The following piece is entitled “A Progressive Perspective on Justice, Liberty, and Social Problems” and constitutes chapter 19 of the book Values & Ethics: From Living Room to Boardroom (itself based on an Internet-based talk radio show of the same name I did in times past). My influential and tireless partners in dialogue are Michael Ratner J.D., and Matthew Rothschild. First, I interview Mr. Ratner, and then Mr. Rothschild, both of whose words, in turn, are indicated by the initials MR, and mine are JM. For paragraphs with no initials, assume they are a continuation of the speaker who was speaking in the previous paragraph. I highlight words having to do with values and virtues by placing them in boldface type. Enjoy this look at progressivism, liberty, constitutional rights, liberalism, and peace which constitutes a progressive perspective on justice, liberty, and social problems.
“Justice is a name for certain moral requirements, which regarded collectively, stand higher in the scale of social utility and are therefore of more paramount importance than any others.” ~ John Stuart Mill
JM: Today’s program is important to all of us, even if we’re not stuck in Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. This is, in part, because some of the things that our government is doing is a blight on our country’s honor. I will be talking with two very capable guests; gentlemen who have a lot to say about a progressive perspective on justice vis-à-vis rights and liberty. First, Michael Ratner, President of the Center for Constitutional Rights, joins me. Hello, and may I call you Michael?
MR: Yes, Michael’s fine.
JM: Well, it seems like every day there’s something in the newspaper on these topics, huh?
MR: Yes except for winning occasionally, it seems like every day is another disaster for human rights and civil rights out there!
JM: I can imagine that you have a sense of frustration as well as eagerness to do what you do here at this important time and place. If you were a bread maker, you would probably be less excited about what’s going on!
MR: I’m excited, but it’s been very difficult. I often read about another non-citizen, especially if they are Muslim, being harassed or wrongly accused by the government. I travel across the country; I see examples all the time. I find in Guantánamo or other places, the accused and detained are subject to torture. I’ve met people who have been freed from Guantánamo, in England, and they’re about as far away from terrorists as my own children. There is a tremendous amount of fear in the country right now, and I think because of that we’re willing to look the other way, particularly when it comes to other people’s rights— not their own.
“The government has a pathological incentive to collect more and more and more; they just can’t help themselves – they have an insatiable hoarding complex. Since the government unchained itself from the constitution after 9/11, it has been eating our democracy alive from the inside out. There’s no room in a democracy for this kind of secrecy: it’s anathema to our form of a constitutional republic, which was born out of the struggle to free ourselves from the abuse of such powers, which led to the American Revolution.” ~ Thomas Drake
JM: I see. Clearly, there are some parallels between Japanese internment during World War II and the present situation — unless you would disagree with me on that. But it seems to me that government overreaches – more commonly (exclusively?) when it comes to people of color, and the lower social classes.
MR: Yes, what happens in times of fear is that they scapegoat people. For example, during World War II, we had Germans and Italians here, and even though we were fighting against Italy and Germany, we didn’t go put Italians and Germans in internment camps. We did put Japanese into camps – 50,000 citizens and a similar number of noncitizens – and that is not because they were less loyal than others, it was different racial characteristics. People doubted their loyalty because of their ethnicity. We put over 100,000 people into veritable prisons despite the fact that there was no evidence at all that any of them had committed any crime, forcing them to sell their businesses and destroying people’s lives. The government lied; it came into court and said: “We think that some of them may be involved in terrorism or attacks on the U.S., and therefore all of them have to be put into camps because we can’t figure out which ones they are.”
If you look at what’s happening today, it’s not that dissimilar. Yes, we were attacked by Muslim fundamentalists on 9/11, but we have one and a quarter billion Muslims in the world – four to six million in the United States alone. I speak to Muslim groups all the time, and they are more patriotic than I am by a great deal. They represent all kinds of occupations and varieties, from businessmen to doctors to scientists to telephone workers and everything else, and yet they are stereotyped as dangerous and scapegoated. So, whether we call it race, ethnicity, or religion, there is a tendency in times of great fear to think that we’re going to be safer to cast such a wide net and treat individuals in this way; of course, we’re not.
“The financial crisis did more than cast doubt on the ability of markets to allocate risk efficiently. It also prompted a widespread sense that markets have become detached from morals, and that we need to reconnect the two.” ~ Michael J. Sandel
JM: That is not in any way consistent with a progressive perspective on justice. Can you give a little bit of an overview of the top three things that you are concerned about? I know “extraordinary renditions” have been particularly egregious.
