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Strange Thanks

This Thanksgiving, I’m thankful for Strange Fruit.

My adoptive father, Abel Meeropol, wrote the words and music to Billie Holiday’s signature song, Strange Fruit. Abel, a high school English teacher with a passion for writing, reacted to a gruesome photograph of a lynching in late 1936, with a poem entitled “Bitter Fruit.” In 1937 or 1938 he set the poem to music and changed the title. Billie Holiday did not perform it until 1939. Strange Fruit was the composition my father was most proud of, but one that he never lived with easily. In 1940, Abel was called before New York State’s Rapp-Coudert Committee, a legislative commission attempting to root out communist teachers, and asked if the Communist Party ordered him to write the song.

Later, Billie Holiday claimed in her ghost-written autobiography that she set Abel’s poem to music. To this day you can find online references to Strange Fruit that attribute its words to Abel Meeropol and music to Billie Holiday. Growing up in the Meeropol household I witnessed Abel’s frustration at his inability to correct this misperception.

But Abel was even more troubled by the song’s eclipse. It was widely recognized in the 1940’s, but in the great red scare of the 1950’s, it almost disappeared from the public arena. In fact, by the time Abel died in 1986 the song had faded into relative obscurity. This was one of Abel’s biggest regrets.

But the strange fruit allusion - lynched bodies hanging from trees – was one of genius. It had gotten under our culture’s skin, and as time went on, it seeped out of its pores.

The song’s rebirth was slow at first, recorded out of the country or at the edges of acceptability. The Jamaican group UB40 taped it in 1980. Sting performed it on an album celebrating Amnesty International’s 25th anniversary in 1986, and the punk group, Siouxsie and the Banshees, followed suit in 1987. Cassandra Wilson introduced Strange Fruit to a new generation in her widely acclaimed debut album in 1995. In 2000, Time Magazine named it the “song of the century” and Daivd Margolick’s book, Strange Fruit, Billie Holiday, Café Society and an Early Cry for Civil Rights, sold well. That was followed by Joel Katz’s film documentary about the song, in 2002.

David Margolick wrote that although Abel wrote Strange Fruit, he was best known for adopting my brother and me. I don’t know if that was ever the case, but it certainly has not been so for the last decade. Nowadays there are more online references to Abel Meeropol as the author of Strange Fruit, who “by the way,” also adopted the son’s of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, than to any other member of our family.

2013 has seen the Strange Fruit concept, explode. Kanye West’s sampling of Nina Simone’s version in his Yeezus CD made it an internet sensation. Almost every week I hear about new recordings, concert performances, musicals, dances and even art exhibits inspired by the song. The November 20th episode of the TV series Criminal Minds, which ironically features heroic FBI agents, was entitled “Strange Fruit.” It has even been used as a verb. To “strange fruit” someone, is to do what George Zimmerman did to Trayvon Martin.

Close to 80 years after Abel wrote those 97 potent words (that’s right, the entire song contains less than 100 words), the pot is in full boil. I am so thankful for Abel’s brilliant creation because Strange Fruit’s growing power gives me hope. The pen just could be mightier than the sword after all. Read More 
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Who is the Worst Polluter?

It is commonly repeated that coal-fired power plants have the worst carbon footprint in the United States. We know this because the coal industry is listed annually in the federal government’s environmental reports as the industry with the most CO2 emissions. However, it is not the case.

The United States Department of Defense has a carbon footprint that is much greater than that of the coal industry. And, as Project Censored has reported, this fact has been consistently ignored and/or covered up by our government and media. [www.projectcensored.org/2-us-department-of-defense-is-the-worst-polluter-on-the-planet/]

One of the reasons the public does not know about our military’s abysmal environmental record is because, for national security reasons, the pentagon is exempt from all EPA reporting requirements. And both the Bush and Obama Administrations have insisted that our military not be included in any international climate agreements. This is despite of the fact that our armed forces are continually engaged in massive military operations all over the world, have troops on the ground and bases in dozens of countries, on top of six thousand domestic facilities.

It will surprise no one that despite some recent reports of pentagon-directed efforts at conservation, reducing carbon emissions does not appear to be a priority of the military. Steve Kretzmann, director of Oil Change International, states in the Project Censored article that “The Iraq war was responsible for at least 141 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalents from March 2003 through December 2007.” (Project Censored, quoting.) It is hard even to imagine the scale of the pollutants spewed from every military vehicle; including Humvees, tanks, aircraft carriers, bombers and fighter jets to name just a few.

I’m aware of no organized effort of those fighting against climate change to protest our military’s CO2 output. The realization, however, that each ounce of fuel the U.S. Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines and their private contractors burn remains uncounted in any environmental impact statement worldwide should give climate-change activists pause. If we wish to significantly slow down, let alone reverse, the escalating pace of global warming, we can no longer afford to ignore the United States military.

In addition, green activists and those working to combat militarism are natural allies. Not only is war wrong, it is destroying our planet’s habitability; environmental sustainability is not possible as long as the guns keep firing.

