"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
As one of the thousands, possibly millions, of bloggers out there holding forth on everything from cooking to politics, I’d always felt especially fortunate. I’d ascended from having a small, low-traffic blog to joining Jesse Taylor at the big-time liberal blog Pandagon to actually controlling Pandagon in the course of three years. Still, my good fortune amounted mostly to being good at what was still essentially my hobby, since I worked full time outside of my blog life. So it surprised me that my streak of luck would result in the John Edwards campaign calling and recruiting me for the position of campaign blogmaster. Of course, when I was informed that the general gist of the job played to my strengths of writing about progressive politics and building a blog audience, then the recruitment made much more sense. I was also heartened to find out that Melissa McEwan of Shakespeare’s Sister would be joining part time as a consultant, tapping her talents at organizing bloggers.
After not very much time weighing my options, I put in my notice at my day job and decided that I’d be happy to move to North Carolina. It wasn’t hard to see that this was a great opportunity and a chance to do what few people get to do, which is turn a hobby into a living. Or at least, to a degree. Pandagon was a personal blog, where I wrote in my own voice; clearly the blog for the Edwards campaign would be a campaign blog, where the campaign dictated the directions of my posts.
My main concern about the relationship between my personal blog and the campaign blog was that I wouldn’t have enough time to keep my personal blog updated as frequently as the readers had come to expect, a problem I solved by inviting other bloggers to join. I thought some about content concerns, but my opinion had always been that bloggers who work for campaigns should feel free to have personal blogs, so long as they disclosed their employment to their personal blog readers and refrained from using their personal blogs to bash other candidates.
“Reasonable people,” I thought, “can tell the difference between a personal blog post and those I’ll write for the campaign.” What I naively failed to understand was that there is no relationship between what reasonable people think and what will be used in a partisan bout of mud-slinging.
What I also failed to understand was how much McEwan and I would stick out. I was aware that I didn’t exactly fit the image people have of bloggers who join campaigns — the stereotype being 30-something nerdy young white men who wear khakis and obsess over crafting their Act Blue lists. I wasn’t aware that not fitting the image would attract so much negative attention. In fact, I mostly saw this all as a baby step in the direction of diversity, since McEwan and I differed from the stereotype mostly by being female and by being outspoken feminists.
I announced that I was taking the job on Jan. 30, and the same week, I noticed a small flare-up of oddly aggressive and misogynistic comments in my moderation queue over a short, irritated post I wrote about the coverage of the Duke lacrosse rape case on CNN. I assumed that some anti-feminist blogger had linked me and so, in frustration, I went and rewrote my by-then week-old post to mock the commenters by spelling out my views in childish, easy-to-understand language. This may have been the first indication that the right-wing noise machine had noticed me and was looking for something with which to hurt me and my new employers.
A few days after my announcement, another in a series of inept shitstorms in the right-wing blogosphere came to my attention. Some vocal conservatives were accusing me of “scrubbing” my posting history at Pandagon, apparently on the theory that I was trying to hide inflammatory material. The evidence for this accusation was that I had mockingly rewritten a one-paragraph post, but since that was clearly not enough to get a real shitstorm going, there was a bevy of wild accusations that I had deleted much of the archives of Pandagon. What the right-wingers had really discovered was a very different, embarrassing secret. With all our server and software changes over the years, we at Pandagon had hopelessly scrambled and in fact deleted months and even years of the blog by accident. Some blog posts had funky URLs; others had the wrong author. We’d never fixed the problem because no one could figure out a way to do it that didn’t involve thousands of manual corrections.
Danny Glover, the journalist who “broke” the missing posts story without ever calling or e-mailing me to ask where the posts went, apologized for his mistake. As far as I know, he’s the only person involved in the “scrubbing” smear who ever apologized for spreading inaccurate information. Other bloggers eagerly repeated the nonstory. Michelle Malkin admitted she was wrong but didn’t apologize, and then auditioned a new smear.
The allegations flung in the next few days varied wildly. Malkin tried to piece together a case that the Edwards campaign should fire me, because when she videotaped herself reading my blog posts in an alarming, screechy voice, they sounded alarming and screechy. Also, shockingly for a would-be Democratic staffer, I had often said negative things about Republicans on my blog. Dan Riehl apparently thought it would speed my firing if he suggested that I was not as hot as “American Pie” actress Shannon Elizabeth. Danny Glover, trying to recover from reporting the utterly unmysterious disappearance of some of my archives, tried to argue that I had failed to disclose my association with the Edwards campaign. The problem was the disclaimer at the top of Pandagon. (Now removed, since I no longer work for the Edwards campaign.)
None of this was especially surprising. The right-wing noise machine’s favorite trick, possibly its only trick, is to select a target and start making a fuss, hoping that by creating the appearance of smoke, just enough people will be fooled into thinking there’s a fire. Unfortunately, it works. It was the method used to railroad Bill Clinton (Whitewater, Vince Foster, state troopers) and the method that ushered the nation into war with Iraq (WMDs and so on). This time they were only attacking a lowly rookie staffer on a Democratic campaign, but the M.O. was the same.
