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STILL OUT ON A LIMB

Beyond ‘No’ and the Limits of ‘Yes’: a review of Naomi Klein’s No Is Not Enough

August 9, 2017

Tags: Robert Jensen, Naomi Klein, facing climate catastrophe

I'm reposting someone else's blog. I rarely do this, but I think the second half of it contains the best short summary of the crisis we face, and how to deal with what we face.

by Robert Jensen

Naomi Klein understands that President Donald J. Trump is a problem, but he is not the problem.

In her new book, No Is Not Enough: Resisting Trump’s Shock Politics and Winning the World We Need, Klein reminds us to pay attention not only to the style in which Trump governs (a multi-ring circus so routinely corrupt and corrosive that anti-democratic practices seem normal) but in whose interests he governs (the wealthy, those he believes to be the rightful winners in the capitalist cage match), while recognizing the historical forces that make his administration possible (decades of market-fundamentalist/neoliberal rejection of the idea of a collective good).

Klein, one of the most prominent and insightful leftist writers in North America for two decades, analyzes how Trump’s “genius” for branding, magnified by his reality TV success, carried him to the White House. But while we may have been shocked by the election of Trump—not just another celebrity but the ultimate “hollow brand” that adds no tangible value to society—she argues that we should not have been surprised:
Trump is not a rupture at all, but rather the culmination—the logical end point—of a great many dangerous stories our culture has been telling for a very long time. That greed is good. That the market rules. That money is what matters in life. That white men are better than the rest. That the natural world is there for us to pillage. That the vulnerable deserve their fate and the one percent deserve their golden towers. That anything public or commonly held is sinister and not worth protecting. That we are surrounded by danger and should only look after our own. That there is no alternative to any of this (pp. 257-258).

Underneath all these pathologies, Klein explains, is “a dominance-based logic that treats so many people, and the earth itself, as disposable” (p. 233), which gives rise to “a system based on limitless taking and extracting, on maximum grabbing” that “treats people and the earth either like resources to be mined to their limits or as garbage to be disposed of far out of sight, whether deep in the ocean or deep in a prison cell” (p. 240).

Klein’s book does not stop with an analysis of the crises, outlining a resistance politics that not only rejects this domination/subordination dynamic but proceeds “with care and consent, rather than extractively and through force” (p. 241). In addition to the “no” to the existing order, there must be a “yes” to other values, which she illustrates with the story behind the 2015 Leap Manifesto (“A Call for a Canada Based on Caring for the Earth and One Another”) that she helped draft.

Klein believes the expansive possibilities of those many yeses are visible in Bernie Sanders’ campaign and others like it around the world. Near the end of the book she lists ideas already on the table: “free college tuition, double the minimum wage, 100 percent renewable energy as quickly as technology allows, demilitarize the police, prisons are no place for young people, refugees are welcome here, war makes us less safe.” She goes on to identify more ambitious programs and policies: “Reparations for slavery and colonialism? A Marshall Plan to fight violence against women? Prison abolition? Democratic worker co-ops as the centerpiece of a green jobs program? An abandonment of ‘growth’ as a measure of progress? Why not?” (p. 263).

Klein is not naïve about what it will take to achieve these goals but stresses the possibilities; “there is reason to believe that many of the relationships being built in these early days [of the Trump administration] will be strong enough to counter the fear that inevitably sets in during a state of emergency” (p. 208).

Recognizing that the 2008 financial crisis created opportunities for more radical change that were lost not only because of the Obama administration’s cautious, centrist approach but because of progressive movements’ timidity, she reminds us that the most important changes in the past (expansions of justice and freedom post-Civil War, during the New Deal, and in the 1960s and ‘70s) “were responses to crises that unfolded in times when people dared to dream big, out loud, in public—explosions of utopian imagination” (p. 217).

Klein is right to challenge the pessimism that so easily sets in when we capitulate to the idea that radical change is politically impossible because of the success of decades of right-wing propaganda and organizing in the United States. Politics is a human enterprise, and therefore humans can change it. Utopian thinking in these realms is to be encouraged, as movements build the capacity to move us toward those goals.

My only critique of Klein’s book—and it is not a minor point—is that while reminding us not to accept artificial, self-imposed limits on social/economic/political fronts, it glosses over the much different status of the biophysical limits we must work within. Klein’s 2014 book on climate change demonstrated how thoroughly she understands what my late friend Jim Koplin called the “multiple, cascading ecological crises” of our time. But what are the implications of facing those crises?

