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I Know My Way Around the Catskills

Veteran CBS reporter Bob Simon died in a car accident last week. Wikipedia states that he “covered crises, war, and unrest in 67 countries. Simon reported the withdrawal of American troops from Vietnam, the Yom Kippur War in 1973, and the student protests in China's Tiananmen Square in 1989. During the Persian Gulf War in 1991, he and four of his TV crew were captured and imprisoned by Iraq for 40 days, about which experience he wrote a book, Forty Days.”

I have a different recollection of Bob Simon.

He was the host of CBS’s “Sixty Minutes Two” when David Greenglass broke his 50-year silence. The interview was broadcast on December 5th, 2001, and although my memory is not precise enough to repeat Bob’s questions and David’s answers verbatim, that interview is seared in my mind.

My younger daughter, Rachel, now an attorney suing the government on behalf of political prisoners while working for the Center for Constitutional Rights, was then in law school. The day of the broadcast, Rachel said, “It’s my birthday. Do I have to watch it?” Of course not, I responded, but I felt compelled to watch and was immediately distressed. Even with a fake beard, I could see a family resemblance. I was mortified to think that I looked even a bit like my uncle.

Bob Simon asked Greenglass how he expected to be remembered. David’s reply was unhesitating: As a spy who turned his sister in, he said. Simon followed up with how that made David feel. The instantaneous response was, “I don’t lose any sleep over it.” And I think David was telling the truth, even though it was an astounding statement for someone who’d just admitted on national television that his key trial testimony against his sister, my mother, was a lie.

And so it went, more probing questions, and a series of amoral, sociopathic replies. I was struck that as the interview progressed, Simon leaned further and further back in his seat. His body language seemed to indicate that he wanted to put as much space as possible between himself and Greenglass. Watching the two men, I felt that Simon was almost as repulsed as I was.

The program included a moment of comic relief. Greenglass said that in the month before his arrest he realized the FBI was following him so he devised an escape plan for himself and his family. He told Simon that he slipped his tail and spent the day in the Catskills to see if it would work. Simon was incredulous. You mean you thought you and your family could hide from the FBI in the Catskills? Greenglass replied with a hint of petulance, “You’d be surprised. I know my way around the Catskills.”

Perhaps you will think that I’m letting Greenglass off the hook too easily, but that statement epitomized the mindless arrogance that enabled Greenglass to rationalize all his actions without batting an eye. So I couldn’t help laughing. Perhaps, with Bob Simon’s help, David Greenglass had just written a fitting epitaph.  Read More 
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Fear of Trains?

I admit it: I’m a sucker for trains. I fell in love with New York City subways as a child. Sometimes on weekends my brother and I picked a line, usually one with a long elevated section, rode it to the end and then took it back home. Starting in the fourth grade, I took the train to school from the Upper West Side to Greenwich Village. I’d stand at the front window of the first car staring at the onrushing rails, signals and stations, pretending to be the motorman. After we moved to Westchester when I was a teenager, I’d ride what was then called the Grand Central Railroad (now MetroNorth) into the city whenever I could.

Now my favorite way to get to New York is to drive to New Haven and take MetroNorth. Other people get work or reading done on the train. I can’t; I’m transfixed by the world passing by. I was so excited to ride the bullet train in Japan a few years ago. And while I’m not sure when we’ll manage it, I’m already dreaming about taking the Canadian National Railroad with Elli from Toronto to Banff and Jasper.

The mass media histrionics in the wake of every deadly commuter rail accident troubles me. Are my trusted trains becoming unsafe? I suspected, however, that even with the recent spate of MetroNorth commuter rail accidents, it was likely that passenger trains remained safer than driving. So I checked it out. I asked a transportation expert friend for research tips to find accurate information on the relative safety of passenger rail versus auto travel.

While the figures for 2014 aren’t out yet, motor vehicle crashes have resulted in 32,000 to 35,000 deaths annually since 2010. That translates to a death rate of slightly over 1 per 100 million miles travelled per year. This figure underestimates the peril to car and small truck drivers and their passengers, because it includes heavy truck and bus riders who have a much lower accident mortality rate.