MR: Extraordinary renditions are what we call “outsourcing torture.” I have a client, a Canadian citizen, Maha Harar. Born in Syria, he left there when he was a young boy. He was picked up at Kennedy Airport; they claim he is a member of Al Qaeda, and originally they never gave him access to an attorney. The government put him on a private jet and sent him over to Syria where he was stuck in an underground cell for nearly a year. He had the heck tortured out of him. Eventually, we got him out because he’s a Canadian citizen; of course there is a huge stink being made by the Canadians about what the Americans did to him. This is outsourcing of torture.
The other examples of course we saw at Abu Ghraib prison, and let me assure you, the pictures the pubic got to see were only the tip of the iceberg. It’s happening in Afghanistan, and it’s happening in Guantánamo. The U.S. government has tried to claim that this wanton behavior is just “bad apples,” and is not the fault of the higher-ups. In fact, as the so-called “Torture Memos” indicate, this outlandish situation was authorized at the very top. It’s a really nasty case of violating fundamental law with this torture. It’s no coincidence this occurs outside the United States.
JM: Appalling. This is a quote from the terrorism and geopolitics expert, Pulitzer Prize winner Thomas L. Friedman:
“We killed 26 of our prisoners of war. In 18 cases, people have been recommended for prosecution or action by their supervising agencies; eight other cases are still under investigation. That is simply appalling. Only one of the deaths occurred at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, meaning that the others occurred elsewhere.”
…So, this is a huge problem that actually not only involves the deprivation of human rights and the rule of law, but murder.
MR: Right. In fact, it’s probably more than 26. This was a really surprising article because in addition to what you just noted, he actually proposed to go up the chain of command – the people at the top should be investigated for what went on. He doesn’t usually “go there” in terms of U.S. officials, but it was a really strong column. I think it’s an indication that the rest of the world knows that top people in this government – Attorney General Gonzalez, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and others – have authorized torture throughout the world, and that has led to mayhem and murder. This is the number one issue that is taking us off of the page of civilized society.
In 2002, the Center for Constitutional Rights began representing the first case of a Guantánamo detainee, David Hicks. As you probably know, the government decided to pick up 700-800 people from Pakistan and Afghanistan and around the world that it claims were terrorists, and took them to the U.S. Naval Station in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.
“When the most important decisions are made in secret, we lose our ability to check the powers that control.” ~ Laura Poitras
…I started representing victims because the Bush Administration took the position that these people are outside the law; that they could do whatever they want to them, including torture. Secondly, that they could hold them there forever and never allowed the captives to go into a court of law to test the claims for why they are being held. In other words, they pick someone up in Bosnia or Gambia or wherever and they say: “Welcome to Guantánamo; we can hold you for the rest of your life – or until the Global War on Terror is over.” Well, of course it’s not over until they say it’s over, and there’s no plan to allow any kind of court hearing.
A fundamental principle of juris prudence is that before a detainee goes to prison for any length of time, they have the right to hear the evidence and test those reasons in a court. It’s called “the writ of habeas corpus.” It’s an age-old hallmark of fair criminal law. The Bush Administration is flouting that, unwisely. It isn’t right and it could have massive repercussions.
We eventually took that case to the Supreme Court, claiming we have a right to represent the people in federal court, that every human being deserves a hearing before he’s jailed for any length of time. In a shocking decision, a very moderate Supreme Court – certainly not made up of liberal Democrats – said we were right. They cited the Magna Carta (from 1215 in England), essentially saying that the most dangerous thing in a country is executive detention (where the executive branch can essentially put in jail whomever he wants without going to court), and that every single person in Guantánamo deserves a hearing. This is a hallmark of a democracy – a government of laws and not men.
JM: Why do you imagine that the Bush Administration believes it is wiser than juridical procedures honed and honored since 1215? I mean, it was a monarch who acknowledged in the Magna Carta that a trial and habeas corpus are fair. What do they possibly have as justification?
“Edward Snowden played a very important role in educating the American people about the degree to which our civil liberties and Constitutional rights are being undermined.” ~ Bernie Sanders
MR: Well, the monarch, of course, was forced by noblemen to acknowledge that you can’t just have arbitrary power based on whim. And that has come down through the ages for 800 years. I think what happened here was, after the 9/11 terrorist attack, there was an effort in government to think that they could dispense with fundamental laws of our society, and the Supreme Court noted that you have to have due process because what if you get the wrong guy? As it turned out, as we started to get hearings, and to get people released – over two hundred people to date – as far as I know, few if any have actually been jailed, even in their home country, because there is no evidence against them that they were involved in anything.
