the past hundred years or so, as I so often do.  I am fully capable of joining in with all the people expressing their revulsion for the politics of modern-day figures like Trump, Bolsonaro, Modi, etc.  But what interests me much more than speaking out about how horrible some leaders can be (along with some of their supporters), is the notion of figuring out how to build a society where such people never get a majority of the vote (or enough of one to form a ruling coalition) in the first place.

Within the broad spectrum of people involved with activities that we could characterize as those intended to make the world a better place, there are folks organizing unions and cooperatives, folks running for office, doing any number of different kinds of community service or community organizing.  People go into professions of various sorts because they want to make the world a better place, whether that be in the field of medicine or politics or the arts or lots of other things.  

One of those useful things some people are called to do is to keep tabs on the far right.  Others don't just do research on who's involved and what they're doing, but they try to disrupt their networks in various ways, by exposing the identities of members of different groups, getting them fired from their jobs, harassing them online, and protesting them when they make some kind of a public appearance of whatever kind.  The people doing this kind of work include many of my friends in many different countries. 

Given the proclivity of far right groups to kill people and plot to undermine democratic processes, organize military coups and things like that, it certainly makes sense to know in great detail what they're up to at any given time.  But while we're doing that, we hopefully also understand that if we lived in an egalitarian, prosperous society characterized by unions and cooperatives, we'd inevitably have far, far fewer angry, violence-prone political extremists to worry about.

There are dangers to doing this kind of research, and the related doxing and harassment of members of the far right.  One is that the doxing and harassment activities will just make people angrier and more committed, rather than making them give up and get into other things.  

Another danger in getting deeply into this kind of research is that, although undoubtedly important, it's very useful to the liberal press -- those elements of the press that represent the part of the elite that sees the Democratic Party as being fundamentally different from the Republican Party, and whose solutions to our many problems in American society involve voting in more Democrats, a strategy which has proven to be completely ineffective in curtailing the rise of the right, for obvious reasons having to do with the Democratic Party being led by capitalists and imperialists who don't have the interests of the working class of this or any other country in mind.  But whether they are strange bedfellows or comfortable ones, this is why there are so many people who might describe themselves as radicals who are working for very mainstream press outlets doing exposures on the far right, and who thus enjoy an audience far larger than most other radicals doing other kinds of work that isn't seen as useful to the interests of the Democratic Party elite.

Another danger is the rabbit hole effect.  If most of what you're spending your time on is obsessing about the far right, and perhaps not so much about how we can create a society where the far right doesn't have such rich soil in which to plant their poison seeds, then it's easy to start to orient towards just eliminating the problem as the solution.  Draining the swamp is a complex procedure.  Killing the weeds is easier (although they'll just keep growing).

My thoughts on this subject today were inspired, such as it is, by receiving a message from a friend, with a screen shot of an exchange on X/Twitter, in which a researcher and media personality on the subject of the far right who is widely considered to be an expert posted the following, to his hundreds of thousands of followers on the platform:

Fixing Reconstruction would mean going back to ensure the Union executes every single Confederate politician and military officer.  The same thing would have been necessary to truly stop European fascism after WW2.  The undeniable conclusion to the failures of both Reconstruction and Denazification is that we left a lot of people alive who needed to die.  And for the record this is not about vengeance.  I don't support politics of vengeance.  This is the political equivalent of shooting a rabid dog.

The first part of the post got half a million views, other parts "only" in the low hundreds of thousands.  With that many views, it was notable that the number of people who liked the post were in the low thousands, and many of the comments most critical of the post also got the most positive attention.  What concerns me more than the people who agreed with this kind of thinking is the kind of reach this kind of post, from someone this prominent, can have.

Although it's probably really easy to figure out who it is I'm talking about, I'm not going to name him because that's not the point.  If this guy were an isolated case, maybe focusing on who I'm quoting would matter, but unfortunately, he represents what seems to be a fairly popular school of thought among some other "experts" doing the same kind of research and media work.  I don't want to unduly judge someone's perspective on history based on a few quickly-composed posts on social media.  But it's still undeniably the case that his "undeniable" conclusion about the history of Reconstruction and Denazification is actually very easy to deny, and impossible to justify in any way that makes historical sense, if advancing a society is the goal.

Again, putting aside vengeance or justice, but focusing on practicalities:  what's undeniable, from any reasonable vantage point, is that Reconstruction and Denazification didn't go far enough.  But once you've occupied the South, or conquered the Nazis, liberated Europe, and taken over Germany, then, with the massive advantage of state power, there's a pretty good basis to begin crafting a society where people live as equals, free of slavery or concentration camps.

In the case of the South, after the Union army left, the KKK violently and systematically took over.  But before the Union army left, things were going pretty well, with lots of people taking the initiative to form multiracial cooperatives on former slave plantations, under the protection of Union troops.  Former Confederate officers, in some cases, actively supported Reconstruction -- including one former Confederate general.  Black people were getting elected to local, state, and national offices.  Much more than in the North, in fact!  Which was the rub -- a real Reconstruction was only in the cards if the radical wing of the Republican Party controlled the Congress, and that situation didn't last.  

It should have broadened, continued, and gone national!  But it didn't.  Would anything have been different if all the former Confederate officers and politicians had been executed?  Would there be no more well-trained soldiers and no more astute lawyers prepared to replace those officers and politicians that would have been taken out?  (Or perhaps "we" would have to execute all the former Confederate soldiers and lawyers as well, to really get back to Year Zero more successfully?)  Would the children and the other family members and friends of the executed be more or less supportive of the new regime after the executions?  (Or would "we" need to execute them, too, for good measure?)

For me, European fascism has always been a thing of living memory for people who were a big part of the first thirty years or so of my life.  Not so much the Confederacy.  But both historical episodes have been of great interest to me to read about, as well, and to understand as deeply as possible.  Learning about these episodes for me has admittedly not involved reading a lot of fascist or anti-fascist theory.  I've never found that stuff to be particularly interesting or illuminating, and it's often neither.  How history happens, and what happens, and trying to figure out why it went that way, is what interests me.  And to me, there's nothing undeniable about the need for more killing, in the wake of a military victory.  What is undeniable is the need for a lot of other things.

What's also very disturbing about the language of shooting rabid dogs is the notion that some people aren't really human, and should be referred to as animals.  I like dogs, but this is not an affectionate reference here.  Yes, it's just some guy on Twitter making edgy statements, but it's someone who is considered an expert, who has a major mainstream media platform, and hundreds of thousands of followers on social media.

If this is the vanguard of antifascist thinking these days, this is not good.  One would hope such people would be working to prevent the next civil war, rather than trying to foment it.

Sunday, August 27, 2023

From Little Things, Big Things Grow

What if we collectively organized as a class against those rich men north of Richmond, in defense of our mutual class interests, like guaranteed, actually affordable housing for everyone?

The movement began with successful housing takeovers in Philadelphia by the Poor People's Army.  Next came successful eviction defense actions in Portland, Oregon.  

Every time the police came to try to enforce eviction orders, dozens and soon hundreds of people would quickly materialize to defend those facing eviction, and the police would leave.

The mainstream press had largely ignored the anti-eviction movement until it became too popular to respond to by simply failing to cover major news developments.  They then went on the assault, vilifying the anti-eviction movement in all the usual ways.  

They said the movement's leadership included CIS white men who were not sufficiently sensitive to the particular ways BIPOC and LGBTQI+ people were affected by evictions, as opposed to other people who get evicted.  

They accused the movement of being a racist movement, for not prioritizing which people facing eviction get defended, because the movement had a policy of defending anyone who asked for help, regardless of the color of their skin, or their political beliefs, or anything else, other than that they were tenants facing eviction because they couldn't pay their rent.

They accused the movement of dogwhistle antisemitism, for providing too much space for criticism of Jewish billionaire real estate capitalists, rather than Christian billionaire real estate capitalists.

When these forms of slander weren't having the desired effect, the press, their allied intelligence agencies, police undercover units, and brainwashed followers among the Twitterati began to identify as many individual members of the anti-eviction squads as they could, researching their social media history, and calling them out for any supposedly racist, sexist, transphobic, and/or antisemitic posts they ever liked or shared since 2006 or so.