As of 2013, travel on intercity rail was about 20 times safer than driving. Impressive as that number is, it actually exaggerates the danger to train passengers because most of the reported fatalities are people in cars that get hit by trains at railroad crossings. Incidentally, a surprisingly high percentage of those deaths are ruled suicides.

While a couple of recent accidents may have put a dent in rail’s safety superiority, the bottom line remains that you are much safer traveling in a train than in a car.

I can’t help but wonder if there is a pro-auto, anti-train, bias in the media’s fear-mongering about commuter rail service. Oil companies and the automobile industry are acutely aware of the threat an efficient rail poses to their profits, and they are not above badmouthing such travel in order to undermine efforts to expand and upgrade train service. Don’t be fooled, even our outdated, and underfunded rail system is worth riding. I will continue to take the train whenever I can. Read More 
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Strange Convergence: Billie Holiday and Ethel Rosenberg

If Billie Holiday and Ethel Rosenberg were alive, they’d both celebrate their 100th birthdays this year. At first glance they may seem an unlikely couple, but a closer look reveals surprising parallels.

They were each born into poverty six months and a hundred miles apart. Billie in April 1915 in Philadelphia, and Ethel in September in lower Manhattan. Both had extraordinary singing voices, although Billie’s vocal genius eclipsed Ethel’s. Still, Ethel’s teachers considered her voice so special that they called her out of class to sing the national anthem at assemblies.

Both girls were precocious. Ethel graduated high school at 15 and tried to pursue a singing and acting career. At the height of the depression, she could only find work as a clerk-typist in New York’s garment district. There she helped organize and lead a strike at 19. Billie was singing in clubs in Harlem at 17, and made her mark as a recording artist before she was 20.

Both got in trouble with the law. Billie first ran afoul of powerful forces for singing “Strange Fruit,” the anti-lynching anthem. Her performances generated threats, even riots. Josh White also sang the song and was questioned by the House Un-American Activities Committee during the McCarthy period. He bowed to their demands that he stop. Billie defiantly refused and continued singing “Strange Fruit.” Many believe that her resistance led law enforcement to hound and arrest her in 1947 for drug possession. She served almost a year in prison, and her conviction disrupted her career for the rest of her life.

In 1950 Ethel was arrested with her husband Julius and charged with Conspiracy to Commit Espionage; they were convicted and sentenced to death. The government knew she had not committed espionage, but they held her as a hostage to coerce her husband into cooperating with the authorities. She refused to confess to something she did not do and backed her husband’s refusal to implicate others. The FBI files never claimed she was guilty, but consistently described her as “cognizant and recalcitrant.”

You might conclude that Billie and Ethel had similar talents and defied similar enemies.

Both died prematurely, victimized by law enforcement. Ethel was executed in 1953 at age 37, and Billie died in a hospital bed at age 44, while awaiting arraignment after another drug arrest.

Billie and Ethel followed different paths in life and probably never met, but they converged in death. High school English teacher, poet, and songwriter Abel Meeropol wrote “Strange Fruit” after seeing a photograph of a lynching. He played it for Billie Holiday in 1939, when she was performing at Cafe Society. Fourteen years later, Abel helped carry Ethel Rosenberg’s coffin to her grave site. Within a year, Abel and his wife Anne had adopted Ethel and Julius’ sons. The man who abhored lynching adopted Ethel’s orphans, my brother and me.

We remember Billie Holiday for singing about lynching and we remember Ethel Rosenberg for being legally lynched.  Read More 
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Triggered by Charlie Hebdo

The massacre at Charlie Hebdo left me pondering our attitudes towards religion, satire, and sacrilege.

I have never understood religious faith. One of my earliest childhood memories is of a routine my brother and I engaged in while living in a shelter after our parents’ arrest. As I wrote in An Execution in the Family, “We were supposed to pray at our bedside before going to sleep each night. I resisted this, but Michael told me I had to or I would go to hell. I knelt by the side of the bed, folded my hands together, and [prayed], but upset him by giggling and muttering, ‘Goddammit.’ ”

I still don’t “get” religion. However I’ve learned from working with many deeply religious people on a range of economic and social justice issues, how religion can move people to do important, good work.

