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The Birth of a Nation

Most of you probably know about D.W. Griffith’s horrible 1915 film, The Birth of a Nation. It glorified the Ku Klux Klan. President Woodrow Wilson, a virulent racist, showed it in the White House.

African-American filmmaker Nate Parker’s new film with the same title is the story of Nat Turner, who led the great Virginia slave rebellion in 1831. There is already a lot of buzz about this film, which will be released on October 7. It has generated rave advance reviews and sparked an unprecedented bidding war for distribution rights at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. I’m eager to see the film, which I hear is presented from Turner’s point of view. The trailer (link to the left) features Nina Simone singing Strange Fruit, written by my father, Abel Meeropol.

Some may wonder what Strange Fruit, a song about lynching written in the late 1930’s, has to do with a slave uprising that took place over 100 years earlier. I don’t know if Strange Fruit is played in the body of the movie, so I don’t know how entwined the song is with the plot. But despite the 100-year gap, given what I know about Nat Turner’s rebellion, the film and song are well matched.

Strange Fruit is often referred to as a “sorrowful dirge,” or as a “protest song.” While it does fit within the protest song category, I think that term misses its essence. Strange Fruit is an attack song. With his couplet “Pastoral scene of the gallant South. The bulging eyes and twisted mouth,” Abel was saying that beneath its genteel facade the South was rotten. Its scornful tone infuriated many whites so much that its performance was banned in some cities and radio stations refused to play it. There were riots at some of the venues where it was performed. In 1940, my father was called before a committee investigating communist school teachers and asked if the Communist Party paid him to write the song.

Similarly, the 2016 version of The Birth of a Nation is an attack movie. It isn’t about the moral superiority of non-violent protesters peacefully asking for desegregation and civil rights in the 1960’s. Instead, it is a justification – and possibly a glorification – of an armed rebellion.

How would my father feel about the use of his greatest work in this manner? He once said he wrote Strange Fruit because he hated lynching and he hated the people who perpetrated it. Abel was no turn-the-other-cheek pacifist. He would have applauded the slaves taking up arms. He would have loved having his song used in this new film.

I look forward to seeing the movie. I intend to watch it through two sets of eyes, my own and my father’s.  Read More 
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A Little Better Doesn’t Matter

I’ve heard progressive people defend Obama’s environmental policies. They claim that even though he’s pushed more drilling, fracking and nuclear power, at least he acknowledges the problem, promotes sustainable energy sources, and has waged a war on coal. In contrast, Republicans say there is no problem, promote “clean coal” and chant “drill baby drill.” These characterizations may be accurate, but climate scientists’ projections indicate we can take little comfort from Obama’s slightly better policies.

How can that be? Isn’t any improvement better than none? Unfortunately no. The idea that even curbing some greenhouse gases must be better than none reflects a fundamental lack of understanding of tipping points and positive feedback loops.

The rising level of CO2 in the atmosphere is common knowledge. Increased CO2 raises global temperature. CO2 was 200 parts/million (ppm) in 1800 and it has now topped 400 ppm. NASA reports that as of 2014, average global temperature had risen 1.2 degrees Fahrenheit, or .8 Celsius, since 1880. To make matters worse there is a 30-year delay in the full effect of CO2 on temperature. That means the current global temperature increase only reflects CO2 increases through 1985.

Extrapolating in a linear manner from this rise misses how climatic change occurs. The reason the Paris climate conference last December set a target of holding global temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius is because the best climate change model projections show that once we cross that marker, we hit a tipping point. This triggers positive feedback loops that create further increases; once initiated these increases cannot be stopped.

The most widely known of these loops is the melting of Arctic Sea ice. Until recently the white Arctic ice cover reflected heat back into space, reducing the effect of the polar summer sun. Now that so much ice has melted, the exposed darker seawater absorbs the heat of the summer sun instead of reflecting it. This causes additional heating, inducing more ice melt, causing more absorption and heating. This positive feedback loop is why Arctic temperatures are rising so rapidly and melting Greenland’s ice sheet. If not reversed, this positive feedback loop will accelerate the demise of the entire ice sheet, drowning coastal cities. But that is not the worst of our troubles.

Other positive feedback loops include the melting of permafrost, the burning of the Amazon rainforest, and the release of methane hydrates from the ocean floor. The best science we have today tells us that once we cross the 1.5 degree Celsius mark, it becomes increasingly difficult to avoid tipping points that will generate at least 5 or 6 Celsius of total warming. That much warming would render much of our planet uninhabitable to humans, and turn much of the remainder into an unproductive wasteland.

Any environmental policy – no matter what the Party affiliation – that carries us across that key climate 1.5 degree Celsius boundary brings us to that tipping point. And remember the 30-year lag between the release of greenhouse gasses and their full impact. Scientists estimate the CO2 and other gasses already released in the last 30 years will add at least another 0.4 degree Celsius rise by 2045. Effectively, we have already created more than a 1.2 Celsius increase.