But by this time, most people had wised up to this kind of divide-and-conquer fake wokery, and they rejected the accusations without even needing to think much about them, because everyone had Facebook accounts and they had all lived through 2020, and seen it all before.

The people persisted, and the movement grew.  Soon, the state of Oregon instituted a temporary ban on evictions.  The landlord lobby was outraged, and poured money into electoral campaigns, to find as many pro-landlord BIPOC LGBTQI+ politicians to represent the interests of the ruling class that they could.  

But the movement by this time was not impressed with the skin color, national origin, or sexual orientation of their politicians, since most people by then had figured out that this was all a bunch of tokenistic nonsense that had nothing to do with defeating the real estate-driven capitalist insanity that was rapidly impoverishing most of the nation.

So, despite the constant attacks from the press, from the landlord lobby, and from the pro-landlord liberal homeowners pretending to be motivated by antiracism or trans liberation, the movement to abolish evictions persisted, and grew.  

Out of the temporary ban on evictions came a statewide referendum on guaranteeing housing for all residents, introducing a policy modeled after Portugal's Basic Housing Law that landlords who wanted to evict a tenant had to work that out with the state, which was now responsible for either covering the rent, working with the landlord to set a more reasonable charge for rent, or finding comparable alternative housing for any tenant facing eviction.

Despite the ongoing, constant barrage of negative press and efforts at character assassination of everyone involved with the movement, the movement that had so much success in tackling the housing crisis in Oregon began to catch on across the USA, and in other countries as well.  Soon, tens of millions of households that had been living in poverty, existing hand-to-mouth, and constantly facing the prospect of imminent homelessness, could collectively breath deeply for the first time, and sleep well through the night, as could their children, confident they'd still have a home in the morning.

*     *     *

This is all a fantasy, of course (at least after the first sentence).  But it's a potentially realistic one, given the actual history of human civilization.  Scenarios like the one I've described above have happened before, very much like the way I describe it.  

Though mostly in times prior to the existence of Facebook or terms like BIPOC or LGBTQI+, there were other institutions that played the role Facebook and its algorithms do (like tabloid media and the FBI), and other accusations to be made to sully someone's character -- with acronyms once as familiar as BIPOC and LGBTQI+ are today, such as COMINTERN or HUAC.

The promotion of culture war issues and political polarization, along with social media algorithms and the well-documented, widespread activities of undercover police provocateurs have succeeded in undermining many social movements as well as schools of thought.  The role of these forces has often been to nip such movements in the bud, before ever needing to step up their game to attack a movement that has gotten big.

The atmosphere created by our new media/social media landscape is a tremendously stifling one.  But now is not a time to be stifled, as the Earth burns and the capitalists' solution to the housing crisis is cutting down forests and building more unaffordable mansions in the suburbs, while millions more people are evicted with each passing year, and forced to live in vehicles or tents, in Portland and other cities across the country.

There are many "unprecedented" things happening these days.  A former president got a mug shot, that's unprecedented, and it's all over the news.  The heat wave we're experiencing and the fires burning up Canada and so many other parts of the world are unprecedented, and big news as well.  

Also unprecedented are the numbers of people living on the streets, the numbers of households being evicted, and the rise in the cost of housing, but these things get very little press.  Even more so with demonstrations or other actions having to do with the movement for housing as a guaranteed right.  Where's the press?  

They're not being assigned by the big businesses that own their publications and TV outlets to cover these things.  It's not in the interests of whichever of the two parties whose capitalist propaganda they are amplifying.  

Much better to cover the latest pro- or anti-abortion protest, the latest protest for or against drag shows at libraries, or the latest protest for or against banning a celebrity from Twitter.  Keep the focus on the culture wars, not on the fact that 1% of the population owns the overwhelming majority of the wealth and the land in our country.  Don't look at the wizard behind the curtain, don't talk about the elephant in the living room -- or the elephant squeezing into the front seat of the car your neighbor is living in.  Focus on the culture wars.

In such an atmosphere, it would be easy to believe that there is very little interest in society in the housing crisis that is affecting most of us so deeply, which transcends all lines other than that most fundamental one in a capitalist society, that one that is numerically impossible to compete with in terms of how much it affects us all -- class.

Yes, in fact, you would think that the class divisions in our society are not of interest to most people, given what may be accurately characterized as the relative silence of the mass media on what is easily one of the most pressing issues of our times -- where we have to live, how often we're forced to move, and whether we can afford to live anywhere.

But we get little indications now and then about how much class matters to regular people.  Indications like the fact that the #1 hit song on the charts right now is all about that -- "Rich Men North of Richmond."  (Yes, the song was amplified by outlets like Fox, which contributed to its success, but this viral sensation is not merely the result of the song getting attention in the media, it's too big for that.)

If you walk around and keep your ears open, it's not hard to hear lots of people talking about the cost of living, and especially the cost of housing.  Such conversations are all around us, in supermarket aisles and on front porches across the country.  But they are not covered by the corporate press, and when they are, it is through a sort of fake woke angle that is, by design, intended to pit different racialized groups against each other.  (Even if many of the young reporters covering the news this way may be blissfully ignorant of the role they are playing.)

The effort on the part of the corporate (and "public") press and the other powers-that-be to cover the culture wars and not the class war doesn't just promote one and try to silence the other.  It has many, far more nefarious impacts.  

One is to turn what should be class resentments into other forms of resentment.  If you're a white working class renter whose rent has tripled over the past 15 years, and you hear story after story on NPR about hard-pressed BIPOC LGBTQI+ renters who need protection, you might draw the conclusion that you're privileged for being white, although your rent has tripled, and you have no right to complain.

Or this kind of incessant race-baiting might make you angry.  Maybe you turn off NPR and turn on Fox, and you start feeling like the root of your poverty and the reason your rent has tripled has something to do with those extra-marginalized BIPOC LGBTQI+ people who the "progressive" corporate news outlets love to give a huge platform to in recent years, and which the "conservative" news outlets like to cover in response, in both cases as a means of keeping the population confused and divided.  And then you start getting angry about racial justice campaigners and drag performers.  Maybe you find some people to shoot to death, like someone did the other day in Florida.

There is no way to overstate how well the culture war propaganda machine has worked, on behalf of the ruling class and both the Republican and Democratic party machines -- and to the detriment of the overwhelming majority of American society.

It's an extremely dangerous game they're playing that may lead to civil war or overt fascism.  When such eventualities come, there is no doubt that they will have been fomented just as much by NPR and MSNBC as by Fox, as much by the "antiracist, pro-choice" Democratic elements of the ruling class as by the "racist, pro-life" Republican elements of it.

The average Democratic Congressperson is slightly wealthier than the average Republican, but they won't emphasize this point on any of the media outlets, it's not in the interests of the ruling class to dwell on how rich most members of Congress in either party are, how much property they own, and especially not how much property their corporate donors own -- and rent out at rates that are consistently creating more and more billionaires, far more than ever before, while 1 in 4 people in the US is living in a form of poverty that is extreme, by the standards of most other wealthy nations, and even by the standards of many poor ones.

A future characterized by Civil War and/or fascism is one that seems so inevitable to so many today.  But there is an alternative future, and it could easily be the one outlined at the beginning of this missive.

The title of this piece comes from a song that everyone knows in Australia, which was written to remember the Gurindji strike in the 1960's and 70's, which ultimately resulted in a fairly massive victory, with the Gurindji people of Australia getting a whole lot of their stolen land back.  The strike involved two hundred workers.

With smaller numbers than that, in 2020 we stopped a family from being kicked out of their home in north Portland, Oregon.  With smaller numbers than that, the Poor People's Army in Philadelphia last week just stopped an eviction from happening.

It won't get media attention whether we win or lose.  Our existence won't be validated or celebrated by them.  Instead, we will be vilified in every way imaginable, and in many ways no one would even have imagined.

But the history of our world shows that the most impressive social movements did not require praise by the corporate media, or even promotion (or vilification) by the corporate media, in order to grow, in order for the movement to create its own media, or to develop a widespread culture of resistance and solidarity, or in order to win.

The biggest obstacle to such a movement forming is not necessarily the incessant divide-and-conquer propaganda.  The biggest obstacle to a movement like this growing and sustaining itself is not necessarily the police brutality, the provocateurs, the intelligence agencies' Cointelpro-style activities, or their disinformation campaigns -- although those are all major problems to contend with.