On the other hand, I do enjoy ridicule and satire. I have always delighted in making up clever and derogatory nicknames that stick to my intended target like freshly discarded chewing gum.

Perhaps these juvenile propensities led me, as I got older, to revel in making fun of sacred cows. I don’t confine this practice to people I disagree with. During the light bulb joke craze, I remember waiting for Elli to return from her feminist discussion group so I could ask her, “How many feminists does it take to change a lightbulb.” Her stony-faced “That’s not funny” reply, made me laugh. That, of course, was the punch line of the joke.

But the violence against Charlie Hebdo makes me realize that we need to take power into account when considering satire and parody. When oppressed people parody the elite it can be liberating, but when the powerful ridicule the oppressed, it can be deadly. So I was delighted with the cancelation of the racist television program, Amos ’n Andy. In the 1950’s, that program (in which the two white stars, in blackface, played African-Americans as lazy, boorish, ignoramuses) demeaned African-Americans. Such cultural stereotyping dehumanizes and enables hate crimes.

The concept of sacrilege – the violation or ridicule of something considered sacred – is especially dangerous. Individually, such violations often provoke violent responses. When coupled with political and/or economic power, this concept can become genocidal. People may scoff at others’ cherished beliefs while failing to recognize our own sacred cows. Americans who condemn a strong response to visual depictions of the Prophet Mohammed might be inclined to assault someone who was burning an American flag.

So while I defend Charlie Hebdo’s right to publish their often offensive and sophomoric cartoons, I do criticize them for publishing cartoons that, for the most part, appear to single out and offend the sensibilities of an oppressed minority. And while I abhor the massacre at Charlie Hebdo, I find it profoundly ironic to see world leaders marching in Paris in support of the magazine, world leaders who have themselves caused or facilitated so much death, destruction, economic misery and censorship. Their self-righteous hypocrisy is more than I can bear. Read More 
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In last week’s blog I listed 10 possible courses of action to fight global warming and consequent climate change during 2015 and asked readers to discuss which actions they felt were best. A reader named Darcy suggested a eleventh action: “I think the list is missing something big though, soil/agriculture. Changing fossil fuel use is critical but we might actually have a chance at stopping climate change by getting more carbon back into the soil. It is the hidden toll of industrial fertilizers etc, we're adding individual nutrients instead of composted organic matter.” She also provided a link to an article about this (click link "soil and carbon" on left)

Her point is an excellent one. An article published in late 2012 reported that a partnership of 15 international research institutes concluded that our global food system generates one third of humanity’s greenhouse gas output. Many people are already attempting to counter this by supporting locally-oriented sustainable practices; many parts of the country have seen an explosion of “locavore” eating and farmers’ markets.

Elli and I are part of this trend, but I don’t always practice what I preach. I thought about this the other day in the supermarket. We wanted blueberries for a fruit salad. Maybe we shouldn’t have; we couldn’t expect to find locally grown organic blueberries in New England in early January (it was 15 degrees out). I had two choices – a small plastic container of organic blueberries at $13/pound, or a large plastic container of regular blueberries at $5/pound. To make matters worse, either choice came from Chile.

I could picture the weekly stream of Boeing 747s loaded with thousands of plastic boxes and bags of blueberries and grapes headed for supermarkets throughout the Northeast. I wondered about the carbon footprint of the petroleum-based fertilizers coating the endless acreage needed to produce fruit on that scale, coupled with the fuel costs of air transport, farming equipment, trucking to and from the originating and arriving airports, and the carbon generated by manufacturing massive quantities of petroleum-based plastic packaging.

Yet, I bought the bigger package of blueberries.

I’m not always guilty. Elli and I eat a lot more locally grown and organically produced food than we used to. We’ve stopped buying red-meat for environmental reasons. I’m aware of our carbon footprint, and try to reduce it. But my own inability consistently to make the least greenhouse gas intensive choice reflects the limits of trying to solve humanity’s global warming dilemma through individual choice. Until we alter the institutional underpinnings of multinational corporate food production, we’ll do no more than nibble at the edges of the problem. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try, or rationalize that our minor carbon indulgences don’t matter, but it means that if we are to succeed we must change the system. Read More 
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What to do in 2015?

