Friday, October 30, 2009
Friday, October 23, 2009
Inspired by his talk, last week I watched An Unreasonable Man, a well crafted, entertaining documentary produced in 2007, which revealed Nader in all his complexity. Although part of me remains angry at Nader for costing Al Gore the presidency in 2000 (Nader received over 97,000 votes in Florida, a state Gore lost by 537 votes), the film helped resurrect my earlier view of Nader, the one that sees him not as presidential spoiler and naive politician, but as the citizen crusader. Unafraid of challenging wrongs perpetrated by the largest, most powerful institutions of American society, Nader has done battle with General Motors, the nuclear power industry, Congress, government bureaucracies, corporate fat cats, corrupt trade unions, huge media conglomerates, and both major political parties.
What makes Nader so endearing is his complete embrace of American virtues and founding principles. More than any other social critic and political activist in my lifetime, Nader believes uniquely in America’s most deeply treasured values – free enterprise, the genius of small business, competition, openness in government, the free flow of information. He has devoted his life to increasing citizen participation, advancing democracy, and laying the foundation for an informed consumer. Big business claims to favor free enterprise, but Nader fights for laws and regulations – and, where needed, a lack of regulation – that promote competition. Thus, where laissez faire policies fail to adequately protect the consumer, or all citizens, he advocates increased regulation that addresses the shortcomings of capitalism. Left to their own devices, corporate interests will not incur added costs to avoid polluting the air and water, or to provide a safe workplace or a safe product; only if forced to do so – by threat of lawsuits, or pursuant to regulation and law – will it happen. Conversely, where economic regulation of markets has artificially limited competition, such as occurred in the airline and trucking industries in the 1970’s, Nader was instrumental in achieving deregulation, thus enhancing price competition in industries that had become too cozy.
In 1965, Nader published Unsafe at Any Speed, a fact-based, thoroughly researched book which exposed the careless and negligent operation of the U.S. automobile industry. Nader demonstrated that the auto manufacturers, in the interest of mass production and increased sales, designed cars with an eye on style, cost, and performance with little regard for safety. To the (mostly) men in the C-suites, it seemed not to matter that every year cars were involved in five million accidents, 40,000 deaths, 110,000 permanent disabilities, and 1.5 million injuries on America’s roads and highways. Nader proved that auto crashes need not be deadly and that many injuries could easily be avoided by minor and inexpensive design changes. In the beginning, Nader was virtually alone in addressing the issue and, despite the best efforts of General Motors (whose covert efforts to dig up dirt on Nader failed miserably), he proved that one person, acting intelligently, honestly, armed with facts and persistence, can make a difference.
When Nader took on the U.S. auto industry in the early 1960’s, it was not to dismantle capitalism or the American corporation, but to make it better. He recognized that corporate decisions were made with an exclusive focus on the bottom line – profits – and that spending money on safety and health was treated as an expense that produced no revenue. Why would any rational businessman, motivated by the desire to maximize profits, spend money on safety or clean air unless required by law to do so? Nader’s self-avowed agenda was to bring about the “qualitative reform of the Industrial Revolution,” not to harm American economic enterprise, but to improve it, by making it more competitive and responsive to the consumer. Nader understood that safety was something consumers clearly wanted but were not offered, in part due to a lack of competition (in the 1960’s, the auto industry was dominated by the Big Three – General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler – for which competition in the true sense was mostly non-existent). As a result of Nader’s persistence and growing influence, motor vehicle safety laws were enacted that required seat belts and, eventually, air bags; shatterproof windshields; safer steering wheel designs; softer, more flexible visors; and many other safety features now taken for granted. Virtually every car on the market today – domestic and foreign – includes in its marketing efforts an emphasis on safety, as car manufacturers compete not just over price and design, but safety and crash worthiness as well. The auto industry fought Nader every step of the way, but in 1977, Henry Ford II conceded on Meet the Press, “We wouldn’t have the kinds of safety built into automobiles that we have had unless there had been a federal law.”
Following his success in transforming the American auto industry, Nader focused his attention on other forms of corporate abuse, from hazardous drugs to deceptive advertising, price fixing to product obsolescence, energy wasting appliances to unsafe food additives; the list goes on and on. Although his name is rarely uttered with glee in the C-suites and boardrooms of American corporations, Nader’s positive influence on corporate governance and responsible corporate citizenship is undeniable. Today, the concept of corporate social responsibility is a part of every major American business.