The biggest obstacle is the absence of hope.

This is why FDR said the biggest thing to fear is fear itself.  He understood the same thing -- the confidence of an army, or of a people, is at least as important as how well-trained or well-armed or well-supplied the troops are.  He knew this well, as do all competent leaders of any kind.

Confidence, and hope, is necessary in order to even begin to fight, unless you're busy trying to organize a successful retreat.  And confidence is born of optimism.  

Optimism in the possibility that by engaging in a certain tactic, you stand a good chance of winning.  This principle applies, whether you're sending hundreds of thousands of troops in to liberate France, or trying to organize a few dozen people to block the entrance to someone's Class C apartment in Portland, Oregon in order to prevent an eviction.

As with a war, once you win some battles, the next ones seem much more winnable.  That's why it's so important for any movement to be nipped in the bud, denounced, vilified, prevented from growing and flourishing in the first place.  Prevented from developing any sense of optimism, or even any sense of itself.

But as history shows, victory is indeed possible, and optimism is the first thing we need, and the first thing they'll try to make sure we never have.

The biggest problem for the powers-that-be is that we have every reason to be optimistic about the prospects for a working class movement calling for guaranteed housing for all and an end to destructive, soul-killing, violent events like evictions, to become popular.  Half of the country rents, and most renters, and so many homeowners, are struggling to keep themselves housed, having rented or "bought" a home that they couldn't really afford in the first place, but they needed housing.

Living in a society where there is such a radical and fast-growing disparity between the lives of the rich and everybody else, the only viable strategy for the ruling class is to keep the people in a state of confusion and polarization.  As soon as we wake up and see this increasingly feudal society for the society of haves and have-nots that it has increasingly become over the past fifty years or so, as soon as we collectively see how badly we've been played against each other on behalf of the rich men north of Richmond, then the ruling class is left with nothing to defend themselves with short of outright brutality.

At that point they will face the reality that most cops have close relatives who also can't afford housing.  Many cops have close relatives who are living on the streets, just like the rest of the working class does these days.  Recent events in Philadelphia, as well as Portland and elsewhere indicate that neither the cops nor the prosecutors are particularly interested in fighting with people who are trying to prevent an eviction.

One more indication of the desperation of the housing crisis these days are the rising number of cases across the country along the lines of what happened a few weeks ago in Tualatin, Oregon, when a young man shot at the police who were coming to evict him, and was then either killed by the police or killed himself, found dead in his bathtub.

Just looking at the long series of Class C apartments this young man had lived in over the course of his life, prior to his "last stand" at yet another such apartment complex in Tualatin, tells his story with bitter eloquence.  When he first moved out of his parents' place, he was paying a few hundred dollars a month.  By the time he got evicted for the last time, he was paying thousands, just to stay housed in the same sort of moldy shithole.

There is an alternative to suicide by cop, or living in a tent, but it requires collective action, the knowledge that collective action can indeed change everything, and the optimism that such collective action is indeed possible to organize.

If you're in the Portland area, you can be part of this effort by going to abolishevictions.org and joining the text mob you'll find on the bottom of the page.  If you're not in Portland, there may be a similar initiative already going on where you are, or you can get an affinity group together and start one yourself.

For those of you who got this far, and are interested in principle in this project, but are concerned about the security risk involved with joining the text mob and thus perhaps being identified as a radical and subjected to whatever consequences might follow:  please get over it.  Security culture of this kind has royally backfired, much worse than just not being helpful.  It has aided the provocateurs and infiltrators tremendously.  

Use your name.  Be real.  Don't hide.  They already know who you are.  The problem is, we don't know each other.  Introduce yourself.  Join the text mob, and let's make a movement.  Another world is not only possible, I have seen it regularly in my international travels.  This country is an outlier.  The world we seek, as far as guaranteed, affordable housing is concerned, already exists.  Just not here.  Let's change that, together.

We don't care about your identity -- skin color, gender, sexual orientation, immigration status, voting history, perspective on the origins of Covid, who carried out 9/11, whether you support NATO expansionism, or any of that.  If you're a human being (or potentially a member of any other species so inclined) and you think there is a way forward for society that does not involve evicting people who can't afford to house themselves, WE WANT YOU.



Thursday, August 24, 2023

Dreaming of Pete Seeger

The past 48 hours on anti-social media have been so eventful, I had to write an essay about it.

It was long before cell phones were commonplace, in the spring of 1995.  I don't know how he got my mother's phone number, but it was Pete Seeger on the line.  I happened to be visiting my mother at the time, across the New York state border, in Connecticut, maybe an hour's drive from Beacon, where Pete lived.

I had written a song that I hoped he might like.  I had his PO Box number in Beacon, it was easy to find, I think he included it in his columns in Sing Out! magazine.  I had met him before, briefly, at gatherings of the People's Music Network.  I didn't mention that when I sent him a page with a song lyric on it, and I didn't expect to hear back from him.

Over the years around that time, when Pete was still only in his seventies, he supported my career in lots of little ways.  We played on the same stages a few times, he wrote nice things about my music, sent an unexpected check in the mail one time, to order all of my CDs.  (I saved the check for a while, but saving anything isn't very practical when you're living in a pickup truck, so I deposited it eventually.)  That spring of 1995 it became pretty evident, over the course of that phone call, in any case, that he wasn't calling so much about the song I had sent him, as he was calling someone who was a potential recruit to the movement.

What movement is a matter of opinion, or definition, but it was the case for decades at least that there were a whole lot of people who commonly made reference to "the movement," which later people started calling "the movement of movements," to emphasize the point.  Pete had his fingers in all kinds of pots.  This recruitment call covered a bunch of them.  

He informed me about local festivals I should attend, he invited me to sing with him at one of them, he informed me about how often the Beacon Sloop Club met, and how I could get involved with the Clearwater Sloop action on the Hudson River, and he told me about the Bruderhof.  Pete called these folks living communally in various northeastern states "Christian communists."  

He warned me that they're very socially traditional, with women wearing different color dresses depending on their marital status and things like that, but that politically they were really radical, and they were big supporters and spiritual advisors of Mumia Abu-Jamal.  They were going through a period at the time of trying to be more open to elements of the outside world, and Pete was on a mission to acquaint them with interested folks from the outside world, and vice versa.

It was a valiant effort on Pete's part with regards to the Bruderhof.  What I witnessed over the course of the next few years was the Bruderhof's efforts at being part of a broader movement in support of Mumia Abu-Jamal being often met with derision and intolerance on the part of various of my leftwing colleagues from the outside world, who were appalled at the sexism and homophobia they saw in this community of German-speaking Christian communists.  By the turn of the century, the Bruderhof had understandably withdrawn again, shut down the wonderful magazine they were funding (called Blu), and largely returned to their communities.

This effort failed, but not because Pete and many others didn't try to make it work.  The notion that the participation of the Bruderhof in the solidarity movement for political prisoners should be welcomed with open arms would seem to be a no-brainer, and certainly was for many.  But not among others, and it seems to me, looking back, it was the toxicity of the intolerant leftists, of which I was one, that made this alliance, and to a large extent the movement for political prisoners with it, collapse.

Pete's orientation, and that of so many movement-builders of what I used to refer to as the 1930's generation, was the right one, the kind that has a serious track record of success wherever applied on a large scale, the one involving solidarity, and finding common ground, in the massive and obviously necessary effort to radically transform our unsustainable, capitalist, largely impoverished society into something we can all prosper in.

Pete's orientation to meeting new people was to recruit them into the movement.  He was not alone in this, and in fact he was following in a tradition that was well-established before he was born, with social movements like the Industrial Workers of the World.

Pete's orientation to meeting new musicians was the same.  Which is why he was one of the folks who started the People's Music Network, and helped keep it going, while he lived.  He was part of a long left tradition of running summer camps and holding conferences and festivals to do popular education and foster movement-building, community, culture, and optimism.

Pete's basis for making his movement-recruiting phone call that day was that I had sent him a single song lyric.  He probably knew nothing else about me, but that itself was enough.  Come join us, we're doing all kinds of things, you come be a part of it.  Unspoken but understood is that along the way you'll also learn a few things, in the course of being part of this movement, and that's how we help build the movement for the next generation.  There was no vetting involved, no background check.

