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STILL OUT ON A LIMB
April 26, 2017
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.
April 4, 2017
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.
March 19, 2017
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.
March 10, 2017
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.
March 1, 2017
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.
February 25, 2017
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.
February 11, 2017
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.
February 4, 2017
This is my first blog since November. The day after Trump’s Electoral College victory, my 99-year-old father-in-law, Jack Diamond, began failing. He died on January 12th. I was unable to write during this period.
On January 21st I went to the demonstration in Boston with 175,000 of my closest friends. I found it comforting and energizing. Elli and I are working to make our town a sanctuary city and taking other actions to resist the Trumpist onslaught. These actions are necessary and fine, but like you, I am trying to figure out what more we can do. I’ve been thinking about the idea of a general strike and am happy to see that it’s being organized, although possibility prematurely, for February 17th (f17strike.com). One aspect of this proposal is particularly interesting to me, especially for baby boomers.
Years ago, Mario Savio galvanized many us with these words, “There's a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious—makes you so sick at heart—that you can't take part. You can't even passively take part. And you've got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you've got to make it stop. And you've got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it that unless you're free, the machine will be prevented from working at all.”
This is, I believe, what we need to do, but how? I am so impressed with the masses of energized younger people (for me that means those under 50) who are willing to put their bodies on the gears to disrupt whatever evil policies the Trumpists seek to shove down our throats, but what about the millions of baby boomers whose bodies may no longer be quite up to the task? What can we do beyond generous donations, attending demonstrations, putting up signs and bumper stickers? Those actions alone won’t stop the machine.
How can boomers be effectively disruptive? Where is our untapped power? While many boomers live paycheck to paycheck or worse, millions of us have led professional lives, with good salaries. We may have pensions, retirement savings, Social Security, or inheritances that have left us more comfortable than we ever dreamed of being. This disposable income gives us untapped power beyond our ability to make bigger donations. That ability involves consumption. If we want to disrupt “business as usual” during the Trump administration, are we willing to stop our “buying as usual?”
The millions of us can be disruptive of the Trump agenda simply by participating in a organized effort to sharply curtail our purchases. Sounds like a contradiction in terms, but let’s put our collective money where our collective mouthes are by not spending. Canceling big ticket items is most important. Put off buying a new car. Don’t take that pleasure trip - stay home, better for the environment anyway. Delay major home improvements. Forget about that new 99inch smart TV. It will hurt the economy, but it will help to get rid of Trump.
Do that and participate in “no commerce” as part of the February 17th Strike. Buy nothing that day, and “Join with other like-minded folks and occupy public space with positive messages of resistance and solidarity.” If millions of us participated in organized “non-consumption” days, days during which we stayed home, hung out with family and friends, took hikes, played board games, and built community, we could send corporate America a message they’d feel in their pocket book. And if we can pull off one day like that, then we’ll go for another and a third.
We used to say that if we are not part of the solution, we are part of the problem. Think of it this way - every unnecessary dollar we spend helps Trump. Stop spending to hit this fucked-up administration where it hurts.
November 20, 2016
I intended to follow up my last post about the sufficiency of the programs proposed by green reformers by discussing their strengths and weaknesses, but the shocking election result compels me to react.
My prediction of a 10-point popular vote victory for Clinton was way off. Perhaps my error resulted from living in a liberal bubble. Clinton received around 90% of the vote in Amherst and Northampton, the two biggest towns in my county. She only racked up 75% of the vote in my somewhat more conservative town. Clinton won in Massachusetts by over 25 percentage points and the same is true of the West Coast. But the nation is made up of more than the Northeast and Pacific Coast.
As democrats lick their wounds, the recriminations have started. Some hang the loss on “third party candidates.” I don’t think that makes sense. First, it is wrong to lump the Libertarians and Greens together because the former attract more people from the right while the latter gather more from the left. When you decouple the third parties it is apparent that Gary Johnson’s vote total was sufficient to tip the balance to Clinton if the vast majority of his voters instead voted for Clinton. However, given the right-wing nature of Libertarianism, the chance of that happening approaches zero.