By Feb. 6, after a week of mud-slinging, the mostly volunteer army of conservative bloggers was failing miserably at elevating their newest noncontroversy to the mainstream media, even if they had done a great job at picking a juicy target. When you’ve got a mark that you’re aiming to humiliate publicly, it helps if she’s young and female and doesn’t know her place. While their amateurish smears hadn’t yet hurt me or the campaign, they had made just enough noise to alert the professionals to the existence of a fresh young feminist target. Or, as it would turn out, two targets.
On the afternoon of Feb. 6, Nedra Pickler e-mailed me a copy of a press release put out by Bill Donohue, the head of the Catholic League, an organization that claims to exist to fight anti-Catholic bigotry, but functionally exists more to feed the right-wing noise machine and attract Catholic voters away from the Democratic Party and toward the Republicans. The press release claimed that Melissa McEwan and I were “anti-Catholic.” The case against McEwan was that she had said factually accurate things like, “Some of Christianity’s most prominent leaders — including the Pope — regularly speak out against gay tolerance.” Donohue objected to our use of “vulgar” words. He also quoted a line I’d written that would come to be the favorite quote of Bill O’Reilly, among others:
Q: What if Mary had taken Plan B after the Lord filled her with his hot, white, sticky Holy Spirit?
A: You’d have to justify your misogyny with another ancient mythology.
The joke was typical of Pandagon’s satirical tone and was intended to mock a common rhetorical ploy of abortion opponents — a hypothetical question and answer — not to mock anyone’s personal faith. Unsurprisingly, Donohue failed to note in his press release accusing me of anti-Catholic bigotry what had really prompted my post: my discovery that the marriage classes at some Catholic churches were passing out anti-contraception materials that had blatant misinformation in them. Pickler e-mailed me the press release and asked for comment at 4:30 Central Standard Time. By 5:30 she had the story written without comment from McEwan or me.
That Donohue easily succeeded where a hundred right-wing bloggers failed is also unsurprising. Donohue has a long, dirty, but bizarrely successful career of conservative hit jobs. As Frances Kissling has noted, Donohue seems to take particular pleasure in silencing women.
In venues ranging from the New York Times to the major cable news networks, Donohue demanded that the Edwards campaign fire McEwan and me. The left blogosphere, furious that a smear artist might try to snap his fingers and bully a Democratic campaign into firing a staffer, pushed back hard. Liza at Culture Kitchen collected just a sampling of the hundreds of blog posts and letters that were protesting the very idea that such a manufactured controversy should have any impact on the staffing of presidential campaigns.
I can’t comment on Salon’s story about what went on inside the Edwards camp between the publication of Pickler’s story and the morning of Thursday, Feb. 8. I can say that the furor seemed as if it had ended when, after a day of official silence from the campaign as well as from us two bloggers, John Edwards announced that the campaign would keep us on, with press releases from McEwan and me stating that we had had no intention of insulting anyone’s private beliefs. At this point, Donohue vowed to continue his scorched-earth campaign, stating, “We will launch a nationwide public relations blitz that will be conducted on the pages of the New York Times, as well as in Catholic newspapers and periodicals. It will be on-going, breaking like a wave, starting next week and continuing through 2007.”
On Saturday, Feb. 11, during some rare downtime, I returned to personal blogging on Pandagon. I posted a review of the the film “Children of Men,” noting that it had a new, nonsexist take on the story of the virgin birth. Donohue struck. He issued a press release on Feb. 12 in which he claimed to be offended by my review. My e-mail in box began to fill up with vitriolic messages, some of them promising violence.
It became apparent to me that there were so many rumors and accusations of my supposed anti-Catholic bigotry that my ability to do my work with the Edwards campaign was suffering. I realized that I couldn’t handle the stress of having people flinging an endless stream of baseless accusations at me without being able to come out and defend myself, so I resigned from the campaign.
I held out the hope that with my scalp tacked to his wall, Donohue would leave McEwan alone. That was not to be. Under a similar barrage, she offered her resignation the day after I did. After all was said and done, the Catholic League issued a press release indicating Donohue’s pleasure in destroying our careers through a campaign of harassment.
Looking back, the detail that astonishes me the most is the sheer amount of ink, air time, and energy devoted to keeping this phony scandal going until McEwan and I felt we had to resign. One question that’s hard to avoid is how much of the venom had to do with the fact that McEwan and I were young women entering into a field (Internet communications) that’s viewed as almost monolithically masculine. From my vantage point, it appeared that sexism was one of the primary motivating energies behind the campaign. Even before Donohue stepped in, various right-wing bloggers were obsessed with my gender and sexuality. As I noted at the time of my resignation, the majority of the hate mail I was receiving was from men, and almost all the e-mails made note of my gender or suggested that I would be a more pleasant woman if I wasn’t so “angry.” Bluntly put, I find it hard to believe that many men would end up being denounced on TV for using words like “fuck” or “cunt” on their blog and expect to receive piles of e-mail offering an opportunity to suck the sender’s dick.
