The Ralph Nader Reader
Reviewed by Aaron Shuman
Friday, June 29 2001, 10:19 AM
In case you missed it in all the post-election sniping over Ralph Nader and the restoration of the Bush dynasty, Seven Stories Press has given us 440 pages by which to judge the man. From this, disciples will draw the sacred oils to anoint the feet of their leader, while foes will find the fuel for torches and smudgepots as they smoke out the great bourgeois reformer, or unrepentant Leftist, or Cassandra of corporatism, or riding-horse of racism, or whatever it is Nader is being accused of this week.
Pardon me if that sounds a bit cranky. But after reading a sheaf of Nader broadsides in the aftermath of Dubya's ascension to the White House, it's the tone best suited for discussion of his work. Truth be told, the book reads like a rush job to hit stores before the 2000 election. From essay to essay, there's often a repetition of rhetoric or example that seems less the product of an internally consonant body of thought, and more the result of a writing life squeezed by the demands of the rubber chicken circuit, and its need for a body of factoids that can be used one appearance after the next. This is to say nothing of Nader's efforts as "co-found[er of] numerous public interest groups,ince The Nader Reader has very little to say about them either, except to identify a problem and to note that an organization was started to address it.
Having read The Nader Reader (nearly) from cover to cover, I feel safe in saying that if an essay starts to remind you of the one you just read, you can probably skip it with no harm done. The more beguiling problem is the book's failure to provide any historical context to evaluate the purpose or efficacy of Nader's words. The pieces are presented without introduction, with publication dates slanting heavily towards the nineties, and a near-total omission of writing from the mid-seventies to the late eighties. The result is a reader obviously cooked for the anti-globalization crowd, but fatally, a disconnect between the glowing back-cover blurbs endorsing Nader as "a people's superhero" from Jim Hightower, Barbara Ehrenreich, James Kenneth Galbraith, et. al.) and the ploddingly methodical crusader revealed in its pages. If, like me, you grew up in the fifteen-year period when Nader apparently wrote little worth collecting, The Nader Reader won't explain what Ralph was doing in all that time. Nor will the book give you much sense of the consumer movement that preceded it. If you weren't around for the New Left, the period during which Nader's muckraking journalism took on titans like GM and won reforms, then you may find it very difficult to connect the effusion of baby boomer progressives to Nader's dunworthy prose.
To understand any of these things, save yourself the $20 and check out nader.org, where eight chapters from the political biography, Citizen Action: A History of Ralph Nader and the Modern Consumer Movement, are printable.
The best synopsis of Nader comes from Edward B. Rust, former president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, who notes, "The whole point of Nader -- so obvious that it is often overlooked -- is his single-minded dedication to making the free enterprise system work as it's supposed to." Citizen Action excellently maps out Nader's critique of "corporate socialism," a critique that seems to spit at socialism, and the privatized profits and socialized costs of corporations, with equal vehemence. Nader expects both to take a loyalty oath: socialists, for reasons warmed over from 50s witchhunts; corporations, to keep their profits and their factories in America. Contrasting himself as a model of service and discipline against the freethink and freedo of 1960s counterculture, Nader appeals to professionals to recognize a calling higher than economic self-interest -- that of "public citizenship." The conservative cultural politics at the core of this vision should give pause to anyone who speaks of him, the Green Party, and the Left interchangeably.
Crack The Nader Reader, dig my man on popular culture, and you realize he, Al Gore, and Dubya could break bread on the evils of Limp Bizkit and the need for a cultural cleansing to prevent the moral apocalypse posed by wayward youth. Dig this Nader clip from 1990:
"Parents, perhaps more than anyone, are acutely aware that they are losing control to the legal and illegal marketplace. Companies and other marketers of addictions have far more control over the time, values, and behavior of youngsters than parents do. Preteens and teenagers have become marketing mechanisms for sellers of tobacco, alcohol, drugs, clothing, medications, diets, mind-blowing music, war toys, junk food, cosmetics, and other absorptions. This is a young generation that has spent less time with adults, including their often absentee parents, than any generation in our history."
Take that, readers of Punk Planet, Rolling Stone, and SPIN! (Nader might not recognize the difference.) Putting the weight for the degradations of corporations on youth, rather than the adults who work for them, is questionable, as is the proposed solution: a restoration of parental authority and nuclear family values. Nader's early responses to globalization, such as the following penned near the height of "Buy American" Japanophobia in 1988, betray other flaws:
"The next president faces a challenge that goes to the heart of our independence as a nation...The next president cannot afford to ignore the growing foreign economic presence in the United States. Absentee ownership, heavily fueled by a depressed dollar, compromises political sovereignty, reduces our freedom of judgment as a nation, and increases our dependence on foreign banks and corporations in ways that have nothing to do with the proper exploitation of comparative advantage. Does anyone seriously believe that the Japanese government would permit Firestone to buy Bridgestone or CBS to buy a major division of Sony?"
If such nationalism is the corollary of the "new kind of patriotism" Nader called for from the pages of Life Magazine in 1971 -- and Nader says it is, writing, "Patriotism begins at home. Love of country in fact is inseparable from citizen action to make the country more loveable" -- then it places him decidedly at odds with today's Left, when it bases its claims in human rights, not civil ones, and attempts to organize across borders, not within them. Nader's frequent appeals to "public citizenship" will grate on the ears of activists aware of the limits of that term, and you won't find Nader decrying the "foreign economic presence" of sweatshop labor or prison labor in the belly of the beast. That would require a critique of capitalism. The arguments Nader makes are essentially moral ones, but unlike the civil rights movement of his generation, Nader bases moral authority in Americanism and acknowledges no higher calling. While allowance may be made, in some instances, for the time in which Nader was writing, the fact remains that these pieces are chosen to represent his beliefs now.
All of which gives The Nader Reader a dated quality, with an ethic that owes more to Mr. Smith Goes to Washington than the New Left, and a politics that gains vitality only by contrasting itself with strong, countervailing options. The Reader shows Nader pursuing "the politics of the center" to more progressive, radically democratic ends than any of the "third way" activists to follow him, an unstable terrain marked by Jerry Brown on one end and Pat Buchanan on the other. May his example as an organization builder, and a public figure consistently pushing to enlarge the frame of civic discourse and participation, outlive his polemics.
The Ralph Nader Reader is published by Seven Stories Press