Robert Meeropol





Robby, Abel, Michael and trains








my perennial chaos

"Robby & Elli" 1968


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Robby speaking at the re-launch of the Mary Pitawanakwat Fund in Toronto

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STILL OUT ON A LIMB

Grubs

May 29, 2014

Tags: biological diversity

Our modest-size house sits on a third of an acre in a semi-rural small town setting. For 15 years I’ve fostered blooming chaos in my yard. Mixed perennial beds dominate, and about half of the back lawn approximates a meadow that I mow once a year. Those who prefer order might view what I’ve helped create as a colorful overgrown mess, but I find the barely controlled beds pleasing.

I can’t say that about my lawn. I mow what remains of it so that we have some open, relatively tick-free, space for the grandchildren to play on. But I mow around the baby Black-eyed Suzies, Daisy Fleabane, and Lupine stalks.

There are also bare spots, or at least until July when the crab grass fills in. Those empty patches signal grub infestations. When I started tending the yard I used store-bought formulas to combat them and then, as I became concerned about not poisoning the soil, switched to natural controls such as nematodes. Those worked pretty well, but I was so indifferent that when the grubs returned, I ignored them.

This year while contemplating my mangy lawn I saw that several of the many bird species attracted to my diverse seed-producing yard, including Northern Flickers and Brown Thrashers, gravitate to the bare spots. Recently I realized that they were dining on the grubs. Those nasty grubs have also been feeding a large population of field mice, moles and voles that, in turn, attract hawks.

I still find the grubs disgusting when I encounter one while working in a flower bed. But I’d rather have bare spots, grubs AND Thrashers, than a completely green lawn. Human efforts to control nature have usually created plant and animal monocultures. We see this everywhere; from corn fields to cattle herds to suburban lawns. And yet we now know that a more diverse biosphere is more resilient, and ultimately more productive.

I can’t help noticing on walks, through what Elli and I call “the development” around the corner from our house, how relatively free of animal and bird life the pristine yards are. Perhaps some of the homeowners are bent on “keeping down” the rabbits, squirrels and chipmunks that infest my yard, to keep them from digging holes, killing shrubs and eating their flowers. I admit I don’t like it much when one of our bunnies starts munching on my irises, but since I’ve got hundreds, I can spare a few. Anyway, once there are plenty of bunnies (they do breed like rabbits), we hear coyotes howling in the field behind us at night and then there are only a couple.

I see my relationship to the yard as a dialectical interaction. The soil and weather dictate what flourishes or dies, not me. I manage it some; aimed mostly at maintaining its diversity. And now I’ve even come to terms with the grubs.

Conundrum

May 22, 2014

Tags: Green Capitalism, Green Marxism

As many of you know I’ve become increasingly concerned with the global ecological crisis and how we can combat this overarching problem. This alarm has led me to facilitate two activist-oriented study groups; we’re reading books together and discussing strategies. The first four books have addressed different aspects of the problem: temperature, climate, sea level, population, resource depletion and war. Now we’re focusing on possible solutions, and so far we’ve looked at green capitalism and green Marxist-socialism.

Green capitalists Mark Hertsgaard and James Speth write that although it will be incredibly difficult given the distribution of political and military power in our capitalist-dominated world, it is possible that we can achieve a sustainable relationship with the biosphere by making major reforms to existing capitalism. They argue that this can be accomplished if the people elect leaders, at all levels of government, who will regulate business activity to ensure its sustainability. Green Marxists John Bellamy Foster and Fred Magdoff, say that capitalism’s basis (profit, exchange and growth) makes it necessary to move beyond our current economic system in order to save civilization.

Both courses of action require mass movements to produce the necessary major adjustments to, or total transformation of, capitalism. Furthermore, these movements must flower very soon, before the worst symptoms of ecological collapse become apparent to most people, because of the thirty-to-fifty-year lag-time in the cause and effect of gathering climate chaos.

While it is hard to believe that even reformed capitalism could become green enough to stave off a collapse of our biosphere, it seems equally unlikely that capitalism can be overthrown in time to avoid that collapse. And finally, there is no guarantee that a post-capitalist world economy will solve the problem.

So that’s the conundrum: what we have time to do probably won’t work, and we don’t have time to do what might. I refuse, however, to act as if the situation is hopeless. Even with these conditions, we can adopt strategies that are either consistent with both positions or at least not inconsistent with either. Since mass involvement is essential to both, one possible course of action is to organize for changes that foster activist engagement and encourage sustainability within the capitalist system, but which also encourage anti-capitalist mass movement building.

