Human-rights partisan Neier (War Crimes, 1998) looks back over a career working with the ACLU, Human Rights Watch, the Open Society Institute, and the Soros Foundation.
The author treats readers to his personal forays into the politics of the age, from the kindling of SDS (though he fled that group even before the Port Huron Statement) to his stints at the helms of the ACLU and Human Rights Watch. The years 1963–93 were eventful ones in the struggle for civil and political rights, and Neier explains his and his organizations’ positions on everything from abortion rights, fighting the compulsory commitment of drug addicts (he concludes that deinstitutionalization was “a civil liberties success but . . . a social policy failure”), to struggles against gerrymandering and for the right of the Skokie Klan members to voice their beliefs. Much of Neier’s later work involved monitoring violations in armed conflicts: “My most significant contribution to the protection of human rights,” he believes, though one might argue that the vibrancy of the organizations he nominally headed could take that honor. Neier’s style does not here match his substance; in what might generously be referred to as flat prose, a lawyerly precision trumps obvious storytelling possibilities, and there haven’t been this many references to Trotskyites, Schachtmanites, and other “ites” since disgruntled Cold War leftists stopped hurling insults at each other. It’s sometimes possible to fault Neier on content as well: he makes a legitimate point in distinguishing between the universality of human rights versus the particularity of economic rights, but he fails to persuade when he says that the very notion of economic rights “is based on the view that the allocation of resources may not be entrusted to the institutions and processes through which democratic will is exercised.”
A life that encapsulates American progressivism over the past half-century in both its strengths and weaknesses—and who would argue against the fight to safeguard human civil and political rights?