Go back to Klein’s list of programs, which includes “100 percent renewable energy as quickly as technology allows,” alongside such goals as free tuition and a doubled minimum wage. These are very different kinds of projects that shouldn’t be conflated. By building a stronger left/progressive movement, greater equity in higher education and fairer wages could be won. But much more difficult challenges are hidden in “100 percent renewable energy.”

First, and most painful, is the recognition that no combination of renewable resources is going to power the world in which we now live—7.4 billion people, many living at some level of First World affluence. That doesn’t just mean the end of luxury lifestyles of the rich and famous, nor just the end of middle-class amenities such as routine air conditioning, cheap jet air travel, and fresh fruits and vegetables from the other side of the world. We are going to have to face giving up what we have come to believe we “need” to survive, what Wallace Stegner once termed “things that once possessed could not be done without.” If you have trouble imagining an example, look around at the people poking at their “smart” phones, or walk into a grocery store and survey the endless aisles of food kept “cheap” by fossil-fuel inputs.

If we give up techno-utopian dreams of endless clean energy forever, we face a harsh question: How many people can the Earth support in a sustainable fashion, living at what level of consumption?

There is no magic algorithm to answer that question. Everyone’s response will be a mix of evidence, hunches, and theology (defined not as claims about God but ideas about what it means to be human, to live a good life). I’m not confident that I have an inside track on this, but I’m fairly sure that the answer is “a lot fewer people than there are now, living at much lower levels of consumption.”

There are biophysical limits that we can’t wish away because they are inconvenient, and they limit our social/political/economic options. Those realities include not only global warming but an array of phenomena, all interconnected: accelerating extinction of species and reduction of biodiversity; overexploitation of resources (through logging, hunting, fishing) and agricultural activities (farming, livestock, timber plantations, aquaculture), including the crucial problem of soil erosion; increase in sea levels threatening coastal areas; acidification of the ocean; and amplified, less predictable threats from wildfires, floods, droughts, and heat waves. We are no longer talking about localized environmental degradation but global tipping points we may have already reached and some planetary boundaries that have been breached. The news is bad, getting worse, and getting worse faster than most scientists had predicted.

The goal of traditional left politics—sometimes explicitly, often implicitly—has been to bring more people into the affluence of the First World, with the contemporary green version imagining this will happen magically through solar panels and wind turbines for all. Honest ecological evaluations indicate that in addition to the core left/progressive goal of equity within the human family, we have to think what kind of human presence ecosystems can sustain.

A simple example, but one that is rarely discussed: A national health insurance program that equalizes access to treatment is needed, but what level of high-tech medicine will we be able to provide in a lower-energy world? That question requires a deeper conversation that we have not yet had about what defines a good life and what kinds of life-extending treatment now seen as routine in the First World will not be feasible in the future. Instead of rationing health care by wealth, a decent society should make these difficult decisions collectively, and this kind of ethical rationing will require blunt, honest conversations about limits.

Here’s another example: Increasing the amount of organic food grown on farms using few or no petrochemical inputs is needed, but that style of agriculture will require many to return to a countryside that has been depopulated by industrial agriculture and consumer culture. If we are to increase what Wes Jackson and Wendell Berry call “the eyes-to-acres ratio”—more farmers available to do the work necessary to take better care of the land—how will we collectively make the decisions needed in moving people from cosmopolitan cities, which young people tend to find attractive, to rural communities that may seem less exciting to many?

My point is not that I have answers, but that we have yet to explore these questions in any meaningful depth, and the ecosphere is going to force them on us whether or not we are ready. If we leave such questions to be answered by the mainstream culture—within the existing distributions of wealth and power, based on that logic of domination/subordination—the outcomes will be unjust and inhumane. We need to continue left/progressive organizing in response to contemporary injustices, not only for the short-term progress that can be made to strengthen communities and protect vulnerable people but also to build networks and capacities to face what’s coming.

To ignore the ecological realities that make these questions relevant is not hope but folly; to not incorporate biophysical limits into our organizing is to guarantee failure. Until we can acknowledge the inevitability of this kind of transition—which will be unlike anything we’ve faced in human history—we cannot plan for it. And we cannot acknowledge that it’s coming without a shared commitment not only to hope but grief. What lies ahead—coming in a time frame no one can predict, but coming—will be an unprecedented challenge for humans, and we are not ready.