As hopefully is clear from my mention of the Bruderhof, the nineties were not a golden age for solidarity and movement-building, by any means.  There were all kinds of elements within what we might call the left that were more interested in the moral perfection of their particular silos than any notion of a broader movement or a movement of movements.  But at least at various times in the past, this element wasn't always dominant.

As a movement musician, I'd do tours around the US, from the 1990's through around 2013, usually organizing tours to build for a big protest somewhere, to recruit people to go to the protest, and to do popular education through music about the issues at stake.  As with the other musicians doing similar work at the time, no one appointed us to these roles, it was just an obvious thing to do, following a tradition established long ago.

As a movement musician constantly touring around this country for many years, it was a wonderful way to be a part of so many different efforts and struggles in different parts of the country, and to have a pretty good idea about what sorts of things were going on in different places.  Since 2013 or so, when for various reasons it was no longer financially viable to tour the US the way I had long been doing, it's much harder to be really familiar with what's going on everywhere, and impossible to play the role of movement-builder and popular educator the way I used to do it.

I can't imagine that the landscape of the left-leaning parts of society is nearly as bleak as it appears on anti-social media, but without the ability to see in the real world what's happening everywhere, it's hard not to be influenced by it.  And then realizing that most people were never in a position to be traveling around the country all the time in the first place, I can only try to imagine what kind of picture most people must have of other parts of the society they live in, when most of it is being seen through the terribly distorted lens of anti-social media algorithms.

The past 48 hours or so, taken as an illustration of where our communications are at, and to some extent where the US left is at, seems typical.

Two mornings ago I posted on my usual variety of anti-social media platforms that I had just heard Oliver Anthony's song, "Rich Men North of Richmond," and I thought it was great.  

People then began to mention a couple of the problematic lines in the song I hadn't noticed on my one listen, and I agreed with those commenting that those lines needed to be improved.

I revised those bits of the song, recorded myself singing the revised version, and posted it on the same social media platforms.  Later I posted an essay and podcast on my largely sympathetic analysis of every line of the song.

In the course of the day I also shared another song of Oliver Anthony's (his latest, "I Wanna Go Home") on the same platforms, as well as a song of my own about this date in history, when the White House was torched, on August 24th, 1814.

The post that got the least attention, the fewest views, the least engagement, was the one about this date in history.  These posts rarely get much attention, they're rarely seen, since they don't tend to generate controversy.

The post about Anthony's latest song has barely been noticed, since the comparatively few people who have heard it have loved it, and have found nothing to complain about in it.

The posts of or about "Rich Men North of Richmond" got engagement, however.  The one that got seen and responded to the most was the one where I shared Anthony's video of the song.  Because the post was generating so much controversy and therefore attention, most of the people commenting were not people who had been looking at other comments to see what the conversation around the post might be about.  They were just throwing in their thoughts, which were a mix of positive and negative, and then lots of arguing between those posting with different viewpoints.

My revision of the song, and my essay on it, both generated controversy, and therefore attention, but less than the post where I shared the original song.  Of the hundreds of people who commented on multiple platforms, many liked my version of the song, and my essay about it, and many others expressed horror at my profound ignorance, and inability to recognize a fascist when I see one.  Others expressed horror that I could possibly post a link to a song that I only heard once, and hadn't carefully read all the lyrics first.

My interpretation of the song was roundly rejected by this crowd, who are all convinced that the songwriter couldn't possibly just mean what he says, but every line must be some kind of code for a longing for the good old days of the Antebellum South.  In order to buttress their arguments, some of these folks looked through Anthony's prior activity on YouTube, and discovered documentaries he had saved on a playlist that he shouldn't have.  A random guy in Virginia creating a playlist on his YouTube account, we are to believe, must mean he is promoting all the content on any of the documentaries he's got in there.

He is a "grown man," one commenter informed me, who knows what he's doing, and is aware of every alleged racist dogwhistle contained in his poetry.  He is, I was informed, a tool of the right.  Had I not read what other leftists had written about him and his song, before I dared to share my own opinion of it?  Had I not consulted the gatekeepers of history to analyze his lyrics from the right vantage point of settler-colonialism, approved by PBS and IGD?

He is a tool of the right, many agreed.  We should just let them have him, then, and condemn him as a racist who also hates people on welfare and dreams of a return of the Confederacy.  His other songs and his life experiences are irrelevant, but his viewing history on YouTube matters, and defines his politics, along with the bleakest possible interpretation of any line of this song.

Not to overstate the negative reactions -- once again, a large number of reactions and comments, and certainly the most eloquent ones, were very supportive.  Many had a favorable impression of Anthony, though they shared my feelings about those lines I updated.  Many also thought the basic orientation of embracing this brilliant new discovery, and emphasizing the overwhelming positives involved, made lots of sense.

The numbers of people expressing very different views from those, however, were significant, across the platforms.  What I find among this broad element of the social media universe that is most disturbing is the readiness so many people have to seek flaws and then reject people completely based on one of them.  The tendency towards exclusion, towards blocking, towards purging, is overwhelming, while those calling for solidarity and finding common ground are literally reviled as fascists, or at best, unwitting tools of fascists.

If only the time and place were not the one it is.  If only I could wake up and it not be true.  But it is.  I can't provide an example of what a movement musician does, because I can't afford to tour in this country anymore.  Pete Seeger died a long time ago, and no one today has the pleasure of getting a movement-recruiting phone call from him.  Instead, we can all just shout past each other on Facebook and Reddit.  It's a damn shame what the world's gotten to.

Wednesday, August 23, 2023

Why I Love the Song, "Rich Men North of Richmond" (After Slightly Revising the Lyrics)

I've heard from so many people asking for my response to this song that I had to listen to it, learn it, make a couple minor edits to it, cover it, and write an essay about it.

This song by a young man going by the stage name Oliver Anthony has taken the world by storm over the past couple weeks, within country music circles, but also much more broadly than that, with tens of millions of views in a matter of days.  I assume it was helped along with the view count by some prominent people with huge followings, as these things usually work when something goes viral, but there's no question that this song has gone viral, either way.

I finally got around to listening to it in full this morning, and was immediately blown away with the simplicity and power of the song.  In my first listen, I didn't hear anything I didn't like, but there were a couple lines I didn't really get the first time.  After some folks pointed out certain lines in the song they found troubling, I thought, yes, but overall the song is so good.  What would it take to improve those couple of lines -- the ones that punch down -- so they punch up instead?  

It didn't take much.  I changed one word in one line, one word in another line, and reworked one line more fully.  That was it.

So many people have been writing me for the past week or so and asking me what I think of the song, I'm embarrassed it took me this long to listen to it (I've had other things on my mind, like being shadowbanned by Bandcamp).  Mainly what people have been doing, rather than writing me, is tagging me when they respond to something related to this song, so they can share with other folks the names of leftwing songwriters who write similar types of songs, but from a left perspective.

The song has been embraced by various pundits and politicians of the right.  Which should amuse everyone to no end, to think that the billionaires and corporate grifters that lead the Republican Party actually give a shit about working class people from Appalachia like this songwriter, or the people he's singing about.

It has also been largely condemned by various elements of the left and especially by liberals, for committing every offense it's possible for a song to commit.  Others on the left are more sympathetic with where the song is coming from, but largely critical.  I'm not sure how many other left-identified people there are out there like me, who think the song is brilliant, aside from a couple of lines that are easily improved upon.

Before I go further, in case you haven't heard it, here's my slightly revised version of the song.


I can't imagine what it must be like to be Oliver Anthony right now, living a humble life in small-town Virginia and suddenly having the biggest country hit on the charts.  According to what he's written since the song blew up, he's gotten 50,000 emails.  I don't know if that's an exaggeration or not, but either way, he's inundated, mostly with stories from people who identify with the suffering of the working class that his song captures so powerfully.

When Bob Dylan became a global superstar at the age of 18 I'm sure it was at least as challenging.  And then to have intellectuals three times his age writing books analyzing every word of every one of his songs, mining them all for prophetic content, it's hard to imagine what that must have been like for the kid.