This approaches an environmental precipice; one we will plunge over, if we by continue Obama-style “slightly better” policies over the next decade. So a little better won't help. Only rapid and drastic reductions in the use of fossil fuels to dramatically decrease greenhouse gasses can prevent this.  Read More 
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You Can’t Have Your Own Facts

I’ve heard liberals on TV tell Republicans that, while they are entitled to their opinions, they can’t have their own facts. They can’t claim it’s a fact that, contrary to all the evidence, Obama was born in Kenya, that Hillary Clinton engaged in a Benghazi cover-up, or that global warming induced climate change is a hoax perpetrated by scientists to get grant money.

But Republicans are not alone in this practice.

Recently, I’ve read online vitriol from Clinton backers attacking Sanders’ supporters who say they will not vote for Clinton if she is the Democratic Party nominee. People like me (I’ve explained in other blogs why I won’t vote for Clinton) have been called, stupid, self righteous, selfish, or idiotic, to name a few. We’ve been told that Trump is so bad (and I agree he is) that we’d be crazy not to vote for Clinton in November. I’ve been told to ignore my opinions, hold my nose, and vote for Clinton.

I’ve responded that every national poll taken throughout this primary season has shown Sanders beating Trump by greater margins than Clinton. The most recent poll shows Clinton barely ahead of Trump, but Sanders still has a double digit lead. This is true in the critical swing states. State polls demonstrate, that unlike Clinton, Sanders is comfortably ahead of Trump in Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania. These same polls report that the majority of voters view both Trump and Clinton negatively, while a majority view Sanders positively. I also note that Sanders wins the “open” primaries because he is more popular among the independents needed to secure a national victory.

Those I’ve argued with refuse to accept these facts. They say they don’t trust the polls. Come on… all of them? Over six months? Really? Or they argue “wait until Trump starts red-baiting Sanders,” as if Sanders hasn’t called himself a democratic socialist so many times that it has gotten boring, and as if Trump’s attacks on Clinton won’t be just as disgusting. Clinton backers are in denial about this. But they can’t have their own facts.

Come November, if Trump wins a close race against Clinton, I expect Clinton’s voters will blame voters like me for Trump’s victory. That doesn’t make sense. If beating Trump is their primary concern, they should look to themselves if they voted for Clinton, along with all the others who voted for her, in their state’s primary. Those voters ignored facts, chose the weaker Democratic candidate, and in doing so left the White House door ajar for Trump.

It is not too late to change. If fear of a Trump presidency drives them, they should start contributing to Sanders’ campaign. They should be calling on the super delegates to back Sanders, and if they live in the few states with remaining primaries they should switch their votes to Sanders.  Read More 
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More Natural Allies

It’s pretty clear that the struggle to prevent global warming induced climate change and the anti-war movement are natural allies. War not only causes death and horrific environmental destruction; it also has an unacceptable carbon footprint. In the May 9th issue of THE NATION, James Gustave Speth and J. Phillip Thompson III assert that the same could be said for the civil rights and green movements.

I hadn’t thought about this before, but I agree with the authors that, “When one explores the roots of both the environmental and civil-rights movements, one finds a strikingly similar radical critique. Both movements have called for a deep restructuring of society and the economy; in both cases, that call was based on an affirmation of life and the devoted care that life requires of us.”

This makes sense because capitalism requires exploitation and degradation of the “other” that both the civil rights and environmental movements must confront. This is why many African-American Community activists and scholars are making more radical assessments of what must be done. This is reflected in the deeper structural analysis of Michelle Alexander’s, book about mass imprisonment, THE NEW JIM CROW, and the more aggressive strategies of the Black Lives Matter and Moral Mondays movements. This analysis includes an understanding that environmental degradation has a disporportionate impact on the poor.

Of course, in the civil rights movement a radical analysis only emerged as Martin Luther King and others moved beyond calls for desegregation, legal and voting rights. And the civil rights movement viewed the “other” as different races, while the environmental movement defined the “other” more broadly as the natural world.

Traditional leftists often scoff at Green and Animal Rights activism. But these groups’ challenge to our society’s commodification of animal and plant life and natural resources confronts the same bad actors that mistreat workers and non-whites. Naomi Klein made this point in THIS CHANGES EVERYTHING when she writes that the battle to prevent climate chaos can unify the left because those engaged in struggles to end war, promote economic and racial justice, as well as stop the extraction of fossil fuels, are up against the same corporate enemies. The green, racial justice, anti-war and animal rights movements are learning that to achieve these progressive goals they must change the nature of the system that empowers those enemies.

Fortunately, Speth and Thompson are not crying in the wilderness. People of color and indigenous activists in the US and across the globe are forging new alliances to fight everything from the placement of toxic waste dumps, to extractionist infrastructure, to the theft and destruction of natural resources and habitats. The emergence of these alliances and the potential for even more to develop are the best hope we have to save ourselves along with much of our planet’s plant and animal life from environmentally generated decimation.

THE NATION article is part of a growing understanding that it isn’t only people who must be liberated from the global tyranny of massive corporations and the governments they dominate. These institutions gain power by controlling all peoples, animals, plants and resources, by marginalizing the needs of the poor and voiceless, animal and vegetable. It follows that the best way to break their death grip is to liberate not only people, but the entire natural world.  Read More 
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