Ralph Nader on civic action

Written by  //  August 17, 2005  //  Politics, Public Policy, Wednesday Nights  //  Comments Off on Ralph Nader on civic action

A brief summary of Ralph Nader’s lecture at the Festival citoyen

First of all readers should be warned that I was not equipped to take proper notes at the event. The following is at best an «impressionistic» reading based on my personal perceptions rather than a journalistic-type summary of the conference. I am most certainly leaving out major points. However, I believe that those points I DO relate are true to Ralph Nader’s ideas and beliefs.
Nader was invited to Montreal by the first «Festival citoyen», organized jointly by the Institut du Nouveau Monde and many civic-oriented organizations. Here is an excerpt from the program of this week-long event:
«Le Festival citoyen s’adresse au grand public de tous les âges…Il est composé de grandes conférences, d’un grand panel sur la réforme du mode de scrutin et d’une série d’activités culturelles qui sont autant de modes d’expression citoyenne. Les thèmes abordés sont les grands enjeux de notre temps. Le Festival est une occasion de dialogue intergénérationnel et un moment de réflexion et d’échange pour les personnes intéressées par la chose publique.»
Keynote speakers included John Ralston Saul («Quelle démocratie pour le XXIe siècle?), Gérard Bouchard (Le Québec: une société sans vision? Sans utopie?) and of course Ralph Nader, who was asked to address the following theme: «Être progressiste aux États-Unis».
I believe this event is worth mentioning because, building on Montreal’s tradition for summer festivals, it actually tries – and succeeds judging by what I have witnessed – to get people to enjoy summer AND to exercise their grey matter discussing subjects of importance to the community. Check out the website.

Lecture highlights
Ralph Nader believes America’s most important problem is the lack of citizen involvement in civic matters. If citizens do not get involved, then corporations just take over all of the public space and follow their own logic, which is motivated by profit and not much else. Corporations, in Nader’s view, are different from the people working in them. «We give them civic personalities, they have rights, but they are not people». Among many other examples, he cites energy : the US and Canada could get by on a fraction of what we use; we literally waste energy lighting up the skies and using non-efficient vehicles and devices. But the internal logic of the energy-producing corporations calls for them to sell ever more. They will say the means to become more efficient do not exist, then they will say it costs too much and that jobs will have to be cut. But eventually, when they are held to their civic responsibilities by a concerned citizenry – either directly or though an act of congress, they will act.
«How do you get people indignant about injustice? How do you get them to do something?» His answer: through civic education that will provide them with the necessary skills and that will develop a sense of commonality. «Each drop of water contributes to the outcome» he says.
Citing numerous examples, Nader adds that commercial interests have always been opposed to social progress, because social progress usually translates into higher spending for health, safety, protection, and better wages. Despite apparent progress in the last decades, he believes ground is being lost to the corporations. «Consider children; not so long ago there was an unwritten consensus prohibiting marketing directly to children; parental authority was not to be bypassed or undermined. Today, children at a very young age are being directly targeted by the makers of junk food, of cosmetics for seven-year old girls, etc.
Citing hundreds of conversations on this subject, Nader identifies four major excuses for inaction by citizens:

  • «I don’t know how». He does not accept this because today there is information and there are resources and groups available to anyone wishing to get involved.
  • «I don’t have time». This one clearly ticks him off. «I ask them how many hours of TV they watch in a week».
  • «I’m afraid». This is a valid concern for many vulnerable people, for instance workers in a company town. However, Nader points out that fear often derives from ignorance and in this respect activism is the same as swimming; «you’ve got to learn and you’ve got to train; then, the fear will subside».
  • «I won’t make a difference». Here, Nader lists many great advances of the past century that were carried by sometimes very small groups of dedicated people. The women’s suffrage movement never numbered more than a few thousand people but they carried the day, buoyed by a large consensus in the silent majority. He also cites the occasional small miracle, such as that mother of an American soldier killed in Iraq; «she decided that she wanted to talk directly to the President and Lo and Behold! Others join in, the media follow and Karl Rove and his gang don’t know what to do with them.»

Of course, Nader acknowledges many people are too poor or beset by problems to afford any kind of civic activism. But by and large, he believes a plurality of people can and should get involved, doing the ordinary things: writing a letter to a politician or to the local paper, going to the meetings, for example.
Ultimately, civic activism must translate into the political process and pressure commensurate to that produced by corporations must be brought to bear on politicians.


«We need more controlled indignation leading to concerted action»

«Historically, the people who win the great battles are those who are willing to loose time and again before any progress is made»

«Half of democracy is just showing up»

«I have studied the matter in depth and believe me, pessimism serves no useful function whatsoever; we must get rid of it»

«Fully one half of the federal (American) budget goes to defence, while the Soviet Union no longer exists and China wants to buy into our corporations rather than bomb them. Another 20 % of the budget goes to corporate welfare. I call that institutional insanity»


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