'We rationalize our futility' 

Ralph Nader on small starts and failures

Ralph Nader on small starts and failures

“It all starts with information,” consumer advocate and independent presidential candidate Ralph Nader told several hundred supporters at the Lecture Hall of the IUPUI campus. He was wearing the same rumpled suit and tie he’s become known for, his familiar salt-and-pepper hair a little grayer. He was speaking of the environmental and consumer movements, but he could have been speaking about any difficult struggle, including his own presidential run that has turned many of his traditional supporters on the left against him.
 
-Ralph Nader signs autographs and meets with supporters at a speech on the IUPUI campus.-
 

“Information shames people into activism,” he continued. “We are still benefiting and lunching off those benefits that others fought for, that are being depreciated. When you look at what they did, the sit-down automobile strikers in the 1930s with the detective goons coming after them, what the coal miners in Appalachia did for their unions. We start feeling sorry for ourselves and sit around a cafeteria table and complain about the world’s woes! And we rationalize our futility before dessert comes!”

Underneath his restrained exterior is the same burning fire that has driven him through four decades of ups and downs in his battle against “a rapidly expanding form of silent violence that we charitably call pollution.”

“Before respect comes self-respect,” Nader said. “What will we say to the 9-year-olds on our laps when we’re grandparents and the ice caps are melting and the viruses are mutating and they ask, ‘What’d you do, Grandma? Didn’t you know this was coming?’ What will we tell them? ‘We were otherwise preoccupied, with the third rerun of Cheers? Are we radiating justice in this country? No way! Close to home we have environmental racism. It’s not a coincidence that a lot of these toxic waste dumps are located near poor and minority areas. These are areas where 20 to 25 percent of the children are asthmatic, a rate unheard of in our history. When people tell you how much progress we’ve made in this country, ask them, ‘What about the ability to breathe?’ We have surrendered the sovereignty of the people to giant corporations.”

Hearing Nader speak, even in his usual monotone, it’s easy to remember a time when “Nader’s Raiders” was a term of honor, and just how strong his points are even in the face of virulent opposition from both left and right. Hearing tales of how he was harassed by auto company detectives in the days of Unsafe at Any Speed, it’s easy to remember that every time he has been right, and there have been many, was preceded by a difficult period where everyone thought he was wrong.

“We have a mindset in this country where we are prisoners of the electoral college, winner-take-all system,” Nader said. “This is why we have so many informed, educated people tell us, ‘We have to support the Democrats, they’re not as bad as the Republicans.’ That’s a horizon, isn’t it? Why are we defining ourselves by the worst?”

He ticked off all the Democratic failings against the conservative onslaught, one after another, and it’s a persuasive argument that they’ve been standing by and not only letting George W. Bush get everything he wants, but actively aiding and abetting. Voting for the Iraq war. The Patriot Act. The massive deficits of the 2001 budget, passed when they controlled the Senate. They confirmed Antonin Scalia for the Supreme Court 98-0. Eleven Democrats crossed the aisle to get Clarence Thomas on the court.

“They’ve got voters they can take for granted,” Nader said. “Voters who are too terrified to vote for anybody but the least worst … The only recourse we have is to deny [the Democratic Party] the vote and put those votes in a movement that will grow and deepen every four years. You have to go into the electoral arena and build new power bases and alliances. The only vote you waste is when you vote for someone you don’t really believe in. If everybody voted his or her conscience, we’d have a better government, not a government of Exxon, for General Motors and by DuPont.”

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