An Open letter to the 94 people who have thus far written me to express displeasure with my article about Ralph Nader’s announcement on “Meet the Press” that he was again running as an independent candidate for president
First: Please forgive the impersonality of this group mailing. If I responded to each and every one of you individually I’d have no time to write about other mischief being perpetrated by other public figures this week. It’s just a matter of temporal economy.
Second: Several of you objected to my saying that Ralph Nader was “every bit as evil as George W. Bush.” My wife objected to my saying that Ralph Nader was every bit as evil as George W. Bush. You’re right and she’s right: Ralph Nader is not every bit as evil as George W. Bush. “Evil,” as one writer put it, “is a religious term and has no place in American politics.” Ralph Nader never killed anybody (though he did help make it possible for George W. Bush to kill people, as did millions of other American voters). I changed that phrase so the sentence in which it appeared now reads “He’s as destructively righteous and tunnel-visioned as George W. Bush, the man he–as much as Justices Scalia, O’Connor, Thomas, Rehnquist and Kennedy–helped make president of the United States.” I hope we can all rest comfortably with that.
Third: Many of you wrote (some of you in great detail) about the many good and useful works Ralph Nader has done in the past, and several of you said that his good work then justifies any harm he might do now. That’s one moral economy. Another moral economy says that each good and bad deed gets its own evaluation, that you cannot bank good deeds earlier to neutralize bad deeds you’re going to do later. Lots of lawyers have tried the first of those two moral economies on juries in cases of Boy Scout leaders and priests who went astray with trusting little boys or that swell guy who everybody likes who just had a bad day and therefore hacked up his wife or shot up the office. Usually, it doesn’t work. When it does, just about everybody except the defendant gets pissed off.
Fourth: Many of you wrote that it is important to teach the Democratic party a lesson. I’m a teacher so I think it’s important to teach everybody a lesson whenever teaching a lesson is appropriate and useful. The only question is, what lesson and at what cost? I remember hearing that line–“It’s important to teach the Democratic party a lesson”–a lot in the 2000 presidential election. That is the election, you might recall, which gave us George W. Bush as president of the United States. Dennis Kucinch is trying to teach the Democratic party a lesson from the inside; that’s one way to teach the Democratic party a lesson. Ralph Nader likes to do it from outside; that’s his way. Me, after more than 40 years as a teacher, I think teaching lessons isn’t always the most important thing you can do with your time and effort. Like now. Now, I think the single most important thing we can do with our time and effort is get George W. Bush and his neocon thugs out of the White House, Pentagon, Justice Department and everyplace else, and that anything that gets in the way of that task is a distraction. Lessons and distractions are different things. Not to say that the Democratic party doesn’t need to be taught a lesson or a lot of lessons. But if the price of that lesson is pain and suffering for millions of people who might not otherwise suffer that pain and suffering, then it’s a lousy pedagogical economy.
Fifth: Eight of you said I was a Nazi and/or a fascist. I don’t have anything to say to you because you are dummkopfs.
Sixth: Seven of you spelled Ralph Nader’s name with no e. His name is “Nader” not “Nadar.” Nadar was Gaspard Felix-Tournachon, who was born in 1820. He was, says the Encyclopedia of Photography, “not only among the greatest photographers of the 19th c., but was one of the great personalities of his age. Caricaturist, journalist, novelist, balloonist, propagandist for heavier-than-air flight, friend of almost every notable French writer, artist, journalist, and socialist of the Second Empire (many of whom he photographed), Nadar was a paragon of enthusiasm, energy, and productivity.” He would probably make an interesting candidate for president of the United States but that is impossible for two reasons. One reason is he was not a natural-born citizen of the US, and the US Constitution prohibits anyone who is not a natural-born citizen from running for the office of president. (The terminally oleaginous Utah Senator Orrin Hatch recently introduced an amendment that would make it possible for foreigners who have lived in the US 20 years to run for president. He picked 20 years because that is how long his friend the former weightlifter and actor Arnold Schwartzenegger has been living in the US.) The second reason Nadar is not running is that he died in 1910.
Seventh: One of you sent a letter with no body but with a Subject line that went “You’re an idiot. Your argument is bankrupt. You are a poor writer. Fuck off!” Thank you for your brevity.
Eighth: Half of you told me that Al Gore ran a lousy campaign and that he was gutless and made of wood etc. I couldn’t agree with you more. He did and he was. Maybe 25% of you said that the Republicans had stacked the Florida vote by depriving a huge portion of Democrats the right to vote by improperly excluding them from the voting rolls. I couldn’t agree with you more. They did exactly that. Maybe 15% of you said that the Supreme Court handed Bush an election he didn’t really win. I couldn’t agree with you more. They did.