Saying no to the pathological domination/subordination dynamic at the heart of the dominant culture is the starting point. Then we say yes to the capacity for caring collaboration that we yearn for. But we also must accept that the systems of the larger living world—the physics and chemistry of the ecosphere—set the boundaries within which we say no and yes.

No one can predict when or how this will play out, but at this moment in history the best we can say about the fate of the human species is “maybe.”

We have a chance for some kind of decent human future, if we can face the challenges honestly: How do we hold onto the best of our human nature (that striving for connection) in the face of existing systems that glorify the worst (individual greed and human cruelty)? All that we dream is not possible, but something better than what we have created certainly is within our reach. We should stop fussing about hope, which seduces too many to turn away from difficult realities. Let’s embrace the joy that always exists in the possible, and also embrace the grief in what is not.

We must dare to dream big, and we must face our nightmares.

As I tell my students over and over, reasonable people with shared values can disagree, and friends and allies often disagree with my assessment of the ecological crises. So, let’s start with points of agreement: We must say no not only to Trump and the reactionary politics of the Republican Party, but no to the tepid liberal/centrist politics of the Democratic Party. And we must push the platform of the social democratic campaigns of folks like Sanders toward deeper critiques of capitalism, First-World imperialism, white supremacy, and patriarchy.

But all of that work will be undermined if we cannot recognize that remaking the world based on principles of care is limited by the biophysical realities on the planet, an ecosphere we have desecrated for so long that some options once available to us are gone, desecration that cannot magically be fixed by a technological fundamentalism that only compounds problems with false promises of salvation through gadgets.

No is not enough. But yes is not enough, either. Our fate lies in the joy and grief of maybe.

Robert Jensen is a professor in the School of Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin and the author of The End of Patriarchy: Radical Feminism for Men, and Plain Radical: Living, Loving, and Learning to Leave the Planet Gracefully. He can be reached at rjensen@austin.utexas.edu or through his website, http://robertwjensen.org/. To join his email list, go to http://www.thirdcoastactivist.org/jensenupdates-info.html.

The Piano of Death

July 30, 2017

Tags: Kinship of Clover

The Piano of Death

It has been over two months since I last posted a blog. Moving was disruptive, but now I’m ready to resume my posting routine. I’m going to start easy and take a break from the dire shape of the world with a more whimsical post.

In my wife’s latest novel, Kinship of Clover, she describes a grand piano in the lobby of an assisted living center. Death notices of residents are placed on the piano, accompanied by “framed photos taken decades earlier and a few pathetic paragraphs about long-ago jobs and awards.” Elli labelled this forlorn instrument “the piano of death.”

Elli’s father lived in an independent living/assisted living facility near us for over a decade before his death in January (six months before what would have been his 100th birthday.) There was a grand piano in the lobby, where the death notices appear, and I dubbed it “the piano of death.”

Elli frequently tells friends to watch what they say around her because their words could end up in one of her novels. I knew Elli’s penchant for appropriating such phrases, so I shouldn’t have been surprised when those words appeared in the novel. I don’t mind. In fact, I admit getting a kick out of making a contribution, however small, toward one of her creations. But since a number of residents of the facility buy and read Elli’s books, I wondered how they’d react when they came upon that description during their journey through Kinship of Clover.

Sure enough, one of the residents who had already read the book brought it up at a local reading. He said he immediately recognized the “piano of death” in the lobby of his building. Like many fiction writers, Elli has a fertile imagination, but she’d never dreamed of what he told her next.

In Elli’s book, it is a working piano that occupants sometimes play. But the resident who had already read Elli’s book, told her the piano in the lobby, the real one on which she based the story, has no insides. It can’t be played. It is a hollow sham of a piano. Hosting death notices was its only purpose.

I was shocked when I heard this. Instead of making a snarky remark with my “piano of death” comment, I had provided an accurate description. Once again, reality is stranger than fiction.

Anything Wrong With Eco-Socialism?

May 15, 2017

Tags: Eco-Socialism

Anything Wrong With Eco-Socialism?

