October 20, 2004
Matthew Rothschild, Editor of The Progressive -- "One of the things that concerns me most about the Bush administration is its messianic militarism."
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
BuzzFlash wanted to know, "What does it mean to be a progressive?" So we asked Matthew Rothschild, editor of The Progressive magazine, a leading voice in this country for peace and social justice.
A graduate of Harvard University, Rothschild edited the Multinational Monitor, a magazine founded by Ralph Nader, prior to coming to The Progressive. He landed at The Progressive in 1983 and has served the magazine in many different capacities -- first as associate editor, then managing editor, then publisher, and since 1994 as editor. Rothschild brought distinguished social critics on as columnists, including Barbara Ehrenreich, Eduardo Galeano, and Howard Zinn. He added original poetry from the likes of Martín Espada and Adrienne Rich, and he recruited the humorists Kate Clinton and Will Durst. On the magazine's website, Rothschild contributes his "This Just In" commentaries several times a week and keeps a running tally of civil liberties infringements in his "McCarthyism Watch."
Rothschild is also co-founder and director of The Progressive Media Project, which since 1993 has been distributing opinion pieces to newspapers around the country in an effort to diversify and democratize the national debate.
We are pleased to bring you our interview with Matthew Rothschild, one of the most articulate and passionate voices in the progressive community.
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BuzzFlash: What do you think it means to be a progressive?
Matthew Rothschild: We are following in the tradition of Robert La Follette, who was the founder of The Progressive magazine and one of the pioneers of the progressive movement. To us, a progressive means we need to take back power from corporations with way too much power, not only over the economy but over the political system. And it also means deep suspicion of U.S. intervention abroad.
La Follette himself was hanged in effigy for being one of the few senators to oppose U.S. entry into World War I. We’ve opposed just about every U.S. war except for World War II. We are very opposed to this Iraq war, and early on we were critical about all the lies that the Bush administration used to drag this country into war.
Being a progressive also means standing up for democracy -- giving
more direct power to people, greater access to the ballot, and more political
power in every way. We also believe in economic justice. We believe in
civil rights and civil liberties for everybody. Free speech is a real
fundamental value for us. And we believe in the protection of the environment.
I think that gives you an idea of what a traditional progressive is.
The key is not to run away from the label that others -- the media or the right wing -- are trying to pin on us.
I think it’s been a real disaster for progressives, liberals, people within the Democratic Party, to dodge the label of liberal since Michael Dukakis’day, as though it’s poisonous. If a liberal means that the people should have the right to vote, and that the right to vote shouldn’t be taken away from them as it was in Florida from African Americans -- then yes, we’re liberal. If liberal means that Article I, Section VIII of the Constitution, which gives to Congress the sole right to declare war, is still part of the Constitution -- then yes, we’re liberal. If a liberal means that corporations shouldn’t be able to trash the environment and rewrite the regulations of the government -- yes, we’re liberal. If liberal means that people shouldn’t have to live on starvation minimum wages -- yes, we’re liberal.
Or, yes, we’re progressive. To me, the battle really isn’t over the label, and it’s somehow cowardly, or comes off cowardly, for people to be dodging the label. On the other hand, it comes off as futile for people on the left, to say, "Oh, I’m not one of those liberals; I’m a real hard core progressive," or vice versa.
What we need to do is bring people who are in the Democratic Party, and who identify as liberals, or were independents or centrists, or even thinking Republicans of the traditional mainstream variety that are horrified at the direction George W. Bush is taking this country, and then move them, step by step, to a more sane and humane policy. That really should be our goal.
BuzzFlash: People reduce politics to a sliding linear scale divided by ideologies on the left and the right -- liberal, conservative. It’s flawed, however, because it’s difficult to form that straight line on the left when you eventually talk about the American empire.
There seems to be a fundamental schism that people cross when they become a progressive. In some respects, you have to forego a fundamentally nationalist ideology and accept an internationalist one. It goes well beyond how you feel about the United Nations. It’s a belief that an American's life is not more important than someone else’s life, whether they’re from the Middle East or South America. A progressive rejects the notion that the United States is inherently a good or righteous country. Rather than accepting the myth of America always being just in our foreign policy and our military interventions, I argue that progressives see compassion as the full definition of our strength.
With that in mind, do you see a time in the future when candidates could embrace this world view? Could we get to a place where Democratic candidates don’t try to outspend Republicans on defense appropriations in an arms race? Could we get to the point where we talk about world hunger and poverty, regardless of how it affects American or multinational corporate profits? Could we ever get over the "American first" paradigm, which is, I think at the core of the progressive world view?
