Matthew Rothschild is the author of You Have No Rights, a collection of stories documenting the post-9/11 abuse of U.S. citizens' civil liberties. He has worked for The Progressive for a quarter century, serving for the last 12 years as the magazine's editor.
The co-founder and director of the Progressive Media Project, Rothschild also hosts the syndicated weekly 30-minute Progressive Radio program, and has appeared on National Public Radio, C-SPAN, Nightline, Hannity & Colmes and The O'Reilly Factor. Rothschild is scheduled to appear at the Wisconsin Book Festival at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Oct. 12, at the UW-Madison's Red Gym, in a program that pairs him with the historian and First Amendment advocate Chris Finan, author of From the Palmer Raids to the Patriot Act: A History of the Fight for Free Speech in America.
The Daily Page: Where were you and what were you doing when you conceived the idea for You Have No Rights?
Rothschild: After I'd written about a hundred stories on our website under "McCarthyism Watch," I began to think I ought to put them between hard covers. And two people encouraged me to do so: the great civil libertarian Nat Hentoff, and my wife, Jean.
As you compiled these stories, what emotions or reactions did they provoke in you?
You know, I'm not one of those people who goes from zero to rage in six seconds, so it takes a lot for me to really get indignant. But many of these stories did infuriate me, and some tugged at me hard, especially when I could hear the pain in the voices of the people who had their rights trampled on.
You Have No Rights catalogues a litany of alleged trespasses against the Bill of Rights -- abridgements to individuals' rights to free speech and peaceable assembly, "to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects" against unreasonable searches and seizures, to due process and so on. By what stretch of the imagination can these cases be reconciled with the oaths of office taken by the U.S. President, members of Congress and the judiciary, FBI agents and many other public officials and law-enforcement officers to preserve, protect, support and/or defend the U.S. Constitution?
The stories I document almost all entail illegal, unconstitutional breaches of people's First and Fourth Amendment rights. What bothers me most is not the ignorant local cop who doesn't know what "disturbing the peace" means but the authoritarian policies that flow from the White House and Congress on down, and the authoritarian mentality that equates protest with criminality, or even worse, protest with terrorism. I also am outraged that the Secret Service now views its role not only to protect the President and Vice President from assassination, but also from dissent!
Among the entities you report in You Have No Rights as perpetrators or complicit in alleged violations of people's Constitutional rights, you include cases involving a Denny's restaurant in Florida, an American Red Cross chapter in New Hampshire and a Borders bookstore in Virginia. What rationale might you cite for choosing to embargo or not embargo your book from being sold at Borders?
I've done a book signing at a Border's in Santa Barbara and a Barnes & Noble in Des Moines. (Yikes! Only four people were at the Iowa store.) I much prefer to do my events at local independent bookstores or libraries. I just did one at the community center in Kiel, Wisconsin, last Thursday, October 4. There were about 40 people there, and it was a lot of fun, and probably more important than speaking in Madison. But as to boycotting, I'm not up on my high horse. I like to get the word out.
Some of these cases, such as those involving John Blair and the Crawford Five, end in hopeful and perhaps even happy resolutions that affirmed their Constitutional rights. How would you appraise the prospects for tilting the balance back toward a more favorable climate for the civil liberties on which our nation's founders built the Constitution and the republic?
Ironically, the one branch of government that has been the sturdiest defender of our rights in the Bush Age has not been Congress but the courts, which usually defer to the President in wartime. So I'm heartened by that, and by the fact that many of the people in my book fought back and won.
But I don't accept the facile assumption that the pendulum will swing back, as it has after previous periods of repression in our history. What if it doesn't? Congress is barely putting up any fight. And what if we're attacked again? General Tommy Franks, who led the invasion of Iraq, warns that the Constitution would be put aside. Wayne Downing, the former counterterrorism czar on the National Security Council under Condoleezza Rice said, if we're attacked again by terrorists with weapons of mass destruction, "We're going to have to declare martial law some day." Martial law?!?
What three things can patriotic individual citizens of the United States do that might be most effective at preserving, protecting and defending the Constitution?
What three things to do? Contact your elected official and demand the repeal of the Military Commissions Act and the repressive parts of the Patriot Act. Join in protests in the streets against these infringements and for the impeachment of Bush and Cheney. And support organizations like the ACLU and the Center for Constitutional Rights that are fighting to preserve our democracy.
Does the right to dissent need to be singled out or formalized in an amendment to the Constitution?
No, the words of the First Amendment ought to be clear enough. We just need the Executive Branch to enforce them, Congress not to abandon them, and the courts to uphold them.
What audience did you envision for You Have No Rights as you researched and compiled the book? How have audiences at your readings from the book compared to the one you anticipated?
I try to write and speak in a way that can reach the largest possible audience. I didn't write this book to show off my vocabulary or to dazzle people with any showy stylistic devices. I wanted the stories to speak for themselves. So I stripped the language down, and I let the people speak. At my readings, I'm always pleased when young people show up because I think the personal accounts are really compelling, and many of them have to do with acts of suppression on the campuses. Of course, a lot of times, the crowd is the same old, same very old.
What other books might you recommend as complements for You Have No Rights?
David Cole's Enemy Aliens. Naomi Wolf's The End of America. We Are All Suspects Now, by Tram Nguyen. Anthony Romero's In Defense of Our America.
The theme of this year's Wisconsin Book Festival is "Domestic Tranquility." How might you define domestic tranquility in the context of You Have No Rights?
I'm not into tranquility, except when I'm birdwatching. I like dissent, disagreement, argument, protest, agitation, conversation, give and take. A repressed populace can, in some sense, be a tranquil populace. So while "tranquility" sounds nice and cozy, I prefer the rough and tumble that the First Amendment guarantees.
What can the Wisconsin Book Festival audience expect of your appearance next weekend?
I'm not going to read from my book. I'm going to give a little talk, relaying some of the stories from the book, but also calling attention to more recent examples of repressiveness.
Among the other presenters at this year's Wisconsin Book Festival, which ones excite your greatest anticipation?
I'm really looking forward to Terry Tempest Williams, Susan Faludi, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.
What was the last book you read that you are recommending to friends, and why are you recommending it? And what was the last book you read for fun or diversion that you would recommend -- and again, why would you recommend it?
Blackwater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army, by Jeremy Scahill, is a really important book right now. It gives you the full context not only for the current Blackwater scandal but for the privatization of the Pentagon, and the forces of crony capitalism and rightwing fundamentalism that have joined hands to so distort almost everything in our system.
For fun, I'm peddling my friend Allen Ruff's Save Me, Julie Kogon. This just happens to be a great, fun book. The title is weird, I know. It should be called New Haven, because Ruff does for the working class Jews of New Haven what William Kennedy does for the Irish of Albany. I always knew Allen was a consummate storyteller, but as a writer, he was known to me only as a polemicist. What a joy to read his vivid dialogue and to meet his odd and three-dimensional characters and to be in the steady, able hands of Allen Ruff, novelist.