Not long ago, I was driving home from my office, fiddling with the radio dial, when I came across a familiar voice. It was Ralph Nader, consumer advocate extraordinaire, taped before a live audience at the Midwest Renewable Energy Association’s fair last June in rural Amherst, Wisconsin. Nader, as those who have heard him know well, always demands a lot from his listeners as he describes how corporate power is destroying democracy. So it was more than a pleasant surprise to hear Ralph show a lighter touch. The audience laughed again and again at his jokes and asides.
Decrying the shrinking of the TV soundbite on the evening news from an average of eighteen seconds in the seventies to just six seconds today, he predicted the coming of the “soundbark.” “When they say, ‘Mr. Nader, what do you think of the latest Federal Reserve interest rate [hike]?’ I’ll go like this: ‘Nyahh.'” Assailing corporations for turning Washington into an “accounts receivable,” he called for the creation of a “taxpayer appreciation day,” when big business would give thanks for all the subsidies and giveaways it has received from the public till. Citing the ancient Greek physicians’ maxim that “a human body is more likely to tolerate colliding against a flat, yielding surface than a sharp, cutting edge,” he chided General Motors for failing to design their cars conscientiously, pointing out that car makers took decades to install seatbelts even though they had been invented for pilots in World War I.
Throughout the speech, Nader reinforced a serious message: We need a renewal of civic culture to combat the dominant corporate culture. For a while now he’s been effectively conveying the point by stealing a page from antipoverty advocates who put the emphasis on children. “More and more, corporations are raising our kids,” he declares. Companies now start marketing directly at children as early as age 2. The average youngster, he points out, watches thirty hours of television a week, with three pernicious effects: They learn that violence is a preferred solution to life’s problems, they are taught to value cheap sensuality in everything from sex to self-image to food, and they become addicted to entertainment that shortens their attention span. “What is wrong with a society that allows its most precious resource to be exploited?” he asks. “If there was a child molester in the neighborhood, would it be enough to tell parents to lock the doors?”
When we “grow up corporate,” as he puts it, we never stop to think that any of this could be different–that we could control the resources of our commonwealth like the public airwaves and lands, that we could demand safer and less-polluting products, that we could have public financing of elections so money doesn’t nullify our votes, that labor could win strengthened rights to organize, that consumers could band together to challenge monopolistic practices and industries, that poverty among children could be eliminated. But despite what we’re up against, Nader is the ultimate anticynic. “If you were in a big lifeboat and the ship had just sunk and there’s a big storm coming and you had to get to the island to save everybody in the lifeboat, and here you are rowing away and you look back and there’s some guys who aren’t rowing, they’re listening to some music on their radio, what do you think you’d say?” he asked his Wisconsin audience. “Oh well, to each his own? You’d say, pick up those oars!” The crowd cheered.