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Nader Rides Again

According to Matt Groening’s Love is Hell, there are nine types of girlfriends, including “The Bosser.” The advantage to this type of girlfriend, the book says: “Often right.” The disadvantage to the Bosser, aka Ms. Know-it-all and the Sarge: “Often right, but so what?”

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Ralph Nader at New Haven's Labyrinth Books

Before going to see Ralph Nader speak last night, the Bosser came to mind. In the past few years, America’s impatience with and, mostly, avoidance of Nader reflects that same “so what” attitude. And you could argue Ralph has no one to blame but himself. He could have been content to go down in US history as the greatest crusader against corporate malfeasance ever, the best friend consumers ever had, whether they realized it or not. But no. Nader had to run in 2000, convincing many people, mostly Democrats, that he was more concerned about himself than with defeating George W. Bush (and we all know how swell that turned out). To make things worse, he ran again in 2004. And, my god, is that — yes, oh yes, I mean, oh no, there he goes again! Another run in 2008.

With all those campaigns, Nader looked like he was shooting to be Eugene Debs, but without the votes, or Norman Thomas with only slightly better name recognition.

Before the talk, I scribbled in my notebook, on a variation of the Bosser’s down side: “Right, but irrelevant.”

Boy, was I wrong.

Full disclosure: I have always admired Ralph Nader. His doggedness in the face of dirty tricks as he tried to expose GM, the way he inspired young people to expand on his work with Nader’s Raiders, and even his life story, the American Dream fulfilled — as long as the Dream includes not striking it rich, and being vilified for most of your life. I had heard Nader speak before, seen him on TV, read his articles, voted for him in ’96 (yes, ‘96, when the moral vacuum that is Bill Clinton was already sucking. And before the other sucking.)

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700 pages plus...hmm

Nader proved last night that he is still relevant, if only we’ll listen. He was in New Haven to promote his book “Only the Super-rich Can Save Us!,” an odd entry into fiction writing. Odd because he creates fantastic events for a team of real-life superheroes, whose not-so-secret power is their great personal wealth and willingness to use it and their celebrity status for the common good. The characters include Warren Buffet, Paul Newman, Ted Turner, Bill Gates Sr., Bill Cosby, and – talk about left field – Yoko Ono. Odd also because the massive book seems to contain some pretty sophomoric satire (an evil right-wing radio host appears as Bush Bimbo). And odd in how Nader described the book; when he referred to the characters’ actions, it was as if they really did these things, in real life, and not just on the pages of the book.

But the book is just a steppingstone for spreading the word on Nader’s real goals: more citizen involvement in the political process, particularly as watchdogs over the 535 members of Congress. Getting the money, from the superrich and others, to set the oversight procedure in place. And, at the heart of all his actions, reclaiming the political process from corporations. It’s corporatism, Nader believes, that makes the Republicans and Democrats largely interchangeable (outside of some key social issues), given their shared reliance on PACs and heeding the views of lobbyists over voters.

Listening to Nader recount the current political evils, he comes across as something of a gloomy Gus, with no reassuring proclamations of America’s inherent greatness or its “elect” status under the watchful eye of the one true God. Well, no wonder nobody wants to vote for him. But he calls “Only the Super-rich” a practical utopia. What seems like gloominess, if you value social justice over the unrestrained quest for profits, is just reality. And Nader still believes justice can be served, corporate greed tamed, if citizens will put down their iPhones, step away from the screens of all kinds, and get involved. Small numbers of people, with vocal and targeted efforts, can make a difference.

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The crusader-as-boy in his Connecticut hometown of Winsted

Along with that idealistic streak is a genuine sense of humor, which helps temper the arrogance that can also emerge. The new book has “historic importance,” he told the 75 of us crowded into the basement of Labyrinth Books.  It’s filled with humor, he assured us, which judging from his presentation I don’t doubt, though the broad parody in the novel  might get a little wearying. And though Nader can come across as all brain and no soul, his tales about his immigrant parents and the lessons they taught him, the challenges they laid down (are you going to believe, or are you going to think?) resonate on a personal level. He has what he says all reformers have shared: the fire in the belly. At times that has fueled real change, certainly in his case. Today, though, the fire doesn’t spread far enough to spark others to do the hard work Nader sees ahead.

Leaving the bookstore, I had to change my assessment. Ralph is right, and he’s not irrelevant. He is more relevant than ever. I do think he and his supporters have an almost-impossible task, trying to shame the passivity out of even the progressives who know he’s right. Because I think history will show he is, just as he was right to take on GM. Corporate power has corrupted constitutional government in the United States. That, along with the tendency in some humans to feather one’s nest, look for loopholes, amass power, rather than serve the common good. I don’t know if I share his optimism that we can make huge changes. I’m glad he’s out there, still, saying what needs to be said. What he so passionately believes. I hope history books treat him better than the media and so many of his contemporaries do. But not many of us like to hear someone who’s right talk so much, remind us that deep down we know he’s right, but we’d rather buy a new HD TV, or forget buying, we don’t even know if we can pay the mortgage. In good times and bad, nobody roots for the Bosser.

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