JM: Yes, I recall John Locke heralding the absence of arbitrariness in government treatment of the citizens as paramount. It’s simply fundamental to a progressive perspective on justice, rights, and liberties. We’re talking about law and decency and principle above any political calculation or any emotion such as fear or anger.
So, the government seems to be using fear to infringe upon civil liberties, especially of the politically disenfranchised, without just cause.
MR: I think there was a major effort by the Administration to grab power. I’ve noticed it before, whether it was England during the Irish Republican Army in the North, Pinochet in Chile. When regimes are facing some kind of danger, they overreach tremendously. They think they can go beyond the law and bolster their power. One of the things that the founders of our Republic were very careful about was the tendency of the executive to take more and more power (based on their experience with the king in England). That’s why we have a tripartite system with courts and Congress; that’s why the courts are a bulwark against dictatorial power being assumed by a president. They want more power, and are reluctant to “have to go through the courts,” to have their favored policies tested. They believe they are infallible, that they don’t make mistakes. But as has been indicated, they do, and they sometimes do in a very gross way.
JM: I’m discussing a progressive perspective on justice with Michael Ratner here on Values & Ethics: From Living Room to Boardroom. We’re talking about the rightness and wrongness of things that the American government is doing on your behalf and my behalf in the dark cells of other areas of the world. Noam Chomsky says this:
“[With more than 2.25 million U.S. citizens in prison in 2003], this is the highest per-capita, by far, prison population in Western countries, and it’s gone way up because the 1994 crime bill was extremely harsh. Furthermore, prisons in the U.S. are so inhumane at this point that they are being condemned by international human rights organizations as literally imposing torture.”
…I just bring that up to point out that it’s not as though we’re talking about 30 or 40 people of dark color in some faraway country whom we could more easily forget about; I think a quarter of black people in this country are either in prison or on probation or somehow in contact with the criminal justice system. So, we have some very big moral questions on our hands – bigger than “Should I return this wallet that I found?” or “Should I cheat on my wife?”
Michael would you like to talk more about your second interest, which is what I would call unlawful detention, or would you like to move on to the third?
“Justice is sacred; it’s prior; it’s privileged. It isn’t something that can easily be traded off against lesser things. …If we do justice, and if we respect rights, society as a whole will be better off in the long run.” ~ Michael J. Sandel
MR: Unlawful detention is really the big one we’re facing now and we’re in a huge struggle around Guantánamo as to what kind of hearings we’re going to get for people. I think if we look at torture and mistreatment of prisoners and the right to a hearing, these principles are very relevant to how we can expect U.S. soldiers to be treated. One of the major objections to this whole course of conduct from Bush, Rumsfeld, etc. has come from the military. They have been outraged, really, by the fact that they’ve been told that they’re supposed to mistreat people and then blame the lower levels for mistreatment. They’re saying: “What are we doing holding these people – they are not dangerous and they have no more intelligence of value.”
The question is relevant to the old saying, “Do unto others as you would have done to yourself,” and it’s one that goes to the heart of this. It’s reminiscent of what [Colin] Powell meant when he complained about not treating people humanely under the Geneva Conventions, cautioning how U.S. soldiers were going to be treated when captured. That’s really the lesson of this, from the perspective of self-interest.
The other aspect of self-interest is in not making the world more dangerous. I was talking with a journalist the other day, and he asked:
“You think you’re going to get information from these people by torturing them. First of all, most of the information is false, and you should never accede to torture in principle. But the result will be inadvertently recruiting thousands of others to the side against America. How many people came to the insurgency in Iraq as a result of Abu Ghraib? We don’t know the answer, but I’m sure it’s in the hundreds – if not the thousands.”
JM: Yes, the ethical issues that you bring up are really interesting to me personally; that’s what this show is about. But, just from a pragmatic perspective, if you have one person who has his finger on a button that will detonate a “dirty nuclear bomb” or bioweapon in a crowded metropolis, perhaps to kill that perpetrator is an ethically justifiable and reasonable thing to do. That’s arguable. But when you cast this wide net that captures a few ne’er-do-wells and a bunch of people in the wrong place at the wrong time, it’s foolish. I mean, these people don’t have secrets about where Osama bin Laden is at this very moment, and the blowback could be significant.