I'm not Oliver Anthony, but I can't even stomach reading any more of the stuff that self-proclaimed leftists and liberals are writing about him and this song.  I do want to share my analysis of the song, though, specifically because everyone else is so thoroughly picking it apart in ways that are driving me nuts.

But before I do that, having heard nothing from this guy but this song and the few paragraphs he wrote about why he wrote it, I find myself overwhelmed with a desire to drop by this guy's place and shoot the shit with him, play some music together.  I'm also overwhelmed with the desire to protect this young man who is being inundated with so much shit right now.  

He's a high school dropout with a history of addiction and mental health issues, by his own self-description.  He has probably never read Marx or Kropotkin, I'm guessing, but he probably has watched Fox News on at least a few hundred occasions.  (It's impossible not to, especially doing certain jobs and living in certain parts of the country, I can tell you that.)

I may be wrong, but my guess is if I had a few days to talk with Oliver, he'd like my version of his lyrics better than his own.  I'll bet those few punching-down lyrics in the song were more or less throwaways, that weren't getting to what he really wanted to address, which is the massively unjust reality of this country, which is plutocracy -- rule of the rich, by the rich, for the rich.

I'll get into that theme a little more within the meat of the song.  I'm going to go bit by bit, starting with the title.

The title (and chorus) has raised ire in some left/liberal circles for being a term -- "north of Richmond" -- that is somehow alluding to the Confederacy.  This is ridiculous.  As one who has traveled extensively throughout every one of the fifty states of this country, very much including every region of the state of Virginia, everyone in the region is aware of the extent of the DC suburbs, how far they go into northern Virginia, how gentrified and expensive they're becoming, how much they're changing in so many ways, including many very negative ways.  "North of Richmond" is a geographical and political description for what is often called "inside the Beltway," and reading more into it than that is just nit-picking pseudo-intellectual idiocy.  It's the kind of thinking I'd expect from some post-modernist PhD student from Eugene, and it's bullshit, as far as the real world goes.

Like any great songwriter, in one short, introductory verse, Oliver Anthony absolutely nails reality for so many people in the United States today, in four short lines:

I've been sellin' my soul, workin' all day
Overtime hours for bullshit pay
So I can sit out here and waste my life away
Drag back home and drown my troubles away

Low pay, long hours, self-medication with alcohol, and perhaps even something of a reference to how spread-out and isolated we've all become, with property prices so high that the only place left to go that's remotely affordable is far away from everybody else, if I read into the third line possibly more than I should.

We then have Anthony's long, soaring chorus.  Here's the first two lines:

It's a damn shame what the world's gotten to
For people like me and people like you

Given that the theme of the song (indicated by the title) is rule by the rich, it's pretty obvious here that what Anthony is probably referring to with the first line there is the increasing division between the rich and the poor.  The second line is referring to the working class majority of this country.

It's easy to see how rightwing politicians could interpret these lines to suit their political purposes.  What's been so discouraging for me is to see the numbers of people who identify as coming from the left who are taking liberties with interpreting these lines to somehow be complaining about people of color and women having more agency these days, and "people like me and people like you" somehow referencing white people, rather than the working class.

The chorus continues:

Wish I could just wake up and it not be true
But it is, oh, it is
Livin' in the new world
With an old soul

Here we can be sure there are leftists interpreting these beautiful, simple lines to be a reference to the Civil War.

Let me just stop there for a moment.  When you read these lines, did they make you think about the Civil War?  No?  Me, neither.  But then you and I must not be puritanically leftwing enough, or we'd see this for the Civil War reference that it is.  Or not.

Here's my crack at those lines:  we're living in a nightmare where basic necessities of life are unaffordable while rich people keep getting richer, and this really sucks.  We harken back to days not of enslaving other people, which never benefitted the average person of any color back when the US was a a largely slavery-based economy, but to the days when we had community and could afford to live somewhere.

The next few lines of the chorus:

These rich men north of Richmond
Lord knows they all just wanna have total control
Wanna know what you think, wanna know what you do
And they don't think you know, but I know that you do

There are those on the left-liberal spectrum who will read these lines as some presumed Trump fan condemning the Biden administration and the liberal elite.  This presumption is itself a bigoted one, based on the notion that this guy who lives in the countryside in Virginia, is white, and has a big beard must be a Trump supporter attacking the liberal elite.  Many liberals like to deny the very existence of a liberal elite, while at the same time assuming that that's what people like this guy must be referring to, if there's any possibility of interpreting their words that way.

I think it's obvious what he's saying here, and the words speak for themselves.  This is a plutocracy, the plutocrats want to keep the people controlled, divided, and conquered, and they maintain control through extensive surveillance, infiltration, and various other means.

The last lines of the chorus:

'Cause your dollar ain't shit and it's taxed to no end
Cause of rich men north of Richmond

Some left-liberal types will say that these are lines reflecting the privilege of the author, who doesn't want to pay his fair share of taxes to support the less privileged.  And once again, that is an outrageous understanding of these lines, that probably more accurately reflects the privilege of the people interpreting them this way than the person who wrote them, or most of those who appreciate the song.

The working class does indeed pay the lion's share of the taxes in this country, far more than we should.  The tax rate in Japan is lower than it is here, and they get the world's best mass transit, universal health care, excellent schools for everyone, and so much more.  What do we get?  None of that, to be sure.

Next comes the second verse, or maybe it's the second verse and the bridge, but it's next, anyway.  Here's the first two lines:

I wish politicians would look out for miners
And not just minors on an island somewhere

I have seen this verse interpreted as a nod to Pizzagate, that the songwriter is saying he believes Hillary Clinton runs a pedophilia ring, or something like that.  While we can be sure that Oliver Anthony, like most of us, has watched his share of Fox and has heard of Pizzagate, there is a far more charitable interpretation of these lines, which is the more obvious one.

That is, the politicians don't seem to give a shit about the working class (miners or any other profession), and rarely refer to us unless it's a story about fentanyl.  How many miners have died of preventable diseases and injuries over the past year?  Who knows.  But when it comes to a relative handful of teenage girls exploited by Jeffrey Epstein on his private island, there is an endless amount of the media's attention to be found for this subject.

At this point we get to the verse I edited.  I'll share Oliver Anthony's original version first.  The first two lines:

Lord, we got folks in the street, ain't got nothin' to eat
And the obese milkin' welfare

This is the first place in the song where the author punches down.  It's obvious from looking at the guy that he, like me and a massive number of other Americans, have struggled with our weight.  I've noticed it's very common for people who themselves struggle with their weight to make insulting references to people who are heavier than they are.  It's a sad thing to do.  I'm guessing he hasn't really given this much thought.  But this is how I adjusted those lines, by changing one word:

Lord, we got folks in the street, ain't got nothin' to eat
And the corporations milkin' welfare

I'd say that's much more accurate.  The idea of people on welfare having anything to do with the plutocratic dystopia we find ourselves living in today is silly, and Fox-induced, generally.  But the fact that those on welfare are being supported by taxes largely paid by working class people like Anthony is just a fact -- it's how our unjust system of taxation is designed to work, so that the rich don't have to pay, and so that the working class can be taught to resent those on welfare.  But in reality, the corporations are the welfare scammers, far more than any unemployed people, be they obese or not.

Anthony's verse continues:

Well, God, if you're 5-foot-3 and you're 300 pounds
Taxes ought not to pay for your bags of fudge rounds

This is the only section of a verse that I completely rewrote.  Obviously, Anthony is continuing with the obesity theme he established in the last line.  Here it's pretty clear he is blaming fat people for being fat.  Or, to interpret the lines more charitably, he's saying that if someone is going to be fat, they shouldn't have their grocery bills subsidized by our hard-earned taxes.

Rather than attacking Anthony for being prejudiced against fat people or welfare recipients (or fat welfare recipients) -- a prejudice indeed exhibited in these lines pretty evidently -- it seems to me it's important to understand a few things here.

First of all, it's just a song written by a guy in Virginia.  If there are lines that need improving, we can improve them, we don't need to trash the whole song because he gets some things wrong from the standpoint of working class solidarity or prejudice against fat people on some form of government assistance.  We can also understand what should be obvious to any American, that anyone who is critical of fat people is talking about their own families, and likely themselves and many of their friends.

