A review of a Taking Liberties: Four Decades in the Struggle for Rights, by Aryeh Neier

Aryeh Neier has been fighting for human rights for 40 years. In that time, he directed the New York Civil Liberties Union (1964-1970), the American Civil Liberties Union (1970-1978), Human Rights Watch (1978-1993), and the Soros Foundation and Open Society Institute (1993-present). That he has had a distinguished career is certain, but that his efforts have led to greater liberty is debatable.

If there is one common element in Neier's experience, it is his determination to expand the domain of every organization he has led. One year after joining the staff of the NYCLU, Neier was in charge of the affiliate. He wasted no time expanding the Union's scope by addressing such issues as abortion, students' rights, prisoners' rights, the rights of mental patients, etc. His goal was to reach beyond the Constitution and get the courts to realize that a more expansive interpretation of human rights was necessary.

When Neier took over the national organization, he did the same thing. There is no question that the various "projects" he developed shaped the ACLU in a way that was unprecedented. But unlike others in the Union, he never succumbed to a plea that economic rights had to become part of the ACLU's portfolio; it was important not to blur the difference between individual rights and economic rights.

Shortly after coming to Human Rights Watch, Neier began spinning new tributaries. In short course there would be a Helsinki Watch, Americas Watch, Africa Watch, Asia Watch and Middle East Watch. It was not surprising, then, that under his tutelage at the Open Institute, Neier would introduce a domestic policy agenda to an organization that heretofore concentrated on foreign policy issues. Everywhere he goes, he brings with him a commitment to enlarge organizational parameters.

Neier is a liberal; he is not a leftist. His anti-Communist stance has led him to condemn the Soviet Union in the past and China today. He is also an honest man: his frank account of disputes with Charles Morgan, Jr., and Rakiya Omaar, among others, is testimony to his principled convictions and intellectual honesty. This does not mean, however, that he always tells us all he knows. For example, his account of the ACLU's decision to call for the impeachment of Richard Nixon nowhere mentions that the board of directors voted at the time to go on record making no mention of Nixon's right to invoke the Fifth Amendment. The board minutes of June 12, 1974 show how utterly political this calculation was.

Like any activist, Neier's work must be judged on the basis of the consequences of his decisions, not his intentions. On this score, his record is open to much criticism.

If there is one weakness that civil libertarians and human rights activists share, it is the propensity to see the world through a very narrow lens. The kindest thing that can be said about this perspective is that it is myopic; it could also be labeled sociologically illiterate. Neier embodies this mindset. Indeed, he epitomizes it.

It sounds so noble to say that a student's rights do not stop at the schoolhouse door. But what if the extension of rights unwittingly undercuts the authority of teachers to discipline? What if academic achievement regresses as students' rights surge? Neier, like most civil libertarians is nonplussed; it's not his job to worry about such inconveniences. His job is see to it that Johnny has rights, and it is the job of the teacher to see to it that Johnny can read. That Johnny may not be able to read because order in the classroom has been undercut by the promiscuous distribution of rights is not his problem.

Neier is proud of his work defending the rights of the mentally ill, and he played a critical role in the deinstitutionalization of these patients. But whose fault was it that so many ex-patients became homeless? Neier says that civil libertarians deserve some blame, but most of it, according to his account, goes to Governor Reagan of California and Governor Rockefeller of New York.

Given his mindset, it is astonishing Neier even accepts some blame for what happened. But in the end he still doesn't get it. "Unhappily," he says, "I concede that deinstitutionalization of the mentally ill was a civil liberties success but, for many of those released and for their urban neighbors, a social policy failure." What he will never acknowledge is that he helped make it a social policy failure. Even more to the point, it is preposterous to say that a junkie who defecates in the streets and sleeps in parks is liberated. As for the right of a community to maintain a decent quality of life, that's not his problem. What matters is that someone who previously had few rights now has an abundance.

When it comes to prisoners' rights, Neier puts on the same blinders. He takes it as axiomatic that the growth in imprisonment means a loss of civil liberties. By this logic, it would seem that if the prisons were empty liberty would reign (this is exactly what the ACLU pushed for in the late 1960s). Nowhere in sight, of course, is the effect that such a move would have on the civil liberties of the public. That's because in this narrow interpretation of liberty, all that matters is that the state anoint individuals with more rights, independent of what they do with them.

