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The Democratic Process
Ralph Nader Interview (page: 7 / 7)
What excited you so much about the books you read as a kid?
Ralph Nader: Well, I was very interested in books that detailed injustice, and how people who are underdogs were mistreated, throughout history, whether they were peasants, or workers in the industrial plants a hundred years ago. And these books exposed the brutality or injustice or unfairness that powerful political and business and other interests dealt out to workers and some children -- child labor. These kids would be working in these industrial plants in England and the United States, sometimes 16 hours a day, six days a week, impairing their health. And the books usually analyzed why these things occurred and what reforms needed to be made. So I was very fascinated by it, just as a person my age, at age 11 or 12, would be reading detective stories, or the stories of explorers and the dangers they were exposed to as they discovered continents. I would be fascinated by the muckrakers, who were called muckrakers by President Theodore Roosevelt, because these were the reporters who would rake the muck and expose a bad situation in government or business.
Eleven and 12-year-olds can read that stuff and say, "Boy, I'm glad that's not me." You had a different response. Why did these events and these people and this writing so move you?
Ralph Nader: That's what life was all about: the struggle for decency and fairness and opportunity and justice. We were taught that a long time ago that that's what's important in life. It doesn't mean you don't go out and play ball or ride a bicycle or have fun. It means that the reason why you can sit there in a living room in a nice town is because there were people before you who paid some attention to reducing or eliminating injustice in society and we have the same obligation to do that for our and future generations. We were taught that indirectly by our parents and our friends as small children.
[ Key to Success ] Integrity
What kind of reactions have you heard during your career from your old classmates from Princeton or Harvard, people who clearly went in different directions?
Ralph Nader: They couldn't understand what I was doing. When I was in Washington in the early 60s, and I was talking to some of my old classmates about auto safety, and I was going to try to get General Motors and other companies to adhere to mandatory safety standards, they thought I was a front for the CIA! (Laughs) They thought it was just a cover story! But they realized later that it was a genuine issue.
They couldn't believe that their classmate was doing this kind of thing?
Ralph Nader: No, they couldn't, but now they're in their mid-50s, they are beginning to want to do the same thing. They've raised their children, they have some financial security, and they are looking back saying, "I want to do what I want to do for once." And I think there are a lot of problems in the country, and I want to try to work on one or more of them.
We actually have set up a center for civic leadership in Princeton, supported by our class (the Princeton class of '55) precisely because more and more members of the class, as they went into their 50s, began to realize that there were important things they hadn't been doing. They wanted to make up for it by contributing to this society. Now that they had attained some measure of influence and skill, they wanted to give something back. Organizing alumni classes is a great frontier of expanding the citizen movement in the country. We all knew each other when we were 17 and 18, and when you know each other at that age, you don't take any malarkey from one another. You can be very candid with on another, and you are not posturing, because you knew each other so many years ago. I think alumni classes are cohesive associations that can do wonderful things as they move into their 35th reunion and on.
Do you have room in your life for anything else?
Ralph Nader: I go to a few movies a year. I watch championship sports. I like to watch the World Series and the finals of the NBA. I watch some symphonies on TV and some plays. But I enjoy my work so much that I have to be pulled away from my work into leisure.
What are you looking forward to at this point in your career? What more do you want to achieve?
Ralph Nader: Ways to start more citizen organizations for all age groups. I'd like to start a children's citizens' organization, modeled after chapters for Boy Scouts, where children learn how to be effective citizens at their own pace, with the help of their teachers and people in the community.
The schools and the Boy Scouts and the Girl Scouts and the home and the family were all supposed to be taking care of these things. Where have we gone wrong?
Ralph Nader: First of all, children today spend less time with adults, including their parents, than any generation in American history. They are spending more and more of their time in front of television screens, video screens, and with their peer group, which often is a merchandising outlet for all the things that are huckstered to the children. Secondly, that many institutions in our country which we look at benignly as doing good, are avoiding controversy. When you avoid controversy, you are avoiding some pretty bad injustices and you become bland. You become goody two-shoes types. And it's important for the Boy Scouts and the Girl Scouts, for example, to go right into local pollution problems in their communities. Even if they offend some company whose executives may be associated with the Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts. We really have to focus on this. The avoidance of confronting unjust power, the avoidance of controversy, has gotten into our language. There are people who sit around the table of some influence in the community, and they've got languages of avoidance, bureaucratic slogans, instead of saying, "Look, some people are going to have to back off, some people are going to have to give up some of their power, some of their wealth, some of their influence, if we are going to have a more just resolution of problems for the rest of the people in this community or society."
And there is a way to do it inside the system.
Ralph Nader: There is a lot of elbow room within the Constitutional system, but as the years pass and things get worse, the laws become themselves an instrument of injustice, because they are under the control of the abusers of power. We mustn't ever allow our country to fall into that low state of affairs.
I am also hearing you saying, don't be afraid. Don't be afraid of controversy. Don't be afraid to follow your own conscience or convictions. How important is that?
Ralph Nader: It's important to be able to stand tall, have the courage of your convictions and to have resilience if you are up against a disappointment or a temporary defeat. In fact, some of the same features on the athletic arena, basketball court, baseball field, football field, where you never give up, you keep bouncing back and you hold you head high when you walk off the field those are the kinds of characteristics young people should have in a much more important field called the citizen arena because that's what's going to affect the quality of their job, their standard of living, what their children are going to grow up in, and what's called the pursuit of happiness.
[ Key to Success ] Courage
How do you stand up to critics? To people who attack you for what you are doing?
Ralph Nader: You can't have a thin skin. You've got to realize that you are going to have to take what you give out. Sometimes you are going to take a lot of unfair criticism, criticism designed to destabilize the credibility you have on a certain issue, but there is a certain robust pleasure in that. If you have the right attitude, you won't be so demoralized. You will expect it, you will know how to respond to it, you will know how to benefit from it if it's legitimate. You will know how to reject it if it isn't legitimate.
If you could talk to somebody you haven't met, dead or alive, who is it that you would like to sit across from and ask questions of? Is there somebody you would really like to have a conversation with?
Ralph Nader: Jesus Christ, who had a very strategic sense of getting people to accept his beliefs. And Voltaire, whose wit and insight were quite contributory toward a detached view of society, which is important; you can get so immersed that you lose your perspective. Confucius, who condensed a lot of wisdom into a very few words, something our politicians could benefit from these days. And Abraham Lincoln. Franklin D. Roosevelt, see how he responded in both economic crisis and war time crises. The great educators. John Dewey might want to know about what happened to some of his followers and doctrines, and schools. Especially in the athletic area, Lou Gehrig, who is my hero because he symbolized stamina under all conditions of pain and success by playing 2130 baseball games consecutively. I never lost the lesson of his performance, how important it was to overcome, be resilient, and to stay with it, stay the course.
Did you read Frank Graham's biography of Lou Gehrig?
Ralph Nader: Oh, yeah. There is a new one that has just come out, just about four months ago.
This was just wonderful. Thank you for your time.
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This page last revised on Sep 23, 2010 19:21 EST
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