But when you cast this wide net that captures a few ne’er-do-wells and a bunch of people in the wrong place at the wrong time, it’s foolish. I mean, these people don’t have secrets about where Osama bin Laden is at this very moment, and the blowback could be significant. A progressive perspective on justice, liberty, rights, and morality is really more deontological than utilitarian. I mean that the principle of right is more prized than some instrumental or expedient goal.
Consider the pure, moral issues along the lines of what let’s say, Jesus, counseled – “Would you want to be tortured? No, so why would you torture somebody else?” So we seem to be standing there with egg on our faces, as torturers, and we’re not even getting decent information from interrogations! It’s the worst of both worlds.
“The term propaganda rings melodramatic and exaggerated, but a press that—whether from fear, careerism, or conviction—uncritically recites false government claims and reports them as fact, or treats elected officials with a reverence reserved for royalty, cannot be accurately described as engaged in any other function.” ~ Glenn Greenwald
MR: Yes, that’s pretty clear. When I talk to classes and address these issues, I analyze the ethical issues primarily as I think you do – just don’t do this. This is not a humane thing to do; it reduces the tortured to inhumanity as well as those who inflict the torture. I do think there’s a serious question, to put it mildly, in my experience, as to what kind of information you get. My clients in Guantánamo, after undergoing a year of stripping, dogs, loud noises, being chained to the floor – all kinds of stuff – actually confessed to meeting Osama bin Laden and having been at his training camp. It turns out their initial story that they had never met Osama bin Laden was true, and the later so-called “confession” was false – merely offered because they thought they would be treated better. These guys weren’t considered major bombers or anything. There is no other way for them to receive any kind of better conditions in Guantánamo than to offer a false confession.
JM: It’s also worth pointing out along the “pure ethical perspective” that kids hear about these things, to the degree that the media know about it and report it. Jennifer Harbury notes: “What do these actions teach our children? We should not accept the torture of any human being for any reason. Torture is wrong. Torture is illegal. Torture corrupts and destroys our most basic values.” I think it’s sad for people of goodwill all across this land to see our leaders doing things with relative autonomy; I mean, they don’t ask me my opinion before they enact their will, and all of a sudden Americans have blood on their hands. This is not to say that in the “ticking time bomb scenario,” unusual measures might be ethically justified. But to my knowledge, ticking time bomb scenarios are extraordinarily rare.
“Until American domestic and foreign policy addresses quality of life issues for the poorest people in the country, we cannot say that there is quality of life. Until all of us are treated as people—with full human rights—we cannot tout a human rights record. Until policy decisions are made that do not benefit solely the 1% of the population which has more wealth than the bottom 90% of the population, I do not think that we can collectively say we are talking about real economic and social benefits.” ~ Winona LaDuke
MR: We’re going to look back on this period and wonder, “How did we ever go there?” As I look at it, there was a sort of uncut “fabric of law and civilization” that surrounded us for many years. Yes, there were aberrations; there was Vietnam. But at least there was an understanding that things like torture, arbitrary detention, and disappearances were something that were done by Pinochet in Chile or the like. Torture, etc. was something that the United States could criticize others for because we didn’t put out memos about it and we didn’t defend it at our highest levels of government.
Now, though the United States should be the moral leader of the world, our actions have essentially torn that fabric of laws. Can we sew it back together? Will it ever be as strong as it was initially – before the most powerful country in the world decided that it could dispense with the prohibition of torture, arbitrary detention, and disappearances? It’s an extremely serious matter.
JM: What do you teach your children about America when they ask you at night how your day was?
“Some of the worst violations of civil liberties [in the wake of 9/11] have happened without the input or authorization of Congress or the American public. In fact, it often happened with the discussion and the approval of a small number of men in the executive branch [of the United States federal government].” ~ Anthony Romero
MR: That’s a big problem. Both my daughters are members of the War Resistance League, so they’re pacifists. One opened a letter the other day, a draft form, and she asked what she would do as a conscientious objector. I said, “I don’t know, maintain forests or something.” She said, “You mean I have to do something for the United States? I’m moving to Canada.” So, that made me sad, because she doesn’t think the country stands for much that she really loves anymore. That’s pretty bad.
JM: Yes, it seems like a lot of the folks who had to storm the beaches of Normandy and lived through it must be terribly disturbed by what is going on at this time. Though, even veterans might be the first to note we electively fight way too much in America. Thinker and liberal Gore Vidal noted: “Americans have no idea of the extent of their government’s mischief; the number of military strikes we have made unprovoked, against other countries, since 1947 is more than 250.” And he probably said that in the 1980s or 1990s.