This month’s Monthly Review features an article by Paul Burkett entitled: “Global Warming: An Eco-Revolutionary Tipping Point?” While discussing three books: Ian Angus’s Facing the Anthropocene, Andreas Malm’s Fossil Capital and Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything, he succinctly summarizes a key Eco-Socialist position.

“To deny that the climate crisis is hardwired into capitalism, and that we need a new system to deal with it, is just as misleading and dangerous as to deny the existence of human-induced global warming.” In other words, green capitalism is not a solution. Human-induced global warming is a scientifically demonstrable, existential threat that can’t be successfully addressed within any capitalist framework.

There are right and left critiques of this position. The one from the right is not valid. The one from the left has more force, but perhaps the Eco-Socialist perspective can accommodate it.

The right critique comes from those with progressive or even socialist sensibilities who respond: Good luck. It is impossible to overthrow capitalism quickly enough to save us from civilization-ending climate catastrophe. We must support the push for green capitalism in order to slow climate change so we have more time to make the necessary structural adjustments.

I agree with Burkett that this is counterproductive for several reasons.

1. Transforming our current neoliberal system into one that is predominantly green capitalist is almost as politically difficult as making a socialist revolution.
2. The most politically feasible green capitalist solutions are baby-steps that will gain almost no time.
3. The green capitalist panacea is counterproductive because it promotes the idea that people in first world countries can continue their consumerist lifestyles.
4. The promise of a Green New Deal putting millions to work, sparking an economic boom based on green energy production with little or no carbon emissions is wishful thinking. If it ever came to pass, millions of new well-paying jobs will generate an orgy of consumption. Capitalism’s grow or die imperative means even green capitalists must make more stuff as they compete for market share and greater profits. Thus, a Green New Deal is a blueprint for more economic activity, which, in turn, creates more greenhouse gases.

While a rapid socialist transformation is even more unlikely, if physical reality commands that ending capitalism is our only chance of survival, we must try to bring it about.

The left critique, has an Anarchist undertone and posits that while getting rid of capitalism is necessary, it is not sufficient. It points out that Eco-Socialists argue we can save civilization if we re-organize production so that in Burkett’s words “working people and their communities collectively and democratically regulate production and other interactions with their material and social environment.”

The left argument is that feeding, clothing and sheltering a human population that will soon top 10 billion based on mass mechanized production will still generate an unsustainable level of greenhouse gases. This argument states that this manner of production, regardless of whether workers or capitalists control it, is unsustainable. In other words, the problem is not how the factory is organized, but rather the factory itself. The left critique is that we must deindustrialize, decentralize and drastically reduce our population if we are to survive.

Nothing in the Eco-Socialist position would prevent workers from democratically and collectively regulating their production in a manner that would move toward the reductions listed in the last sentence. However, nothing written by Eco-Socialists suggests we would embrace such reductions. Instead, they postulate that we can achieve environmental sustainability once workers are in control, remove the profit motive, and focus on producing only what is needed to meet human needs without the use of fossil fuels. Apparently, they argue that since broader biospheric stability is essential to meeting human needs, that humans, even 10 billion of them, without the profit motive will act as good environmental stewards.

Perhaps that’s correct, but is it anthropocentric wishful thinking? As long as we place ourselves at the center of the ecosystem can we be trusted not to exploit it unsustainably? Rather than an economy built upon socialistic mass production, wouldn’t one based on decentralized, locally-oriented, worker-controlled small scale production, whose main goal is maintaining the environment regardless of human needs, be more sustainable?

Such an economy could never support 10 billion of of us. It might be able to provide for no more than a tenth of that number, but that is probably what the planet’s ecosystem requires.

Of course, rapidly achieving any of these goals seems next to impossible. But, again, political feasibility becomes irrelevant when science teaches us that this is the course human society must follow if we are to survive.

Impeachable Offense?

April 26, 2017

Tags: Sanctuary Cities

Last night I learned that a Federal Judge in San Francisco had declared unconstitutional Trump’s Executive Order withholding federal funds from “Sanctuary Cities.” The Judge declared that once Congress appropriates funds it is unconstitutional for the Chief Executive to sit on the money. In other words, the Executive Branch was encroaching upon Legislative Branch prerogatives in violation of the Constitution’s separation of powers. (Trump’s excoriation of the Judge’s decision was an attempt to bully the Judiciary, the third branch of government, into acquiescence. Apparently, if Trump had his way there would only be one branch - his own).

