The Wisdom of the X-Men


By David Michael Newstead.

Way back in the 1990s, talking about the latest episode of X-Men was the thing to do in my elementary school cafeteria. In case you were wondering, Wolverine was most people’s favorite character. And even twenty years later, the Fox animated series still holds up pretty well. But while some of the social commentary was probably lost on me as a kid, the foundation of the X-Men franchise is hard to miss. X-Men is about mutants struggling to coexist with humans who are often fearful, suspicious, or hostile to their very existence.

This became the vehicle for numerous analogies to minority rights issues around the world such as racial and religious intolerance, ethnic cleansing, and more. The group’s leader, Professor X, is a Martin Luther King like figure, while characters like Magneto take a more radical and sometimes violent stance. There is a version of the KKK called the Friends of Humanity. And mutants everywhere often live in fear that the government is going to round them up at any moment.

Skip ahead to my adulthood and X-Men isn’t as fictional as it used to be. The X-Men were concerned about flying robots that could kill them, government databases tracking them, and something nefarious called the Mutant Registration Act. Today, the real tragedy is that I can copy and paste that last sentence almost verbatim and I’d be describing reality. But just as comic books and cartoon shows have gotten me this far in life, it’s worth considering how the X-Men confronted the challenges facing them.

  • First, working towards peace and mutual understanding is the way to go since violence only begets more violence.
  • Second, it’s important to remember that every team member has a backstory, a special talent, and a way of contributing to the cause.
  • And finally, the fight for equality never really ends – not in comic books and certainly not in life.

Over lunch nowadays, I guess things haven’t changed much since elementary school. People talk about the latest show they’ve been binge watching. They mention the characters they like and what they did over the weekend. But now current events make for a strange backdrop to every conversation. It’s a world that’s not so distant from the X-Men and where things go from here is up to us now.

Our Work Never Ends: An Interview with David Crane

By David Michael Newstead.

War crimes investigator David Crane returns to discuss the conflict in Syria, proposed human rights laws in the United States, and the impact of populist elections around the world.

David Newstead: How do you think this wave of populist elections around the world will impact international law and human rights?

David Crane: The honest answer is, I don’t know. One could certainly seem to think that it is not going to augur well for the future. However, that just remains to be seen. I would hope that we could at least keep where we are as opposed to taking steps back. But frankly, I am not confident. This is a clarion call for all of us to work harder, particularly in the public relations realm, to keep the concept of seeking justice for people who are oppressed in some kind of light so that it just doesn’t disappear back into the shadows as it was before the early 1990s.

David Newstead: Human rights laws like the original Magnitsky Act were bipartisan pieces of legislation and had strong Republican support. Do you see any hope for the expanded version of the Magnitsky Act or the Caesar Act in either the Republican controlled Congress or the Trump administration?

David Crane: I helped draft the Magnitsky Act and had testified on the Caesar Act before the House Foreign Affairs Committee earlier in the summer. You know, it’s interesting. It’s kind of a bellwether as to what the sense of Congress is at least right now. The other week, the Caesar Act passed on a voice vote in the House, which was a positive sign.

I’m not so sure about the Senate. I don’t have as good a read on it as I do in the House. I’m very good friends with Congressmen Ed Royce and Chris Smith, two champions of human rights who have worked with me since 2002 when I was doing my work in West Africa. I just don’t think it has the sense of urgency in the Senate that it does in the House. I’m not confident, though I could be surprised, that this is going to move forward. It has to move forward now obviously or it will not see the light of day. And I can’t see within the next year anything like a Caesar Act working its way through a Trump Administration.

I could be wrong, but I’m just not sure. I don’t think the new President-elect has any interest in this area at this point. Sees no need in it. Sees no political benefit in spending his time and energy on these types of issues. I’m not even sure who his main contact is in this area. If it’s Michael Flynn, then that doesn’t augur well.

To answer your question, it’s really up to the likes of Senators Bob Corker and Mitch McConnell. I’m just not getting a sense that they’re going to spend a lot of time of this. I could be wrong, but we just don’t have that momentum in the Senate that we used to have even when it was bipartisan. People like Senators Pat Leahy and Judd Gregg worked the hallways for these laws and worked together for decades. I’ve worked with them myself on getting international criminal law and human rights legislation through and they’ve been pretty good on it. But you know, I’m just not seeing a lot of momentum in the Senate on this.

David Newstead: If Trump’s recent endorsement of Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte’s drug war is any indication, what kind of human rights policies do you think we can expect?

David Crane: I’ve thought this through a lot. We either have a great moment or a moment of tragedy. For some bizarre reason, we have this moment with Russia that is something that is not comfortable for those of us who are old Cold Warriors, but also just individuals who look at Russia very skeptically for a lot of reasons. What an interesting thing if Trump and Putin actually formed a kind of grand alliance to handle some of the challenges internationally. The method may not be palatable, but the end product may be a solution for Syria, for example.

But I don’t know. This is the first time in a long, long time when everything is new and everything is on the table. No one really has a sense, because it’s a complete paradigm shift. Even all the key players in that crazy town that I lived in and worked in for so many years, all the key contacts and the people that make things happen… They’re no longer in power or even in anybody’s inner circle. We can’t shape, mold, or effect current and future policy, because they’re just not listening. Either the new administration is eventually going to come around, because they’re going to have to or they’re not going to get anything done. Or we’re going to see an amazing series of policy shifts internationally the likes of which we haven’t seen since Harry Truman and the Truman Doctrine.

David Newstead: But a modern rendition of that?

David Crane: Yeah. Whether we like it or not, we’re at a very fascinating and interesting time and both of us in different disciplines are a part of this. And it’s going to be fascinating to see how this evolves. I don’t have a cornerstone by which I can rely on and take my answers to you based on that, because there’s no cornerstones anymore. Everything is being questioned and challenged.

David Newstead: In your view, what’s behind this rise of populism internationally and the “Strong Man” figure common to many of these movements?

