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Communication or Excommunication: a Question for Our Times
An open letter to my Fellow Workers.
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I've spent the past week on the east coast, doing gigs in Tennessee, Virginia, and DC, hanging out with old friends, and meeting lots of new people along the way. It's been a fun and fascinating week on the road, and it's prompted a couple of reflections.
Before the collapse of the college gig circuit at the beginning of the millennium, I traveled to around half the states in the US every year. I've played at least a couple gigs in every state over the years, except for Mississippi and North Dakota.
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I was doing this long before the existence of social media. In the old days, some people would occasionally express surprise that I did so many gigs in the South. People from the northern parts of the US, folks from the northeast in particular, and also on the west coast, often make inaccurate assumptions about what's going on in the southern states -- by which we all mean the former Confederate states, or any of the states we call "red" states these days.
Prior to this little tour, my posts about having gigs coming up in Tennessee prompted comments on social media expressing surprise and support that I was doing a gig there. It also prompted someone to comment, cryptically, "boycott Tennessee." Someone from a "blue" state, no doubt, who is tragically confused about the distinction between holding big corporate events in Nashville vs. doing a house concert for a handful of activist types. Or perhaps this person thinks just avoiding Tennessee altogether is the best way to convince the authorities there to un-ban abortion.
People tend to assume, based on media reporting and other things, that places like Portland, Oregon have a lot more going on than cities like Knoxville, Tennessee. By my own observation, this is propaganda served up by media outlets that can't tell the difference between a vegan pizza and a picket line.
Portland definitely has more vegan pizzas and naked bike rides than Knoxville does. But otherwise, the numbers of people who are likely to show up to prevent a drag show from being shut down by confused people who spend way too much of their time watching Fox News, as well as the numbers of Fox-impaired people who are likely to show up to try to shut down the drag show, are all very similar and familiar. Whether you're in Portland or Knoxville, it'll be the same bunch of rightwingers, in their low dozens, and the same bunch of progressives, in slightly larger numbers, having an armed standoff in front of the bar. If the media covers what's happening in advance, then far greater numbers will turn out to defend the drag show, totally eclipsing the numbers of rightwingers.
Similarly, whether you're in Portland or Knoxville you'll meet the same punk rock teenage baristas who are trying to organize a union at the local Starbucks. You'll see the same couple dozen folks picketing outside the local branch, along with the same few supporters who came by.
My experiences in the South in the past week as well as every other time I've been there is that the whole red-blue divide is a bunch of nonsense, unless you're talking about lifestylism and gentrification, where big differences may be found. But if we're talking about organizing a union at a cafe or defending a drag show from those intent on shutting it down, there's no significant distinction to be made.
And whether in Portland or in Knoxville, you can easily find both people motivated by the desire to express moral outrage and condemn those with which we disagree on various things, and those motivated by the desire to find common ground and build a community that might be capable of, say, winning a strike.
Finding what we might identify as inclusive-oriented organizers vs. exclusive-oriented folks is not difficult. The difference between folks trying to win a battle against a corporation and those protesting something who are mainly there to make a statement, show which side they're on, and do some classic virtue-signaling, is a stark one. We could call it the difference between organizing, and dis-organizing. Calling in vs. calling out.
What so many of us have witnessed in a seriously amplified form over the past several years of the pandemic is the dramatic growth of a social media-oriented culture of exclusion and condemnation. In this modern, purity-oriented outlook, any potential supporters of your cause must be vetted for imperfections, and rejected if there are blemishes, thrown in the bin. One of the students I was talking to at George Mason the other day was -- I think very accurately -- expressing the view that the siloed nature of social media, and the ability to simply "block" someone with a click of the mouse, has a lot to do with the rise of this kind of puritanically-oriented dis-organization.
What so many of us witnessed on the streets of Portland and other cities, and especially on social media platforms, over the course of the movement that has been on the streets in particular since Trump was elected, but especially during 2020, was a systematic effort by some people to immediately come down hard with criticism of any new participants in the movement who in some way were perceived to have a transgressive perspective on one thing or other. So, for example, when a mostly white group of suburban folks who self-identified as "moms" came to the streets of Portland to stand with the protesting youth against the police, they were publicly condemned by certain elements as being racist, the proof being that since they identify as the "mom block," and most of them are white suburbanites, this must mean that they don't think urban Black women qualify as moms.
