Cancellation Campaigner Gets Cancel Culture Discussion on KBOO Cancelled

Just the fact that the headline was real was enough to make me need to write something about it.  But it’s also a development that, although very recent (July 10th, 2023), is very disturbing, for me and many others.

The discussion, ultimately, was to be between me and a radio host.  The host had invited people on different sides of the issue to participate, but only I had accepted his offer.  The subject of the discussion was to be the allegations against me, levelled by a certain sectarian fringe of the left that I like to identify as the anarcho-puritans, who like to think of themselves as something more important than that moniker would indicate.

By design, this cancellation campaigning, and the ostensible justifications for it, get complicated.  My critics like to write lengthy explanations of their campaigning against me (without admitting to the existence of such a campaign), which make very little sense.  I feel like it behooves me to also explain what’s going on, at the risk of feeding the trolls.  I thought a Q&A format might be easiest.

What happened? 

My chief critic, or at least the one who uses his real name and isn’t an anonymous Twitter account, Shane Burley, contacted KBOO community radio management and told them he didn’t feel safe if I set foot in the building.  Without consulting me, KBOO management told the show host to cancel my appearance on his show, which I learned through the host.

Who is Shane Burley?

Shane is a Portland-based journalist, author, and activist.  He writes articles for a wide variety of publications, including mainstream Israeli newspapers, mainstream and progressive US publications, and the anarchist press as well.  He’s very active on Twitter and elsewhere online, interacting publicly and frequently with many of the anonymous accounts that attack me and others the most.  The articles he authors range from legitimate journalistic reports in mainstream publications to verbose and academic expositions attempting to explain how much antisemitism is a problem on the left, and specifically about why I suck so much, along with others on his long list of leftists who he doesn’t like.

Why does he hate you so much?

I originally seem to have gotten on Shane’s radar when I interviewed former white supremacist organizer, Matthew Heimbach.  Later Shane got very upset about my interview with Gilad Atzmon and other people as well.  Shane’s perspective, coming out of the specific, sectarian tradition that he comes from, which he identifies as “antifascism,” is that if someone has transgressed by interviewing (“platforming,” in his language) someone that he and the other self-appointed experts on fascism and antifascism don’t approve of, and you then fail to apologize for your errors, make amends, take down the interview, disavow the very notion of having talked to this person in the first place, etc., then you are now a bad person, and should be forever vilified, or, in Shane’s vocabulary, held to account for your actions, and kept out of movement “spaces” (but not canceled — cancellation campaigning, or cancel culture, doesn’t exist in Shane’s world, and can only be referred to in quotes).

So why did you interview these terrible people, and then keep doing it?

During my brief pandemic-length career as a regular interviewer of various folks on my YouTube channel, I interviewed people with lots of different political perspectives, but mostly leftwingers of one kind or another.  With admittedly insufficient preparation, one of the people I interviewed was one of the organizers of the deadly Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville (about which I wrote the song, “Today in Charlottesville”).

It was a fascinating interview.  Rather than supporting the doctrine of the gatekeepers of antifascist thought such as Shane Burley, the interview was not at all helpful in anyone’s potential or conceivable efforts at recruitment.  I’m quite certain the interview has not done Matthew Heimbach any good, if he or anyone else ever hoped or feared it would.  What the interview did do well is highlight some of the reasons why so many young white Americans join the far right in the first place.  I did the interview during the week of the Capitol siege, when it seemed especially relevant to understand the attraction.

My life experience, and that of many others, has taught me that communication can work, and can win over hearts and minds from the ranks of both the uninitiated and those already lost to rightwing thinking.  I believe in drawing lines and fighting fights when necessary in all kinds of capacities.  But to draw lines unnecessarily, rather than trying to build a bigger, broader movement of people with interests in common, is at the heart of this whole thing with Shane, and at the heart of this particular division within the left, which goes way back:  the division between the “no-platform” people who like to protest book talks and such, and those who believe the best way to combat bad ideas is with good ideas, and more communication, rather than less.  I’m on the side of communication, Shane’s on the side of no-platforming.  And if you’ve platformed someone who shouldn’t have been platformed, you become as bad as the person you platformed, and thus targeted by people like Shane and his friends for cancellation, methodically.

