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Pete Seeger

I am reposting a blog my Daughter, Jenn, and I posted on the Rosenberg Fund for Children’s website www.rfc.org yesterday.

We woke up Tuesday morning to the news that Pete Seeger had died.

My (Robert’s) first memory of Pete was seeing him and the rest of the Weavers at Carnegie Hall just before Christmas in 1955. I was eight years old. My parents, Abel and Anne Meeropol, who knew the Seegers, took me to visit them at their home in the Hudson River Valley of New York the following year.

I remember that visit. Pete had a way of engaging children. He asked me to get his long neck banjo out of its case in the bedroom and bring it to him. I proudly held it against my chest with its long neck projecting above my head as I marched back to the living room. That’s why I banged the top of it on the door jam. I was mortified, but he didn’t seem to mind. I found out only last year, when talking with one of his grandchildren at Toshi’s memorial, that Pete hadn’t built the doorway high enough, and my accident merely provided further proof.

Not surprisingly, I (Jenn) grew up listening to and singing Pete Seeger's songs. My favorite early Pete memory is meeting him for the first time with my younger sister when she was about 3 or 4. She took one look at him and whispered “garbage, garbage, garbage” (part of the chorus of her favorite Pete song) before hiding behind our mom. He smiled at her and sang the rest of the chorus.

Pete was the headliner at the kick-off benefit concert for the Rosenberg Fund for Children in 1990, and in 1997 performed in another RFC benefit. He and his wife Toshi were original members of our Advisory Board.

We could count on Pete to come to our aid. He joined us again in 2001, when he and his grandson Tao helped us celebrate the RFC’s 10th anniversary. When, in 2003, pneumonia prevented him from joining the RFC’s 50th anniversary commemoration of Ethel and Julius’ executions, he sent a heartfelt, but unnecessary, apology. We knew the only reason he didn’t make it was because it was physically impossible.

Pete was always there for us, our family and our projects. And perhaps the most remarkable thing about him is that this was no exception. For the last 75 years he was there for almost every progressive undertaking you could imagine. There simply was no one else like him.

Robert and Jenn Meeropol Read More 
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Need of Flying

Perhaps the single worst, seemingly harmless, thing we can do to damage our environment is fly on a jet plane. For instance each passenger on a round trip from New York to Los Angeles accounts for a metric ton of carbon spewed high into the atmosphere, where it does a lot more damage than at sea level.

I’ve known this fact for several years, but I still don’t know how to act on that information. In response, Elli and I have significantly reduced, but not entirely eliminated, vacation flying. But my post-retirement part-time work for the RFC includes visiting major RFC supporters while accompanying Elli’s travel to writer’s conferences and on book tour when her next novel is published in early 2015. We’ll take trains or drive when possible; it’s not always possible.

I’m conflicted about even this reduced use of air travel. My primary activism today is to sound the alarm about fast-approaching ecological disasters. I’m motivated for personal reasons: if we don’t change course, the second half of my five and one-year-old grandchildren’s lives will be hellish. I am also compelled by global reasons: our actions are dooming the vast majority of Earth’s animals and plants to rapid extinction.

Before going further, let me back up for a moment. Some of you may believe that my conclusions in the last paragraph are exaggerated, even hysterical. But I know that many of you at least fear that I am right. I don’t want to argue if you think it really isn’t so bad, or if you have faith that we’ll figure a way out of the mess we have created. Instead, I ask you to assume that I am describing the danger accurately and help me figure this out.

How can I hold myself out as publicly devoted to preventing global warming, yet act in a manner that speeds up that process? Mark Lynas, in his book Six Degrees provides a quick summary of individual excuses for inaction (quoted from p. 289):
• The ‘metaphor of displaced commitment’ (‘I protect the environment in other ways, like recycling’)
• The denial of responsibility (‘I am not the main cause of the problem’)
• Condemning the accuser (‘You have no right to challenge me’)
• Rejection of blame (‘I’ve done nothing wrong.’)
• Ignorance (‘I don’t know the consequences of my actions’)
• Powerlessness (‘Nothing I do makes much difference’)
• Comfort (‘It is too difficult for me to change my behavior’)
• And ‘fabricated constraints’ (‘There are too many impediments’)

I’ve heard all these arguments many times. Hell, I’ve even made them. In addition, I believe that capitalism itself is the principle driving force of the problem. Our system is based upon profit, and competition which requires the never-ending growth of economic exchanges. Perpetual growth feeds climate change and causes resource depletion. But does the fact that we can’t avert a global environmental collapse without altering the basic structure of our society absolve me from discontinuing one activity – flying – that will massively reduce my carbon footprint?

