ANNANDALE–Speaking at Bard College Saturday, Ralph Nader took the occasion to give an impassioned call to activism.
Mr. Nader was the keynote speaker at Does the President Matter? A Conference on the American Age of Political Disrepair, presented by the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard. The title of his talk was Is Presidential Leadership Still Possible or Desirable? though he all but ignored that question for a discussion of citizen leadership that was both wide-ranging and practical.
Almost 400 people attended the talk, including many students. Others, at Bard’s outposts around the world, could catch the conference live-streamed and email their questions.
Mr. Nader, fit and energetic at 78, had no trouble recalling what had driven him into activism almost 60 years earlier: “I had lost friends in college and high school to death on the highway. World War I airplanes had seatbelts, he pointed out, but mid 20th-century cars, with their “stylist pornography,” had “nothing–you were a piece of porcelain in a bouncing cage.” Remembering bumper cars in theme parks, Mr. Nader began to do research on how cars could be built more safely. “I filled my head with engineering, human safety and my anguish about the friends I had lost.”
The result was “Unsafe at Any Speed,” a 64-page book published in 1965 that changed U.S. cars forever. “Even in a naïve way, I knew how to direct my anger,” said Mr. Nader. “We lost six times more people in the 1940s to highway deaths than we do now.”
Asked by Bard professor Jonathan Becker for three concrete actions young adults could take to become engaged citizens “tomorrow morning,” Mr. Nader was ready. First, he said, make a vow, before breakfast, to become an engaged citizen. “Then chew on a Tom Paine pamphlet,” such as “Common Sense,” “The Age of Reason” and “The Rights of Man.”
Second, “join a citizens’ group of your choice,” said the man who, having begun or inspired at least 40 such groups, keeps in touch with all of them. Connect with existing groups, he advised: if you’re worried about the lack of daycare or the water around Indian Point Energy Center or the wolves, there is a group for you. There’s high morale and great conviviality there, he said; you won’t “feel so morose and discouraged. That’s the secret to democracy–it’s diffuse but it’s there.”
Third, “read regularly about how to turn our country around.” Read about the abolitionists, about the fight for women’s suffrage. “Don’t just study failure and disasters, study how they succeeded. Change your routine! Asked about your social life, your athletic life, you know how to answer, but not your civic life. And there is nothing more gratifying than advancing justice for people,” said the man who realized long ago that he had time for either work or a family and chose work.
We have to stop making excuses for ourselves, said Mr. Nader: I don’t have time, I don’t know the rules, there could be retaliation, it wouldn’t matter: “These excuses are the beginning and the end of our society.”
In contrast, a million people reflecting fair play and the golden rule can turn this country around, he said, and make it a beacon for the world instead of the home of drones and nuclear submarines, what President Dwight Eisenhower identified 50 years ago as the military-industrial complex. “We need hundreds more civic advocacy groups. It’s an affirmative duty under the constitution.”
Mr. Nader took the idea of civics a step further, to the academic world. “We need a course called Congress 101,” he said, in which every year a fresh crop of students would study Congress members. College students learn computer skills, he said, but not civic skills.
Bard College began to address this lack last year with its Center for Civic Engagement, directed by Prof. Becker, which supports, coordinates and promotes Bard’s civic engagement initiatives, according to the “Civic Engagement” chapter of the college catalogue.
To those who consider Mr. Nader a “spoiler” because of his 2000 presidential run, he said briefly, “All candidates take votes away. Candidates getting on the ballot give choice to voters. Without [those candidates], voters’ power is not what it should be and money takes precedence.
“Get rid of this two-party system,” Mr. Nader urged, which is “a conduit for a two-party state run by corporations. The greatest power they have over us is our saying we don’t have any power. They started to tremble last fall with Occupy Wall Street. Only a quarter-million people participated, but they put it on the map, sobered up the right wing and reached millions more people.
Warming further to the topic, Mr. Nader urged a youth political party. “All you need is a thousand young people around the country, he said, to get started. Having acknowledged that “procedure is dull, but very important,” he outlined the strategy: “The first four years you get organized. The next four years you get started, get on the ballot. The third four years you start taking over.”