The Judge’s decision sparked a memory. At the height of the Watergate scandal in the spring of 1974 Congress drew up Articles of Impeachment against then President Richard Nixon. Many remember the Watergate burglary and the subsequent coverup that generated the impeachable offenses the media reported, but few recall that there were also several, more esoteric, Articles of Impeachment. One of these was Nixon’s refusal to spend money appropriated by Congress for programs he did not approve of.

Few care about this historical footnote, but I remember it because it touched me. At the time, I was teaching undergraduate anthropology courses at a local college while awaiting funding from The National Institutes of Mental Health (NIMH) for a pre-doctoral dissertation grant to fund urban anthropology field work. I had joined the Chamber of Commerce and was studying businessmen’s decision making networks and how they effected public policy in a small New England City. I discontinued this work when I received notice that my application had been denied.

That ended my academic career. Within months my brother and I started a public campaign to reopen our parents’ case, and I never turned back. In the meantime, Nixon resigned to avoid inevitable impeachment. President Ford, who succeeded him, dispersed the funds.

I received a letter in the spring of 1976, that funding was now available and my grant had been approved. They hadn't told me that my paltry request for $11,000 (we lived cheaply in those days) was among $500,000 in NIMH funds that Nixon had refused to spend.

It wasn’t easy to turn down $11,000 at that stage of my life, but as I put it “my cover had been blown.” How could I pose as an apolitical, business-oriented person when the local news media had let everyone in the area know I was the son of notorious communist spies who was trying to clear their names. I may be one of the only pre-doctoral students to ever turn down a NIMH PhD grant, and as a result, that obscure article of impeachment is etched in my brain.

Trump’s Executive Order attempted to do what Nixon had done. Congress, in 1974, felt what Nixon had done was an impeachable offense. I doubt this Congress will reach the same conclusion.


PS We are moving at the end of June to a neighboring community. It is a big job and I will post blogs infrequently during this period.

Kinship of Clover

April 4, 2017

Tags: Ellen Meeropol, Kinship of Clover

My wife’s third novel was published on April 4th. As bestselling author Ann Hood wrote, Elli “has an uncanny knack for examining the big topics of our contemporary world and putting a human face of them.” A knack and an unfailing desire to look at that powerful intersection of politics and characters.

As in her first two novels, Elli weaves together an intriguing cast of characters whose lives, as they entwine, engage the world and traverse life-altering personal moments. There’s the college botany major anguishing over mass plant extinctions, the wheelchair-bound teenager who makes him her first boyfriend, her outspoken old-left grandmother confronting Alzheimer’s, the radical Greens trying to draw the mourning botanist into their circle, and more.

This book is also very different from her last one, On Hurricane Island. Here, no one is whisked away to a secret detention center and subjected to “enhanced interrogation” while a major hurricane storms the prison. The crises in Kinship of Clover won’t make national headlines or give you nightmares, but the events as they unfold have a potent impact upon its very real characters and consume the reader.

Early response has been terrific. The Necessary Fiction review said the book showed “how a political novel in the right hands, can achieve high artistry.” In the Portland Press Herald, the reviewer concluded that Kinship of Clover “is heartbreaking and haunting, with a cast of finely drawn and deeply memorable characters.” (links to left)

In her publication day guest blog for Powell’s City of Books, “Fiction and the Costs of Activism,” Elli described her novels as a “kind of meditation on what can happen in families when adults take action based on strong beliefs, on how the consequences can be catastrophic. Each novel sent me in a different direction spiraling back to similar questions: What lessons do children learn from their parents’ activism? What messages of responsibility and moral obligation are passed down, and at what cost?”

This new book is published at a time of increased resistance to the racism, misogyny and war mongering rampant in our world. So many of us have become hungrier for literature and art and music which help us grapple with the parade of daily assaults on our beliefs and inspire us to fight back.

I should mention that there is nothing didactic about this book. As renowned author Charlie Baxter commented, “Midway through this wonderful novel, you will find a woman dancing in her wheelchair. That scene is one of the many memorable moments in a story about young people organizing for a sustainable future, even as their once-radical elders try to hold on to a gradually disappearing past. This is a book about time and love, politics and family, and it is sharply observant and deeply compassionate.”

I couldn’t have said it better. But that’s not surprising, since only in my dreams could I write like Charlie Baxter.