It may be sad, but it's undoubtedly true, that among those tens of millions of people who have become enthusiastic fans of Oliver Anthony and this song, millions of them are both fat and poor, and they still like the song.  This may speak in part to our tendency to revile ourselves, among the working class generally.  We are not reflected in Hollywood.  We tend to look down upon ourselves, and our neighbors.  We tend to aspire to be different -- richer, thinner.

In any case, here's how I re-invented those two lines, in a way that I'll bet Anthony and most of his fans would be fine with:

If you got a silver spoon in your mouth and a private jet
Taxes ought not to pay for all the money you get

I only changed the lines so we're punching up, like he's doing for most of the rest of the song.

Here are the last lines of the song before the chorus repeats:

Young men are puttin' themselves six feet in the ground
'Cause all this damn country does is keep on kickin' them down

I'm sure these lines will be interpreted by some inclined towards being polarized as a reference to white people being kicked down.  There is no real reason anyone should interpret the lines that way, but for those who have already decided the song is some kind of wistful ode to the Confederacy, they can interpret anything in any way they want to.  But the more obvious and probable interpretation of these lines is he's talking about his family, friends, and neighbors who work in mines and paper mills and often die young, violent deaths either on or off the job, for reasons related to hard work and poverty.

I'll just add as a final observation unrelated to the song in particular, but to my experience of learning it, that when I was figuring it out, I did it in the same key as Anthony, singing the same notes he's singing.  I mention this because usually if I'm learning a song someone else wrote, I end up doing it in a different key, to suit my vocal range.  But I often start out doing it in the key they recorded it in.  In this case, I never changed the key, because I discovered that the break in my voice is exactly in the same place as the break in his voice.  (If you're a singer, you know what I'm talking about.  If you're not, it's not important.)  Also when I was young, my beard was the same shade of orange as his.

I'm personally looking forward to hearing more songs from Oliver Anthony, and also seeing if his beard gets any longer down the road.  And here's to hoping that all the leftists attacking him on anti-social media don't succeed in turning him into an actual rightwinger.

Monday, August 21, 2023

Getting On Lists and Having Weird Coincidences

What makes me jump to the most paranoid-seeming possible conclusion about why I am shadowbanned on Bandcamp with no explanation?

I've been in conversation with a lot of people in the past few days, exploring the nature of Bandcamp's shady shadowban on me and my music that has recently been brought to my attention.  And while on that subject, I rearranged the missive I sent out recently about that, and added a bunch more information, which can all be found now at davidrovics.com/bandcamp.  If anyone ever hears from Bandcamp or their shadowban is lifted, with or without explanation, I'll keep the site updated.

In the course of these discussions there have been a lot of people wondering whether there's just some kind of random glitch in Bandcamp's system that keeps anything from my catalog from appearing in a search on their platform.  Many others have wondered if this is intentional on Bandcamp's part, and if they are imposing this restriction on my account at the direction of a government agency, or because of some kind of internal policy.

Both the random glitch or the intentional shadowban are entirely plausible hypotheses, seems to me.  Anyone familiar with problematic technology can understand the glitch possibility, and anyone familiar with Cointelpro can accept the possibility of the intentional shadowban.

Without rejecting the glitch possibility outright, I thought I'd share a few anecdotes from my life that tend to make me suspect nefarious activity is the more likely explanation.

The first time I knew with 100% certainty that I was on a government watch list was in 2002.  

As a young person I had known others who had been on lists.  Musician and organizer, Pete Seeger, famously was questioned by McCarthy's Congressional commission and blacklisted.  Bob Steck was blacklisted after returning from the Spanish Civil War and was barred from getting military security clearance afterwards, during the Second World War, along with all the other returning veterans of Spain.

More recently, you can now read from publicly-released files about the FBI's campaign against musicians like Buffy Sainte-Marie and Phil Ochs, designed to prevent them from becoming too successful, while not killing them or banning them outright, like would be more typical in many US client states. 

The only thing that's shocking about it happening to you -- and I've found this reaction to be universal among all the other folks I know who have been selected for such lists -- is most people don't think they're important enough that the secret police would want to bother with us.  The fact is, though, that there are millions of people working for the security state in this country, so of course you're important enough to be monitored by them and whatever else, if you've been to a few protests or done pretty much anything else to attract attention to yourself.

In the summer of 2002 I was supposed to be crossing the border into Alberta for the first time, to perform at events related to the protests against the G8 meetings there then.  This would be the first of several occasions when I was prevented from entering Canada, this time for reasons having nothing even remotely to do with not having a work visa, or not having applied for the work visa correctly.

I had hit it off with the customs and immigration guy, who was, like me at the time, a man in his thirties who played the acoustic guitar and was a fan of some of the same artists I knew from the Boston area, where I had lived for many years.  He was going to let me into the country after we talked, mostly about music, for fifteen minutes or so.  It wasn't a busy border crossing, there in the middle of the Blackfoot Reservation, but everyone was being searched that week because of the G8 meetings, including elderly couples traveling in RV's.

It didn't seem to be the search of my pickup truck that alarmed the guy, though finding a piece of paper from an anarchist group in Wisconsin that advocated "direct action" was the ostensible reason for me being turned away.  (I had tried to clean the pickup of all such offensive literature before crossing the border, but evidently did not succeed.)

The young man was visibly distressed, and physically shaking, when he asked me to come back up to his counter.  He explained to me that he really wanted to let me into the country but that he was worried he'd lose his job if he did so.  He then showed me the screen of his computer, which was a directive for anyone at the border encountering David Rovics to find a reason to turn him away, but not to tell him that the real reason he's being turned away is because he's on this list of undesirables.

I believe it was not the fact that he was being told to turn me away from the border, but the fact that he was being told to lie about the reasons why I was being turned away, that really disturbed this guy.  They are real people who work for government agencies like this one.  He did what he felt he needed to do that day, and he showed me that I was on a list.  He was supposed to turn me away without showing me that, of course.

I'm not the only person who found out they were on a watch list exactly this way.  But if you don't find out in some similar way that you're on a list, you'll likely never know for sure.  You may spend your entire life wondering, feeling paranoid, feeling like something's going on that's not the coincidence it seems to be, and never knowing for sure.  I'm lucky to be one of the ones who got to find out, pretty early on.

The experience at the border seemed like it maybe helped explain the weird coincidences that were repeatedly happening with me on domestic flights in the US around that time. 

I was very busy performing for the global justice and environmental movements prior to 9/11.  But after 9/11 I got much busier, with the global antiwar movement suddenly coming into existence in a big way, which lasted for a solid four years.  It was during these four years just after 9/11 that the weird coincidences began to happen, consistently.

I was doing a lot of gigs, which involved both a lot of driving and a lot of flying.  Not a lot of flying by business traveler standards, to be clear, but a lot more flying than most people do for fun.  Only for one of those years did I actually fly enough for United Airlines to put me on the priority boarding list and give me free entry into their swanky lounges.  But for four years straight, on every domestic flight I ever took, although the planes were usually completely full, I always had an empty seat next to me.

When this first started happening I attributed it to my luck at choosing aisle seats, or perhaps that I had racked up so many frequent flier miles that this gave me some kind of special privilege, even in Economy.  Slowly I began to realize that these theories did not make sense, and that something else must be going on here.  The possibility that it was just a repeating series of freak coincidences also started to lose its sway.

Obviously, when you do the math, the chances that the only empty seat on a flight is going to be next to you every time, every few weeks, for four years uninterrupted, are very slim indeed.  

I was on a list.  But not one that anyone had ever heard of.  We all knew of the post-9/11 "no-fly" list, which reportedly contained the names of over a hundred thousand people on it, who generally found out they were on this list when they showed up at an airport and were not allowed to board a flight.  I was clearly not on that list.  The list I was on was the one where you get a free seat next to you on every domestic flight.

My best guess at an explanation for what was happening to me was that it was related to the armed officers post-9/11 that were supposed to have a seat on every flight, in case they want to be on that one.  I'm guessing I was on a list for people who are allowed to fly, but who should get extra scrutiny, and should be sitting next to one of those officers, if such an officer was going to be on board.

When I do the math, this theory at least makes some potential sense.  If around 17,000 flights take off every day in the US and the federal government only deployed a hundred cops to do this work, which is the number I've heard for how many cops ended up doing this job, it's entirely plausible that I went for four years without ever being on a flight that had one of them on board.  But all I know for sure is I had those free seats next to me all the time to an implausible degree if this is going to be passed off as coincidence, and I never paid for all that legroom.