David Crane: Yeah, it’s a fascinating thing. This isn’t just a U.S. thing. I mean, it’s happening across all of Western democracies. And it’s that we have just been complacent in our democratic processes. We were just almost prefunctionally moving democracy forward in these countries, which had begun to drift from the general populace from which they are elected. What caused the spark, which started this low-burning bush fire, is the Great Recession. People were directly affected personally: job loss, concern about the future, loss of houses, etc. They began to become angry and lashed out particularly as democracies failed them.

Remember back in 2008 how excited we were around this time? Barack Obama had been elected and it just seemed like the world was brighter. Truly, there was hope. Boy, that has faded and I think everybody is just disappointed. Even some of us who are more establishment oriented, even we began to go “Are these really the best candidates that we can offer out of all the talent that’s in this country?” And so we see the same kind of thinking in Great Britain, in France, and even in Germany now. And of course, last month in Italy. In the Philippines, etc. The “Common Man” is just pissed off and he’s getting even. He’s shaking things up. I think this is a trend that will go on for years.

And in some ways, it’s a backlash to the rapid global development of the world. When the Berlin Wall came down, everybody was thrilled with the idea of a global village. Remember that term? We embraced it. At the end of the day, we’ll all go back to this more global approach to life, because our entire information and financial systems are now global. We can’t go back. Tariffs and those kind of things would be too disruptive. It used to be that tariffs were cyclical and affected goods and services from one country to another. But now, raising tariffs and increasing the costs of trade on a nationalistic basis is just bad for business. It affects everybody. So, we’re going to have these spikes that we’re seeing and this nationalistic trend is going to fly in the face of it. But at the end of the day, it’s just a practical reality that we are now global anyway. The United States or France or Great Britain can’t turn back internally to an industrial age mentality of nationalism. It just doesn’t work anymore. We’ve already drunk the Kool-Aid and we’re all a part of it now. We’re not going to see things like World War 3, because anybody who does something stupid in a cyber war or a nuclear attack their economy fails as well. Their destroying their own country regardless of their intent. In the information age, conflict is bad for business. In the industrial age, conflict was good for business, but those are days past.

It’s a fascinating thing. Russia is really kind of the beginning of that. For political reasons, Putin is doing these 1950s-style nationalistic policies that make him very popular at home. But at the end of the day, Putin realizes he really can’t do what he would really like to do, because we are all global now. His entire country is tied to the global financial and information systems. And his country would fail if he broke off from that.

David Newstead: Since you mention Russia, I wanted to ask about your current work. How do you think Russia’s recent decision to leave the International Criminal Court will impact the investigation and future prosecution of Syrian war crimes?

David Crane: We’re still continuing to investigate. Nothing changed in that respect. I think the Syrian conflict will continue until Russia allows Assad to win the war or at least militarily bring it to a point where it doesn’t make sense anymore. Now, they’ll be ruling over a completely devastated piece of Earth, but Russia isn’t leaving. Russia will not pull out of Syria until Assad wins. So, that could be next week. That could be five years from now. There’s nothing the U.S. can do to stop it other than this strange bromance that’s going on between Putin and Trump. If for some strange reason, Trump says “Let’s go get drunk somewhere and hash this out,” and everybody sits down at the table and stops the war. And we throw the rebels off the boat. I don’t see this ending well. It’s just a matter of when.

I’ve coined this term called Kaleidoscopic Conflict where we have a new kind of paradigm and Syria is one of these situations. For the first time, we cannot use our old planning processes to predict outcomes. We don’t know anything. No one can advise the President of the United States as to what we should do or what’s going to happen in Syria, because no one knows. Because if one thing changes, everything changes. We’re starting to enter into a geopolitical circumstance where we can no longer restore international peace and security as we’ve tried in the past under the UN paradigm. We’re reaching a point on various parts of the planet where we can only manage international peace and security. To use an analogy, the situation in Syria is like a cancer. If managed, the person can live a generally normal life. So we can manage the disease, but we can’t get rid of it. Same thing with Syria. We can’t solve Syria, but we can try to manage Syria to the point that it doesn’t spread to other parts of the world. And keeping Israel out of this, which is the ignored and unknown part of the conflict. As we all know, Israel has bright red lines in the sand and if you step over them, they don’t ask anymore. They just launch.

We have to manage Syria now, we’ll never solve Syria. In a world where we try to solve everything, particularly in Type-A Washington D.C., that’s anathema to anybody’s thinking. I’ve mentioned this in public and given speeches on it. I’ve said “Gosh, I’d love to solve Syria. But tell me how do we solve Syria?” And of course, they can’t answer, because there is no solution at this point. To show you how absurd this is, we are allied with Syria and Russia to fight ISIS. But yet we’re also sending money and personnel to fight Syria by supporting the rebels. We’re actually working with and working against the same person. That’s absurd.

David Newstead: I just feel like, you know, the Syrian conflict led to the migrant crisis, which influenced all these elections. And it all interrelates and it’s very complicated and really dark.

David Crane: Oh, it is. You’ve got the middle class and the lower class who have been affected by a Great Recession, who are trying to just get basic services. And all of a sudden, the country is letting in a million refugees and giving them more than they are getting. And all of a sudden, they’re choking on it. You know, European liberalism and progressivism went out the window when this wave of human beings with a great deal of hope showed up at their doors.

David Newstead: As we wrap things up, I’m curious. For people who work in human rights and for people who support human rights, where do we go from here and what do you think people should do in the interim?

