Ralph Nader was just here in Ann Arbor, at the University of Michigan (and he’ll be at Michigan State this evening). He spoke from 1-3.20, but I teach at 1, so I arrived towards the end of the actual speech, and was pleasantly surprised that the room was still full (perhaps 400-500 people); I saw only one person who had a Kerry sign.
It was quite a rousing performance, though not as rousing as Jesse Jackson’s in 1988. In place of easy emotion, Nader favors knowledge and thought: it was really refreshing to hear someone who tells things straight and assumes intelligence on the part of his listeners. His basic message throughout was: think for yourself; come to your own conclusions. This entails effort and energy, in order to be informed about what is happening in the world, and a critical mindset to fend off the stultifying and patronizing efforts of the two major parties and the mainstream media. Being a good citizen is hard work. What is really impressive is not so much what Nader said–which is after all the same stuff he’s been saying for 40 years–but the manner in which his speaking reflects his message: he treats his audience as if they were adults.
With all of the recent talk about accountability (for Abu Ghraib, for intelligence lapses, for Enron, etc.), Nader expects his listeners to be accountable: if we all parrot what he says, and then do nothing, we are perpetuating the empty rhetoric of the two parties. As such, when Nader stepped aside for 15 minutes and allowed an associate to take care of the fundraising, the situation got personal: Who’s willing to dig down and find $1000 for the Nader/Camejo campaign? (There were no offers.) Then down to $500, $250 and so on. There’s obviously an element of shaming at play, since everyone suddenly feels guilty for not stepping up when it counts, but at the same time one is immediately confronted with the consequences of the notion that we as individuals, opposed to the frightened, paralyzed rote existence that appears to be our only option, are responsible for changing things: it is not enough to sit and clap; we have to do something, and that something in this very concrete situation is donate money (if we can’t donate time or energy or expertise).
More interesting was the way Nader handled the questions–after the fund-raising interlude. There were ten questioners who managed to speak in the allotted time, of whom three were democratic hecklers. Among the others was a Palestinian woman who asked how it could be that there were not already millions of people backing him, given his clear position on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. (Nader said that that was precisely his question too.) To the question, What can African-Americans ask of Kerry to make him take into account their presence?, Nader replied: That he could have the Democrats go out and register the 9 million African-Americans who are unregistered and eligible to vote; 90% will vote Democrat and that’s the election right there. Would he stop funding Israel in order to resolve the Palestinian issue? Absolutely: you can’t be impartial and help one side. Moreover, Israel is not only in good financial shape, it has universal health care for its citizens, and should therefore probably be doling out aid to the US, rather than the reverse.
Another person said that Bush was planning to put a man on Mars, What would Nader do for science as president? He replied that 1) unmanned space exploration furnishes most of the information we have about space, and 2) the manned expeditions are PR stunts that are costly both in dollars and lives. He would immediately cancel them. Nader treated every question straightforwardly and answered concisely.
His handling of the hecklers, however, was even more interesting. The first was a middle-aged man who trotted out the story of republicans collecting signatures to get Nader/Camejo on the Michigan ballot. The man lathered himself into a froth and Nader had to cut in, saying that the facts were simply wrong, and then explained the legal machinations that were involved. He then asked the man if he thought he (Nader) should be on the ballot, to which the man replied: As long as you follow the established guidelines. Nader let this pass (One of his issues is precisely electoral reform.) and the man kept talking. Finally Nader tried asking: Are you a democrat? four or five times, until the guy said ‘yes’, at which point Nader replied: Good, vote for John Kerry. The guy left in a huff and probably did not understand that the remark was more than simply a dismissal: Nader is campaigning for fairness, honesty and choice; if you want to vote for Kerry, then go ahead. But if you want to vote for Nader, you should have that option too, and the democrats should not try to take away your choice. Nader did not try to convince anyone that what he said was right, he presented his views; there were no vague statements such as ‘I’m going to do the right thing for America’, there were concrete positions and solutions, stated matter-of-factly. It’s there for you to take and contemplate or throw out the window. And this is a frightening notion. If you say, ‘I’m going to do the right thing for America’, you don’t really have to do anything; but if you say: ‘I’m going to pull US troops out of Iraq in six months, to be replaced by an international force that oversees free elections and not a puppet government’, then you actually have to do something. Nader assumes that you’re an adult and are capable of seeing this distinction. It’s up to you to choose the person you think is best.
Nader’s thought-provoking approach was most evident with the last questioner, a young guy with a Kerry pin, maybe 20 years old, obviously a student. The kid chose the Florida vote-count as his bone to pick with Nader, and Nader, after hearing him out, said: ‘There were ten times as many democrats who left Gore and voted for Bush than left Gore and voted for me.’ He then proceeded to enumerate the other ‘what-ifs’ from the 2000 election and, looking straight at the kid, asked: ‘Have you ever considered these things? You’re blinded by the democratic propaganda; I know why you’re here, but think about it. Don’t pick on a third party, don’t single out one ‘what-if’; ask the democratic party what it’s doing to win the election.’ The kid was terrified, but it’s just possible, with his gumption and good-will, that he will think about those things and maybe come to his own conclusions. Nader has the guts to anger his listeners by taking them seriously, challenging them to think, rather than flattering their ignorance with empty slogans. No wonder Kerry and Bush want to exclude him from the ‘debates’: not only can he field any question (And we know that Kerry has difficulty with even the easiest ones.), he asks a whole lot more in his answers.
ANIS MEMON can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org