We are not helpless. If we calculate our carbon footprint and what actions are likely to increase or decrease it, at least we can make more informed decisions. And while I am far from overcoming my own need of flying, for me, confronting this dilemma is a necessary first step. I hope that engaging in a constructive discussion of this issue will provide some insights and I welcome your input.  Read More 
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The Problem With Snapshots

Last week several local newspapers in Wisconsin and Minnesota carried news stories about the National Weather Service report that the extent of ice on Lake Superior this month is greater than at any time since January 1989. In fact, this winter has seen the second fastest build up of ice in the Great Lakes since they started keeping track in 1978.

How could the ice cover be increasing if the climate is warming?

Project: Ice, a new documentary film about the changing climate of the Great Lakes, tells a different story. “This is the first winter in a long time that we’ve seen ice forming on Lake Michigan in December,” Co-producer Kevin Kusina explained during the Q&A session after a screening of the film. While working on the film he said he found the lack of ice in recent years depressing.

Weather nut that I am, I remember the Great Lakes ice of the past as well. While I was student at the University of Michigan (1967-1971), I vividly recall reports of the annual battles ice breakers had to keep the shipping lanes open in winter.

The recent stories of this year’s increased ice build-up leave the impression that belies recent climate history. The real story is not that there is so much ice, but that there has been much less ice for so long. In other words, the Great Lakes are more ice-choked this year, but prior to 1978 this would not have been so unusual.

I doubt the newspapers are intentionally deceiving their readers. In this sound bite age, with the accompanying erosion of in-depth reportage, a quick-hit three paragraph “snapshot” that reports on a current happening is the standard. The reporters may have had no knowledge of the diminishing ice coverage of the Great Lakes since the 1960’s, and anyone reading this story who is under 40 will be too young to remember.

Those who do not dig more deeply can become easy targets for the climate change denier propaganda machine of the fossil fuel companies. After all, global warming is real bad news, and it is only natural for people to deny such news when they hear it. The snapshot reporting that most people see, hear or read is bound to leave false impressions about the nature, extent and even existence of climate change.

This presents a real challenge for those of us organizing to combat global warming. We don’t have the financial resources to refute the multi-million dollar advertising campaigns of the fossil fuel companies. However, we can, with a letter to the editor or an in-person conversation, reach out to people who may become confused by what they have read in the paper. We need to look beyond the snapshot, be sufficiently educated to understand the complexities, and we must work at crafting answers that take them into account without descending into jargon or burying people in detail. Finally, we should take heart that, since the vast majority of people can see the frightening changes for themselves, our audience is becoming more receptive.  Read More 
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Most of us have heard about the activists who admitted burglarizing the FBI office in Media, PA in March 1971. The internal documents they leaked to the press revealed COINTELPRO, the FBI’s illegal multi-prong campaign to destroy the anti-war and civil rights movements in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s and led to significant civil liberties victories. Many Internet postings have focused on the similarities between COINTELPRO and the NSA spying forty years later, and between the liberators of the Media FBI documents and today’s whistleblowers, Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning.

I find the differences between the two situations just as interesting.

COINTELPRO (an acronym for COunter INTELligence PROgram) was designed to undermine the effectiveness of, and in some cases assassinate, activists who were struggling to bring about basic changes in our foreign and domestic policies. The FBI had specific targets, including the Black Panthers, CORE and other Civil Rights organizations, Puerto Rican Nationalists, the American Indian Movement, SDS and the Weathermen. Even though the project was interrupted, COINTELPRO played a powerful role in undermining progressive movements of the late 1960’s and 1970’s.

In contrast, the National Security Administration appears to be collecting massive amounts of data; they want to know everything about everybody. This government spying is ubiquitous and indiscriminate, even sometimes ludicrous. I got a kick out of the stories last month about a mysterious task force of federal anti-terrorist agents who searched a Long Island family’s home after the husband and wife conducted internet searches for backpacks and pressure cookers and their teen-aged son researched the Boston Marathon bombing.