David Crane: Well, continue what we’re doing. But also in the business that we’re in, there are a lot of altruists. They’re always out there trying to buy the world a coke and make them live in harmony. I’m the complete opposite. I’m a practical, hard-nosed person who has a goal in mind, but realizes that I have to do it from a practical point of view. We just have to look for places and spaces where we can affect policy in the new administration and make them see that this is good for America. But just coming in with your hair on fire, screaming “This isn’t right! These people have a right to do XYZ!” As we say in North Carolina, that dog isn’t going to hunt. You’ve got to come in and show them practically why this makes sense, why this is good for America, and why we should continue to do this. Speak their language. Don’t sit there and be arrogant or think that these people are cretins and that they’re just a flash in the pan. So, I’ve been advising others. I’m on a couple of boards of some big human rights organizations. And I’ve been telling them to stop running around with their hair on fire and sit down and think about what we can do to start developing contacts and have a voice in appropriate places to continue our work.

Now I think people are starting to calm down a little bit more. And I think more reasonable voices are starting to echo that it is what it is. Let’s figure out strategies and policies by which we can have a voice where that makes sense. But not stop what we’re doing! This is a political event, not a world changing paradigm. You know, we have a politician who has now been elected for four years. They come and go, but our work never ends.

Read Previous Interview

Seek Justice for Us – An Interview with David Crane

By David Michael Newstead. 

David Crane is a law professor at Syracuse University and the former Chief Prosecutor of the Special Court for Sierra Leone. As Chief Prosecutor, he indicted then Liberian President Charles Taylor, leading to Taylor’s conviction for war crimes and crimes against humanity. Today, David Crane joins me to discuss impunity in Africa, his investigation into Syrian war crimes, and the need for expanded human rights laws in the United States.

David Newstead: Considering that you helped to prosecute Liberian President Charles Taylor and that Chad’s former dictator Hissène Habré was recently convicted for human rights abuses, do you feel like particularly in Africa’s case that impunity has ended for heads of state and elected officials?

David Crane: Oh, not at all. Unfortunately, impunity has raised its head in a very negative way. When we indicted Charles Taylor back in June of 2003, it was a beginning. I thought a very hopeful beginning against the good old boys club of Africa. We had broken down that barrier and heads of state in Africa would be held accountable.

But because of some missteps by the International Criminal Court (ICC) and the withdrawal of the African Union as a participant largely in the ICC for a lot of reasons. And the recent declaration a year ago by African heads of state saying they will not be held accountable for whatever they do in office, I thought we took about a thirty year step backwards.

The Habré investigation and trial were on-going. So even though it appears that we have some positive steps, in reality I just have to tell you I’m not confident where this is going. And I’m a little bit disappointed in the attitudes politically of African leaders related to dealing with their own people. It’s not a good step forward frankly. Even though the Habré conviction is important, there are other political leaders in Africa that need to be held accountable. And I fear that they will not, particularly with the political climate against international justice at this point.

David Newstead: You’ve also been working on possible war crimes prosecutions related to the Syrian conflict, is that correct?

David Crane: Yes. I’ve been working on this from the very beginning since March 2011. Over five years.

David Newstead: Would that mainly focus on prosecuting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad? Or other actors in the conflict as well?

David Crane: The Syrian Accountability Project, which we put together to deal with this back in March of 2011, is looking at all parties neutrally. So, we’re looking at all sides, all players. Which has gone from just the Free Syrian Army versus Assad to about eleven significant players who are just chewing the people of Syria apart. So, we want to make sure this is considered and known as a neutral effort to seek justice for the people of Syria. It’s not about going after just Assad, but everyone. Because everyone is going after the people of Syria.

David Newstead: So, not only Assad, but also ISIS and Al-Nusra Front and other factions?

David Crane: Oh yeah. All of the factions. To include the Free Syrian Army. Everybody.

David Newstead: In 2014, you were involved in the release of some 55,000 photographs of human rights abuses in Syria.

David Crane: Yes, I was the co-author of the Caesar Report detailing those abuses.

David Newstead: Can you say more about the evidence that your group has been collecting since then and what that consists of?

David Crane: That’s a good question. A fair question. Again based on my long term experience in this business particularly taking down one of the few heads of state in history, I’ve basically built a practical legal way of doing that. Using the same techniques that we used in West Africa, we’re doing the same thing in Syria and in the Levant region. And that is developing a conflict map, a crime-based matrix, and associated documents, which we can then build into indictments.

We’re very careful in the data that we use in our crime-based matrix, which shows chronologically time, location, unit involved, and then the alleged crime itself. And then also what we do is we list the violation of the Rome Statute, the violation of international humanitarian law as well as the violation of the Syrian criminal code. So, this could be used by either a local prosecutor, a regional prosecutor, or an international prosecutor, referring to this package that we’ve been putting together over the past five and a half years. So, they could use this to start building their own case against those who they feel have committed either Syrian crimes or international crimes.

The data is carefully vetted. We have contacts throughout the world (to include the Middle East, to include in Syria) providing us real-time, real-world criminal information that we then take and verify. Our rule is that it has to be verified as has happened. We have a rumor of an incident and then we have to verify it by two other sources before we put it on the crime-based matrix. But the fascinating thing is that crime-based matrix is now over 7,000 pages. And it’s on an Excel spreadsheet.

David Newstead: You have a 7,000 page Excel spreadsheet?!

David Crane: Yeah, 25 incidents per page. Now again, this is just verifiable incidents of possible international crimes. You have to understand that when I was doing this just twelve years ago, we had to create our case the old-fashion way. You know, getting out there and finding the evidence. Now, it’s completely reversed. All of the data that’s coming out of Syria and it’s in terabytes almost daily, it’s a tsunami of information. And what ends up happening is that you’re looking for that needle in the haystack as opposed to no haystacks.

And I think this is important for you and your readers to understand that 99.99% of the information coming out of Syria in whatever capacity it is – through social media, internet, direct testimony, whatever – is not useful in court. We can’t turn it into evidence, because of the authenticity of it, the chain of custody, and all of that. So, we have a great database for the history of the events and that’s important. The data can be used for other things.