Rather than enthusiastically welcoming the support of these women who came to stand against police brutality and with the youth on the streets, the feedback from certain corners of this purity-oriented movement was to basically tell them to go away. The same pattern was repeated with various other groups that tried to be part of this exclusive, short-lived movement on the streets.
The liberal media tells us day in and day out that we must police our inner racists, learn about our internal biases, overcome them, and become better people in the process. Somehow, by doing so, society will improve.
This basic orientation has been embraced completely by the 2020 movement on the streets, by lots of people who consider themselves to be very different from the average suburban NPR-listening liberal. But are they? Fundamentally, no, as demonstrated by the fate of the mom block and so many other initiatives shot down by this puritanical left orientation, if "left" applies at all.
I have long been oriented towards the labor movement, and specifically, the Industrial Workers of the World. When I look at history, and what movements had the best tactics and most intelligent orientation towards effecting social, political, and economic changes, it's not hard to see that the IWW has been a real high point in good organizing. I have been as supportive as possible of the rise of the Wobblies (IWW) in recent decades. It's a tiny union now, nothing like what it was a century ago, but the ideas are still there, and it's a great basis on which to build a new movement aiming for the same things -- a society run by the working class, for the working class.
The IWW, in its heyday in the early 1900's, was so great, so big, and so impactful for specific reasons. The union extensively used music, art, and other forms of cultural expression to carry out popular education, and to keep the troops inspired towards action. They were also the first major union to actively recruit women, immigrants, and people of color, in which women immigrants, and people of color were to be found at all levels of the organization.
Within the ranks of the IWW at all levels there were heated debates about the way forward. Especially after the 1917 Russian Revolution, the union was fairly evenly split between those who continued to believe in a syndicalist approach to organizing society and those who thought that violently overthrowing the capitalist state suddenly seemed like a very good idea. The union continued to exist as One Big Union, however, despite these very significant differences in strategic thinking. Whether everyone agreed on syndicalist organizing vs. revolution, there was a general consensus that until the revolution actually happened, more unionized workplaces and cooperatives was something everyone could get behind.
During this period, there was then as now a large "nativist" movement in the US, of mainly white Americans who opposed immigration. There were also lots of people who supported the US entering World War 1, considering themselves to be good patriotic citizens. These elements of society came together in a big way, under the very active leadership of the FBI, to burn down IWW union halls and arrest tens of thousands of IWW members in November, 1919.
When confronted by this kind of state terror, many Wobblies fought back. There were gun battles, and a lot of people died, especially IWW members.
But while violence was a regular aspect to life in the labor movement during that period of US history, the IWW was primarily working towards the goal of organizing the entire working class into One Big Union. This meant engaging with workers who had been brainwashed by nationalism or xenophobia, and trying to bring them on side, through various forms of political education and cultural presentations that were directly aimed at recruiting people like that.
While the IWW was an actively anti-racist union, and constantly engaged in anti-racist education within the ranks and beyond, if workers were involved with a labor struggle or otherwise wanted to join the union, they were welcomed with open arms. In fact, most people at the time who considered themselves to be Wobblies never officially joined the union or paid dues at all. It was a movement, a political orientation, an orientation towards effective organizing whose popularity far exceeded its actual size. Unless you were an employer -- if you were a worker without employees -- that was the basic qualification for membership. If you happened to be a racist or a xenophobe, you'd be educated out of these views after you joined, but you would not be excluded from the union until you passed some kind of purity test. This purity test method was not how the IWW ever operated -- not at all.
So what happened recently in Fairfax was discouraging, and I want to highlight the incident, in the hope of provoking some thought.
The local IWW branch was planning to table at my show in town, but they changed their plans on the day of the event, and none of the members of the branch came to the gig.
In past tours, IWW branches frequently table at my shows. I don't attract big audiences, so I'm always tickled when an IWW branch bothers to show up. But my shows are good opportunities for branch organizers to do some organizing, and recruit one or two new members, from the crowd of leftwingers who constitute most of my audiences at most of my gigs.