What do you mean when you say Shane is involved with a cancellation campaign?

Of course in this instance he actually contacted the radio station management to get them to cancel the thing.  But prior to that, in slightly less obvious example after example, the way it works is this:  someone in a leadership position within the ranks of the the gurus of antifascism, or just an anonymous poster on IGD News, declares that someone committed an unacceptable act and is now persona non grata.  What follows is a veritable frenzy of dopamine hits, as the acolytes of antifascist thought rush to please those who are now doing “research” on me, trawling through the web in search of anything I said or wrote or anyone I ever associated with that could make for good material for further attacks online.  (These public Twitter storms have been thoroughly documented, screen-shotted and saved for posterity in case you’re interested.)

After the overwhelmingly anonymous members of this group of “researchers” have done their “research,” the next step is contacting anyone related to the person under attack on a very regular basis to make sure they know about the transgressions in question.  So in my case this means contacting gig organizers, venues, and anyone else I might be performing with on a tour, and letting them know that I am a Nazi, an antisemite, a holocaust-denier, fascist-platformer, and other nonsense.

Shane doesn’t generally directly do what he did with KBOO and get an event canceled, to my knowledge.  But the anonymous accounts that do this work are often accounts he has regular contact with, who are great admirers of his orientation, writing, etc.

Why do you believe in communication rather than cancellation campaigning and no-platforming campaigns?

Because communication works, and no-platforming and cancellation campaigning doesn’t.  Well, cancellation campaigning does work in that it debilitates whole social movements, one individual organizer or artist or other figure at a time.  And no-platforming campaigns can work, in that they can get artists to cancel concert tours and authors to cancel book tours.  But they backfire in that they tend to create the very circumstances that the people organizing these campaigns are trying to destroy.  They fuel the growth of the right, consistently, now and throughout history.  They give the conservative press so much red meat, and make the left look like a collection of buffoons in the process.

Does Shane represent the mainstay of thinking within antifascist circles, or among the protesters on the streets of Portland?

Locals here in Portland may have noticed there are very few protests these days, since the media-driven movement eventually ate itself alive.  But when the protests were happening, they involved a broad collection of radicals and all kinds of other people of all ages, especially youth.  Every night for over a hundred nights in a row, I’d get regular, personal updates from participants, some of whom were providing sound, some who participating in a myriad of other ways.  It turned out that although I haven’t toured actively in the US for a decade or so now, there were still lots of teenagers discovering my music online in 2020.  This is not to suggest that the protesters all agreed with my politics on everything, but many of them were fans of my music, with whom I was actively in contact.

But certainly part of this ever-evolving, very transient group of protesters included a small set of people who were followers of the kind of no-platforming protests and campaigns against dangerous thought criminals, who ultimately I became identified with by this little crowd.

If Shane’s politics are so fringe, why does he get published in Haaretz and interviewed on Oregon Public Radio?

One of Shane’s hats is conducting interviews and writing the kinds of reports that are appropriate for mainstream publications.  Other times, writing in other publications, he’s able to take advantage of his prestige as an expert on things recognized by publications like Haaretz to regularly throw bombs within the Palestine solidarity movement by writing about the antisemitism that is supposedly rife within its ranks, and more broadly within the ranks of the left.

With concern to the hour-long statewide interview on OPB last January that I listened to in its entirety at the time it was broadcast, I was struck by what a softball interview it was.  Here was a guy who was very openly defending the tactic of shutting down book talks by authors that someone considers to be offensive in some capacity, and getting no pushback from a mainstream journalist from a mainstream network.

Striking, but not necessarily surprising.  Since Trump’s election, as what used to be more commonly thought of as mainstream media became increasingly culturally in the camp of the Democratic Party (unlike the networks that evolved into or were created as outlets for the kind of politics associated with the Republican Party), the liberal media has found good fodder in the culture warriors and those who like to protest book talks by conservative or heretical left authors.  These activities are a fine distraction from the pressing issues for which the Democratic Party establishment is just as responsible as the Republicans, such as the desperate housing crisis.  They also fit well with the new liberal media/liberal aristocracy embrace of identity politics.  In the new liberal mindset, what some used to call liberalism, or ideas like freedom of expression and discourse, is out the window, in favor of canceling book talks.