But as a former international chief prosecutor, I’ve got to prove a case beyond a reasonable doubt using rules of evidence before a court. And that data creates leads. But at the end of the day, if they called me right now and said “You’re now the Chief Prosecutor for Syria!” all of this would be useful to me. We’ve converted that into useful information. That’s how the Syrian Accountability Project takes it one step further. We’ve converted this information into criminal information, which then can be converted into evidence by a future prosecutor. So, we’ve kind of strained it a bit if you get my drift. You know, we’re moving it to where a future prosecutor be they local, regional, or international can go into court and prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt. So, that’s the data issue.

David Newstead: That sounds like a very important, but involved effort of trying to put all those pieces together.

David Crane: It’s a very considerate process by which we then put that on a database. But it is amazing, isn’t it? You multiply 7,000 or now it’s almost 7,500 pages times 25 incidents, you get a sense of what is happening over there.

David Newstead: And that the conflict has dragged on for so long.

David Crane: Now again, it’s important to note that the Caesar Report I mentioned earlier is direct evidence and it is credible evidence and can be used in a court of law. After we finished our report, it was importantly treated by the press and really put a heavy burden on Assad. The sad thing about this is, this is only coming from 3 detention facilities. And yet, we can probably verify that between 10,000 and 12,000 human beings were destroyed in just 3 detention facilities. We estimate that there are over 52 detention facilities. So, the Caesar Report may have just been the tip of the iceberg.

In this business, it’s very unusual to have direct evidence of atrocity in the sense of one you can take into court. The smoking gun, so to speak. We had it in Nuremberg, because the Nazis wrote everything down. We have found that the Assad regime, very much like the Nazis in Germany, writes these things down. And we were able to get a look in the window of some of this through the Caesar Report.

So after the Caesar Report, what I did was to have a neutral country meet with the people who had the original thumb drives. And we were able to negotiate an agreement between the organization that Caesar was a part of and this country to have their chief prosecutor and evidence custodian take the originals and put them in an evidence bag and to start a chain of custody and then put those thumb drives in the country’s evidence locker. So some day when a prosecutor asks for that, there’s a chain of custody. There’s an authenticity. It can be signed over to them and put into their evidence room. So when they bring these documents and these photographs into evidence, they can authenticate it. Because the issue is with all these videos and all these pictures we’re seeing is – What’s the authenticity? Who took that? Why? Is that a real photo? Is that a real video? Who took the video? Where is it? You see where this gets very complicated very quickly.

But the Caesar Report and the evidence that we were able to seize and put in an evidence locker, that’ll convict Assad in and of itself of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

David Newstead: Shifting gears some, I wanted to ask about the Magnitsky Act, which currently bans Russian human rights abusers from using the U.S. banking system or vacationing in the United States. We’re in an election year, but there is a proposal in Congress to expand that law to place similar restrictions on human rights abusers from all over the world. Do you feel it’s necessary to expand the Magnitsky Act? And if so why?

David Crane: Well again, this is a beginning of a beginning to be honest with you. I think the Magnitsky Act is a signal of U.S. commitments to addressing these types of acts such as what happened with Sergei Magnitsky and other human rights abuses by countries around the world.

Of course, it’s really kind of tongue in cheek. After the first ten years of the 21st century, we did not cover ourselves in glory for obvious reasons. So, it’s very difficult. It’s going to take a while for the U.S. to regain the credibility that it built up since the My Lai massacre of being a country that did take care of these things.

The Magnitsky Act is a beginning of a new beginning where we’re trying to turn the ship around. We’re showing the world that those who commit crimes such as these will be held accountable and will be held accountable at a larger level than just domestically – that there’s an international price to pay dealing with embargos and seizures of assets and those kind of things. So, I think it’s a very positive step.

But I think you’re very correct. It’s an election season. So, two things can happen. If we have a Republican administration, then I’m not sure where this is going to go. It certainly could die a sad death. In a Democratic administration, I think there’s more hope for it to move forward. It just depends on the balance of power in the House of Representatives and the Senate. I think we’re going to be in a hiatus for right now. As we get closer to the election, you know everybody is running campaigns right now.

David Newstead: So to clarify, you don’t think the Magnitsky Act would be prioritized under a possible Trump administration?

David Crane: I don’t know. I mean, your guess would be as good as mine. There’s been no discussion at all in the campaign about human rights in any way, shape, or form that I’ve noticed. I’ve just not noted any of that. And it’s not inconsistent with the way the U.S. is from a political point of view domestically. You know, human rights does not get you votes. I mean at the end of the day, that’s just a fact. It’s not that Americans don’t care, but that’s just not going to cause people to vote for you. So what you’re going to see, the human rights issue writ large is just going to be set aside. I don’t see anything getting done in the next year frankly, regardless of who is in the administration. Because it takes a new administration a year or six month just to figure out where they’re going. And that’s another hiatus as well. So, you’ve got the political buildup to the election and then you’ve got the new administration trying to establish itself. And so, these kind of things tend to get put aside or dumped depending on the political perspective.

David Newstead: Are there any specific examples of human rights abusers that you feel epitomize why we need an expanded version of the Magnitsky Act?

David Crane: Oh sure. I mean, we can go around the world. I can spend the rest of the afternoon talking to you about that. A good example is Robert Mugabe, the President of Zimbabwe. He would be directly affected by a more globalized Magnitsky Act. Africa would be very much affected by a lot of this.

David Newstead: In terms of leaders’ banking and their ability to go on vacation and so forth?

David Crane: Of course. Absolutely. You know even if the International Criminal Court can’t do anything or if the world has just decided not to do anything about a crime… At the end of the day, international criminal law is driven by politics. The bright red thread of all this is politics. It’s always a political decisions to hand over a head of state to somebody as opposed to a legal reason. That’ll always be a political decision. But it’s important for the U.S. have this ability. Because really at the end of the day, if you’re going to get a thug or a dictator or a tyrant’s attention just grab him by the money. That and his ability to move around the world, that definitely gets their attention.