MR: Yeah, take Mike Moore, a guy who was once a Marine prosecutor, now defending a client brought before one of these military tribunals. He goes around the world in uniform, denouncing the Bush Administration for what it’s doing with regard to these military commissions. He believes that this is not a fair system of justice; he strongly recommends a court martial or a regular federal trial. We are likely to convict the wrong people, and the right people will still be on the streets. There is still a fundamental belief among a lot of people in this country that America really has a set of good values, that we are good people, but that somehow this administration, in the name of fighting terror, has taken us outside of those boundaries.
JM: Prominent military man turned diplomat Colin Powell disagrees with you. He said: “America is still the beacon of light in the darkest corner of the world.” Maybe you can console your daughter with that rosy assessment of our ongoing righteousness. Indelible, apparently.
“If our nation’s commitment to human rights at home and abroad is to be reinvigorated after the dark era we are now living through, it will have to be – as it has been in the past – by Americans acting in cooperation with one another and with the rest of humanity. No unilateral effort to reshape the world in our own image can succeed, not even in the name of freedom.” ~ Eric Foner
MR: I would regrettably tell her that we’re not anymore. I meet a lot of lawyers and human rights activists all over the world – from Nigeria to Chile to Peru to the Philippines – I hear this repeated: “Our country used to do military trials and/or torture,” but we would say: “We should have a system of human rights more like the United States.” Now unfortunately it’s more often the opposite: “Well, look at the United States – we can do the same thing now.” That is actually a very, very bad situation.
JM: Though there are questions about America’s conduct in World War II, especially from historians like Howard Zinn, a case could be made that we had the “moral high ground” – fairly earned by the very hard work that we did fighting the Axis Powers in World War II. We lost a lot of people. The Marshall Plan, the Nuremberg Trials, etc. I think it put us in good stead.
MR: Oh, it did. There were very good people in the government; I mean, Roosevelt with the whole social safety net (which the current administration is trying to destroy); the United Nations grew out of World War II, mandating that force could only be used for self-defense. The Convention Against Torture came out of that experience. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Geneva Conventions of 1949. The Refugee Convention. These are all fundamental laws born of people’s blood on the beaches of Normandy and from the losses in the Holocaust. It is based on these declarations that we in some sense call ourselves civilized. This administration has just torn them to shreds.
“It’s time for those of us who love this country – and everything it should stand for – to reclaim our flag from those who would use it to crush rights and freedoms, both here at home and overseas. We need to redefine what it means to be a proud American.” ~ Michael Moore
JM: Well, we can lament that, but I think the things that you’re doing are heroic in a way. I think each of us has the opportunity to make improvements in the country; to engender the kind of society we know it can be in our hearts.
MR: There are a lot of good people here, and there’s a lot of work to be done. It’s not like I’m sitting here depressed, and going out fishing; I’m fighting every day and we’re winning. The courts are being resilient. This is a difficult time but our democratic values absolutely must prevail.
If people want to look at our website, it’s www.CCRJustice.org; there is a lot of material on these issues we’ve been talking about. There are ways to get active. I just want to encourage people that this is a good fight we’re in; it’s an important fight, and it’s one that in the end we are going to win, but there are some dark times on the way.
MR: Thank you, I appreciate it.
“From a personal perspective, because I’m on a watch list and went through years of trying to find out why, of having the government refuse to confirm or deny the very existence of such a list, it’s so meaningful to have its existence brought into the open so that the public knows there is a ‘watch list.’ The courts can now address the legality of it. I mean, the person who revealed this has done a huge public service and I’m personally thankful.” ~ Laura Poitras
JM: Now I am happy to continue this discussion about a progressive perspective on justice and other values with Matthew Rothschild, the Senior Editor of The Progressive magazine from 1994-2014, here on World Talk Radio.
The Progressive magazine is a journalistic voice for peace, civil rights, civil liberties, human rights, justice, and democracy. Matthew Rothschild has been all over; he graduated from Harvard and joined the staff in 1983. He has appeared on Nightline, C-SPAN, The O’Reilly Factor, and NPR, and his newspaper commentaries have run in the Chicago Tribune, the L.A. Times, the Miami Herald, and a host of other newspapers. My guest is also the author of You Have No Rights: Stories of America in an Age of Repression, and the editor of Democracy in Print: The Best of The Progressive, 1909-2009. There is a lot going on at www.progressive.org; I welcome you to see what they write about and support them. Any publication for whom Howard Zinn writes is alright by me!
Hello Matthew! May I call you that?
MR: Hey Jason, how are you? And sure.