Nader by all accounts has led a priestly life. His personal life, if he has one, is secondary. He demands complete loyalty to his causes, most of which do not pay well. Yet he continues to have many devoted followers who greatly admire his ethical purity, independence, and commitment to justice. He bases his arguments and tactics on hard facts, solid research, and rational, sound arguments. This is why he has been so effective – no one questions his motives, or whether he possesses some hidden financial objective or conflict of interest.
Yet I cannot help but wonder if Nader is blinded by his purity. When he insisted on running for President in 2000 – costing the Democrats the White House – and then feebly repeating his mistake in 2004 – he did much damage to his reputation and his causes. The cadre of public interest organizations that he created, funded, and helped give wings to, were greatly harmed when he chose to muddy himself in the political arena. For regardless of the issues he hoped to advance, and the causes he espoused, he appeared to be advancing Ralph Nader at the expense of America; his independence and selfless sacrifices for justice were no longer his compelling traits. Although it is difficult to come up with a political position he took, or a statement he made, to which I vehemently disagreed, his mere presence in the political arena caused great, and very predictable damage. Some of his most loyal, dedicated public interest employees resigned, the influence of his many public interest organizations weakened, and funding dried up.
Most importantly, his candidacy made likely – some would say inevitable – exactly what he had spent his whole life fighting against, as he filtered votes away from the Democrats, helping Bush win in 2000. If not for Nader’s candidacy, the argument goes, we would not have had the War in Iraq, the degradation of the constitution, the ballooning federal deficits, the abuses at Guantanamo Bay. But to this day, Nader is unrepentant. He correctly notes that Gore failed to carry even his home state of Tennessee, and that his censorship of Bill Clinton contributed to his loss of Arkansas (had Gore won either of those states, he would have won the election). In An Unreasonable Man, Nader contends that Gore (and Bush) needed to earn their votes, and that Gore, by moderating his views on certain key issues and catering to the corporate interests so dominant in the Democratic Party today, became virtually indistinguishable from Bush. Gore lost on his own far more votes than Nader could possibly have taken from him.
Politics is often referred to as the Art of the Possible. Compromise and negotiation are ever present; principles abide only so long as winning does not get in the way. For the Democrats, this usually means suppressing the advocacy of effective gun control laws, compromising on national health insurance or its lesser component, the public option, and failing to insist on fundamental principles of economic and social justice in the tax code and the allocation of federal resources. This is to avoid offending swing voters, investment bankers, and corporate contributors. Although frustrating, in the real world of American politics, it is a necessary component of a winning formula. As a Democrat, I accept that compromise and the bending of principle is necessary to win elections and govern; it is part of the process. If you disregard pragmatism, you risk losing and accomplishing nothing. Some principles – fundamental human rights, the pursuit of peace and security – cannot be compromised, but there are many others that, in the day-to-day reality of political life, require flexibility and accepting less than the ideal.
For Nader, however, principle is everything – the cause is what matters, and anything or anybody that stands in the way of advancing the cause is to be defeated, even at the expense of smaller advancements. American society – all societies – need their share of Ralph Naders, those who provide an independent and powerful voice for citizens who, for lack of money, power, and access, are dismissed as irrelevant. Nader has certainly left his mark on American society. He not only created the consumer movement in this country, attracting a large following without any significant organization, but he also inspired the creation of similar movements in many countries around the world. He is not, and never has been, a man of privilege; his father was an immigrant and self-made man, an entrepreneur, small businessman, one who embraced and was driven by the American work ethic. Nader embraced the values of his father. He is the ultimate altruist, humble, self-sacrificing, possessed of an arrogance that permits him not to care about what others think of him. Nader is a man of consistency, one who acts for what he believes to be the greater good with little concern for how others perceive him. In this and many ways, he is an unusual man. His legacy will endure in the everyday improvements he has made to American life, law, and public policy. But his insistence on saintly purity in the elections of 2000 and 2004, and possibly in ways yet to be determined, will forever taint that legacy.
Saturday, October 10, 2009
It breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart. The game begins in spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall alone. ~A. Bartlett Giamatti, November 1977
Sunday, October 4, 2009
Knowing there's only so much time, I don't rejoice less but more. Knowing how many things will now not happen, I wish them Godspeed and pass them on to someone down the line. I honor my regrets, the part of me that never happened or happened wrong and proceed on course though the course is not known. Only the end is known and some days it's a comfort. We live on love, whether it's there or not and rejoice in it even in its absence. If I had known, I'd have come here better equipped - but that's another one of those things you can't change - as we can't alter that part of us that lives on memory, knowing all the while that time is not real and that what we are we never were in the light of that timeless place where we really belong, have belonged always. . . .