Matthew Rothschild: I agree with you that progressives value every life around the world equally. We do not believe the United States has a God-given right to go tell every other country what to do. We do not believe that the United States is divinely inspired, and that the United States is the shining light upon a hill to every other country. That is part of what I call the American superiority complex -- the idea that somehow we are better than any other country in the world. And this is a delusion. There are great parts about this country, especially the Bill of Rights. And there are very dangerous and destructive parts about this country, especially its record in foreign policy over the last 150 years.
If you go back to the Mexican War, the Spanish-American War, and all the way through U.S. interventions, one after another throughout Latin America in the 20th Century, right up to the invasion of Iraq today -- these invasions have cost millions upon millions of lives. Vietnam itself cost 2 million to 3 million lives. When you see all the death that the United States has caused in its foreign policy, it’s a little hard to say that we are God’s gift to the world.
One of the things that concerns me most about the Bush administration is it’s messianic militarism. George W. Bush really does believe that God put him in the Oval Office, when we all know that it was William Rehnquist and four of his cronies. But he thinks that God is speaking through him. That’s what he told some Amish people earlier in the campaign. As Molly Ivins points out, that’s a strange thing to say, because I thought God could conjugate verbs better than that. But it’s a very troubling thing for George W. Bush to be invoking God as his justification. He has said time and time again that we are delivering the gift of freedom to the people in Iraq, but it’s not our gift to deliver -- it’s the gift of God Almighty. And that makes him to be God’s little efficient delivery boy.
There’s no arguing with that in a democracy if he’s going to whip out the God card all the time, because he can just say I’ve got God’s word on this. And furthermore, it’s a particularly inappropriate time to be talking about God in this manner when you consider who the enemy of the United States is. The enemy is al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden. And what do they believe? They believe that God is giving them direct instruction. And so why play tug-of-war with Osama bin Laden and make God be the rope? That’s not the game you should be playing.
I do think, at some point -- and John Kerry, to some extent, addresses this -- we need to get past the idea in this country that we are superior to everybody else, that we have God on our side. We need to be respectful of the opinion of mankind -- those are the words in the Declaration of Independence. We don’t have that right now. Certainly Bush-Cheney don’t have it. If we took a more modest view of ourselves in the world, rather than this grandiose, deluded view, the world would be a lot safer place.
BuzzFlash: Would you agree that most Americans are progressive and they just don’t know it? Or do you think progressives are a vocal minority?
Matthew Rothschild: A lot of issues are progressive majority issues. Increasing the minimum wage -- a vast majority of people believe in that. Corporations have too much power -- 80 percent of American people believe that. Need for campaign finance and full public financing -- the majority of Americans believe in that. Need for universal health care -- the majority of Americans believe that. Need to spend more on education and on the environment -- the majority of Americans believe that.
On those issues, we really speak for the majority in this country; that is, the progressive movement does. Not on every issue do we represent a majority -- certainly not on the idea, I think, that the United States doesn’t have some God-given right to go rule the world. I think nationalism is such a destructive force, and such a blinding force, and religion too, to some extent. When they combine it can be toxic.
So you have those issues that are of concern, but there are a lot of religious progressives out there as well who are not messianic and who do not believe in the superiority of the United States over others. They believe in helping the poor, whether they are in the United States or whether they’re all over the world, and they really believe in the equality of every human being.
On some levels, yes, we have a majority view. On others, we don’t. Gay marriage, for instance, isn’t a majority position, but progressives hold it tight, as I do, and I think at some point it will become a majority one. I mean, why for all the world should a gay couple that’s been together for 20 years not be allowed to get married, and Brittney Spears can go get married twice in a year at the drop of a hat? I mean, there’s no rational thought to the reason why two gays or two lesbians can’t get married, and heterosexuals can. We should have a rational secular argument, instead of having this religion argument imposed upon us. That violates the First Amendment separation of church and state.
BuzzFlash: What do you think is at stake for progressives in
this election? If, hypothetically, Bush-Cheney win -- or steal -- the
election, which it appears as if they’re already in the process
of, after voter registration forms were thrown away in Nevada and Oregon
-- or there’s any number of Florida-like problems. Do you worry
about a sense of apathy settling in among progressives?