Elephant in the Room

March 19, 2017

Tags: Dealing with hopelessness

In my recent blog post Weather Report, I wrote that climate change is upon us. We have to admit it, face it and take it on. One person who commented asked what that meant. Another asked how do we deal with climate scientists who are convinced that catastrophic outcomes, including human extinction, are now inevitable.

I reject the word “inevitable.” We have entered uncharted climate territory. We can’t be certain of the projections made even by the best science-based models because the circumstances are unprecedented. However, so far, their projections have been nearly on target.

Although not certain, we have to start by admitting that the window for preventing globe-spanning, climate change-generated, catastrophe is at best, almost closed. Many scientists already know this, but are too distressed to speak it. It is very hard to admit that our civilization will collapse within the lifetimes of children alive today. It is close to unbearable, so we continue as if it is not about to happen.

This raises extremely difficult questions. How to maintain hope and carry on when faced with the near certainty of disaster? How can we maximize the likelihood of increasing the small chance we have of avoiding the worst case scenario?

We must also face that our current economic system is the driving force behind the growing climate chaos. International neoliberal capitalism and the current set of world leaders will only make matters worse. Their priorities are slamming the window shut. An answer to the second question is to defang them as quickly as possible.

Many in leadership positions of organizations fighting climate change avoid facing it by downplaying how dire it is. After all, energetic mass action presents the only glimmer of hope and leaders fear the truth will cause people to give up. But how can a movement succeed if it sugarcoats the truth? A realistic assessment of the situation gives us a better chance than wishful thinking. That’s why I ended Weather Report by writing, “Humanity, Redwings and fruit blossoms are all worth fighting for no matter the final outcome.” We need to tell it like it is AND STILL refuse to go quietly into the night.

How do we take it on? We must make strategic attacks against the fossil fuel industry, their symbiotic relationship with the military industrial complex, and runaway consumerism. How we act as individuals depends upon our capabilities. Some will put their bodies on the line, others will write and talk. Some will do a lot, others less. But the more people who do something based upon an informed understanding of the situation, the better.

We must do more than attack. We must also promote a way to live in tune with the planet. If our only chance of survival is to engineer a worldwide shift to societies organized around, equalitarianism, cooperation and sustainability, then we must articulate that. The fact that it doesn’t appear politically feasible is irrelevant if natural reality commands that this is our only chance.

It is probably too late, but since we don’t know everything, we might have a little more time, or we’ve missed a factor or an invention will give us breathing space. Slim reeds, but hopeless passivity guarantees disaster. Finally, I admit that even if I thought it was hopeless, I am of, by and for life on earth, and will never give up advocating for its survival.

Strange Fruit for Young Readers

March 10, 2017

Tags: Strange Fruit, Gary Golio

Being a son of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg presented challenges when I became a parent. My wife Elli and I decided not to hide my parents’ story from our children. When our daughters were young, we were in the midst of what we called “the reopening effort,” so my parents’ case was in the news. We didn’t sit our kids down to discuss it formally; we talked about what was going on over dinner, just as we commented on other news. It worked out. My kids say they can no more remember when they learned about their grandparents than they can tell you when they first knew their own names. It was who they were, rather than a deep, dark secret.

Our daughter Rachel acted similarly with her children. In response to a question from our granddaughter when she was five, Elli wrote a picture book for Josie titled A Girl Named Ethel. An age-appropriate book about her great-grandmother seemed a good way to provide information. Now that Josie’s younger brother Abel is four, I hope he’ll be interested as well.

But we had another family challenge of a somewhat similar nature. My adoptive father, Abel Meeropol, wrote the words and music to what became Billie Holiday’s signature song, Strange Fruit. When I was growing up, Abel and I never talked about the powerfully evocative words and haunting music of his anti-lynching anthem. I didn’t fully understand the song’s meaning until I was a young adult. Abel died 30 years ago, and I still regret not talking more with him about this.

Today, Strange Fruit is everywhere. It is intimately connected to the Black Lives Matter movement, covered by dozens of singers, performed live in theater productions nationally, and played on television and in movies. There are dances, exhibits and books based upon it. How do you explain the brutal meaning and power of this song to children?