Major media has generally avoided me throughout my career, aside from the occasional interview on Al-Jazeera, Al-Mayadeen, or RT.  An exception to this rule existed for a few years, beginning in 2002, when Andy Kershaw began to play my music regularly on his very popular weekly World Music program on BBC Radio 3.  Andy had me as a live guest at least twice as well.

This upset certain people so much that for the first time in three decades of working for the BBC and being probably their most popular music show host after John Peel, Andy was called to an interview with the BBC Board of Governors, and questioned about his journalistic neutrality for playing my music.  He continued to play my music, and then he lost his job at the BBC.  Allegedly these things are not related.

Years later at a small festival I was playing at, the MC turned out to be a former producer for Andy Kershaw at BBC.  She explained to me in no uncertain terms that Andy was the only one who could take that kind of heat, and no one else dared to play my music, among anyone formerly associated with Andy's show, anywhere on BBC, after Andy was fired, and I can vouch for that fact as well.  When Andy lost his job, my royalty checks for radio play went back down to the double digits.

There were various occasions, particularly memorably during the G20 protests in Pittsburgh in 2009, where methodically, anyone who talked to me on the phone started then having all kinds of troubles with their phones, hearing echoes and clicks and being unable to make calls, or unable to receive calls, etc.  This sort of thing had happened before, and during this period of time was happening too often to be easily chalked up to coincidence.

In 2013, as I was in the airport waiting to board a flight to Auckland, New Zealand, I received a call on an airline worker's cell phone from Immigration in New Zealand that I was not welcome to enter their country.  As in 2002 when I was turned away from Canada, there was no mention of music or work visas not having been done properly.

The immigration officer quoted from my blog, which had made reference at some point to my appreciation for cannabis, which was cited by the officer, for whatever reason, presumably to imply that cannabis aficionados are not welcome in New Zealand.  (Cannabis was still illegal in both the US and New Zealand at the time.)

The very experienced immigration lawyer I was working with after that had never seen anything like this episode.  He ultimately had a conversation with a high-ranking official from the immigration department, who told him in no uncertain terms that there would be no change in decision on this.  I haven't tried to go to New Zealand since then, and I don't know what would happen if I did.  (I intend to find out eventually.)

Just to point out what will be obvious already to many, immigration officers from New Zealand do not generally read the blogs of people traveling to their country on a flight from the United States or Japan (I was at Narita Airport when I got the call), nor do they generally prevent them from entering their country because of something they wrote.  I actually have no criminal record, and there's no reason any immigration agent would have to be concerned about my behavior in their country.  The worst crimes for which I have ever had the charges dropped had occurred two decades earlier, and involved possession of small amounts of cannabis, and driving a car with a suspended license (which had been suspended at the time due to unpaid tickets, not because of drunk driving or anything dangerous).

After being turned away from entering New Zealand, my next stop back then in 2013 was Australia.  In Perth, where I entered Australia that time, the immigration officers were very interested in my case.  They spent a lot of time looking at the screen and talking about me, mostly too quietly for me to hear from where they had instructed me to sit.  

At one point one of them audibly mentioned how I had just been turned away from entering New Zealand.  What I observed there in Perth was something I have witnessed on a number of occasions at other borders: the older, more experienced agent was the one who was ready to ignore the long list of offenses they were looking at related to me.  The younger, less experienced agent seemed more inclined to ban me from the country, but the older one won the argument and they let me in.

A week or so after entering Australia, one of my gigs was being organized by a person who worked for the federal government in Canberra.  Almost incredibly, one of her colleagues in her department happened to be walking down the hall past the War Crimes department (which apparently exists).  Their door was open, and as he passed by he overheard two people in there talking about me.  He didn't linger to find out why they were talking about me, but he clearly heard my name being mentioned.

I can speculate about why I have had so many challenges with certain borders and no problems with others.  There are a lot of possible reasons why I might have gotten on the radar in one country or another.  A few months before being turned away at the border with Alberta, I was performing and protesting at the FTAA meetings in Quebec City.  Had the Canadian authorities taken note of that and disapproved?  A year or so before being turned away from entering New Zealand in 2013, I had played in a benefit concert to raise money for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine to buy a new printing press.  Had the new, conservative government in power there at the time taken note of this with disapproval, and put me on a list?

Or was the consistent factor here that all the countries I was having problems with were part of the 1948 Five Eyes treaty, in which the US, Canada, the UK, Australia and New Zealand all agreed to share all their intelligence about most everything with each other, including of course anyone on watch lists in any of their countries.  Did I start out on a list in the US, who then shared that with the other four countries?  Did they share this info with the Germans and the Scandinavians, etc., and I just never have problems crossing those borders because their governments have different immigration policies?  Or have I just never gotten on a watch list in Germany or Scandinavia because they're not part of the Five Eyes treaty?  Who knows.  It's not like anyone's telling me what's going on, so I'm just left guessing, like most everyone else on such lists.

Jumping to the present, when I discover I'm being shadowbanned on Bandcamp, the first thing that comes to my mind is not that this is likely a technical error affecting me and no other artists that I can find on the platform.  

My suspicions are not just based on my history with being on lists or experiencing weird coincidences, however.  My suspicions are also rooted in what we know of the modus operandi of "the intelligence community" in the western world generally in modern times.  

Going back to things we know about for sure, because of public records and all that, when the FBI was actively working to destroy the careers of artists like Pete Seeger or Buffy Sainte-Marie, unlike with Paul Robeson, they did not take away their passports or prevent them from performing.  But they did their best to create clouds of suspicion, and they did things like calling programmers at popular radio stations to make sure that undesirable artists like Buffy Sainte-Marie were not given airplay.  That is, they worked hard to minimize the impact of such artists, rather than to ban them outright.

Bandcamp's shadowban is, in a cold digital form presumably involving very little effort on the part of the censors, exactly the modern equivalent of calling those radio stations back in the Sixties and Seventies.

Maybe the shadowban will end as quietly as it began, or maybe it will continue.  Maybe I or one of the other people who have written Bandcamp to inquire about it will get a reply.  Maybe Bandcamp will say it was a technical error and they'll fix it, or maybe they won't.  Either way and until I have concrete proof to the contrary, it seems to me the most sensible assumption here is that it's intentional.

Friday, August 18, 2023

Bandcamp or Bannedcamp?

Why am I shadowbanned on Bandcamp, and why does this matter?

I woke up early yesterday morning as usual, and found a message from my friend and web designer alerting me to the possibility that Bandcamp had disabled my account in some significant way, which I'm calling a shadowban, because I believe this is the most accurate modern term to describe what they're doing to me.

To explain what's happening in a simple screen shot, this is what happens today, and for at least the past week or so, when you search for my name on Bandcamp:

As you can see, neither of these artists is named David Rovics.  These are apparently the closest names Bandcamp can find to the one I'm looking for, which is an artist (me) who has dozens of albums up on the platform, some of which have been there for a decade or so.

If you search on Google for my name and the name of one of my albums or songs along with the term Bandcamp, whatever you're looking for will come up.  But if you search on the platform -- that is, using the search window on Bandcamp itself -- any query involving the title of any of my songs or albums will result in some other artist's song or album of the same name, or some other artist's song or album that has a similar name, or nothing.  I won't be anywhere, unless it's someone who covered one of my songs.

Bandcamp's Help section tells us if an artist can't find their music on the platform, the only explanation is it takes 24 hours before it will generally appear using Bandcamp's search engine, after you post a new album.  Given some of these albums have been up for over a decade, that's probably not what's going on here.

Dozens of people around the world have verified for the past 24 hours that they have the same experience when searching for my name, albums, or songs on the platform lately.  I contacted Bandcamp customer service early yesterday morning, and after 24 hours or so there's been no response so far.

At this point, in the hopes of making sense to all potential readers, it seems like a good idea to define terms here.  I'll do it in Q&A format, so if I'm explaining something that you already know all about, you can skip that part.

What exactly do you mean by the difference between "ban" and "shadowban"?