How does Bill McKibben’s organization’s (350.org) campaign to get institutions to divest from fossil fuel companies stack up against this standard? Getting tens, even hundreds of thousands, involved in attacking the villainy of some of the world’s most powerful corporate entities promotes a more-sustainable capitalism, and could plant anti-capitalist seeds. That’s good, but is it enough? Don’t we also need to ask how the institutions are going to reinvest the funds generated by their sale of fossil fuel company stock? For instance, if they reinvest in Fiji Water the money will support the manufacture of millions of plastic water bottles made from petroleum products and promote the enormous carbon footprint of shipping water half-way around the world. Perhaps they shouldn’t reinvest the money at all, but instead use it to build community rather than generate increased economic activity and the excess energy associated with it.

There is much more to say about whether we can avoid the approaching ecological catastrophes within the capitalist system, or whether the capitalist system itself is their primary driver. And the next book on our list takes an anarchist position arguing that we must make an even more basic transformation. I pose the problem above as a start, and ask you to weigh in on how best to climb out of the hole we’ve dug ourselves into.

Presenting My Parents to a New Generation

May 15, 2014

Tags: Rosenberg Case, high school students, NSA

I’ve only given a few talks about my parents’ case in the last several years, but I’ll be making a presentation to local high school students next week. I’ve done dozens of these talks over the past 40 years and although the content has evolved, the core has remained relatively constant: establish the political climate of the McCarthy period, describe the major pieces of evidence and key prosecution and defense testimony, and examine the research that discredits the evidence and demonstrates prosecution witnesses’ perjuries and the government’s trickery. I conclude that my parents did not steal the secret of the atomic bomb, that my mother did not engage in espionage, and that whatever my father did, it did not justify a death sentence.

Planning this talk I realize that I must make major revisions to take into account not only the significant, recent developments in the case, but also because of important contemporary issues of secret police surveillance and judicial fairness. Since 2008, my understanding of what happened to my parents has changed in these ways:

• Morton Sobell, my parents’ co-defendant, recanted his previous denials and admitted that he, with my father and others provided military industrial information to the USSR during the 1940’s
• Ruth Greenglass’s previously secret Grand Jury testimony implied my mother’s innocence.
• Analysis of publicly available KGB, CIA and NSA files indicated that the Greenglasses attempted to steal atomic secrets, independently of my parents.
• Before my parents’ trial, Justice Department officials shared with my parents’ trial judge information that the NSA had decoded Soviet electronic transmissions which proved Julius Rosenberg aided the KGB.

The last point is key. Since the Judge “knew” my father was guilty before the trial began, it was a sham. The evidence didn’t matter. So my usual presentation of evidence, piece by piece, showing how it unraveled over the years, while exposing the mechanics of the frame-up, no longer gets to the heart of the judicial unfairness in the Rosenberg case.

Instead, I need to focus attention on the NSA files which indicate that although Julius Rosenberg provided the USSR with military-industrial information and connected his brother-in-law, David Greenglass, to the KGB, Julius was ignorant of the A-bomb project and asked that Greenglass meet another handler. The files also show Ethel Rosenberg did not participate in espionage, but Ruth Greenglass did. Evidently, the Justice Department showed the judge that my father was connected to the KGB and that he involved David Greenglass, but WITHHELD that Julius knew nothing about the A-bomb project and that Ethel was not involved. Judge Kaufman was known for his over-bearing arrogance; it is unlikely that he considered that the Justice Department would dare to manipulate him.

The prosecution’s secret sharing with the judge before the trial began was unconstitutional, perhaps even illegal. The presumption of innocence, a cornerstone of our judicial system, was destroyed. The rights of defendants to confront the testimony against him or her, and of cross examination were thrown out the window. Judicial impartiality was obliterated. This is how our court system was maneuvered into wrongfully executing two people.

The high school students in my audience next week might not care a lot about two thirty-somethings executed over six decades ago, but I’m hoping they do care about their right to privacy and their civil liberties today. The contemporary use of secret deliberations and evidence at Guantanamo’s military tribunals, or in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (the FISA court), provide the same recipe for outrageous injustice. Even worse, laws have been changed and the constitution re-interpreted to make what was done illegally in my parents’ case perfectly “legal” now.

In post 9/11 America, my parents’ case reverberates from Chelsea Manning to Edward Snowden. My challenge next week is to help students born 45 years after my parents’ deaths see that we are making the same mistakes and that our current practice makes injustices even more likely in their future.

Global Warming or Climate Change?

May 8, 2014

Tags: Global Warming, Climate Change

Global warming and climate change are often used interchangeably, but do they mean the same thing? Environmental activists’ criticisms of the latter phrase concern the lulling effect of this “more neutral” term. They point out that not all climate change is bad. In fact, what is problematic about today’s climate change is its rapid pace and searing direction. However, others hesitate to use global warming because that’s too narrowly focused on temperature. True, global warming doesn’t tell the whole story, but I’ve made it my primary descriptor to emphasize the urgency of the situation.

