I enjoyed our long conversation on Saturday afternoon at 6 North Coffee. I appreciate you taking the time to visit on such a busy weekend. After our chats, the strong impression I am left with is of a person of great integrity and commitment to justice. You want to “walk the walk.” In the idiom of your semester in San Salvador, you want your “praxis” to be real, substantial, and serious.
You were curious about Ralph Nader, whom I mentioned I had been reading recently. My friend Andrew Wimmer and current Social Justice student Dan McGinnis have stimulated me in this deeper consideration of Nader. As I look back on it, I knew his name in my early teens, but I didn’t know who Dorothy Day was until I read her autobiography at 21. Nader was a household name in the Seventies because he was the foremost consumer advocate in the United States.
I assume in your studies in El Salvador you learned about people who made “the preferential option for the poor.” The option wasn’t made only by relatively famous people like Archbishop Romero and Ignacio Ellacuría; it was made by countless poor people in Salvador but also throughout Latin America. I’d like to borrow that expression to describe Nader as having made a preferential option for the American consumer. From his first confrontation with General Motors in the mid-1960s, Nader expressed great suspicion of corporate America’s willingness to seek profits at the expense of individual safety. Through painstaking investigations, he exposed GM’s lethal lack of consideration for auto-drivers.
You surely have come across that conviction of Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” Nader seemed to notice problems about which no one else seemed to care. An early example in his life: When he was an undergraduate at Princeton in the 1950s, he wondered if there was any connection between the dead birds appearing on campus and the fact that Princeton’s beautiful trees were sprayed with DDT.
Attracting young people to the nascent consumer movement, Nader and his associates researched corporations and the government itself, seeking to root out injustices and make reforms that were of benefit to large numbers of Americans. Nader’s biographer, Justin Martin, summarized, “Through his efforts, dozens of safety laws have passed, and at times he has shown himself to be as skilled a legislator as any duly elected U.S. senator.” The following are some of the areas in which Nader has made an impact: air bags in cars, seat belts, remuneration when being bumped from a plane, clean air, food safety, lead protections from x-rays in during visits to the dentist, warnings on drug labels, nutritional labeling for foods, automobile crash-testing, cigarette labeling for tar and nicotine, the right to know in your workplace when being exposed to chemicals, among others.
For well over forty years, Nader has played this role of activist, gadfly, and relentless skeptic of corporate power. But he also ran as a presidential candidate in recent years, which has tarnished his reputation among some, but brought his name and mission to younger generations of Americans. His strongest critique is that the two parties, Democratic and Republican, are ensconced with corporate power. In effect, both parties make their own “preferential option for the rich.” Crucial issues are ignored by the entrenched elites of both parties, to the detriment of the U.S. citizenry. Nader believes, “We can have democracy or we can have the concentration of wealth in the hands of the few. We cannot have both.”
To better understand the arena in which Nader has operated since the 1960s, I’d recommend reading Joel Bakan’s book, The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power. The heart of the book argues that the corporation’s fundamental nature is psychopathic, at least as based on the Personality Diagnostic Checklist from World Health Organization (ICD-10/Manual of Mental Health Disorders, DSM-IV”). The following characteristics match the intrinsic nature of corporations:
1. Callous unconcern for the feelings of others
2. Incapacity to maintain enduring relationships
3. Reckless disregard for the safety of others
4. Deceitfulness: repeated lying and conning others for profit
5. Incapacity to experience guilt
6. Failure to conform to social norms with respect to lawful behaviors
Nader has energetically addressed these characteristics in his battles on behalf of the American population. You can imagine it has earned some vociferous enemies. His critics call attention to his self-righteousness, vindictiveness, and caustic tone. One associate, though, Alan Morrison speaks about Nader with great respect: “I have never known anybody who has more ideas about more things than Ralph. He’s not interested in two or three or five or ten things. He’s interested in a million. He sees things differently from everybody else. He just sees injustices, unfairnesses, and improper ways of handling situations that everyone else just accepts. He has a cosmic view of these things, very broad, but at the same time, he is a person who pays enormous attention to details. I never met anybody who can think so big and think so small at the same time.” Nader acknowledged that his work is like “playing fifty chess games simultaneously.”