Albert Huffstickler (“Don't Ask The Angels How They Fly”)
I was more contemplative ten years later, when I turned 40. With mouths to feed and bills to pay, career pressures mounting, I could no longer dream of frivolous adventures, my hours filled with the obligations of work and family. By age 40 it seemed, true adulthood had finally arrived. There was no turning back, the crutch of youth and inexperience no longer an excuse for mistakes or passivity. Yet in mind and spirit, I remained forever young, my jump shot still arcing through the net during my weekly basketball games, and my importance to the world seemingly acknowledged by the prestige and recognition associated with an advancing career. My hope of unfilled dreams still shined with optimism.
It was not until I turned 50 earlier this year, marking my half-century existence on this planet, that I sensed for the first time that certain of my dreams may forever be deferred, that time is a gift, its limits felt with the passing of each year. Though it seems as if I need constant reminding that I am no longer a young man, fresh from law school, determined to accomplish high-minded things, I remain confident and sure of myself about certain matters, full of doubts and insecurities about others. But I now recognize and feel, gradually, incrementally, the burdens of aging – the chronic back pain, the cranky joints, the perpetually tight muscles. And while I hope to live to 114, while taking long walks and watching the sunset with my great-grandchildren as I sit on the deck of my lakeside house and complete the final touches on my memoirs, I know now that life is not forever. Mortality awaits me and, for the first time in my life, I am truly aware of its dimensions. This is not necessarily a bad thing, for it forces one to recognize the truly important things in life – family, relationships, closeness with God, and the true meaning of success. As Albert Huffstickler wrote, “Knowing there's only so much time, I don't rejoice less but more.”
I have on my refrigerator a well-known poem, usually attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson, though perhaps originating in a work by Bessie Stanley, on success. It is one of those poems that, while perhaps a bit cliché, is profoundly true, and thus a source of inspiration:
To laugh often and much, to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children, to earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends, to appreciate beauty, to find the best in others, to leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch . . . to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.I have been blessed with good health, two beautiful children, a wonderful woman in my life, and a terrific family. Such blessings, I have come to learn, are determined as much by luck as any actions on our part, something that I believe most of us fail to recognize during our lifetimes. Many of those who fail in life start with a bad deck handed them – a fatherless childhood, the lack of role models, unsafe neighborhoods; some people are struck by illness, the death of a loved one, the pain of addiction, or the humiliation of unemployment and rejection. We all fail at something – indeed, most of us fail to live out our dreams or even to try, choosing instead the comfort and security of routine and all things familiar. How we respond to failure, our willingness to try a second and third time, to strive for perfection knowing we may never achieve anything close, this is how success in life is achieved, and how character is formed.
When my first marriage ended in failure, my children assumed even greater importance to me, their happiness and health tied immeasurably to that of mine. I have often wondered whether, given the chance to re-do portions of my life with the benefit of hindsight, I would have made different choices. But with age comes, I hope, some small tidbits of wisdom, including the acknowledgement that life permits no reruns and that the ability to forgive others for their mistakes, and yourself for your own, is spiritually and emotionally liberating. We must come to terms with our choices in life, the luck we are dealt, and the skills we have and are able to develop. Then do the best we can. My time remaining on this planet is likely less than the time already expended, but my destiny and the legacy I leave for my children and anyone else who may benefit, is in my hands. My only limits are time, fear, and imagination.
When I was nine-years old, I would lie on the grass in my backyard and stare at the sky, admiring the cloud formations, the richness of the unending image of blue, and the tranquility of the evening’s first twilight stars. I do not remember everything it was I used to contemplate as I lay with my head pressed against the ground, my mind deep in thought, escaping in sight and mind the pressures of life. Even at this young age, I can recall the burdens of life’s self-imposed expectations – to do well in school, to succeed in sports, to be liked and accepted by my peers. Maybe it was the solitude of space I was attracted to as I lay staring at the uppermost boundaries of heaven. Was there really a heaven, a dwelling place for God and his angels, I would contemplate as the first evening star sparkled its way through the darkening sky. Is there life on other planets? Has God assigned a purpose to my life here on earth? The universe held me in awe, inspiring my imagination until the call for supper abruptly intervened.
I do not remember the last time I lay on the grass staring up at the sky. It is unfortunate, really, for the sky has such a profound wisdom to it, an innate ability to put things in perspective, to keep us humble and remind us of greater truths for which we lack understanding. Life is too short, it whispers, do not overlook its simple pleasures or become embroiled in life’s daily struggles; experience the oceans, walk in the woods, skip stones on a stream, hike in the mountains, love your children, and appreciate your friends. Listen, empathize, show compassion, be generous of spirit, laugh, and love.