Gary Golio’s new book, Strange Fruit: Billie Holiday and the Power of a Protest Song, takes this challenge on and nails it. Gary is a noted children’s book author. He has a Masters Degree in Social Work and has worked as a child therapist. I had the opportunity to talk with the author as he was writing the book and am pleased with his accomplishment.

The book is written for 8 to 12-year-olds, and is gorgeously illustrated by Charlotte Riley-Webb. It confronts segregation, racism, censorship, lynching and resistance in a sensitive manner that most “tweens” can digest. Publishers Weekly and Kirkus gave it “starred” reviews. The Kirkus review concludes: “A must-read, must-discuss that will speak to children and linger with adults.” With racism running rampant, this book will make a valuable addition to any child’s library.

Gary told me, before the book came out, that he thought it would not be too intense for my granddaughter. Josie doesn’t have a copy yet because I’m planning to make it a birthday present when she turns nine at the end of the month. I may have to wait a couple of years to read it to Abel, but I’m already looking forward to sharing his great-grandfather’s work with his namesake.

Weather Report

March 1, 2017

Tags: Weather & climate change

Last week most of the East Coast had an extraordinary warm spell. In interior Southern New England, we had four very warm days in a row. On Feb 23 and 24 it reached 72 degrees at our local official recording station, the highest temperatures ever recorded here in the month of February. The spell broke on the evening of the 25th with a tornado in the Berkshires. Unbelievable, a tornado in the hills of Western Massachusetts in February. I wouldn’t be surprised if that has not happened in hundreds of thousands of years.

We opened windows at our house because the outside temperature was warmer than the air inside. But it wasn't only humans who reacted to the freakish weather. A flock of Red-wing Blackbirds descended on my backyard bird feeders. Since Robins now are year-round residents in our area, the Red-wing’s arrival has become the new harbinger of spring. Usually they show up at the end of March, but not this year. A few flies and other insects were also out and about.

I know the difference between weather (the conditions at any given place at a given time) and climate (the range of conditions you can expect in your region over an annual cycle). No single weather event proves climate change, let alone the extent of that change. But this year’s winter season, sprinkled throughout with region-wide record warmth, appears to be a preview of what will become common in the near future.

This year’s winter at my house was milder than those I experienced as a teenager in the New York City area. I know this is true because I kept daily weather records for many years. This winter’s local climate approximated that found in the Washington, DC area in the 1960’s. That’s a 400 mile shift northward in 50 years. Intellectually, we can extrapolate that another 50 years (years we hope today’s children will live to see), and factor in the accelerating rate of change, but can we wrap our brains around a Florida-like winter in New England by 2067?

Our concerns should be even more immediate. New England is still subject to polar out-breaks. It can be warmer than average most of the time, but we remain vulnerable to short, but brutal, cold-snaps. We face unusual warmth, coupled with more erratic conditions. For instance, last winter was also very mild. It featured an early spring, but an April cold-snap destroyed the region’s peach crop because it killed the blossoms that had opened too early. I hope the premature return of the Red-wings does not mean their fledgelings will be born too soon and suffer a similar fate this spring.

Scientists have been saying for decades that we are running out of time. That has happened. Four beautifully warm days in February may seem benign (except for the tornado), but they are a sign that climate chaos is upon us. We have to admit it, face it and take it on. Humanity, Red-wings and fruit blossoms are all worth fighting for no matter the final outcome.

Trump and Putin

February 25, 2017

Tags: Trump, Putin, Russian hacking

I’ve been leery of making a big deal about claims that Russian agents plotted with Trump operatives to engage in computer hacking to influence our election. Such investigations might weaken Trump, but I thought they were a bad idea for a number of reasons.

First, even if true, this is part of the corporate wing of the Democratic Party’s effort to blame Clinton’s loss on Russia. If Russia is to blame, corporate democrats will argue, there is no reason for Democrats to chart a more progressive course. This enables them to avoid confronting Wall Street’s dominance of the party, and keep its grassroots populist wing out of power.

Second, it appears to be part of the “deep state’s” strategy to re-start a new cold war. Confronting Russia, the world’s second biggest nuclear power, is a very dangerous gambit.

Third, by focusing on hacking such investigations will also be an attack on people like Snowden who have been revealing vital truths to the public.

Fourth, it is hypocritical to get apoplectic about Russia acting to influence our election, when we do this routinely to other countries. Left-wingers should reject such American exceptionalism even when it might serve our purposes. In other words, jumping on the blame Russia bandwagon is opportunistic.