So what? Al Gore couldn’t be better than the lump of wood he was, but he was still better than George W. Bush. No Democrat could do anything about Republican chicanery in Florida or the cynicism of the US Supreme Court. Those Republican appointees were going to do what they could do to get their man into the White House and they were successful. But they were successful only because all the other pieces were in place, and their margin was razor-thin. Ralph Nader had a choice and he not only could have made a difference but he knew it. By election day, everyone knew Florida was going to be close. Many of his supporters across the country were urging him to let Florida go, to tell the faithful down there that there were, at that moment, bigger issues at stake. Florida was about whether he was going to go for the country or for himself. Do you really think he looked in the mirror and opted for the country? Look at what has happened in the world the past three years and the role the US has played in the world. Was Nader a good teacher? Was his lesson plan a good lesson plan?
A letter-writer who thought I’d gone too far with the “evil” comparison but was pretty much okay with the rest of it pointed out that by stepping outside of ego in Florida Nader could have given the Greens significant political clout and thereby helped all those environmental and many other causes that the Bushites hold in such contempt. Several of his closest advisers and friends urged Nader to do exactly that, but Nader wouldn’t budge. “This to me is the problem with Nader,” she wrote, “his absolutism and narcissism, invaluable traits in a crusader and destructive in a political candidate. He cannot be faulted for running; that’s his democratic (small ‘d’) right. But he can be faulted for arriving at a point when the race was nearly tied, and not taking advantage of that position to USE THAT POWER to get as much as 30-40% of his ‘principles’ actually accomplished (more than ever before in history) by making a deal with Gore as he stepped into the presidency with Nader’s crucial help. Nader could have done it and moved the nation forward in the most wonderful way. But he did not do it because of his personality, his stubbornness and his emotionalism. (Maybe Gore would have been just as stubborn on the other end, we don’t know).”
Ninth: Several of you said that by criticizing Ralph Nader I was depriving you of the right to vote. I think you may be a little fuzzy in your understanding of free speech and the right to vote and how they relate to and are distinct from one another. My telling you my opinion does not interfere with your right to vote. No matter what I or anybody else says about any political candidate, you can vote for whomever you wish, so long as they’re on the ballot or there’s a write-in slot. Really. If you don’t trust me on this, ask anybody.
Tenth: It’s okay that you don’t agree with me and that I don’t agree with you. That’s what America is all about, or should be. That’s why it’s important to get rid of people like John Ashcroft, for whom the Bill of Rights (which is the charter that protects arguments like these) is anathema. People who would permit only one ideological line to the exclusion of all others are bad people. I’d even say evil people, but I’m skittish about that word just now. They’re also boring.
Eleventh: Several letter-writers complained about or were puzzled by my references to the Vietnamese monks and American Quaker who set themselves afire to protest the Vietnam War. I forgot that there are fewer and fewer of us involved in politics now who remember those years. Those public immolations were, at the time, acts of astonishing self-sacrifice for principle, for the good of others. They galavanized a huge amount of public opinion against the war. The death of the Quaker is the only act of anti-war protest I remember Robert S. McNamara referring to in Errol Morris’s recent documentary The Fog of War. Those protests by fire seemed to me about as far from Ralph Nader’s relentless narcissism as a person of conscience might get. That’s what that was about. I didn’t mean he should actually do it. But it would be good if he understood it.
Twelfth: After reading all your letters (and the letters from the good folks who agreed with me 100%, of which there were also a considerable number), I reread what I wrote about Ralph Nader’s announcement on “Meet the Press” that he was once again running as an independent candidate for president of the United States. Except for the one change I mentioned in Two above, I wouldn’t change a word of it.
Thirteenth: Thanks for writing. The only articles I’ve ever written that brought in this much mail were “Killing a Tree,” which was about a neighbor who needlessly slaughtered a 300-year-old oak (all those letters agreed with me about what a brute he was), and “Jews Like Us, ” in which I argued the assumption that all or even the large majority of American Jews endorsed the abominations of the Sharonistas and squatters (response to that was split between Jews who agreed and Jews who called me a self-hating-Jew, plus three dolts who assumed that because I criticized Israel and Sharon and my last name is Jackson, I was an anti-semitic goon like them).
Fourteenth: in November, vote, and when you vote please do everything you can to avoid distractions. A good deal rides on it.
BRUCE JACKSON, SUNY Distinguished Professor and Samuel P. Capen Professor of American Culture at University at Buffalo, edits the web journal BuffaloReport.com. His most recent book is Emile de Antonio in Buffalo (Center Working Papers). Jackson is also a contributor to The Politics of Anti-Semitism. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org