I think the beauty of the Magnitsky Act concept is that it hits them where it hurts. These are basically mafia characters. I mean, it’s all about money and power and greed with them. And if you limit them or cause them to reconsider travelling or doing something like that, I think that’s a real benefit. So, I very much support this kind of initiative that was started with the Magnitsky Act and now is going to be expanded in a broader sense.

David Newstead: I remember several years ago Assad’s wife was banned from going shopping in Europe. And prior to that, she was known for taking these very expensive shopping trips to Paris and places like that. And I assume other dictator’s wives and family members are the same?

David Crane: Sure. And you know with the Magnitsky Act, something like that could cause detention. That could cause seizure of assets. That could cause extradition. Yeah, exactly. And she goes back to her husband saying “I can’t go to Paris anymore!” She’s not going to be happy about that. And from just a domestic point of view, it can be really problematic for these guys. And it’s all guys. It’s not women. So yeah, their wives and families are potentially giving them hell, because they can’t go to the places they’re used to. Because they’re not going to go shopping in downtown Damascus. That’s a good example though of how that can hurt.

Question from a Reader: Given your experience in West Africa and your current project related to Syria, I’m curious what motivates you to do this work?

David Crane: Well, let me just give you a simple example of that. One day I was at one of our outreach programs where I walked the countryside of Sierra Leone, listening to my clients talk to me about what happened. I was at school in McKinney that used to be the headquarters of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), the ones that used to cut people’s hands and arms and noses and ears and buttocks off just because they liked doing it. And I was in the audience just standing among them talking and a young man stood up. He was about twelve years old. He looked at me with tears in his eyes and he said “I killed people. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it.” And he fell into my arms, crying. And of course, I had tears in my eyes. And as I looked up, there was a young woman who stood up and half her face was missing. I was told later her face had been put in a pot of boiling water by the RUF. She was holding a young child and she just looked at me from her one good eye and said “Seek justice for us.

So, it’s for the little guy. We tend to talk to about 50,000 here or 100,000 there. But it’s one person at a time. So, that’s what motivates me. It’s a righteous fury. You know, I had the honor and privilege of doing something about that when Kofi Annan appointed me to go to Sierra Leone and do that. But that’s what keeps me going, because I always remember those individuals who the world just steps over and moves on. Whereas, I don’t. I remember them and this is for them. And so, there are very much the same kind of people in Syria and around the world. So, I do this for them.

Read Follow-Up Interview

Strange Fruit in America

By David Michael Newstead.

80 years ago, an English teacher in New York named Abel Meeropol wrote the anti-lynching song Strange Fruit later immortalized by Billie Holiday. Meeropol was also known for writing the patriotic Frank Sinatra classic The House I Live In and later for adopting the orphaned sons of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg after the couple was executed in the 1950s. And while Abel Meeropol passed away 30 years ago, his most famous work lives on as a powerful response to racism in America. Today, I’m joined by Robert Meeropol to discuss his adoptive father’s legacy, the contrasting truths of American history, and if we’ve really made progress since Strange Fruit was first written.

David Newstead: So, I learned about a lot of this from the Joel Katz documentary about Strange Fruit. I saw it as an undergrad and I had heard the song Strange Fruit prior to that, but I had no idea about the history behind it at the time. And that’s really stuck with me over the years.

Robert Meeropol: Joel took something like five or six years to make that film. One of those typical independent efforts that have problems because of lack of funding. That documentary came out in 2002 and it holds up very well. I’ve seen it shown to audiences within the last two years. And it’s not really out of date. Although it doesn’t capture what I consider the major renaissance of Strange Fruit that has really occurred in the last five years.

David Newstead: Say more about that. What renaissance is Strange Fruit having now?

Robert Meeropol: I always think of Strange Fruit as sort of bubbling beneath the surface. It was gaining cultural importance and prominence starting really in the mid-1990s with Cassandra Wilson’s debut album, which is one of my favorite versions of Strange Fruit. There was a book written about Strange Fruit in 2001 by David Margolick called Strange Fruit: The Biography of a Song. But really the thing that changed the most in recent years is in the summer of 2013 Kanye West sampled the Nina Simone version as she sang “Blood on the leaves, Blood on the leaves” as he complained about the hassles he was having with his ex-girlfriend. I mean, Abel Meeropol would have turned over in his grave!

David Newstead: Not exactly the same context.

Robert Meeropol: Yeah, not exactly the same context. And it sparked an internet furor over his use of Strange Fruit and everyone started talking about Strange Fruit and Nina Simone. The result was that all of a sudden there was an explosion of people covering the song. In November 2013, there was even an episode of Criminal Minds entitled Strange Fruit in which they were dealing with a lynching. It was around that time that people in various newspaper articles referred to Trayvon Martin’s killing as someone Strange Fruiting somebody, using it in that matter. So, it’s kind of permeated the culture. And then, with Black Lives Matter and various other things going on, it’s just everywhere.

If you have a Google Alert on Strange Fruit as I do, you will find that every day somebody is doing something whether it’s a dance performance or an art exhibit or Audra McDonald winning all sorts of awards for her performance as Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill. All that. It’s everywhere. In fact, the last time I saw a reference to it was last night on TV when Billy Crystal mentioned it at Muhammad Ali’s funeral. It is everywhere.

David Newstead: The last time I recall hearing it was during an episode of the Amazon series The Man in the High Castle.

Robert Meeropol: I haven’t watched the series, but I know that it’s been shown on that. Isn’t that about the Nazis winning the war?

David Newstead: Yes. In the show, the Nazis took over the East Coast and the Japanese took over the West Coast. And at some point, one of the characters walks by a record player that’s playing an old Billie Holiday album from 1939. But you know, obviously it’s a very dark show if it’s about Nazis winning World War Two. But Strange Fruit is applicable in a horrific alternate reality. It’s applicable 80 years ago. It’s applicable now. So, that’s a lot of crossover ability. I’m curious why you think the song has resonated for so long in so many different forms?

