x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Ralph Nader: a force that won't be co-opted

A look at the life of the consumer rights activist

Ralph Nader (Illustration by Kagan Mcleod)
Ralph Nader (Illustration by Kagan Mcleod)

In the history of the automobile, arguably no one can claim to have saved more lives than Ralph Nader. His tireless activism and a seminal book he wrote have made seat belts, soft dashboards, air bags and safer fuel tanks mandatory in cars; it's hard to say how many millions of people have been saved.

But he didn't stop at the auto industry. As TheNew Yorker's Hendrik Hertzberg once wrote about Nader: "Because of him, baby foods are no longer spiked with MSG, kids' pyjamas no longer catch fire, tap water is safer to drink than it used to be, diseased meat can no longer be sold with impunity, and dental patients getting their teeth X-rayed wear lead aprons to protect their bodies from dangerous zaps."

Almost five decades after he started, he continues to fight, to challenge and to rage. This week, he spoke at the Dubai World Conference for Consumer Rights, pleading the case for class-action lawsuits against big companies. To many, he is the consumer's crusader, an icon who has pitted Main Street against Wall Street and won. To others, he is a left-wing demagogue who, despite his aversion to monopolies, feels he has a monopoly on the truth.

The second son and youngest of four children of Lebanese migrants of eastern Orthodox faith, he grew up in Winsted in north-west Connecticut in the US. The family spoke Arabic and English; he would go on to learn Chinese, Portuguese, Russian and Spanish. His father, Nathra, ran a restaurant; he taught his children about people who achieved through history, and to "never look up at anybody; never look down on anybody".

Nader regarded his upbringing as casual - not in any way overbearing but certainly inspiring, as he recounted in his family memoir, The Seventeen Traditions. "They didn't talk at us or particularly to us. Just around us, and we listened." In 1991, he recalled for The New York Times his mother, Rose, taking her children out in the yard and asking them the price of eggs, apples and bananas, "and then she asked us to put a price on clean air, the sunshine, the song of birds - and we were stunned". James Abourezk, a family friend, has recounted a visit to Winsted by Senator Prescott Bush (George W Bush's grandfather) after the devastating floods of 1955. Blocking the receiving line, Rose kept hold of the senator's hand until he promised to have a dam built.

He studied at Princeton, writing a thesis on agricultural development in Lebanon, and from there entered Harvard Law School. He found his contemporaries sheeplike in their conformity and thought all the courses trained them to defend corporations. "Where were the lawyers for ordinary people being trained? I discovered that they weren't."

He spent six months in the US army in 1959 and then practised as a lawyer in Hartford, Connecticut. He hated it. In 1964 he moved to Washington to join the office of Daniel Patrick Moynihan who was then assistant secretary of labour.

At university, he had edited the Harvard Law Record. One of his early articles was entitled American Cars Designed for Death. This would become his 1965 book, Unsafe At Any Speed, an exposé on General Motors vehicles, especially the Chevrolet Corvair, and the issue that brought him to national prominence. Ironically, it was not his campaign that brought him to the public's notice but GM's attempt to discredit him. Having sent two women to lure him into a compromising position but failing, it then sent a man with the same result. After company representatives approached a classmate with questions about Nader's past, its campaign was exposed.

It has been said that militant consumerism was born on March 22, 1966, the day that the president of GM appeared before the US senate to apologise to the little-known lawyer from Winsted. Nader's book became a best-seller and, within a year, sales of the Corvair had fallen by 70 per cent. Partly due to the book, the US Congress unanimously passed the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act in 1966.

Having successfully sued GM, Nader used the award of US$425,000 (Dh1.56 million) to found and fund his Center for Study of Responsive Law. Fame barely altered him. The New York Times reported in 1967: "Nader lives in an $80-a-month furnished room, owns no car, eats in cheap restaurants, dresses plainly, works a 100-hour week, has almost no social life and considers marriage at present incompatible with his career." Five decades later, little seems to have changed.

Among the initiatives he launched were the Clean Water Action Project, the Disability Rights Center, the Pension Rights Center and the Congressional Accountability Project. In 1971 he founded an umbrella organisation, Public Citizen. He inspired scores of young activists, who were dubbed "Nader's Raiders", joining his efforts by establishing Public Interest Research Groups across the United States. These groups have published hundreds of detailed reports, lobbying for reform in food safety, toy safety, environmental issues, health care, prescription drug costs and access to education and legal representation.

His work contributed to the founding of several US regulatory agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and the Consumer Product Safety Administration. He played a key role in the passing of the Freedom of Information Act (1974) and the National Cooperative Bank Act (1978).

His aim was never to overthrow the system but to bring it into line with stated principles - a rational role rather than a romantic one; pursued and propelled by research and reporting rather than by demonstrations and direct action. His philosophy was "if you want to be loved, you'll be co-opted". In choosing people to work with him, the key trait he looks for is "how willing they are not to be loved".

It seems extraordinary that someone with no wish to be loved would contemplate election for public office, let alone The Ultimate Office. As early as 1971, Gore Vidal (and later Benjamin Spock) advocated Nader for President in the 1972 campaign, but it was not until 1992 that he appeared as a write-in candidate (his name did not appear on the ballot).

In 1996 he accepted nomination as alternatively an independent or a Green Party representative. Professing frustration with the Clinton administration, he actively sought the presidency in 2000 as the Green Party's official candidate. He and his running mate, Winona LaDuke, garnered 2.74 per cent of the popular vote. Given the closeness of the result between George W Bush and Al Gore, Nader earned the lasting enmity of many Democrats who considered him to be a spoiler who handed the Oval Office to Bush.

In 2004, he ran again. Responding to Democratic calls to stand down, Nader stated: "Voting for a candidate of one's choice is a constitutional right, and the Democrats who are asking me not to run are, without question, seeking to deny the constitutional rights of voters who are, by law, otherwise free to choose to vote for me." He received 0.38 per cent of the vote. He would run again in 2008 and improved to 0.56 per cent.

In 2009 he turned his hand to fiction. Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us is a novel of 17 millionaires and billionaires, led by Warren Buffett, who, when a victim of Hurricane Katrina yells out, "Only the rich can save us!", has an epiphany and recruits the likes of Ted Turner, Ross Perot, Yoko Ono and others. They put their money to good work.

It is perhaps consistent with his abiding asceticism that this modern crusader has eschewed the laptop, the iPad and BlackBerry. "You can fight back a little over the internet, but it has empowered corporations far more than consumers," he has said. Nader prefers his Underwood typewriter. "When the lights go off and the electricity is ruptured, I am still working. My colleagues are not."

Now in his 80th year, his vigour and intensity undiminished and his vision undimmed, Ralph Nader seems immortal. He has yet another gift from his parents - longevity. Nathra Nadra died in 1991, aged 98; Rose died in 2006, three weeks short of her centenary. "The only ageing," he once said, "is the erosion of one's ideals."

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