Why would a community radio station cancel your appearance?

The station management hasn’t contacted me or offered me any explanation.  According to my friends who used to manage the station, direct the news department, and other people there I’ve known for decades, it’s a very unusual move, previously reserved for someone accused of being a sexual predator.

My guess is for KBOO’s management, as with many other people, when you get a whole bunch of angry messages from 17 anonymous accounts on Twitter, which probably accompanied Shane’s communique to the station management, it’s scary, people get freaked out.  I’ve seen this happen time and again, with the local DSA chapter canceling my appearance at a labor solidarity event I was to sing at a couple years ago, right up to the Glastonbury festival management in England a couple weeks ago canceling the showing of a documentary about the campaign to undermine the candidacy for Prime Minister of Jeremy Corbyn.  I believe in so many cases, large and small, the tactics are similar.

These cancellation campaigners seem very well organized.  Who are they?

It’s well-known from lots of media coverage that there are rightwingers actively campaigning to shut down events involving drag performers in many parts of the US.  Somewhat less well-known is the fact that these same sorts of efforts at shutting down events organized by or involving authors or artists that certain elements of the antifascist/anarchist/left/liberal scene dislike goes on as well.

Having been long associated with a wide variety of people on the left, I have long known many people involved in these kinds of campaigns, aimed at the right.  I know many hackers who have talked proudly about their accomplishments, doing things like hacking into the computer systems of rightwing groups or parties, making all their membership info public, and crowdsourcing efforts to get as many of them fired from their jobs as possible, if they had the sorts of jobs where membership in a rightwing organization could be a problem for the boss.

What’s happening for a while now, and increasingly of late, are these kinds of efforts being directed at heretical leftists, people who are obviously life-long exponents of left ideas and supporters of left causes, but who get labeled fascists and antisemites, etc., for things like interviewing the wrong guest on a very unpopular YouTube channel.  It’s been an ongoing cannibalistic affair which has left few organizers or artists unaffected.

Do you suspect the involvement of nefarious actors, Cointelpro kind of stuff?

History, including very recent history, here in the US and in many other countries, says there is definitely the involvement of intelligence agencies, perhaps from various countries acting for various reasons, trying to disrupt US society and the US left in particular.  Those who deny this history are very suspicious, but within Shane’s circles it is very normal for people to be denounced as “conspiracists” for suggesting that the ranks of the protesters on the streets are massively infiltrated, very much including the dumpster-burning elements — and this has long been the case.

History also shows that left groups of all varieties (and right groups for that matter, along with a lot of other institutions — gangs, cults, churches, families, etc.) can attract a loyal and dedicated following, involving people willing to put in a lot of time and effort to get that Nazi’s gigs canceled.  I have certainly known many people who dedicated inordinate amounts of their lives to putting the interests of cultish parties as well as really cool parties before their own or their family’s interests.  The phenomenon is very common, really.

Although it’s disturbing to consider that someone or some group’s politics can get so warped that a left or anarchist group possibly thinks it’s a good idea to dedicate huge amounts of time and effort methodically trying to cancel all of my gigs every time I’m going anywhere — given that I’m not any of the things they claim I am — this is the pit into which certain elements of the left/liberal/anarchist scene, specifically in places like Portland, Oregon and Freiburg, Germany, have devolved into.

How do we reverse course before it’s too late and put an end to this kind of McCarthyite craziness?

Whether we’re talking about cancellation campaigning, self-styled antifascists from Portland or good old boys in Texas trying to cancel a drag show at a bar they’d never heard of, there is no question that social media has massively exacerbated the cultural divides in this country and around the world, through algorithms that methodically feed on and feed us conflict and disinformation.  Doing something about that state of affairs would be good.

If we can’t change the practices of these massive corporations that control our communications and increasingly become the lenses through which we see the world, though, perhaps it’s possible for a cultural shift to take place, where we stop paying attention to all of this online nonsense, turn off the computers, go outside, and talk to each other.  It’s a very nice thought, anyway.

Further down the rabbit hole…

Here’s a selection of my recent podcast episodes that further expound on the subject of cancellation campaigning, and how to resuscitate a real left movement in this country before it’s too late.  If you prefer reading, all of these podcasts can also be found on Substack in written form as well.