Robert Meeropol: Well, there are probably many reasons. But one is because racism is with us. Things have not changed enough since the song was written to make it out-of-date. That’s the sort of socio-politics of it in the grand scheme of things.

But if you want to look at it from an artistic perspective, I think the allusion of lynched bodies being strange fruit was so powerful that it seeped under the skin of the culture. Even when the song was suppressed particularly during the 1950s. So, it was kept beneath the culture’s skin. But as I’ve written, it seeped out its pores as time went on. And that’s the artistry of it. I mean, why is it that a certain painting lasts for centuries and another disappears? Why is it that a certain song, even one that’s incredibly popular, lasts for a year and then disappears? And others just go on and on? Well, it’s the power of the art and how it resonates with us. I think there’s an element of mystery in that. I can’t say that I can deconstruct it in a manner that rationalizes all aspects of it, but its longevity is a testament to its power. So, there’s that artistic component to it.

I think also because of the nature of the song – the political nature of the song. And this is one of the things that I try to point out and that I feel that a lot of people miss in referring to Strange Fruit particularly the mainstream media and people who I don’t think are particularly in tune with the politics of the song. I’ve seen it referred to as a sorrowful dirge. I’ve also seen it referred to as a protest song. In fact, you know Time magazine named it the Song of the Century in 2000 when it came out with its millennial issue. I don’t put much stock in these lists. You know, the greatest novels ever written. The best rock n’ roll songs of the last hundred years. Blah blah blah. But I’ve seen lists of the greatest protest songs and Strange Fruit always makes it into the top ten.

So, it is a protest song, but I think that misses the core of what Abel was doing with the song. And that is that it was an attack song! It was an attack upon the perpetrators of lynching and that is what infuriated so many people. That’s why it was banned. That’s why there were riots. That’s why Billie Holiday and others got in trouble for singing it, because they were attacking the phoniness and the hypocrisy of the supposedly genteel South. And ridiculing it in a way, saying the people who were involved in lynching were rotten to their core. That was totally unacceptable to be used in that matter at the time. So, that’s another reason why the song’s lasted. Because as an attack, it is something that allows people who’ve been discriminated against to fight back. And I think that’s one of its sustaining characteristics.

David Newstead: It seems like in a historical context, there’s a real element of risk in that for Abel Meeropol and Billie Holiday especially in the 1930s? I mean, this is years before the Civil Rights movement.

Robert Meeropol: I think so. It was groundbreaking at the time. People didn’t do that sort of thing. So, there were risks. There were risks all around. I mean, I can’t say I’m an expert on the life of Billie Holiday. But it’s generally believed that one of the reasons that she was hounded for her drug use was because she refused to stop singing Strange Fruit. You know, there was plenty of drug use among Hollywood celebrities and singers and the like in the 1930s and 40s, but only certain people were singled out. Those who refused to knuckle under and who sang songs that offended powerful forces were selected. I mean, the reality is that Billie Holiday died handcuffed to a hospital bed awaiting arraignment on a second drug charge. Whether that would have happened if she ever stopped singing Strange Fruit, I can’t prove it, but I believe that to be the case.

So, there was risk to her, tremendous risk to her. And part of the problem was that under federal law at the time, her first drug conviction and prison sentence prevented her from singing in clubs that served alcohol. You can imagine the problems that caused in her career. She was a club singer!

For Abel Meeropol, he was called before the Rapp-Coudert Committee in 1940, which was a kind of precursor to the House Un-American Activities Committee. And he was questioned. They were investigating Communist school teachers, which Abel Meeropol certainly was. I heard Abel talk about this when I was a kid and the committee questioned him, asked him if the Communist Party ordered him to write the song or if the Communist Party paid him to write the song. So, this was a cost to him as well. But he always found that kind of amusing – the idea that you could order somebody to write a song.

And I think one of the things that I find bittersweet about it all is that he died in 1986. And as far as he was concerned his song was eclipsed. Nothing much had happened with it. Billie Holiday had claimed that she had written the music to it. She said she took a poem he wrote and set it to music, which, of course, was false. He wrote the words and the music. And so, here he was losing the ownership of a portion of his best creation. And people weren’t playing it. And yet now, of course, as often happens with artists 30 years later the thing is everywhere. And of course, it’s too late for him to appreciate how appreciated his work has been.

David Newstead: My understanding is Abel Meeropol wrote Strange Fruit after seeing a photograph of an infamous lynching in Indiana, is that correct?

Robert Meeropol: I believe so. To the best of our knowledge. And it’s the kind of detail that I feel doesn’t matter when you think about it. One of the things that we know about lynchings in that period of time is that postcards were made of them and distributed. There was actually an exhibit in New York City of all these postcards and it was quite a sensation two or three years back. There were lines out the door. You know, people were horrified by it, but they were also fascinated by this cultural phenomenon.

And I would also point out that Bob Dylan’s song Desolation Row starts with the line “They’re selling postcards of the hanging” and “The circus is in town”. That whole opening stanza is about what happened in Duluth, Minnesota in the 1920s. The circus came to town and hired black people from Chicago to do the construction and takedown. And the local workers were not given work as a result. And they went and attacked and lynched at least one of the black workers to demonstrate their displeasure. They created postcards based on that. And Bob Dylan wrote about it years later.

David Newstead: You know, several things come to mind like how widespread the KKK was in America during that time. Or you know, those photographs are also known for the bizarrely normal behavior of the white people in the crowd. But also, that lynchings weren’t just something that happened in the South.

Robert Meeropol: Well, I think that there is this presumption that it was just a regional problem. And while it was more prevalent in certain regions, it was certainly not confined to just one region. And you know from reading news reports, the sort of frat boy joking around about ropes and things is quite common to this day. It’s not so far beneath the surface.

Question from a Reader: I want to ask this question and then kind of shift gears. So, there aren’t lynchings anymore. But it still seems like we have public or publicly sanctioned violence against African-Americans and other people of color based on race. In your opinion, do you feel like we’ve actually come that far from when Strange Fruit was released? Because on one hand, I feel like we have and we haven’t, if that makes sense?