The turn of the year has me thinking about how to fight global warming and consequent climate change in 2015.

This is not a new question for me. I became fascinated with the weather as a child and began reading about climate history in college. I may be the only person on the planet to have read Stephen Schneider and Randi Londer’s 562-page tome, “THE COEVOLUTION OF CLIMATE & LIFE: FOUR BILLION YEARS OF WEATHER: CLIMATE, SOCIETY AND THE DESTINY OF THE PLANET as change-of-pace reading while studying for the Massachusetts’ bar exam.

The birth of my first grandchild in 2008 goaded me to do more than just learn about global warming. I began reading more intensely on the subject and became more alarmed. In the past three years I’ve studied a couple dozen books and many more articles about the science and politics of the situation, culminating in facilitating two climate change study groups in 2014. Despite all of this I still can’t figure out an effective course of action to combat global warming.

The study groups have given me a good sense of the options:

1. Work with local groups who are opposing the development of fossil fuel infrastructure, and fighting for local green initiatives.
2. Engage in lobbying and national electoral politics to make our economy more sustainable.
3. Join national campaigns such as 350.org to fight the XL pipeline and promote divestment from fossil fuel companies.
4. Focus on environmental justice for people of color and the poor who contribute the least to - but suffer the most from - environmental disasters.
5. Build coalitions between the divestment, environmental justice and peace movements by publicizing the environmental consequences of the military-industrial complex.
6. Build the Green Party on both a local and state level.
7. Engage in civil disobedience to prevent climate-destroying business as usual.
8. Protect plant and animal communities from depletion or extinction by fighting habitat destruction and invasive species.
9. Promote a green socialist alternative to capitalism.
10. Engage in sabotage to destroy industrial civilization’s ability to further degrade the environment.

I doubt this is an exhaustive list and, of course, many items are not mutually exclusive.

Looking over the list, I can eliminate some immediately. Without first building a mass movement, neither national lobbying, nor presidential politics, will bring about the rapid radical changes we need. And even if those who espouse destroying industrial civilization to save the environment are analytically correct, I won’t sabotage anything and find the idea of starving most of the human race in order to save the planet morally repugnant.

However, the list includes other options. They all have weaknesses, and none provides an overall strategy to achieve THE solution, but I resolve in 2015 to engage with least one of them. I’d like to start a conversation about this. And so, my question to you is: which actions or combination of them do/would you choose? Read More 
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The Torture Report: What’s Animal Rights Got To Do With It?

Like many of you, I was shocked but not surprised by the contents of the Executive Summary of the Senate Intelligence Committee Report on Torture. I’ve only read a few snippets of it, but that was more than enough. I read that in July, 2002 the CIA asked the Department of Justice permission to use the techniques described in the U.S. Air Force’s “Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE)” program. The SERE program was designed to help American prisoners of war counteract coercive interrogation techniques, so this was, in effect, a request to turn the program on its head. Once given the go-ahead, the CIA hired two psychologists who applied the underlining theory of “learned helplessness” to these techniques. I was curious about their use of learned helplessness and looked it up.

The term learned helplessness was coined in 1967 by two University of Pennsylvania psychologists investigating the causes of human depression. They placed three groups of dogs in harnesses. The first group was just harnessed and released after a set period of time. The second group was given electric shocks that would stop once the dog pushed a lever. The third group was harnessed to the second group, and was also shocked, but this group’s lever did nothing. Thus, a dog in the third group experienced having no control over the shocks, since they only stopped when the dog it was harnessed to pushed its lever. The first two groups quickly recovered from their experience, but the third group became passive and exhibited symptoms similar to human depression.

Evidently that wasn't enough. The psychologists next placed the same three groups of dogs in a box in which the dogs could escape the shocks by jumping over a low partition. The first two groups escaped easily, but the third group didn’t even try. The psychologists concluded that the third group had learned to be helpless. These experimenters apparently felt there was nothing wrong with abusing dogs in order to learn more about human depression.