You could describe the FBI tactics as authoritarian (enforcing strict obedience to the government at the expense of personal freedom) and the NSA’s as totalitarian (centralized and dictatorial, requiring complete subservience to the state). I worry that the repeated assaults on progressive dissent from the Red Scare of the 1950’s, to COINTELPRO, and the draconian post 9/11 laws, have finally succeeded in disempowering the activist bulwarks against assaults on our civil liberties. In this manner the earlier authoritarian attacks may have set the stage for our current government’s totalitarian foray, leaving a pacified and frightened population, willing to accept today’s global surveillance in the name of security.

Many commentators have concluded that the problem with these NSA tactics is that they invade our privacy and sweep up harmless innocents. Such analysis reminds me of “Good Night and Good Luck,” the film about Edward R. Murrow during the McCarthy period. The film’s focus on the harm caused to non-communists by McCarthy’s wild accusations might have left viewers wondering if the Red Scare would have been acceptable if its attacks had been limited to real communists.

While the danger posed by blanket surveillance is real and must be resisted, I worry most about targeted authoritarian attacks against those working to shift the balance of power and change government policies. What is most dangerous about both COINTELPRO and the NSA’s spying is not that they destroy our privacy and ensnare the innocent, but rather that they target political dissidents who are essential to maintaining the rich fabric of our freedoms.  Read More 
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Climate Justice First: an open letter to our New Left generation

Each New Year is a time of reflection, of looking forward, of hope. For the two of us, it’s also a time to renew our commitment to progressive activism. Over the decades, this work has involved many of you and has addressed many different issues – antiwar and antinuke, civil liberties and economic justice, gender and racial equality – in our local communities and around the globe. Understanding the close connections and shared causes of these oppressions, we have always believed that activists should support each other as we each work on the issues that fire our passion.

But things have changed. Global corporate-driven industrialization and militarization are, with increasing momentum, driving our planet toward total biotic collapse. The other issues – mass imprisonment and food safety and reproductive rights and a living wage – are as important as ever, but climate change is upon us and we have entered a new and very dangerous territory. We are concerned that so few of our comrades from the sixties are actively engaged in confronting this overriding challenge. We probably won’t live to see global devastation, but we are leaving our children and grandchildren a legacy of hell on earth. If nations and corporations continue to act as they have, it is most likely that we will render significant portions of our planet uninhabitable in the next 50 to 100 years.

This feels both colossal and very personal. Our grandchildren, now one and five, along with their entire generation, will live much shorter and harsher lives unless we stop the corporate-led forces that are at this moment committing terracide.

There are many reasons we are tempted to avoid this fight. Fighting for climate justice compels us to learn a new scientific vocabulary, to redirect our attention to how we interact with the physical elements of our planet, the animals, plants and minerals. It forces us to face, yet again, the greed of corporations and the complicity of governments. It requires us to accept that both major political parties have deep ties to the polluters and their buddies, and cannot be trusted to make the necessary changes. This task is overwhelming, but our grandchildren’s generation is doomed if we don’t take it on.

There is hope. The scientific evidence is strong. The movements for climate justice are growing. We ask you to join us – to read the books and articles if you haven’t already, and to join the climate justice activists. Our collective work against poverty, racism, sexism, homophobia, indigenous rights still matters a hell of a lot. But if we plunge our planet into an ecological abyss, it won’t matter who is on the Supreme Court, who has the right to vote or to marry whom, or what the minimum wage is.

Our generation may be graying, but we can do this. We’ve done it before. We can educate ourselves, set priorities, and work both locally and globally. We can start new groups or join existing ones. (Organizations that don’t call for changing the basic nature of capitalism include 350.org, Sierra Club, Climate Action Now. A Marxist analysis is provided in the Monthly Review and Deep Green Resistance has an even more basic critique.)

It will not be easy; those who profit from the planet-killing industries are powerful. There is no guarantee of success. But we know our friends and comrades can make a tremendous difference if we all put our minds to it. As we enter 2014, we can’t imagine anything more worthwhile than preventing the collapse of the miraculous web of plant and animal life on our majestic and fragile home.

Ellen & Robert Meeropol Read More 
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