Why they were planning to come is obvious -- to communicate with a bunch of leftwing George Mason students who were there and gain some new members, to expose their membership to songs about current struggles and historical ones involving our union, to help build community through music, and through getting together in a physical space.
So why did they decide not to attend? From what I understand, it's because they got word that there are some folks among the exclusively-oriented, purity-oriented left who believe in blocking and excommunicating as a form of organizing, that I had impurities they should be concerned about. Namely, I have interviewed a couple of people who might be considered rightwingers on my YouTube channel, and I have appeared on the YouTube channels of other people who might be considered rightwingers. As a result of these activities, the strange people spending their lives trying to destroy my career successfully managed to edit my Wikipedia entry to reflect that I have been accused of antisemitism and being friendly to fascists. Accused by them, Wikipedia entry edited by them, but there it is, anyway, for all to read and wonder about.
There are different ways one could approach something like this, when they discover on the day of an event they are planning to attend that the performer whose concert they're planning to attend has been accused of things they may not like.
One option would be to figure that if this guy has written hundreds of songs about labor organizing, for the environmental movement, against fascism, etc., and has been an IWW member for decades (along with the George Mason professor who organized the gig), maybe best to give him the benefit of the doubt and figure there might be something nefarious in these accusations.
Of course, if there were time to look into these accusations, and if someone took the time to do so, they would find that they are based entirely on an orientation that says if you talk to someone objectionable, you are therefore objectionable. The accusations -- though they involve tens of thousands of words of text written by puritanical believers in excommunication and cancellation campaigning and would take a long time to slog through -- when explored, can easily be seen to be nonsense. The rantings of the virtue-signalers of the anarcho-puritan left, an overwhelmingly online phenomenon.
Without enough time to fully explore these accusations, if you don't decide to give the performer in question the benefit of the doubt and find out first-hand whether any of this puritanical shun-and-condemn stuff is actually relevant, then what you do is err on the side of safety -- safety from being attacked by the same people for the same sorts of supposed transgressions, safety from being a victim of a cancellation campaign -- and skip the event.
But this notion of believing online propaganda mostly put out by anonymous actors who claim to be anarchists over real people in the physical world, and this idea that it's better to avoid interacting with someone you might have disagreements with, rather than finding common ground and recruiting audience members into your union, has nothing to do with the IWW tradition, and everything to do with the modern tradition of the virtue-signaling, online left.
The history of the IWW and of the labor movement here in the US and around the world makes it abundantly clear that only when there is a vast expanse of common ground and a highly inclusive orientation towards organizing the working class can progress happen. The history of the virtue-signaling left also makes it abundantly clear that the orientation that supports exclusion and purity of thought is doomed to result in a movement that is divided and conquered (but beyond reproach, with regards to moral purity).
If the IWW has a future that might look anything remotely like its past, we need to cut out the exclusive purity test orientation, and embrace the notion that the entire working class needs to be organized.
And while we're on the subject: why do we need to organize the entire working class? What are we trying to achieve in this effort? Nothing short of eliminating all those forms of prejudice that keep us apart. History demonstrates abundantly that we won't eliminate prejudice or bias just by talking about it. We have to change the material conditions under which the most marginalized of all marginalized groups -- the working class, broadly speaking -- exists. History once again abundantly demonstrates that eliminating poverty and empowering workers is by far the fastest way to overcome prejudice and division, rather than by excluding the less advanced among us until they educate themselves first. This exclusive orientation has repeatedly proven itself to be a disaster, from an organizing standpoint. Let's stop doing that.
In other news…
Kamala and I will be playing on Billy Bragg’s Left Field stage at the great Glastonbury Festival on the south coast of England at the end of June. Before that, starting during the last week of May, we’ll be doing gigs all over Denmark, England, Scotland, and in Ireland (on both sides of the border). If anyone wants to organize a last-minute gig in England, I still have some dates left to fill, so just reply to this and tell me about it!
During my trip to the east coast I performed at the blockade of the entrances to the Washington Hilton, where the annual White House Correspondents Dinner was taking place. Here’s a video of my set.
There are two more interviews with me online since the last time I posted to Substack. One from my recent trip to Australia on Northern Beaches Radio, and the latest episode of the brilliant science-oriented podcast, Disasters: Deconstructed.
This Week with David Rovics is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.