The tenor of tonight’s speech and Q&A with Ralph Nader, I think, can be best illustrated by describing three of the more distinct moments in what was a very compelling evening:
- Alan Morrison’s introduction of Nader came with a telling admission: that even he, who has argued more than 20 cases in front of the Supreme Court and is now on faculty at the Law School, feels that Nader demands more of him than he is ‘capable’ of providing.
- When Nader asked the audience, mostly Law students and undergraduates, how many of us will devote our post-graduation lives to the pursuit of justice (however we define it), far less than half of us raised our hands.
- The very first question Nader received during the Q&A went something like this: “Ralph Nader, given your assertion during the 2000 election that there is no difference between George W. Bush and Al Gore, has your thinking at all changed, seven years later, when we’re stuck in the war in Iraq and Al Gore is the leading advocate for confronting global warming?”
Nader’s entire speech was geared toward inspiring and compelling students to dedicate their lives, especially their “creative 20s,” to civic engagement and “the pursuit of justice.” He began by pointing out that we each have about 15,000 days or 2,200 weeks before we turn 65, but that all of that time for engagement and activism can be squandered while we ride the “escalator” to personal success and material wealth; until, suddenly, we are faced by our children, who will ask, “What were you doing all that time?”
Stanford students are constantly bombarded by messages like Nader’s; in fact, it was only two days ago that the President of the NRA, also in Kresge, told us all to speak out and stand up for what we believe in. For those of us who are missing the speeches, there are plenty of other reminders: the frequent Haas center e-mails, events like the upcoming Entrepreneurship Week, social entrepreneurship classes, or even just the daily proddings we receive from each of the 650 student groups at Stanford to stand up against the genocide in Darfur, close the loopholes in the University’s “living wage” policy, stop America’s use of torture, get the University to commit to reducing its carbon emissions, and face the AIDS epidemic, to name a few.
So what makes Nader’s speech different? Well, there’s his anti-corporate message, for one, but that was to be expected. What wasn’t expected, and what I think is the source of Morrison’s comment, was how demanding he is. In his mind, there is no reason we should not all be like him. Given our privileged position as soon-to-be Stanford graduates, we all have even more of a moral obligation to dedicate our lives to the pursuit of social justice. Pessimism about the world’s problems, he said, is only a “way to evade civic obligation.”
After skewering law professors who sit around while basic Constitutional guarantees like due process are going to hell in a handbasket (in short, the “tragedy of the academy”), he then confronted the student body with our own complacency: “How many of you have resolved to work for justice as you see it when you graduate?” Less than half of the audience raised their hands; another tragedy. “To know and not to do is not to know,” goes the Chinese proverb, he said.
After an incredibly rousing speech, the Q&A that followed was a let-down. When confronted for his repeated assertions that there is no difference between the Democratic and Republican parties, he essentially dodged the thrust of the question, even denying that he’s ever said there is “no difference” between them. This has happened before. For the record:
Espousing the theme that seemed to make Democrats angriest, Nader argued that there was no difference between Al Gore and George W. Bush. He called them “tweedle-dee and tweedle-dum” after the bumbling sycophants in Alice in Wonderland. In other instances, he has called them “Gush and Bore” referring, apparently, to Bush’s lack of sophistication and Gore’s infamous stiffness but, more importantly, stressing what he sees as their interchangeability. By implication, Nader suggested that our political system, because it is constructed to keep out interlopers, has resulted in an inbred monstrosity. He charged that the two parties “have mutated into one two-headed monster, wearing different makeup,” resulting in “the quintessential hermaphrodite of American politics–a ‘Republicrat.'” By focusing rhetorically on the similarities between Bush and Gore, Nader set the stage for his entrance as the only true alternative. [citations in article]
Given the war in Iraq, and Al Gore’s inspiring and effective advocacy for stopping global warming, it takes a lot of gall to completely dismiss the core question asked by many, like the student today: “Is there any difference between our world today, and the parallel universe in which Al Gore is president?” Clearly — very clearly — that answer is yes. Does it matter?
Nader asked the student: What is your breaking point? When do you come to the conclusion that the two parties are so corrupt that neither will suffice any longer? The student unfortunately asserted, given Nader’s prompting, that even if the parties were trying to eliminate the First Amendment that he would still vote for the lesser of two evils rather than a third party candidate.
Nader is right to ask where our breaking points are because, clearly, at some point of corruption, it is no longer acceptable to support either party.
But it seems cynical to conclude that we have come to that point, and rather foolish to refuse to acknowledge the differences of extreme consequence between a Bush and a Gore presidency. If Gore were President, what would have happened with Abu Ghraib? What would have happened to Constitutional issues, like habeas corpus? How about Iraq? How about global warming?
Ralph Nader does a disservice to public discourse by pretending that there are no differences between the parties. There is no doubt that gerrymandering and the systematic exclusion of third party participation in our democracy is a shame and an embarrassment.
But even more embarrassing is the specter of prisoners being brutally tortured by American soldiers supposedly on a mission to promote democracy. Even more embarrassing was our total incompetence in the face Hurricane Katrina.
And even more embarrassing will be the day when our children look us in the eye and ask, “Why didn’t you do something to try to stop global warming sooner?”