This is somewhat confusing, because there are a lot of different artists and journalists and others out there who complain about being shadowbanned on various platforms, and they mean different things, any of which may be a form of shadowbanning, depending on how the term is defined.

What many people are talking about when they refer to a shadowban has to do with changing algorithms.  For example, a lot of independent press outlets that carefully measure these things will tell you that from one day to the next they lost half of their viewers who got to their content from somewhere on Facebook, when Facebook changed the algorithm that determines what comes up in your news feed to de-emphasize hard news and politics, in favor of other things.  Whether you happen to support the change in the algorithm -- or the notion of an algorithm-controlled news feed in the first place -- the experience for independent media when this algorithm changed can and has been described as a form of shadowban.

That's not the kind of shadowban I'm talking about here, though.  What's happening with me is much more direct.  It's as if I had changed the settings so that all of my content on Bandcamp was set to Private or Subscriber-Only, but all of my albums have always been set to Public, and that's never changed (they're still all set to Public when I look now).  You'll still readily come up with any of my Bandcamp material using a search engine like Google, but nothing comes up directly on Bandcamp's search function.  

To emphasize the point, for anyone going to Bandcamp and looking me up who doesn't already have albums of mine in their collection, who is just looking for things using the search function, t's just like looking at Spotify after Neil Young had his material removed from the platform.  Just like on Spotify now if you look for Neil, you'll find some collaborative albums one of his songs appears on and other artists who have recorded Neil Young songs, but you'll come up with nothing from his own catalog of albums, they're not there.  It's the same for people going to Bandcamp and looking for me today.

What is Bandcamp?

For me and presumably for most other independent musicians, it's less of a big deal since the rise of music streaming platforms like Spotify.  But despite this, and despite the fact that you've likely never heard of the platform, it's a very significant one in the lives of independent musicians around the world.  

Bandcamp has millions of regular users and hundreds of millions of dollars are involved annually in distributing earnings from digital album sales to artists.  In recent years it has also become another of the platforms through which patrons of the arts can support artists on an ongoing basis, as with Patreon or Substack.  As a platform for crowdsourced artist support, Bandcamp represents a little less than 10% of my monthly earnings as an artist.  (Which, in case it must be said, is a very significant 10% for me and my family.)

Why were you shadowbanned by Bandcamp?

It's in their terms and conditions that they can ban artists as they wish, with no explanation.  Whether this should be the way it is is another matter, and I can't speak to the legality involved because I'm definitely not a legal expert.  But this is apparently what we're all signing up for.  However, there's nothing about shadowbanning, about the existence of the phenomenon, or about doing it to anyone, or how to remove a shadowban.

If you come up on Google, why does it matter if you don't come up on Bandcamp's search engine?

I'm sure I'm not alone in having noticed a long time ago that using the search functions directly on platforms like Bandcamp or Soundcloud doesn't tend to get the results we're looking for as readily as if we just search on Google for whatever we're looking for, adding the search term "Bandcamp" to the query if we're looking for something that we know to be on Bandcamp.

However, as I have learned from many of my fans responding to my posts about what's happening here, and as is pretty obvious if you think about it for a second, people do use the search window directly on Bandcamp when they want to find something on Bandcamp.  Whether it's disabled or not matters for the people searching, and for the artists they're not going to find.  

When people don't find an artist on Bandcamp, they will tend to assume the artist doesn't have their music up for sale on the platform, and they'll look elsewhere for it.  And if they've never heard of an artist, they're certainly not going to find one that doesn't come up in a search query, if they're searching for songs on certain topics or that contain certain keywords.  (Bandcamp makes it very clear when you're uploading an album that you should include lyrics for all your songs in the section they provide for them, because it will help with search queries!  But not in my case.)

Why do you think this is happening to you?  And why now?

Call me paranoid, but it doesn't seem coincidental.  On August 3rd I put up a new album, a live album with an anti-war emphasis, from a concert in 2003, when we were all protesting the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan.  The shadowban seems to have gone into effect a week after the album was published.  Also, coincidentally or not, around the same time as the New York Times is calling Code Pink a propaganda arm for the Chinese Communist Party, and lots of politicians are up in arms about corporations with Chinese corporate stakeholders, of which Bandcamp is one (Bandcamp is owned by Epic Games, as of last year, and one of Epic Games' biggest shareholders is the Chinese corporation Tencent).

If you have followed any of the reporting that has come out of Elon Musk's publication of what's being called the Twitter Files, you'll be aware of the government involvement in working with social media platforms to monitor and meddle with various users they have issues with.  Am I on a shadowban list generated internally within Bandcamp management?  Is Bandcamp being instructed by a state actor with a list of artists to shadowban?  And what of those artists who have been actually banned from the platform, rather than shadowbanned?  There are those as well, and from what I have been learning lately, Bandcamp generally doesn't give explanations.

What are the implications for society and the arts with unaccountable corporations banning and shadowbanning artists with no explanation?

Offhand, it seems pretty Orwellian to me.  What if Alphabet/Google/YouTube also decided to follow suit?  And Spotify, too?  At that point, I and any other independent artist in the US would be effectively invisible online, or we'd lose the vast majority of our potential future audience, at least.

Independent artists like me have rarely had much luck with commercial airplay on terrestrial radio, or getting big record companies to promote our recordings, or even getting played by public media platforms like NPR or BBC.  In many ways, the internet has provided much more opportunity for independent artists to be discovered and heard by people out there in the world.  But increasingly, the internet is siloed into a small handful of massive corporate platforms that, for a whole lot of people, effectively are the internet.

For independent musicians, Bandcamp is definitely one of those major platforms, even if this may not be the case for the rest of society.  The implications for my career are fairly obvious.  This kind of shadowban will tend to have a throttling effect on business, keeping people from finding my music on the platform.

The implications for independent artists more broadly is at least as distressing.  If they're doing it to me, who else are they doing it to?  No one that I have found in my searches recently, so they're clearly very selective, and who knows what their standards are.

Is it possible there is a completely innocent explanation for what's going on?

Given the complete lack of communication from Bandcamp about what they're doing, anything is possible.  I'm no IT expert -- perhaps this is a technical glitch of some kind, and even though all my albums are set to Public, nothing comes up in a search the way it does for other artists.  My past experience with government agencies putting me on lists, and with whoever it is who has been trying to destroy my career, contacting anyone associated with me that they can find and denouncing me as a fascist, tells me that something else might be happening here.

What can we do about this kind of corporate malfeasance, assuming that's what it is?

First of all, if what is going on here is indeed Bandcamp acting on the instructions of a government agency, we may be noticing what's happening on Bandcamp rather than on other platforms because other platforms are doing the shadowbanning with more subtlety.

If this shadowban continues without explanation and seems to be just Bandcamp's policy towards me and whoever else, and other platforms aren't doing anything this obvious to throttle my presence online, then I'd certainly at least suggest that anyone who's using Bandcamp as a platform for supporting me or other artists do so on Patreon or another platform instead.  If Bandcamp management ever decides to tell me what's going on or decides to stop shadowbanning me, I'll update this post.

Addendum:

A note on my ongoing shadowban on Bandcamp: a lot of well-meaning people have been sending me screen shots like this one and writing something like, "is the shadowban over? Lots of your songs and albums are here, see?"


These folks can all be forgiven for not recognizing the titles of any of my albums. Who listens to albums these days anyway? But for the record, if you take a look at this screen shot -- and at what comes up when you use Bandcamp's search function to look for my name, the names of any of my albums, or the names of any of my songs -- you'll see that all of these albums and songs are either covers of my songs that other people recorded, or they are albums folks have put out at different times to raise money for one cause or another, that have included songs from me.

I have, at last count, 29 albums, including collectively many hundreds of songs, none of which will come up in a search on Bandcamp. (They will come up if you search for my name or a song title plus the term, "Bandcamp," on Google or other search engines, but that's not what I'm talking about. I'm talking specifically about not coming up on Bandcamp's own search function, on Bandcamp's website or app.)

The one silver lining to this blatant censorship of an artist on Bandcamp's part is that the first song that consistently comes up of mine when you do a search is one of the best covers of any of my songs ever done, by the brilliant Scottish band, the Wakes. Long live the Wakes, and may their covers of my songs continue to come up first in any Bandcamp search, even if I'm eventually un-shadowbanned!

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