Although the Senate Torture report’s contents did not surprise me, the background of the strategy did. Experimentation on animals formed the theoretical underpinning of the techniques applied by the CIA’s contracted psychologists. Their goal was to turn the human beings under their control into blobs of putty whose passivity matched the dogs in the University of Pennsylvania study. Reading about the origins of the CIA’s torture program drives home the connection between animal and human rights activism.

Some of my left-wing friends feel that fighting for animal rights is a trivial pursuit when compared with preventing the horrific crimes against humanity carried out by our military, and the multinational corporations and governments they influence or control. I’ve attempted to convince my friends that animal rights groups are fighting our shared enemies, the same foes we face every day. And the values that these young activists seek to spread are those to which other progressives aspire.

The psychologists who made millions by tormenting the post-9/11 detainees in the name of fighting terrorism have much in common with those who thought it acceptable to shock dogs into helplessness to study human depression. An unexpected – but important – takeaway from the Torture Report. Read More 
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All Lives Matter: Against Double Standards

On December 22nd my friend Victor Wallis published an Op-Ed piece in Open Media Boston, an online news service, I liked so much that I decided, with his permission, to republish it as a guest blog.

All Lives Matter: Against Double Standards
22 December 2014

by Victor Wallis

People speaking for the victims of police violence have unreservedly condemned the recent killing of the two New York City police officers.

People speaking for the police never condemned the killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner.

A double standard is obviously at work here. Those who protest the actions of killer-cops get at best mixed reactions from public officials. By contrast, the police at all levels express automatic solidarity with one another, no questions asked.  They are upheld in this by the judicial system, which turns the usual indictment-process upside down when the defendants are police officers.

These institutional traits imply that violence exercised by the police is somehow more acceptable than violence directed against the police.

And now, as he comes under intense criticism from police organizations, New York Mayor De Blasio says that an attack on police officers is an attack on all citizens.
Why was it inconceivable for him to say something similar when Eric Garner was deliberately suffocated before all our eyes? or when the grand jury refused to indict officer Pantaleo?

Why should everyone be expected to identify more with fallen police officers than with their victims? This is where we confront the structural underpinnings of police violence.
Statements about the personal pain of survivors apply regardless of who is killed. Why should the suffering caused by racist cops be less universally felt than the suffering caused by a troubled individual who goes on a personal vendetta that ends up targeting random police officers?

The point is that all lives matter. The reason for the slogan “Black Lives Matter” is that this general principle is far from being universally honored. We know this because of the many expressions of support that were received by Darren Wilson after he killed Michael Brown.
When De Blasio says that we should call off protests in order to respect the slain police officers, we may well ask why public officials (at every level) did not call for a similar show of respect on the part of police toward those who marched in protest after cops killed defenseless black men.

Fortunately, many people are becoming aware of the grotesque power-imbalance reflected in these morally inconsistent responses. If the movement is to grow, however, we must build on this understanding.

Victor Wallis teaches at the Berklee College of Music and is the managing editor of Socialism and Democracy (http://sdonline.org), which in November 2014 published a special issue "The Roots of Mass Incarceration in the US: Locking up Black Dissidents and Punishing the Poor," co-edited by Mumia Abu-Jamal and Johanna Fernández. Read More 
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Ferguson: A Long Time Coming

Last Saturday Elli and I marched with two close friends and 50,000 others in New York City to protest police killings of unarmed African-Americans. Elli pointed out that the crowd, predominantly people of color in their teens and twenties, carried her back to the civil rights marches of five decades ago.

The march also got me thinking about when I attended the founding conference of Critical Resistance, an organization formed in 1998 to fight mass incarceration. That year, our prison population had skyrocketed to 1.5 million, and a wildly disproportionate number of those incarcerated were people of color, eviscerating entire communities. At the time, I felt that by locking up that many people the forces of repression were unwittingly sowing the seeds of a mass response.

