Social Justice, Humor and Poetry:
Matthew Rothschild Reflects on His Time with The Progressive


January 2015

For more than a century, The Progressive has led the good fight against war, economic and social injustice, and corporate greed.  Since being founded in 1909, by Senator Robert M. (“fighting Bob”) LaFollette, Sr., the magazine has championed, as its website states, “peace, social and economic justice, civil rights, civil liberties, human rights, a preserved environment, and a reinvigorated democracy.”  Along the way, it has enlivened the struggle for justice with humor, engaging cultural comment and poetry.  The Progressive has published some of the century’s leading writers – from Helen Keller, Martin Luther King, Jr., Gore Vidal and James Baldwin to Barbara Ehrenreich, Wendell Barry, Luis Rodgiguez and Terry Tempest Williams.


The Progressive Media Project, an affiliate of The Progressive, Inc., diversifies the oped pages of the mainstream media, by distributing opeds to our nation’s newspapers.  The Project sends out oped pieces by Asian-Americans, Arab-Americans, Native Americans, LGBT people, women and people with disabilities.


Matthew Rothschild has been editor of The Progressive since 1994.  Last month, he left The Progressive to work at a non-profit.  Rothschild graciously took time a few weeks ago to speak with me by phone about The Progressive, the value of humor and his passion for poetry.  (Full disclosure: I’m a contributor to the Progressive Media Project and I’ve written a couple of pieces for The Progressive magazine.)        


My interview with Rothschild is below:


K.W.: When and why did you come to work at The Progressive?


M.R.: In 1983, I came to The Progressive. I was associate editor under the tenacious tutelage of Erwin Knoll. I was working in Washington, D.C. with Ralph Nader at the Multinational Monitor, a monthly magazine.  I wanted to work at a bigger magazine.  The Progressive is in the mid-west {Wisconsin} where my parents were.


It’s a really illustrious place to work.  A bit humbling and intimidating.  Because of the tremendous writers that it’s published – Jane Addams, Sinclair Lewis, George Orwell, June Jordan...It has a tiny staff and is run on a show string –frayed and threadbare.


K.W.: Where are we now – after the {United States} elections – with the Republicans set to be the majority in the House and Senate?


M.R.: Republicans dominate Congress.  There are kinks in democracy.  Money and politics has gotten much worse since the Citizens United decision. There’s redistricting – gerrymandering. But America, is, by and large, progressive.  The majority of people want an increase in the minimum wage and more spending on education and the environment.  They want to get money out of politics and they want health care coverage.  They want to reduce the power of big business. Think of the progress on same-sex marriage!  Americans are also pro legalizing marijuana.  It’s a great non-violent revolution!


But the great progressive majority in this country doesn’t hold political power.  We need to get people out to vote who agree with us.  We also need to talk to people who don’t agree with us.  At least those who can engage in a rational conversation.


K.W.: Would you talk about the Progressive Media Project (PMP)?


M.R.: PMP started in 1993.  It’s an attempt to diversify and democratize the debate in the media.  Because the media is corporate owned.  And, the right wing has made a concerted, clever, and well-funded effort to get their views into a lot of the media so that they dominate the conversation.


It’s an exciting project to get progressive ideas into mainstream news media around the country.  We are reaching millions of people every week!  We distribute to news media big and small.  It’s gratifying to see PMP commentaries published in red states and counties...We hope we’re opening people’s eyes.


We try to get ideas out in every form possible.  We’ve been online since 1994.  There’s the print – flagship – Progressive magazine...I did two-minute radio commentaries for five days a week...


K.W.: What did you bring to The Progressive when you became editor?


M.R.: When I became editor in 1994, I wanted to bring more investigative reporting, more humor and more poetry to The Progressive.


K.W.: Why is poetry important?


M.R.: I love poetry!  Political poetry has been neglected and devalued.  We wanted to give it a page every month.  To one poem – that one way or another –whether tangentially or directly deals with a political theme.  This breathes oxygen into the pages of The Progressive.  Poetry offers a glimpse of beauty.  It hits people in a different spot of the brain. It’s been one of the more gratifying things that I’ve done...


It’s very democratic.  We don’t care whose name is on the poem. We’ll take poems from anybody...


Meeting Allen Ginsberg was one of the biggest thrills of my professional career! I’d loved Ginsberg’s poetry for a long time.  A couple of years before he died, Ginsberg wrote poetry against the first Iraq War. I set up to interview him in his New York City apartment.  I had to wait about four hours while the BBC interviewed him about the Beatles, John Lennon and all that crap.  I just wanted to talk to him about poetry.  We talked for a couple of hours.  I remember him asking if I’d read Walt Whitman’s “Sands at Seventy.”  I had to acknowledge I had not read it.  He kind of gasped!  Ginsberg took down the hard cover from his bookshelf and turned to a poem.  He’d circled in pencil a phrase in the poem.  The phrase was “garrulous to the very end.”


K.W.: Why is humor so important?


M.R.: Humor is an essential ingredient in life!  We’ve had humor at The Progressive for decades.  Our “No Comment” has a lot of readers.  Humor can mock politicians, corporate CEOs and others in power who make fools of themselves.  For a couple of decades, we were honored to have Molly Ivans {the late great newspaper columnist, political commentator and humorist} on our back page.  We brought in political humorists Kate Clinton and Will Durst, who write on alternate months.  As well as Michael Feldman of public radio.


K.W.: Thanks so much for talking with me!


M.R.: It was a lot of fun!

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Kathi Wolfe's most recent book of poetry is The Green Light (Finishing Line Press).
She is a Senior Writer for Scene4
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January 2015


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