Every week we see more evidence that we must build a mass movement to challenge the current dominance of those who are destroying our habitat. The Green and Peace movements are two key building blocks of the mass movement we so desperately need. An alliance between them is a coalescence whose time has come.
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The New Normal

It will come as no surprise to those who know me that the Weather Channel is my favorite TV station. Recently I noticed that when focusing on issues related to climate change, Weather Channel reporters characterized increased weather fluctuations as “the new normal.” While I’m glad that the Weather Channel is finally addressing global warming, “the new normal” phrase is problematic.

I don’t like the label because it gives the impression that we’ve moved from one relatively constant state to another. When, as a teenager, I first started studying climate seriously, I learned that when TV weather forecasters predicted below normal temperatures for the coming week, “normal” referred to average temperatures during that week over the last 30 years. Thus, unlike our understanding of normal body temperature (98.6), normal weather was not a constant, but changeable over time. You could say that though our climate for the first seven decades of the 20th century was relatively constant, there is no such thing as normal weather. Some meteorologists have tried to be more accurate by substituting the word average for normal, but I think the distinction is lost on most people.

Who cares, you may wonder, besides weather-obsessed nerds like me. Accurately describing future climatic change, however, is critical to understanding the challenges we will face over the next 50 years. A discussion I had with a friend over lunch a few weeks ago illustrates this.

We were disagreeing about the impact of global warming on the fruitfulness of the planet. I remarked that changing weather patterns threatened to significantly decrease earth’s productive capacity. Given the extent of hunger today, cutting the world’s fertility by 50% would be a catastrophe of almost unimaginable proportions. He responded that climate change wouldn’t necessarily decrease the global food supply. He argued that while, as temperatures warmed, China might grow less rice, Canada and Russia would grow more wheat.

I don’t know enough to balance a decline in Chinese rice production with an increase in Canadian wheat harvests, but my friend’s prediction demonstrates the danger of the concept of moving from the old to a new normal state. This treats global warming as akin to climbing steps. You progress from a lower flat surface to the next higher one, and this concept does not capture the essence of Global Warming. We have entered a rapidly changing environment and we must live with an increasingly dynamic process. The climate won’t plateau after it has gotten a few degrees warmer. The conditions on the Canadian prairies may favor increased wheat harvests for a few years, but those conditions will keep changing.

Moreover, the concept of the new normal does not take into account growing systemic volatility. The increase in greenhouse gases in our atmosphere acts as insulation trapping energy and this excess power finds an outlet in bigger disturbances. We’ll see more instability resulting in unprecedented floods, droughts, hurricanes and tornadoes. Such conditions are not conducive to sustaining more bountiful harvests anywhere.

Perhaps unprecedented weather is what the folks at the Weather Channel mean by the “new normal.” But labeling as “normal” phenomena that have no norm is worthless. It obfuscates rather than clarifies, and we need as much clarity as we can get as we face this challenge.
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The Knowledge That Others Will Carry On

In her final hours my mother, Ethel Rosenberg, wrote, for her and Julius: “[W]e were comforted in the sure knowledge that others would carry on after us.” Many years later, these words sparked the creation of the Rosenberg Fund for Children (RFC).

Last weekend I spoke in Toronto at a reception to re-launch the Mary Pitawanakwat Fund (MPF). The MPF is similar to the Rosenberg Fund and was, for a number of years, an RFC Canadian sub-fund. Now, after being taken under the tax-exempt wing of the Toronto-based Winchevsky Centre of the United Jewish People's Order, it was finally 100% Canadian.

Mary Pitawanakwat, a First Nations Ojibway woman, was hired by the Canadian Human Rights Commission in 1979. In 1984, she filed suit because, among other things, her boss called native people’s “savages” and sexually harassed her. In response, her supervisor claimed he was only testing the “smaller personal space” of natives. In 1986 the Commission fired her for “incompetence.” She spent the rest of her life battling to vindicate her rights. By the time she won her legal claim she was dying of breast cancer. She continued to organize on behalf of others until she died at the age of 45, confident that the struggle would continue.

Her fight took a toll on her teenaged children. Mary did what she could to protect Brock and Robyn, including applying for RFC support. Although we do not normally give grants outside of the United States, the RFC made an exception in her case.

Mary was already quite ill when I met her, but she left me inspired with her powerful spirit of resistance. In the 18 years since, I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know Brock and Robyn, as they became an important part of the RFC community.

Speaking before many supporters last Sunday, including Brock, Robyn, their partners, and their five children (Robyn has three, Brock has two), my mother’s final words echoed. Those words are rich in political, social and personal meaning. Some view them as a political prediction, but I read in them an expression of faith that a community would protect and guide my brother and me. She was expressing her trust that despite the great loss their deaths would cause us, we would find our own way and ultimately benefit from our parents’ resistance.

I believe that the lives of my brother and me, of our children and now our grandchildren, bear witness to that trust. Visiting with Brock and Robyn, and their families gave me a profound sense that it was happening again. Mary’s family still lived with the great pain of her loss, but Brock and Robyn have benefited from her legacy, just as I have benefited from my parents’. Mary’s children are leading loving and productive lives, and raising wonderful children. They are proof that Mary’s spirit survives.

Whatever else is wrong with human society, this one thing is decidedly right. I thank my parents, Mary, Robyn and Brock for this priceless gift.

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