Professor Gottlieb Has a Few Stories to Tell: Some 500 of them at 3:47 Minutes Each

9/27/2013 | Facebook | Twitter | Email
The first time you have a conversation with Professor Stephen Gottlieb, you get the sense that this man has a wealth of stories to tell. This is confirmed when you learn that he has given weekly commentary on WAMC Northeast Public Radio for the past 10 years—that amounts to some 500 four-minute essays on pretty much everything under the sun.

He likes to make his point in pithy soundbites:

•    Arguing that the strength of America is in its people, he commented that “We thrive when prosperity is shared, not when it is soaked up by the 1% …..”

•    After noting that no previously dominant country has maintained its power, describing the political paralysis of our country now, and reflecting currents in political science about the breakdown of democracy, Gottlieb expressed  concern that: “America as we know it will not long endure if we let the kleptocrats and the do-nothing crowd hold us down.”

•    Using the Populist movement as an example, he pointed out that “Movements for economic justice have repeatedly had their backs broken over the race issue.”

•    In a piece written for Martin Luther King Day, Gottlieb noted that one of King’s great insights is that we are all in this together, we all have a stake in each other’s future. To which Gottlieb added, “We are almost all in the 99%, and we are all affected by social and economic justice for all. Vive the 99%.”

He likes to talk about his Peace Corps experience in Iran after law school. He is quick to mention that he met his wife of 45 years in Tehran, a number he doesn’t take lightly, given that his parents were married for 40 years when his mother died.

The Supreme Court

He has spent the past nine years working on a book about the U.S. Supreme Court that will come out as a study of the court under Chief Justice John Roberts. At the moment he is under the gun to deliver the book to his publisher, New York University Press (while also trying to meet commitments for books to two other publishers).

His previous book, “Morality Imposed: The Rehnquist Court and Liberty in America” (New York University Press, 2000), explored the “moral judgments” used by the Court, concluding that “The conservative block [on the Rehnquist Court] has rejected two basic principles of the Anglo-American tradition: the principle that law should be guided by the objective of doing no harm and the principle of respect for individual moral autonomy where harm to others is not at stake.”

This book, Gottlieb said, evolved from a course he was teaching on the Supreme Court. “I was working with my students to clarify some issues. Eventually it became a book used for the course. It was designed to understand their philosophy, the substance they were after. I believe everyone and every justice has a way they view the world that affects their decisions.”

Gottlieb’s next book seeks to answer the question: “Is he helping, hindering, or neutral on the survival of democracy?” People once thought a lot about American ideals that supported democracy, he said, noting that he followed the understanding of these ideals through the courts of other countries like India, South Africa, Canada and Germany as well as the European Court of Human Rights, and then tested them against findings of political and social science. “Are we protecting these great ideas of ours?”

Raised in Brooklyn, Gottlieb rattled off a few highlights of his youth in a recent interview: he met Jesse Owens in high school, heard Martin Luther King’s famous speech at the March on Washington after law school, worked for a short time for the NAACP after passing the Bar, and traveled to Kashmir. He ran a neighborhood Legal Aid office in St. Louis where, among other things, he successfully defended an inner-city community from getting sliced by a new highway—“to this day that highway still hasn’t been built,” he says emphatically.

They had their daughter in St. Louis, after which he and his wife went to New York City, where they had their son while he served as assistant general counsel for Community Action for Legal Services.

It was there at Legal Services, in 1973, at age 32, that he got his taste for teaching when he set up a training program for a staff of some 200 lawyers with 22 offices around the city. Then, in 1976, he took a full time teaching job as a law professor at West Virginia University.

“When you are a city boy, the mountains can be very attractive,” he said. By this time he had two children—two- and four-years-old. “They were three good years for the kids.” From there he joined Albany Law, where he has been since, except for the times he held distinguished visiting chairs at four other schools—University of Akron Law School, Suffolk Univ. Law School, Marquette University Law School and Cleveland-Marshall College of Law.

Last year Gottlieb was invited back to West Virginia to celebrate their clinic’s 35th anniversary, which he started during his time there.

WAMC Commentary

“I’m not going to change the world in four-minute weekly commentaries,” he acknowledged. “But it gives me a voice. A lot of us need to speak out about things going on in the world. There is a lot of concern about our civil liberties getting chipped away.” He explains that he is not confined to talking about the law, though a lot of his commentaries find their way there. “I have experience to speak responsibly on foreign affairs—within limits. I have an economics background, a legal background, and a large part of my career has been with issues of race.”

Some of his topics are a response to “pack journalism.” Gottlieb listens to the churn of the mainstream voices and adjusts based on what hasn’t been covered or understood.  “Sometimes two or even five commentaries just roll off my pen, and sometimes I struggle to write one,” he said, adding, “it probably depends on how angry the issue makes me. . . . But this is all teaching. I’m teaching a different audience, so I teach differently, but it’s still teaching.”
 
He distinguishes the two teaching styles easily: on the radio, he makes clear where he stands on every issue. In the classroom, he works hard to empower his students to consider the facts and reach their own conclusions.
 
He calls himself fortunate for having a platform every week that reaches an audience spanning portions of seven states.

“In the class I’m analytical and try to stay balanced. But on the air,” he said, smiling, “I explain my conclusions and then I explain what we should do about it.”