JM: Okay, thanks for joining me.
MR: My pleasure.
“Ultimately, the truth sinks in that no matter what justification you’re selling yourself, this is not about terror. Terrorism is the excuse. This is about economic and social control, and the only thing you’re really protecting is the supremacy of your government.” ~ Edward Snowden
JM: Tell me, do you think about moral issues as you’re deciding what you’re going to write about?
MR: Yes, that’s center-most in my mind usually: What is the crucial moral issue that is affecting Americans— or people around the world, for that matter? In particular: What is it that the U.S. government is doing or should be doing to stop killing people around the world? I think it has a moral obligation to do so right now as far as the Iraq war goes and any further wars Bush has planned for Iran or Syria or North Korea. And then, what positive steps might it take – for instance, to stop the AIDS plague in its tracks, or to raise the standard of living of people around the world. Astonishingly, more than half the world is subsisting on less than two dollars a day. That’s unbelievable, Jason. The United States could do something about that if it wanted to.
So, not only are there plenty of things to do around the world, there are myriad ways to ameliorate social ills in the United States: to address 45 million people without health care, or the 35 million people who don’t have enough to eat day in or day out. We have a high rate of child poverty— one of the highest among all of the industrialized nations. Those are just a few of the issues that motivate us here at The Progressive magazine.
“Having seen Snowden as primarily a defender of the right to privacy, and someone who exposed illegal mass surveillance, it is understandable that most people missed that he also came to understand the evils of empire and its unnecessary wars that have traditionally — and increasingly since the ‘War on Terror’ — posed the greatest threat to our civil liberties.” ~ Mark Weisbrot
JM: Though the topic is “a progressive perspective on justice, liberty, and social problems,” Would you please define the word progressive; that’s the adjective, and progressivism is the noun (along with progress) – just for folks who are not quite clear what that word really means.
MR: Sure, different people use it in different ways, but here we’re an extension of the Progressive movement that began in the early part of the 20th century founded by Robert La Follette, who was both senator and governor from Wisconsin (and who ran for president in 1924, among other years). Progressives of almost every stripe are very suspicious of corporate power. We believe the corporations have way too much power— not only in our economy, but also in the political scene as well. We want to restrict corporate power vis-à-vis society, and give government and citizens more power over the economy.
Another aspect of our kind of progressivism, which distinguishes it from a lot of liberals or progressives of the “Teddy Roosevelt variety” (way back then, or “interventionists” now), is that we’re very suspicious of U.S. interventions abroad. We’ve opposed almost every war except for World War II in the last hundred years, and we think the Iraq war is an immoral war and certainly not worth the cost of more than 5,000 U.S. lives (and over 25,000 wounded physically) and over 100,000 Iraqi lives. That’s way too high a price to pay, morally, as far as human lives, and then monetarily; this thing is costing $2 trillion and counting.
“George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and John Ashcroft are testing the American people as to whether violations of the U.S. Constitution by the executive branch of government are to be viewed as mere technicalities, or a growing threat to the fabric of liberty, privacy, due process, and fair trials in our country.” ~ Ralph Nader
On the positive side, we stand for civil rights and civil liberties for all; we have a kind of “left-wing” or “civil libertarian” aspect when it comes to civil liberties – we don’t want the government to tell us what to do about how we protect ourselves: a woman’s right to choose; and certainly the question of privacy rights. The Patriot Act has been impinging on our right to privacy, so that’s something we really disagree with. That bill certainly didn’t take into consideration a progressive perspective on justice, as you would note. The Progressive movement has really been a champion of labor rights and of civil rights for African Americans, women, gays and lesbians, etc. We are continuing along that path.
JM: You speak very intelligently, and it sounds as though the Progressive movement is a very reasonable one. However, Christopher Hitchens, whom I’m sure you’re familiar with, has said: “Members of the Left – along with the far larger number of “squishy progressives” – have grossly failed to live up to their responsibility to think. Rather, they are merely reacting, substituting tired slogans for thought.” I guess you would disagree with that, but can you tell me exactly how?
MR: I do, I admire a lot of what Christopher Hitchens has written over the years; he used to write for The Nation magazine, which is a beacon of the liberal-progressive, left-wing media. When someone who has written a lot that I agree with says: “Hey, you guys gotta wake up and look at this a little more closely!”, I don’t discount it out of hand. In fact, we examine and re-examine what we’ve done since 9/11. We’re very cautious, and we understood that 9/11 wasn’t simply a reaction to U.S. policy.