The chapter on abortion is similarly mindboggling. Not once does Neier even hint that there may be a competing right to a woman's right to choose an abortion. For Neier, abortion has nothing to do with anything other than the right of a woman to exercise her "reproductive choice." Indeed, his account of abortion is so incredibly cold that it makes one wonder whether he is in denial or whether he simply doesn't care about the right of the unborn to live.

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Neier's family left Nazi Germany soon after he was born. There is no denying that Neier detests the Nazis, but there is also no denying that he wears it as a badge of courage that he defended the right of Nazis to march in Skokie, Illinois in the late 1970s. As with other issues he has grappled with, his vision of liberty in dealing with the Nazis is tightly focused.

"One comment that often appears in letters I receive," Neier writes, "is that, if the Nazis come to power, the ACLU and its leaders would not be allowed to survive." To which he answers, "Of course, that is true. Civil liberties is the antithesis of Nazism." But as Ernest van den Haag once wrote, "if freedom is to be inalienable…then invitations to alienate it [cannot] be recognized as a legitimate part of the democratic process." Neier does not address this salient point.

Neier believes that a commitment to constitutional rights means "defending free speech for those we despise and those who despise us. It means not being governed by the rules of the Nazis." But Nazis are not analogous to people whose views we despise—they are a para-military terrorist organization dedicated to undermining liberty by subverting the meaning of the First Amendment. The Constitution, as Justice Robert Jackson warned, is not a suicide pact.

One other problem: the civil libertarian approach always assumes that the Nazis will lose. This explains why they assume there is greater damage done to freedom by not defending them than by doing so. This is an easy argument to maintain in a democratic society unstrained by economic or international upheaval, but it becomes more difficult to maintain in times of crisis. But don't look to Neier to address this possibility.

When Neier applies his limited vision of liberty to foreign affairs, we get the same result. In his world, all regimes that oppress should be shunned by the democracies. He does not say whether it was a mistake for the U.S. to work with Stalin to defeat Hitler but the logic of his argument pushes in that direction. He not only refuses to acknowledge that in the real world we are often required to work with a friendly tyrant to defeat a belligerent one, he flatly rejects Jeane Kirkpatrick's important distinction between authoritarian and totalitarian regimes.

Jimmy Carter is Neier's hero because Jimmy Carter spoke about human rights. Ronald Reagan is a bad guy because he broke bread with right-wing regimes in Central America so he could defeat left-wing regimes. That Carter did nothing to liberate anyone and that he indeed allowed the oppression of American hostages to continue unabated in Iran (leaving it to Reagan to free them) does not matter. Nor does it matter that the brutal control of the Soviet Union expanded under Carter's watch; his rhetoric on human rights was pleasing to the ear and for that we should all be grateful.

Neier's account of his visits to Castro's Cuba and to Beijing University tell us much about his thinking. He admires the Cuban prison system for its emphasis on discipline and hard work. "In addition to working," he adds, "Cuban prisoners received political education." The reader waits in vain for Neier to condemn thought control as the most fundamental human rights abuse the world has ever known.

When he got to Beijing University in 1988, Neier spoke to the students about their most famous political prisoner, Wei Jingsheng, then still serving the 15-year prison sentence he had begun in 1979. The following remarks by Neier are emblematic of his naïvete: "As the students did not react to the mention of his name, I wondered whether I had mispronounced it or if they had not heard of him. I asked for a show of hands by those who could identify Wei. Only three raised their hands. I asked one whether I had said the name comprehensibly. I had. Whether others also recognized his name but considered it prudent to feign ignorance, I have no way of knowing." Spoken like a true human rights activist.

Reagan brought down the Berlin Wall, worked with the pope to dismantle communism in Poland, smashed Soviet Communism to bits and is generally credited with liberating more oppressed people than any man in recent history. But none of this matters to Neier, who cannot say a positive thing about the man. This raises the question: If Reagan didn't defeat Communism, who did? "I believe our efforts at Human Rights Watch in an earlier era contributed to…the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union." That he sincerely believes this to be true speaks volumes.

In the end, this is a book about a well-meaning man who accomplished a great deal. It is also a book about a man whose vision of liberty is profoundly atomistic. For Neier, rights liberate. Edmund Burke was more suspect: "The extreme of liberty (which is its abstract perfection, but its real fault) obtains nowhere, nor ought to obtain anywhere; because extremes…are destructive to both virtue and enjoyment." But whether citizens embody virtue is not Neier's problem. As long as they have rights, that's all that matters.