Jill Stein’s supporters were more likely to take votes from Clinton, but she gathered so few votes that even if every one of her supporters voted for Clinton, she still would have lost. For example, Clinton lost Florida by about 115,000 votes, but Stein only got about 64,000. In Pennsylvania, Clinton lost by about 68,000 votes and Stein totaled 49,000. In other words it was statistically impossible for Clinton to carry those states even if every single Stein voter held their noses and voted for Clinton.
I believe that Greg Palast’s article “The Election was Stolen - Here’s How” gets closer to what really happened. Palast writes, “a coterie of Trump operatives… created a system to purge 1.1 million Americans of color from the voter rolls of GOP-controlled states. The system, called Crosscheck, is detailed in my Rolling Stone report ‘The GOP’s Stealth War on Voters,’ 8/24/2016.” For example, Trump won Michigan by 13,000 votes while Michigan Crosscheck purged 450,000 voters. In Arizona Trump won by 85,257 and Crosscheck purged 270,000. In other words, it was effective right-wing voter suppression, not left third party voting that engineered Trump’s win.
Clinton supporters who blame their electoral defeat on those to their left are making a grave tactical error. Liberals may find it easier to blame the weaker left than the more powerful right, but doing so at this moment is counterproductive. We need everyone to the left of center to unite against Trump. The right now controls the Presidency, the Congress and the Courts; we can’t afford to be fighting among ourselves.
November 4, 2016
Some Green activists, I’ll call them reformists, argue that we can recalibrate our economy by investing in sustainable technological innovation and privileging renewable energy sources over fossil fuels. They argue a War on Climate Change (Bill McKibben) or a Green New Deal (Jill Stein) will drastically cut greenhouse emissions while generating tens of millions of green jobs that will allow for continued economic growth. It isn’t stated explicitly, but the implication is that if we take these actions we can both live sustainably AND continue much as we have been.
Recent articles question these plans.
“[S]imply shifting to no-fossil fuel energy will do nothing about the exploitation of humans and ecosystems that nourishes both capitalism and the global climate emergency. … The climate movement tends to … focus on technical production goals such as achieving 100% renewable energy by 2050. But that’s far from enough; we have to rein in the economy and eliminate net greenhouse emission far sooner and be prepared to deal with the economic consequences.” (Stan Cox, “If there a World War II-style climate mobilization, it has to go all the way - and then some,” 9/22/16, greensocialthought.org)
“It is … contrary to established ecological science for Mr. McKibben to promote a war on climate focused solely upon techno-optimist industrial solutions. First and foremost, climate change is an ecological issue. I [am concerned] that he apparently has little understanding of the ecological systems that maintain a livable earth.” (Dr. Glen Barry, “Bill McKibben’s Ecology-Free Declaration of War on Climate is Dangerous and Wrong,” 10/23/16, ecointernet.org)
McKibben and Stein are mobilizing millions either to vote green or attack the extractionists at their weakest point, pipelines and other infrastructure that no one wants in their back yard. It is necessary for such movements to attract increasing numbers if we hope to stop the removal, transportation, refining and burning of fossil fuels. Doing this is essential if civilization is to survive.
But the articles quoted above raise several difficult questions.
1. Are the demands of the reformist green movement necessary, but not sufficient, to save us?
2. Is the assumption that we can make our current system sustainable without changing its basic nature valid?
3. Does the reformist agenda contain counter-productive elements because it is not scientifically grounded?
Those are valid concerns and important questions. At the same time, I worry that attacking green reformists may be a grave strategic error. We can’t build a mass movement on an unprecedented scale by attacking a major source of potential allies. In the next few blogs I will discuss the three questions posed above and attempt to tackle the thorny challenge of how to work with, rather then drive away, those seduced by the prospect of living sustainably without significantly reducing our current level of consumption.