But I’ve also heard Trump’s praise of Putin. I’ve watched Trump fill his cabinet with billionaires. And it is impossible to miss that Trump is using his office to increase the wealth of his family.

This has left me wondering. Does Trump see Putin’s Russia as a model for the United States? Does Trump dream of being the strongman of a crony capitalist oligarchy like Putin is? Is that what he seeks to accomplish while in office?

Trump is hardly a deep ideological thinker. As far as I can tell his objectives are making money, getting attention, and receiving adulation. His motivation seems more personal than class oriented. Perhaps this is why he makes many elements of the current American ruling elite so nervous.

If that is the case then exposing team-Trump’s Russian ties takes on a new dimension. A neoliberal, corporate-dominated state under Clinton would have been an environmental disaster the world could not afford. However, mimicking Putin’s corrupt extractionist-oriented, authoritarianism in the United States, would place all those organizing domestic resistance in immediate danger while locking in the same environmental devastation.

So, despite my misgivings, perhaps I should support efforts to expose Trump’s Russian ties. I am far from certain about this, however. Am I missing something with a shallow analysis?

I urge those who read this to weigh in with their comments. I read them all and respond to many. I suspect some who comment never check to see if they have been answered. I urge those who do recheck to rejoin the discussion if they wish. This is not an easy issue. It requires further analysis and it will be front and center for the foreseeable future.

Immigration Nation

February 11, 2017

Tags: Immigration Nation

Last week I attended an inspiring local program entitled “Immigration: Facts verses Fiction.” The presenters, two dynamic young women have started a project called #Immigration Nation. They are about to embark upon a six-month journey criss-crossing our nation in a camper van that will serve as a “mobile immigration clinic, providing free on-demand services for immigrants and their communities across the United States.”

Here’s how they describe themselves:

“Immigration Nation is the brainchild of two friends, Martina Carrillo and Lauren Burke. We met in 2010 when Martina, who is originally from Mexico, was in high school, and Lauren was working at a nonprofit in NYC. Together we worked on Martina's case and eventually, with two other young women, we founded the immigrant focused non profit, Atlas: DIY. Over the next six years we became close friends while working to represent individuals, organize trainings and provide safe spaces to immigrants in NYC. In the fall of 2016, however, Lauren was preparing to move upstate to start a consulting agency and Martina was headed back to school to obtain her bachelor's degree. Everything changed on November 8th. After the initial shock of what had just happened wore off, we began thinking of what we could do. Given Martina's personal experience as an undocumented immigrant and Lauren's work with hundreds of immigrant families. we knew we couldn't sit idly by as our communities were under attack.  We also wanted to create audio and visual work that would share the real immigration stories of our nation. Thus, immigration nation was born.”

Now the two of them have left their jobs and school: Lauren is an experienced immigration lawyer and Martina has dropped out of the college she was attending. They are set to begin an organizing and teaching journey while living in their camper. They have a kickstarter campaign to fund their work whose goal is to raise $10,000 by March 1st. As of this morning they’ve raised over $7100. You can find out more at https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/991694834/immigration-nation (If this link does not work, just Google "Lauren Burke Kickstarter")

The willingness of these energetic organizers of resistance who are providing a valuable service to a particularly vulnerable population is something that deserves our support. If you visit their kickstarter site, read their bios, and view their three-minute video, I’m sure you will agree.

Getting behind people on the front lines doing critical outreach is an effective way to build resistance to Trumpism. There is no intermediary organization. Instead, for a relative pittance, you are funding six months of face-to-face organizing by two dedicated, knowledgable, and charismatic people.

Elli and I have jumped on their bandwagon. I urge you to watch the video and join their kickstarter campaign. There are only a couple of weeks left for them to achieve their goal.

Selected Works

Memoir
"Bravery is rare. Tyranny is commonplace. Both define the life of Robert Meeropol, son of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. In his heart-wrenching, honest memoir, Meeropol recounts the emotional terrors of his childhood, the kindness of Abel and Anne Meeropol-who adopted him and his older brother after their parents' execution-his struggle to vindicate his parents, and his own political activism, culminating in the creation of the Rosenberg Fund for Children, which he now directs."
Publisher's Weekly
"one of those rare books everyone should read"
–Joyce Carol Oates

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