Thus, we didn’t want the U.S. to “go off half-cocked,” attacking one country after another throughout the Muslim and Arab world, whereas Hitchens supported not only the war against Afghanistan but was a huge cheerleader of this war against Iraq. I think the war against Iraq is difficult to defend, given the huge cost of it. So, those are the arguments I’d have with Hitchens, I suppose.
“Transparency is for those who carry out public duties and exercise public power. Privacy is for everyone else.” ~ Glenn Greenwald
JM: Okay. Here’s Jan Phillips talking about progressivism: “What distinguishes a progressive is that you live according to your principles, and your consciousness is wrapped around the whole world – not just yourself.” That’s kind of an interesting combination between what you described and what I would probably call the neoconservative point of view – namely, that we ought to be going out there into the world, using our military and other means to enact change and to bring about situations and environments that are favorable to the United States. She is heralding a progressive perspective on justice and other values, too. So, should a progressive be concerned about things that are going on in other countries?
MR: Absolutely. If you take as a fundamental moral principle that every person on Earth is equal and has an equal claim to life and liberty and the pursuit of happiness (and also to basic rights of food and shelter), then you have to wonder why America constitutes less than 5% of the world’s population but consumes 25% of the world’s resources. There are billions of people around the world who are just making a dollar or two per day, or dying in tremendous numbers of preventable diseases (you know, simple rehydration or mosquito nets would save hundreds of thousands of people!).
Really, what we’re seeing, Jason, is a kind of primitive capitalism – “crony capitalism” if you will. This coincides with what I would call a “messianic militarism”: George W. Bush’s idea that God is giving him instructions to go attack this country or that! I mean, he has said on numerous occasions that we are delivering the gift of freedom to the people of Iraq – the gift of God Almighty. It is a very odd concept to have the president of a secular government claiming that he’s carrying out God’s wishes. On top of that, he’s playing tug-of-war with Osama bin Laden with God as the rope! Frankly, Al Qaeda is claiming that God is telling them to kill Americans and Jews everywhere. Is that the argument we really want to have?
“It was in 2007 that I decided to go public. President Bush said at the time, categorically, “We do not torture prisoners. We are not waterboarding.” And I knew that that was a lie. And he made it seem as though this was a rogue CIA officer who decided to pour water on people’s faces. And that simply wasn’t true. The entire torture program was approved by the president himself, and it was a very carefully planned-out program. So to say that it was rogue, it was just a bald-faced lie to the American people.” ~ John Kiriakou
JM: That’s absurd; it seems as though folks are just choosing a quotation from a book to justify what seems to be in their heart for whatever reason. So, to put it plainly, you do believe that there are things that we should or could be doing out there in the world that are helpful but that don’t involve, say, an M-16 to do it?
MR: Yeah. Certainly, war is not the answer; killing people is not the answer. The war in Iraq is not making us more secure, and it is a rallying cry for terrorists around the world. But yes, the United States can use its influence and economic power to try to alleviate poverty. We could try to conquer AIDS, but you’re not going to succeed when the U.S. government and the Pope are saying that condoms don’t work. We need to really strip back these kinds of superstitions and ideologies that are getting in the way of saving people’s lives.
JM: Mm-hmm. These are very remarkable times I think. Tell me about your sense of optimism versus your sense of pessimism; are you excited about this time or do you think that this is the beginning of Big Brother and permanent militarism and a two-class society and all these other nasty possibilities?
“People have criticized me for seeming to step out of my professional role to become undignifiedly political. I’d say it was belated realization that day care, good schools, health insurance, and nuclear disarmament are even more important aspects of pediatrics than measles vaccine or vitamin D.” ~ Benjamin Spock
MR: Well, Jason, I think things are up for grabs and it depends essentially on what the American people decide to do— whether we are going to roll over and go back to sleep and say: “Whatever our government says is good!”, or whether we choose to fight. And there is a fight going on! I am encouraged because there are so many people here who are outraged about what George W. Bush and Dick Cheney and Carl Rove are doing to this country that I don’t think these guys are going to get away with it. The thing that they would want is for people to be dejected, for people to be so depressed that they become paralyzed. They want us to pull the covers over our heads and have a memory as long as half a football game! So, people need to get up and fight back. Then, we have a chance of really solving some of these serious problems.
JM: I hear what you’re saying, and I think one good way that works for me is to read your tidy, timely and compelling magazine – where I get to learn what people like Howard Zinn and Molly Ivins and Nat Hentoff are thinking every month.