The policies of this administration have been so retrogressive that our environment is at stake. One intervention after another is likely. The nuclear arms race will continue. The discrepancy in the distribution of wealth and income will grow. The apparatus of regulating corporations will be dismantled. The question over a woman’s right to choose is in the balance. Gay rights are in the balance. And the mood of intolerance in this country -- such as the statement from John Ashcroft, who said, "Those who accuse freedom-loving people of the phantoms of lost liberty are giving aid and ammunition to our enemies." That kind of intolerance has been sweeping the country, and that scares me as well.
I’m very concerned about the fate of this country. I’m worried about what a Bush victory would do to the tens of millions of people who are desperate to see that man out of office. I think people are just going to be despondent. If I were a psychiatrist, I’d clear my calendar from November 2 to November 9 because I’d be expecting a lot of walk-ins. We need to get beyond despair though, even if Bush wins, because, as the great poet W.H. Auden says, "May we beleaguered by the same negation and despair show an affirming flame."
We need to show this affirming flame. The affirming flame is to fight for peace and for justice and civil liberties, regardless of who’s in power. To some extent, as bad as I think Bush is and would be in another term -- no matter who is in power, there is certainly a lot of work to do for progressives.
Some of the words coming out of Kerry’s mouth and out of Edwards’mouth on Iraq, for instance, don’t encourage me. Because Kerry and Edwards both are saying we’ve got to win this thing, and Kerry says we’ve got to send more troops in. That’s the last thing we need to do. That place is a mess right now. How will sending more troops in there make it less of a mess? It’s going to mean more U.S. soldiers dying, more Iraqis dying, more video for al-Qaeda to use as a recruitment tool.
We’ve got to get out of there, and to have Kerry and Edwards
not admit that, I think, is a problem. Kerry says we’ll be out
of there in four years. That’s a lot of time. Bush would be there
not only for his four years, but for the next eight if he can hand over
the family business to Jeb. I think they’re planning on being there
Of course, the 9/11 commission says there is no collaborative operational relationship -- something that Secretary Rumsfeld admitted the other day as well. But you hold Cheney on the record several times in 2003 -- Bush, too, for that matter -- saying that Saddam Hussein was helping al-Qaeda make chemical and biological weapons. When is he ever going to be held responsible for that? When is he going to be held responsible for saying Saddam Hussein had reconstituted nuclear weapons, which he said just a few days before the war on Meet the Press? There’s a lack of accountability there.
When he brought up El Salvador in the debate, I almost fell off my
chair, because he was praising U.S. policy in El Salvador in 1980 as
being the handmaiden of freedom, when actually it was the handmaiden
of terror. The United States was funding and training death squads in
El Salvador and the Salvadoran military, which was working hand in glove
with those death squads. That civil war cost the lives of 75,000 people.
According to the Salvadoran Truth Commission, the vast majority of those
people were killed by the death squads and Salvadoran military that the
United States was funding. That’s not a success story.
There also needs to be a strong effort within the labor movement and with other nonprofit, service organizations that have been working more together actually this year than in years past. There’s a shared understanding that we need to work together against the tide of reaction that has been tugging at us here for the last, well, really 20 to 25 years, because the Republicans and the right wing have been so organized with their right-wing foundations, funding right-wing institutions, and getting their right-wing talking head in the media, including college newspapers.
They have the infrastructure of right-wing propaganda, and they have been inundating us with it. Up until about 10 years ago, a lot of progressives weren’t responding to that, which was leaving the media field open.
I think the most important thing we need to do though is person-to-person -- to talk to people who don’t agree with us. We need to talk to our neighbors who don’t agree, and we need to not be inward-looking. We really need to communicate with people who don’t agree with us and try to make it clear to them how destructive these policies really are, because that’s how we can engage in politics.
I’m a strong believer in local protest. I think it’s more important than huge national protest, because when your neighbor sees you, or your co-worker sees you, out there protesting in the main intersection in town and they ask why do you feel so strongly about that -- that’s a point where you can really engage in politics and you can say, well, this war is counterproductive. This war is making us less safe. Do we really want our sons and daughters to be going over there and fighting over there? Or whatever the issue is, it’s really the point of departure for a political conversation that can really have an effect on people.
It’s much better than being one of a million in an anonymous
crowd. Be one of a hundred at a place where people know you and then
can engage in conversation with you. Those are the kinds of conversations
we need, to get to that progressive tomorrow.
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
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The Progressive Magazine website
Editor Matthew Rothschild comments on the news of the day