That response did not materialize immediately. Years passed, and the prison population grew; it now approaches 3 million. The “war on drugs” continued unabated, with a big assist from the draconian post 9/11 laws. In the last decade, police departments stepped up their “zero tolerance” policies in minority neighborhoods, “stop and frisk” harassment exploded in New York City, and the court system gutted the constitutional protections against unreasonable search and seizure. New disenfranchisement laws prevented those convicted from voting; Harper’s Index just estimated that 1 out of 8 black men in this country are ineligible to vote because of a felony conviction. The police are increasingly militarized; SWAT teams armed with automatic weapons, dressed like Darth Vader’s soldiers and backed by armored vehicles, smash down doors. As the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan wind down, a growing number of new police recruits are veterans of those wars who treat the people they are supposed to protect as their enemy.

Last summer we all saw the images of the Ferguson police department’s excessive and brutal use of their weaponry and equipment against protesters. The Eric Garner video confirmed the views of millions of New Yorkers that when dealing with minorities the NYPD is a gang of armed thugs.

I’m surprised by two things about the wave of protests that have swept the nation in the wake of the killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. The first is that they didn’t happen sooner. This explosion has been brewing for over twenty years. The second is the restraint exercised by the protesters. Listening to Eric Garner say “I can’t breathe” thirteen times and learning that Michael Brown was left lying in the street dead for over four hours is unspeakably infuriating. I can’t imagine what it must be like to grow up as a person of color under the constant threat of police mistreatment and have no outlet for the rage. That rage has finally found an organized outlet, and in the words of the Sam Cooke song:

“It's been a long, long time coming
but I know a change gonna come
Oh yes it will”

The massive resistance we’ve seen is just a first step. I eagerly await the next. Read More 
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Good News about Global Warming?

Until last week the consensus among climate scientists was that it takes about 30 years for the full climatic warming of carbon emissions to take effect. That meant that today we are only experiencing the total impact of carbon emissions generated before 1985 and additional warming will continue until 2044 no matter what we do. Turns out that the 30-year delay was based on scientists’ informed guesswork rather than quantitative studies.

NPR reported last week that “[f]or the first time” a study by two scientists at the Carnegie Institution for Science “evaluated how long it takes to feel the maximum warming effect caused by a single carbon emission.” The study indicated that it only takes 10, not 30 years.

In other words, based on this study we’ve already felt the impact of carbon emitted before 2005, and what we’ve spewed since only locks us into further changes through 2024. While the scientists caution that once the increase occurs temperatures will remain high for decades, it means whenever we cut emissions it will stop further warming more quickly.

This appears to be good news because the old understanding gave rise to inaction among many who take climate change seriously. Some despaired because if it is going to take years for our movement to get strong enough to force emission cuts, and we already will be locked into 30 more years of warming at that point, it will be too late to save us from civilization-ending catastrophes or even worse.

Several authors have tried to counter such defeatism by citing historical precedents for making basic changes quickly. The civil rights movement and the recent push to legalize gay marriage are the examples given most often. These are very significant and rapid social movements, but unlike cutting carbon emissions, they are not fundamentally economic. Ending legally sanctioned slavery was a major international economic change, but it took almost 100 years to accomplish, from the beginning of the 19th century in England, to the 1880’s in Brazil. Some authors have cited the rapid economic shifts of the New Deal to demonstrate that, at least in this country, we can change our economy fast.

But all these movements were reactions to existing conditions. Any delay between our change and response was based on human resistance, not natural systems that were beyond our control. Thus, the 30-year delay appeared to be a scientific certainly that rendered our current challenge historically unprecedented. A significantly diminished time lag appears more manageable.

The brief NPR story provides insufficient information for me to assess how much hope this should give us. Further studies may tweak the 10-year figure up or down. But these findings do remind me that while climate science knowledge has grown, it is still evolving. We need to stay on top of research in this area and disseminate the best current information without treating it as dogma. We also need to be prepared for the climate change deniers who will point to such changes as proof that the scientists don’t know what they are talking about.

Most importantly, we should also take heart that there is scientific evidence that even if we can’t force needed change before the impact of global warming gets worse, any victories we win will cut off further warming three times more rapidly than we previously thought.  Read More 
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