Robert Meeropol: That would be a good summary: we have and we haven’t. We don’t have these mass, public, officially sanctioned on a local scale torture and torment festivals that lynching represented through the 1930s and even into the 1940s. It was the 1950s and the Civil Rights movement that really changed that. But the Black Lives Matter movement has highlighted that lynching has in some ways taken on a new form. It’s covered up to a degree. It’s carried out more in secret like police killings of young black men. But it still has a similar effect and serves a similar purpose of keeping a population down. So, I think that it’s not a qualitative change, but it’s a change.

David Newstead: Recently, a lot of people have been talking about the Stanford rape case and pointing out that the sentencing would have been much different if the rapist wasn’t an upper crust white male. Or I don’t know if you remember the Affluenza case a few years ago? But my impression of the justice system is that this is when they should throw the book at someone who is seemingly without remorse. But in both examples with white defendants, they got very lenient sentences compared to the huge incarceration rates among African-Americans.

Robert Meeropol: Michelle Alexander in her book, The New Jim Crow, pretty much highlights the disparate meting out of justice along racial lines. Or I shouldn’t say justice, I should say punishment. The most obvious one is the difference between the sentencing for crack cocaine and powder cocaine. You know for using the same thing that has the same impact, you get a sentence that’s sixteen times longer. But also, there’s the overlying gender related issues and rape related issues that impact that Stanford case and that’s another aspect of it. But yeah, I wouldn’t disagree with you.

David Newstead: Going back to Abel Meeropol, I wanted to ask. He also wrote the Frank Sinatra song The House I Live In. This song is very different from Strange Fruit in terms of its tone and content. Knowing him, how do you explain the contrast between those two songs?

Robert Meeropol: First of all, there’s the Frank Sinatra version of The House I Live, which is probably the best known version which leaves out one of the verses. If you want to hear The House I Live In as it was originally written, you have to listen to the Paul Robeson version. And there’s another verse in there in which he talks about “My neighbors black and white”. In other words, it’s a desegregation line, which was controversial. And that was cut out of the Frank Sinatra version! In 1944, a short film was made with Frank Sinatra of The House I Live In. So, they cut out his verse about “My neighbors black and white”. And it’s supposedly this anti-racism film about combating antisemitism, but it turns out that it wallows in its own racism.

The funny story about that is when it premiered at a local theater. Abel Meeropol went to see the premiere. He was in Hollywood at the time. And when he saw that they cut out the entire second verse and removed the line “My neighbors black and white”, he got up and started yelling “They’ve ruined my song!” And he started saying “Shit! Shit! They’ve ruined my song!” And he was thrown out of the theater.

David Newstead: You’ve mentioned that this was a very introverted person who was not prone to doing that kind of thing. So, he must have been pretty unhappy about it?

Robert Meeropol: Oh, he was extremely agitated. Just so uncharacteristic of him, it was like a switch was flipped. But that said, you have to put The House I Live In in the context of the politics of the time. Abel Meeropol was a Communist Party member and he followed the politics of the Communist Party. And while he was not ordered or paid to write Strange Fruit, the Communist Party had a big anti-lynching campaign going on in the 1930s. So, his song was in tune with their politics. And then in the 1940s with the war going, there was a grand coalition of the left to fight the Nazis. His song, The House I Live In, was politically in tune with that united front. So, you put it in that context and I think that explains the difference. And he once said that The House I Live In was more about what America could be than what it actually was.

David Newstead: Keeping with The House I Live In and trying to relate that to current events, the song itself and that entire Frank Sinatra film have a strong message of religious tolerance. When I watched the film on YouTube, it was impossible not to think about recent efforts to ban Muslims from entering the United States or how people demonize immigrants and refugees at the moment. So, what’s your view of that? What do you think about it? What do you think Abel Meeropol would think about it?

Robert Meeropol: He would, of course, be appalled by it. I think that’s pretty obvious given his background. For me, there’s the contrast between multinational corporations being able to move effortlessly around the globe and extract the resources from Third World countries in order to benefit people in the First World. And contrast that with the fact that people are not allowed to move across borders. And that is a real sign of the priorities of the system. And in fact, I would say that the priorities are standing on their head. That’s what strikes me today about it.

I mean, we can all get exorcised about Trump banning Muslims from coming into the country. But Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State essentially banned Honduran women and children from coming into the country. As I’ve heard people say the kind of things that Trump proposes, Clinton has actually done. So, I’m not a fan of either one of them. And sometimes I think that the outrage at Trump’s verbal excesses – which are totally justified – cover up the fact that what is being done in a not-so-outrageous or public manner by leaders who are considered more proper is horrible as well.

So, I have mixed and complicated feelings about these things. But again, I think Abel Meeropol came from an era of less political nuance. So, I don’t know if he would entirely agree with the complexity of my analysis. But that’s hard to say.

David Newstead: Out of curiosity, do you know if Abel’s parents were immigrants?

Robert Meeropol: Yes, his parents were definitely not born in the United States. I am confident of that. He was born in the United States in 1903. His parents came from the Ukraine or what is now western Ukraine. In those days, sometimes it was Russia. Sometimes, it was Austro-Hungry. There was a shifting border area. And you know if you look at the last name Meeropol, there’s actually a town called Meeropol (Miropol or Myropil). But that’s in eastern Ukraine. But “opol” is very much Ukrainian if you think about Sevastopol and all the different names in that area around the Ukrainian conflict.

David Newstead: So, you said he believed The House I Live In is what America could be. In your view, is America in 2016 the country from The House I Live In or the country from Strange Fruit?

Robert Meeropol: That’s a good question. I think he would still see it on the Strange Fruit side. In fact in the 1970s, he wrote a parody version of The House I Live In. And I don’t remember the parody very well except for one line. In the original, it says “A certain word – democracy!” In the parody, it says “A certain word – hypocrisy!” And so he did not feel that we were going in the right direction as he aged. And I see no reason why he wouldn’t have continued with that belief.

