Last week Robert Meeropol visited the University of Maryland to excoriate the United States’ War on Terrorism.
Don’t fret if the name doesn’t ring a bell. Meeropol isn’t a mainstream figure in American politics, academia or the arts. His opinion was sought not for any particular experience or expertise he can bring to the subject. Meeropol was selected for the forum on a more superficial basis: His parents were Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, the American Communist Party members turned Soviet spies who were executed for helping Soviets acquire the secrets of the atom bomb.
Meeropol (he took the name of the folks who adopted him) has benefited from the fact that the American Left still has a soft spot for his parents, and remain convinced the couple were framed by an out-of-control U.S. government lost in the throes of McCarthyism. This myth has been desperately clung to, despite an ever growing amount of evidence that they were indeed guilty. The Rosenbergs are identified by Nikita Khrushchev in his memoirs as Russian spies? Lies! And the decoded Soviet communiqués, commonly referred to as the Verona Cables and released by the CIA in 1995, that repeatedly mention the Rosenbergs as Soviet collaborators? More lies. And former KGB agent Alexander Feklisov, the man who claimed to have had dozens of contacts with Julius, beginning in the midst of World War Two? It seems he, too, is a liar.
Now comes the son, angry. It probably won’t shock anyone to find out that Meeropol is not a big fan of America’s response to Islamofascism. “There are several chilling parallels between (McCarthyism) then and anti-terrorism now,” Meeropol told the University of Maryland students. “Don't think that Big Brother isn't watching,” he added.
Like any man obsessed with the past, Meeropol sees shades of his parents everywhere. Before September 11 this meant mostly cavorting with “political prisoners” such as convicted cop-killers Mumia Abu-Jamal and Leonard Pelitier. But the War on Terror, sharing the same epic nature as the struggle against Communism his parents were clearly on the wrong side of, has sent him over the edge. At his University of Maryland appearance, he went so far as to compare his parents’ case with that of the man who would have been the 20th hijacker, Zacharias Moussaoui, and to describe Guantanamo Bay and the Patriot Act as modern day equivalents of the 1950s Red hunts. Never mind that McCarthy has largely been vindicated by declassified documents, both Soviet and U.S., nor that it is painfully clear that Islamic terrorists plan to strike us until we are no more.
“It’s an unfortunate reality that 2003 reminds me of 1953 in so many ways,” Meeropol recently told The Socialist Worker. “We don't have the Korean War. We have the war on terror – Afghanistan, Iraq, whoever’s next. In some ways, the war on terror has replaced the Cold War. The specifics of who we were opposing in the Cold War is analogous to whatever particular countries we're trying to confuse with the war on terror today. Instead of J. Edgar Hoover, we have John Ashcroft. Instead of the McCarran and the Smith Acts, we have the USA PATRIOT Act and USA PATRIOT Act II.”
Meeropol heads the Rosenberg Fund for Children, providing “educational and emotional” support for “targeted activist youth” and children whose parents have “suffered because of their progressive activities.” Meeropol defines “progressive activities” as any and all actions taken to further, “the belief that all people have equal worth; world peace is a necessity; people are more important than profits; society must function within ecologically sustainable limits.” It’s a nice sound bite, but in truth, the organization mostly takes children who have already suffered because they had the misfortune of being born to criminals, and reeducates them to believe that their parents were heroes and that betraying your country is admirable.
How Meeropol ended up at the University of Maryland peddling his conspiratorial wares and revisionist history is an interesting story that tells us quite a bit about the state of academia today.
Every year a “diverse campus-wide committee” chooses what the University of Maryland calls their “first-year book,” which is supposed to provide “a shared intellectual experience for faculty, staff and all first year students.” A thematically coherent program of guest speakers, films and panel discussion is then supposed to be built around it. The university promises every issue will be examined “from a number of perspectives…as a community, in dialogue with others.” After all, “Our community is stronger when we are free to challenge each other and listen respectfully,” and “free and spirited speech should be at the very heart of an academic community.”
As usual, the rhetoric doesn’t live up to the reality.
The 2003-2004 selection is Dead Men Walking by Sister Helen Prejean as a core text for a “yearlong look at the death penalty.” Meeropol was brought to the university as part of this program jointly by the university-sanctioned First Year Book Program and the Campaign to End the Death Penalty. Organizers promised his lecture, “An Execution in the Family: Learning from the Rosenberg Case,” would cover both “his parents' death sentence at the height of the McCarthy era,” and “the dangers of similar hysteria in the political climate of post 9/11 America.”
One might imagine the death penalty and the War on Terror to be separate topics, but in the world of leftist politics everything is interconnected. Opposition to one bit of orthodoxy is tantamount to rejecting all the tenants of the leftist faith.
Previous events weren’t much more balanced. There was a panel discussion entitled, “From California to Louisiana to Maryland: The Struggle to End Executions,” featuring a death row inmate on speaker phone; Black Panther Party member and former California death row inmate Shujaa Graham; an attorney for several death row inmates; and a Steering Committee member of Amnesty International’s Program to Abolish the Death Penalty. And just in case anyone had any illusions about what side of the issue this panel falls on, the advertisement for the event plainly spells it out: “Racism, class bias and injustice run rampant throughout the United States of America's death penalty system.” (Wait! I thought there was going to be a debate!)
Other events included “letter writing against the Death Penalty and Violence Against Women. “Food provided! The chance to go lobby the Virginia state legislature in favor of a bill imposing a moratorium on executions. This would hopefully wet your appetite for the tour of Baltimore’s death row. Some anti-death penalty speakers are scheduled to come back a second time. Yet, the yearlong program could only muster one two-hour debate that included Paul Rosenzweig of the Heritage Foundation defending the death penalty.
The year before the program looked at hate crimes using The Laramie Project, the book about Matthew Shepard as a text. The year before that it was Blessing the Boats, a book of poetry by Lucille Clifton, defying “the pejorative Western myth that women of color are incompetent, impotent, and inadequate.” She is somehow able to do all this without using any capital letters or punctuation.
Nevertheless, a perusal of both years’ events turns up nothing suggesting any real discourse on these issues. It isn’t much of a surprise. After all, it can be difficult to have a “free and spirited debate” in a room full of people who think exactly as you do. In this sort of pseudo-intellectual environment, Meeropol is able to get away with such uninspired drivel as, “This is the land of the free and the home of the brave. But they want us to be more afraid, and they don't want us to be free.” Meeropol’s life is an exercise in denial, and, he has spread this virus to the children who come under his tutelage. When it comes to his own country, Meeropol can only believe the worst, and, sadly, just as his parents before him, he has ended up on the wrong side of history.