That two young feminist women were the targets of such a strenuous harassment campaign from bloggers and the Catholic League hints of more being at stake than scalp-collecting for conservatives. The posts that sent Donohue into a well-financed swoon were on topics such as the right to abortion, the right to contraception and gay rights. Donohue and the long list of culture warriors on the league’s board of advisors are dedicated to stomping out those very rights McEwan and I were defending. It’s unlikely they took issue with just the coarse, comedic vernacular that we used to defend those rights.
Regardless of its motive, the result of the smear campaign was to send a loud, clear signal to young feminist women. It tells them that campaigning for Democratic candidates, and particularly doing so in positions that would help the candidate connect with young feminist communities like the one that thrives in the blogosphere, is a scary, risky prospect. There are few things like having Bill O’Reilly work himself into a pearl-clutching fit while speaking your name over the air, or watching your in box fill to the brim with sexually violent, threatening e-mails. Young feminists certainly picked up on the message. As one wrote in a blog post tracking back to Pandagon, “I will never, ever go into any sort of actual work on any political campaign. I still might have to close off my original teenage wasteland-style blog. People will gleefully tear you apart any day of the week — but I’d rather not have that done to me over politics.”
When I was trying to decide whether to resign, no other concern weighed as heavy as the fear that resigning would tell the right-wing mob that harassing young feminists works. That would only encourage the hit squad in the future. As many commenters at Pandagon noted, we’re far from living in a postsexist era where feminism is not needed, if one can’t be an outspoken young feminist and work for a campaign without producing waves of outraged commentary. But in the end I decided it might be better for the campaign if I was no longer around to draw fire.
Whether or not it was the intention of the right-wing noise machine to throw more obstacles in the way of Democrats who want to play to their pro-choice, pro-gay rights feminist constituents — it’s also plausible that the right-wing noise machine was working on pure misogynist emotion — the episode has had a chilling effect on the future of Democratic outreach to feminist communities, particularly the younger ones that flock to computers for political information as earlier generations flocked to television sets and newspapers.
Equally alarming is the possibility that this episode was something of a test case for the right-wing noise machine. The right blogosphere is mostly a sideshow act for the Republican Party, providing a cheap source of noise and noncontroversies to help professional shills like the Catholic League and the Heritage Foundation degrade the political discourse in this country, throwing culture war bombs to cover up unpopular Republican policies like starting a war in Iraq.
I think the left blogosphere has a lot more substance to it. First of all, the liberal blogs are slowly but surely building a fundraising structure that is already beginning to have substantial influence on elections. They helped Jim Webb become a senator and Joe Lieberman become an Independent. Blogs also provide a method of disseminating progressive ideas to people, while the mainstream cable news channels carry on for weeks at a time on topics such as Anna Nicole Smith’s untimely demise. Liberal blogs are issue-oriented and good at parsing out complex ideas that don’t fit well into the sound-bite-driven mainstream discourse. They are a good fit for wonky Democrats. It’s therefore unsurprising that conservatives might want to dissuade Democrats from hiring them.
Does all this mean that it’s open season on bloggers who accept jobs as Democratic campaign staffers? It’s quite possible. As a general rule, blogs are raucous and common, as would be expected in any political environment that is truly democratic, where you don’t have to brandish a pedigree to get in the door. What this means is that even the more even-keeled bloggers are likely to have something in their archives that could be taken out of context and bandied about on the cable news networks. And even if the blogger herself never says a word that could be misconstrued, members of the right-wing noise machine are perfectly willing to dig through comment threads to find quotes that fit their purposes, as the bloggers at Feministing found out when Wendy McElroy was on Fox News quoting comments left by readers and implying that those statements had been made by the bloggers.
In response to what happened to Melissa and me, Garance Franke-Ruta has written a post on the American Prospect’s Tapped blog wagging her finger at liberal bloggers and warning us that unless we are willing to ape the language and habits of the D.C. insider crowd, we can expect never to be allowed through the gates. She probably has a point that bloggers can expect this sort of pushback from the establishment. Blogs are popular because they provide space for everyday citizens to engage in politics, in the language and manner that is comfortable for us, if not for the establishment. To my mind, however, it would be a terrible thing if bloggers did heed the advice to mind our manners and ape our betters if we want in, since this is supposed to be a democratic system that respects the right of everyday, common people to participate in politics. While there’s a chance that the crusade to separate McEwan and me from the Edwards campaign was just a singular happening, the possibility lingers that this was just the first sign that the established media and political circles will not be letting the blog-writing rabble into the circle without a fight.
Amanda Marcotte is a Brooklyn-based freelance writer and journalist. She's published two books and blogs regularly at Pandagon, RH Reality Check and Slate's Double X.More Amanda Marcotte.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)