By now you have probably heard, on Facebook or Twitter, that Ani DiFranco has been planning to hold a kind of songwriting conference, dubbed a “Righteous Retreat,” at a restored slave plantation outside of New Orleans. Many people felt that a slave plantation “restored… to her days of glory” – that’s the copy on the retreat’s own website, FYI – wasn’t an appropriate spot for “righteousness.” Late Sunday night, after a couple of days of people tweeting and Facebooking furiously at her about this, DiFranco announced she was cancelling the retreat.
DiFranco said many intelligent and thoughtful things in her announcement, like:
…for myself, i believe that one cannot draw a line around the nottoway plantation and say “racism reached it’s depths of wrongness here” and then point to the other side of that line and say “but not here”. i know that any building built before 1860 in the South and many after, were built on the backs of slaves. i know that in new orleans, the city i live in, most buildings have slave quarters out back, and to not use any buildings that speak to our country’s history of slavery would necessitate moving far far away. i know that indeed our whole country has had a history of invasion, oppression and exploitation as part of it’s very fabric of power and wealth.
But then she also made a lot of complaints of her own:
later, when i found out it was to be held at a resort on a former plantation, I thought to myself, “whoa”, but i did not imagine or understand that the setting of a plantation would trigger such collective outrage or result in so much high velocity bitterness…
i know that the pain of slavery is real and runs very deep and wide. however, in this incident i think is very unfortunate what many have chosen to do with that pain. i cancel the retreat now because i wish to restore peace and respectful discourse between people as quickly as possible.
The gist being: fine, I’ll cancel, I can see the point, but on the other hand you people need to calm down. Which, as Jay Smooth noted on his Facebook page, doesn’t look too self-aware on a woman who once sang, “every time I say something they find hard to hear/ They chalk it up to my anger/ And never to their own fear.” Also: complaints about the tone of your critics has never, in my experience, resulted in their actually calming down.
There were a lot of year-end reflections on the effects of social media issued last week — I wrote one of them myself — and one common theme seemed to be that the internet can drum up too much outrage. And of course it can. But, in my experience anyway, the kernel is usually a fair complaint, and that’s true here too. I can’t say I understand why the announcement of an event at a slave plantation would elicit, in someone of Ani’s long association with leftist causes, a mere “whoa.” I also think it’s a bit willfully naive to pretend that an ex-plantation doesn’t carry symbolic weight here, but defensiveness can make people take funny positions they’ll regret later. That part of the internet outrage equation — the ridiculous, reality-free lengths to which people will go to defend themselves when they feel “under siege” in some way — is less often talked about. But oh well.
I would classify myself as a fan of Ani DiFranco’s. I am the most boring kind of fan there is: an angry white girl who spent her early twenties walking around with a discman (I’m old), discreetly rocking out to “Gravel” and feeling like Ani really understood something important. Hearing about this over the weekend, the disappointment I felt was the disappointment of a fan. See, being a fan of Ani’s had the peculiar quality, at least when I was young, of making you feel like you’d joined a society of people who “got it.” Perhaps that’s an immature, teenaged way to feel about an artist but it was what Ani encouraged, I think. If she really wants to know why so many people reacted so badly, some reflection on that score would be one place to start.