The title of Matt Rothschild's new book -- You Have No Rights: Stories of America In An Age Of Repression (The New Press) -- carries a strong whiff of lefty hyperbole. Is the fascist jackboot really on America's throat?
If true, one would think that people are being thrown into jail without judicial review. And having their phones tapped without a warrant. And their financial records secretly reviewed by spy agencies. And facing arrest for carrying an impolite political placard, or wearing an overtly political tee shirt, or sticking a sign in their front yard protesting the Iraqi war. And far worse.
But, of course, all this has happened in the post- 9/11 world of the Bush administration's War on Terror. Rothschild, editor of the Madison-based The Progressive magazine (disclosure: I've written for it), has become a leading chronicler of trespasses large and small against civil liberties in his column McCarthyism Watch.
You Have No Rights presents 82 of the more than 200 civil liberty abuses he has detailed since December 2001. The pieces are short, recounted in a refreshing just-the-facts manner, including the unconvincing justifications of the police, federal agents and prosecutors blamed for the abuses. If anger or anguish arises in the vignettes, it comes not from reporter Rothschild but from the victims themselves in their own words.
This is a casebook, in other words, documenting the repeated razor cuts -- and occasional knife plunges -- directed to our civil liberties.
Elsewhere you can read about the nightmarish "extraordinary renditions," the Abu Ghraib torturing, the hidden prison camps, and other manifestations of the Bush team's iron fist. The meat of Rothschild's book, instead, chronicles the everyday hassles and harassment faced by, he says, "real people facing real hardship because of who they are or the views they express."
So we learn about:
- Stephen Downs being arrested for trespassing at the mall when he wears a tee shirt that says "Peace on Earth" on one side and "Give Peace a Chance" on the other.
- Laura Berg, a nurse at an Albuquerque veterans hospital, being investigated and accused of sedition by the Veterans Administration after she writes a letter to the editor accusing the Bush administration of criminal negligence for its Iraqi war.
- Frank Van Den Bosch of Platteville being arrested for disorderly conduct when he unfurls a sign saying "FUGW" when the Bush campaign caravan rolls through town.
- U.S. rowing champion Aquil Abdullah being repeatedly detained, questioned and searched at airports because he happens to be a black man with a Muslim-sounding name.
- Members of Peace Action Milwaukee being barred from flying to a demonstration against the School of the Americas because some of their names pop up on the mysterious law-enforcement "watch list."
The book's detailing of 77 other examples effectively demolishes any claim that these are isolated anomalies of over-zealous law enforcement.
"They are anything but," Rothschild writes. "We need to have memory; we need to see patterns. Those who are in power feast on our ignorance."
Because of its episodic and reportorial structure, You Have No Rights doesn't really build as a sustained, book-length argument. But cumulatively the piling on of abuse after abuse shows that while the fascist jackboot isn't exactly on our neck, the United States surely has taken a brutish, authoritarian turn under President Bush.
For documenting this, Rothschild proves himself a stalwart civil libertarian in the great tradition of Nat Hentoff and Erwin Knoll, his legendary predecessor at The Progressive.
Matt Rothschild discusses his new book, You Have No Rights: Stories of America in an Age of Repression, followed by a book signing, Thursday, July 26, at 7 p.m. in the Wisconsin Studio of the Overture Center, 201 State St.