You can read Nader’s views on many current issues, including his critique of corporate-based globalization, in The Good Fight: Declare Your Independence and Close the Democracy Gap. Apropos of what Morrison said about Nader’s curiosity and hunger for justice, among the issues he treats in The Good Fight are: corporate takeovers, unraveling neighborhoods, cultural decay, political parties dominated by corporations, horrible prisons, the use of the death penalty, the disproportionate percentage of young black males in jail, the war on drugs, the glass ceiling for women, attacks on civil liberties, lack of proper investment in fraud control, deregulation, tax havens and tax avoidance schemes for the rich, the decreasing amount of taxes paid by corporations, mountain top removal coal-mining, dirty air, toxic water, erasing habitats and the killing off of species, the ruthless class war waged by the rich, union busting, pathetic enforcement of weak labor laws, precarious pensions and dwindling heath care, unsafe workplaces, corporate crime, corporate fraud, savings and loan fraud, corporate homicide, the WTO displacing national sovereignty and human rights, declining schools,inadequate transit systems, lack of nuclear disarmament, lack of low cost of drugs for HIV/AIDS, lethal arms trafficking, hunger, and the smoking industry.
Sounds overwhelming, doesn’t it? But as Nader is fond of saying, “Nothing is possible without an individual. Nothing is perpetual without an institution.”
I also strongly recommend his short book, The Seventeen Traditions, in which he pays homage to his upbringing in the Thirties and Forties in a Lebanese immigrant family in a small town in Connecticut. You know the expression, “Mother, home, and apple pie”? I’d add Ralph Nader to that as a fourth item on that list of what is quintessentially American. As you read his warm and loving accounts of the lessons taught to him by his family and community, you will be reminded of how civic life was once nurtured and might be again.
In addressing his readers, Nader wrote this book to provide “stimuli for your own thoughts and recollections—as an occasion to revisit lessons passed on within your family. Such family traditions challenge the notion that fads, technologies, how-to-manuals, and addictions of modern life have somehow taken the place of the time-tested wisdom fashioned in the crucibles of earlier generations.” Among the traditions he highlights are those of listening, health, history, the kitchen table, independent thinking, and patriotism. At the book’s close, he writes, “I feel sure that raising civically responsible children is most likely to happen in the kind of atmosphere my parents created: one of indirection and delights, strong examples and certain boundaries, solitude and conversation, witness and respect, and, above all, the strength of parental love and sacrifice. All of this cannot help but nourish a sense of dedication to help one’s fellow human beings achieve a better life.” I trust that some of these traditions will be quite familiar to you because of how your parents raised you and your siblings.
There may come a time when you are feeling down, pessimistic and despairing that Americans will throw off our ignorance, ethnocentrism, and laziness to address the problems that face us. At such times, it’s good to remember the people who have gone before us marked by a passion for justice, people who stood up and stood out and paid a price. For me, I would want to remember Ralph Nader in those dark times, for he shows that injustices can be fought. Like the saying attributed to Mohandas Gandhi, Nader’s life is his message. He reminds me of a sentence from George Eliot’s Middlemarch: “The presence of a noble nature, generous in its wishes, ardent in its charity, changes the lights for us: we begin to see things in their larger, quieter masses, and to believe that we too can be seen and judged in the wholeness of our character.”
Last thing I’ll say is a quotation from Nader: “All things start with a sign-up sheet.”
I’ll put in the mail to you Nader’s pamphlet, Civic Arousal, and you can tell me what you think.
Hope to see you again this spring and good luck in the Boston Marathon!
P.S. In addition to The Good Fight and The Seventeen Traditions, Justin Martin’s biography, Nader: Crusader, Spoiler, Icon, is worth exploring, as is the 2006 documentary film, An Unreasonable Man, on Nader’s life and career. It’s available now on DVD, and you can check out this Youtube clip.
Last, visit Ralph’s site.