MR: Yeah, Molly Ivins is great! She’s there on the back page. She said of Bush on the campaign trail: “It’s unbelievable that he said ‘God speaks through me,’ because I thought God could conjugate verbs better than that!” We need a sense of humor these days.
JM: Yeah, that’s great, I appreciate that one. I would just encourage people to go to www.progressive.org. I really appreciate your time today. I’m sorry we didn’t have more. I wish you all the best.
I will end with a smattering of trenchant thoughts and incisive insights which represent a progressive perspective on justice, liberty, and social problems:
“Restriction on free thought and free speech is the most dangerous of all subversions. It is the one un-American act that could most easily defeat us.” ~ Thurgood Marshall
“I would say, on the basis of having observe a thousand people in the experiment and having my own intuition shaped and informed by these experiments, that if a system of death camps were set up in the United States of the sort we had seen in Nazi Germany, one would find sufficient personnel for those camps in any medium-sized American town.” ~ Stanley Milgram
“I’m thinking about violence and intolerance a lot these days. The human desire for vengeance is so deep that one wonders how the cycle of violence can ever be stopped. I fear humans become immune to violence after a while, and it simply becomes routine. As Max Weber would say, it ‘takes on the appearance of being rational.’ We’re in desperate need of progressive and humane values spreading as far and wide as possible.” ~ Gary E. Kessler
“There is an aspiration that binds us. It is the dream of justice for a beloved community. It is the belief that extremes and excesses of inequality must be reduced so that each person is free to develop his or her full potential.” ~ Paul Wellstone
“If freedom makes social progress possible, so social progress strengthens and enlarges freedom.” ~ Robert F. Kennedy
“The whole history of the progress of human liberty shows that all concessions yet made to her august claims have been born of earnest struggle… Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet deprecate agitation, are men who want crops without thunder and lightning; they want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters.” ~ Frederick Douglass
“We say that if America entered the war to make the world safe for democracy, she must first make democracy safe in America. Verily, poor as we are in democracy, how could we give of it to the world?” ~ Emma Goldman
“The fear I have most in regard to the outcome to America of the disclosures is that nothing will change in the coming months and years; that it’ll just get worse. Eventually, some new leader will be elected who flips the switch and the people won’t be able to do anything at that point to oppose it, and it would turn into a tyranny.” ~ Edward Snowden
“Every nation-state tends towards the imperial – that is the point. Through banks, armies, secret police, propaganda, courts and jails, treaties, taxes, laws and orders, myths of civil obedience, assumptions of civic virtue at the top. Still it should be said of the political left: we expect something better. And correctly. We put more trust in those who show a measure of compassion, who denounce the hideous social arrangements that make war inevitable and human desire omnipresent; which fosters corporate selfishness, panders to appetites and disorder, wastes the Earth.” ~ Daniel Berrigan
The podcast of this interview is available HERE
Look up quotes relevant to a progressive perspective on justice, liberty, and social problems in the unsurpassed Wisdom Archive, a 26,000-quote search engine featuring left-of-center and largely secular wisdom.
Ω FOOTNOTES Ω
 Michael Ratner died in 2016. Reputable journalist David Cole said this about him, constituting high praise: “Several years ago, I asked the civil-rights lawyer Michael Ratner, who died on May 11 at age 72, whether he thought he had any chance of prevailing when, with the Center for Constitutional Rights, he sued George W. Bush in early 2002 on behalf of some of the first Guantánamo detainees. ‘None whatsoever,’ he replied. ‘We filed 100 percent on principle.’ …But to Ratner, challenging the president was the right thing to do, and that was enough.” He was famous not only for filing and winning important lawsuits on behalf of downtrodden Americans and others, but penning “The Case for the Impeachment of President George W. Bush.”
 Note that Matthew Rothschild has the same initials as Michael Ratner.
 The death toll, wounded count, and cost are C.B.O. and www.antiwar.com numbers, much higher than when this interview was recorded a decade ago
 Though U.S. policy did create part of the problem, which is to say that it funded groups that in a way were the forefathers of Al Qaeda; the CIA and bin Laden were “hand in glove” in Afghanistan in the 1980s – to help bring down the Soviet invasion there. That was one of the distal causes of 9/11. It’s not the only cause; you have fundamentalism of whatever stripe— which is something to be opposed. There’s anti-Semitism as well, and nationalism; both of which are very corrosive. Policies of the U.S. government which are supportive of Israeli reactionary and occupationist policies, or those which are supportive of corrupt governments in the Middle East (such as Egypt or Saudi Arabia) that also contributed.