Mark Hertsgaard, in his book HOT: LIVING THROUGH THE NEXT FIFTY YEARS ON EARTH, does an excellent job of pin-pointing what the two terms denote.

“[G]lobal warming refers to the man-made rise in temperatures caused by excessive amounts of carbon dioxide, methane, and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Climate change, on the other hand, refers to the effects these higher temperatures have on earth’s natural systems, and the impact that can result: stronger storms, deeper droughts, shifting seasons, sea level rise, and much else.”

More simply, the first phrase is the cause and the second the effect.

So both terms have their proper place. I will try to use them accordingly, but I’m still leery of climate change. This is because as I mentioned above, change per se, is not the problem. In fact, our planet’s climate has been evolving throughout its four billion year history. The pace of change has been uneven, but during the vast majority of the last half billion years it has been mild enough to promote evolution without causing mass extinctions.

There have been exceptions. When an asteroid the size of Mt. Everest smashed into what is now the Yucatan Peninsula 67 million years ago, a steamy-hot earth was plunged into “nuclear” winter almost overnight. The temperature increase over thousands of years brought about by a massive spike in the atmosphere’s methane content 225 million years ago doomed 95% of all plant and animal species alive at that time.

I mention these because the changes scientists are predicting echo both mass extinction events. Such nightmare scenarios, rather than the “normal” climate change, are what we face now. Many species today are unable to adjust to the rate at which global temperatures are increasing. And if we continue on our current course, the predicted 6 to 7 degree Celsius rise in global temperature over the next hundred years may trigger massive releases of methane currently trapped in artic permafrost and the ocean depths that could raise temperature even further and render the air we breathe toxic.

This kind of extreme climate change is what we must do everything in our power to prevent. So, no matter how accurate the phrase climate change is in describing the effect of global warming it still does not adequately address our current peril.

Memories

May 1, 2014

Tags: 1968, Anti-war movement, Environmental movement

Every year I look forward to late April. Not only is spring bursting forth, with the promise of summer on the horizon, but it also transports me to late April 1968 when Elli and I got married.

We didn’t follow tradition. For my relatives and New York area friends we had a party at my parents’ house on Sunday April 21st. Three days later we were married by a county court clerk in Rockville, Maryland followed by a second party the next weekend at Elli’s parents’ home for our D.C. area friends.

After the festivities, Elli and I and our cat drove back to our tiny apartment in Ann Arbor (yes, we were nuts to bring the cat). I had just completed my junior year at the University of Michigan, and in the fall Elli would start at the big U’s School of Art, where she’d been accepted as a transfer student. We topped off the spring celebrations with our late April/early May birthdays.

This year hasn’t been so festive. It’s rainy, cold, and dreary outside. Elli’s elderly father, who lives in an independent living community near us, developed an acute back problem three weeks ago. Until then, Jack had been remarkably independent given his almost 97 years and blindness, but severe back pain has made it very difficult for him to function. Elli has been with him daily, trying to organize a plan of treatment in the hope that he’ll regain his independence. I’ve been chief companion and gofer; as I run errands or wait for prescriptions to be filled, I’ve had a lot of time to let my mind wander.

Elli tells me that when her mind wanders she hangs out with the characters and story of the novel she’s currently working on. My mind, especially this year, keeps drifting back to April 1968 and our time in Ann Arbor.

I’m blown away by the passage of time. Forty-six years ago, at our wedding party, Elli’s father was fifty years old. He was only nine years older than our older daughter is today. Though we didn’t think so then, Elli and I were still closing out our childhood. I found it offensive that Maryland demanded that I get my parents’ notarized permission in order to get married (it was two-and-a-half weeks before my 21st birthday). In retrospect, we wouldn’t join the adult world until we moved to Springfield and had our first child several years later.

Beyond the passage of time, I think about how intensely committed we were to participating in political struggles. We’d already been active in the civil rights and anti-war movements, but they morphed into supporting black liberation and evolved from protest to disruption. Feminism, gay rights and environmentalism erupted and we entered the fray whole-heartedly. Those battles still echo, but their relationship to the passage of time has changed.

Back then, just a few years after the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Vietnam War raged and we feared we had little time before the war escalated into a nuclear conflagration. And although we were becoming concerned about environmental damage, we weren’t yet worried about how quickly climate damage would escalate and threaten our world. Today, the time-frame of these over-arching issues has flipped. The time is achingly short to avoid an ecologically generated destruction of civilization.

I see the toll caring for her father is taking on Elli. It is so emotionally difficult to take care of a parent in extreme old age. My hope today is that, come 30 or 60 years from now, my children and theirs will, if necessary, have the opportunity to face similar difficulties, rather than having their world crumble around them.

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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