And I think he would have had a lot of problems with identity politics, because it just wasn’t in his political universe. Like a lot of people of his generation, I think he would have had a lot of trouble with gay rights. In the 1970s, women’s liberation and that Second-wave of feminism hit and my wife and I were certainly very involved in it. He was sympathetic in a sort of economic way, but I think he was too old to change. But it’s also true that his wife Anne was a very strong personality and they worked as a team a lot in producing political reviews and things. So, he was not a virulent sexist, but he didn’t escape from the cultural norms that existed as he was growing up.

Though I want to say one thing to his credit. When Abel and Anne got married, she kept her own name, her last name for the first two years of their marriage. They felt it was wrong for the woman to have to take the man’s last name, that it wasn’t right. And what Abel said was that it just became too much trouble. In those days in the 1920s and 30s, it was just too much trouble to have two separate names. And they changed it after two years. But that showed that he did have some sense of those kind of things.

David Newstead: That sounds like… I’m not sure if you’ve ever seen the Civil Rights film The Butler. But because there’s this generational difference between the father and the son in the movie, there appear to be these large chasms. And later in the movie, you realize they’re more style differences than anything else. Not necessarily substantive disagreements between what the father and the son are pursuing.

Robert Meeropol: Yep. And we used to argue New Left and Old Left all the time in the late 1960s.

Question from a Reader: I teach History in the Austin School district, which claims the highest percentage of English Language Learners and minorities in the district. In class, I include a discussion over the fear of the Other. Is there anything you would say to these students in relation to their cultural experiences within the United States?

Robert Meeropol: The reality is that this country was built upon stealing another people’s land and committing genocide against them. And then, its economic prosperity at least in the 19th century was to a large degree built on the backs of slaves. And you put those two things together and how can you justify that? Well, the Native Americans have to be the Other. And African-Americans have to be the Other. So, you have two types of people that represented Otherness that is at the core of nation’s success. And while it’s not generally acknowledged in the mainstream when you have that at your core, of necessity that’s going to be a powerful cultural component that’s not going to go away anytime soon.

Then, of course, there’s this sort of standard left-wing response, which is the people who run the show like to divide and conquer. If you keep the white workers fighting with the black workers, they won’t unite and fight against the bosses. That’s oversimplified, but you get the idea. So, you have this cultural component that has to do with both Native Americans and African-Americans. Then, you have this class component, which has to do with dividing the working class. But I don’t know that I’m telling this high school teacher anything that she doesn’t know already.

David Newstead: I saw an interesting PBS piece a month or two ago and it was about demographic changes going forward in the United States. And for people who are entrenched in the way things have been and the demographics of how things have been, there are changes coming down the way that if you have a problem with the Other you’re the odd person out.

Robert Meeropol: I mean, that’s responsible at least in part for the Trump phenomenon. It resonates with all the people who are terrified of becoming the Other themselves.

David Newstead: How do you think Abel Meeropol should be remembered? This year marks 30 years since his death in 1986 and I’m curious what you think his legacy should be?

Robert Meeropol: I think on a political level, he should be remembered for Strange Fruit. It’s clear to me that it was his greatest work, even though it’s less than a hundred words long. It’s the work that’s had far and away the greatest impact. So, that’s on a political or public level.

On a more personal level, I think he should also be remembered for he and his wife both adopting me and my brother. And the way that plays out is that there’s a certain congruousness to having the person whose best known and most powerful work was an attack on lynching then going ahead and adopting the orphaned sons of people who he viewed as being legally lynched. That showed to me that he was that sort of a humanitarian not only in his head, but in his heart.

Read Part Two

Son of Saul

By David Michael Newstead.

Son of Saul reveals the grueling routine of a Nazi concentration camp from the perspective of a sonderkommando, the select group of prisoners forced to work in the camp until their own execution. The protagonist is a Hungarian Jew named Saul struggling to maintain his humanity against an onslaught of violence and suffering. And throughout the film, the camera focuses in on Saul as the audience closely follows his every movement, emotion, and reaction in this visceral and tragic masterpiece.

Winter is Coming: Book Review

By David Michael Newstead.

Winter is Coming is a call to action by chess champion Garry Kasparov. As a prominent opposition activist and former presidential candidate, Kasparov has unique insights into Russian politics and a bitter disdain for the Putin regime, calling Vladimir Putin a “shadow of a man”. In his new book, Kasparov lays out Russia’s recent history with a mixture of observations, pointed criticism, and details on his life experience from the breakup of the Soviet Union to the present.

This includes major events like Boris Yeltsin’s re-election in 1996 as well as things that only proved to be significant in retrospect. Namely, the rise of President Putin and the steady rollback of Russia’s democratic reforms. Kasparov then outlines how the Putin regime “moved from being an ideologically agnostic kleptocracy to using blatantly fascist propaganda and tactics.” Here’s an excerpt.

In Anatomy of Fascism, Robert Paxton includes in his concise definition “the belief that one’s group is a victim, a sentiment that justifies any action, without legal or moral limits, against its enemies, both internal and external.” The myth of Russian humiliation at Western, especially American, hands fits the victimhood model perfectly. The false narrative that Russia is surrounded by enemies who are intent on holding it back fills Putin’s need for fuel for his increasingly fascist propaganda.

And although he goes on to label Putin’s Russia as the biggest and most dangerous threat facing the world today, Kasparov offers numerous criticisms of Western governments for their mistakes, inaction, and naive hopes that repressive leaders can be charmed into changing for the better. His solution is to isolate dictatorships around the world and to keep human rights at the center of our policies or risk reliving the outcomes of appeasement.

Throughout the book, Kasparov’s views are passionate and uncompromising. Whether they are actually correct, only time will tell.

Read Winter is Coming