Ralph Nader’s call to action

Ralph Nader speaks at a microphone

“There is no better way to go through life than to do things that are very important to others – and to enjoy it and have it as part of our philosophy of happiness.”

— Ralph Nader

By Kelly Haggart

Amid the rampant truth decay of the Trump era, iconic consumer rights champion Ralph Nader is banking on active citizens, armed with facts, to hold governments and corporations to account.

In his new book, To the Ramparts, the American political maverick makes an impassioned plea for renewed civic engagement. The only real hope for a beleaguered democracy, “plagued by a corporate crime wave from Wall Street to Houston,” will come from “the redeeming power of the people, through the grass roots and the ballot box,” he writes.

“Forget the obsession with Trump-bashing, attractive as it is. Let’s get behind single-payer health care, more not less environmental, health, worker, and consumer protections, and other recurring items on the people’s empowerment list.”

Nader does still have a few choice words for “the self-destructive, unstable, unorganized, fact- and truth-starved, egomaniacal, bigoted, cheating, plutocratic Donald Trump.” He also pulls no punches against a “defanged” and dispirited Democratic Party, bemoaning its defensive attitude toward “the cruelest, most ignorant, corporate-indentured, anti-worker, anti-consumer, warmongering Republican Party in history.”

“But this is where [the Democrats] need to be now: on the offensive,” he writes. “On the ramparts.”

Nader brought his urgent message to uOttawa on September 24 at the start of Criminology Week 2018, marking the 50th anniversary of the Faculty of Social Sciences' Department of Criminology. In a talk titled "Corporate Crime, State Violence and Accountability in the Trump Era," he offered both a trenchant critique of troubled times and a stirring call to action.

“Ralph Nader’s pioneering work is perhaps more crucial than ever as we face unprecedented abuses of power by states and corporations globally,” says criminology professor Steven Bittle, who took part in a discussion with Nader following his talk.

Ralph Nader

Photo: Mike Simons/Corbis

Remarkable legacy

A four-time presidential candidate, Nader has a record of achievement eclipsing that of many U.S. presidents. Most famously, his legacy includes now-standard car safety features such as seat belts and airbags, which have saved millions of lives around the world.

He was instrumental in the creation of key U.S. agencies, including the National Transportation Safety Board, Environmental Protection Agency and Occupational Safety and Health Administration. He is also credited with helping to bring about landmark legislation, such as the Freedom of Information, Clean Water, and Consumer Product Safety acts.

A graduate of Princeton University and Harvard Law School, Nader has helped launch dozens of citizens’ organizations, including Public Citizen and the Public Interest Research Group movement (OPIRG Ottawa is one such group). General Motors inadvertently provided the seed money for his first group after he won a lawsuit against the company for hiring private detectives to spy on him. He used the $425,000 settlement to start the Center for Study of Responsive Law, an incubator for the young volunteer legal researchers who came to be known as Nader’s Raiders.

Canadian connection

Nader has a soft spot for Canada. As a child, he spent many summers with Canadian cousins in Ontario. And in 1965, Canadian journalists were the first to interview him after the publication of Unsafe at Any Speed, his exposé of lax vehicle safety standards that would go on to rock the U.S. auto industry.

“At that time, the U.S. news media were quite reluctant to report criticisms of cars by make and model, which the book did,” Nader writes in his 1993 book, Canada Firsts. “However, CBC’s program This Hour Has Seven Days was interested, and I made my North American television debut in Toronto with the program beamed into autoland (Detroit) from the Windsor station. The U.S. media then followed with extensive coverage.”

In Canada Firsts, a salute to Canadian achievements, he argues for cultural heterogeneity and “new levels of national self-confidence to protect what Canada has that is best, which will benefit the U.S., too.”

Ralph Nader in his office crammed with boxes of files and piles of paper.

Ralph Nader told the CBC’s Hana Gartner in 1985: “There is no better way to go through life than to do things that are very important to others – and to enjoy it and have it as part of our philosophy of happiness. … Can you imagine a better way to spend your weekend than trying to toilet-train General Motors?” Photo: Screen capture from the fifth estate segment Ralph Nader and the Big Three/CBC

Change the world

Now 84, Nader writes a weekly blog, co-hosts a talk show, the Ralph Nader Radio Hour, and continues to produce a steady stream of books. He has never been one to rest on his laurels — nor, he would argue, should citizens of Canada or anywhere else. The stakes are currently too high not to be engaged in pressing for positive change.

“So what does it truly mean to be patriotic? My parents defined it quite simply,” he writes in To the Ramparts. “They taught my siblings and me that loving one’s country meant working hard to make it more lovable. This means working to reduce poverty, discrimination, corruption, greed, cheating, crime, harms to health and safety, and other injustices that weaken the promise and potential of America.”

In the book, Nader calculates that if just one per cent of citizens work together for a few hours a week, “victories will soon emerge. The civic void will be replenished with civic energies.” In other words, choose your cause, equip yourself with facts and get on with making the world a better place.

Logo announcing the 50th anniversary of the Department of Criminology.

“Ralph Nader’s incredible body of work anchors our 50th anniversary week in our department’s driving principle, that criminology only thrives when it lives inside and outside of the academy,” says Professor Michael Kempa, director of the Department of Criminology.

“Through our special anniversary week, we showcased work being done by our professors and students, ranging from abstract social theory to applied reform in cooperation with grassroots community organizations and progressive members of criminal justice organizations.”

Ralph Nader speaks in Tabaret Hall.

Nader’s talk at uOttawa was part of the Shawn and Khush Singh Distinguished Lecture Series. Photo: Bonnie Findley

Main photo:
Brian Engler

Ralph Nader on black and white television, with the CBC logo in the frame.

Nader appearing on CBC TV in 1965. “Tonight Ralph Nader charges the Detroit car companies with running risks that can’t hurt them, but do hurt us,” the announcer said. Photo: Screen capture from This Hour Has Seven Days segment Unsafe at Any Speed/CBC

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