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Saturday, November 08, 2008

Ralph Nader Used to Be My Hero

I do not remember how old I as, but I remember as a child my mother mentioning to me with excitement that Raplh Nader was going to come to town. She described him as a consumer advocate who stood up to big business and who was incorruptible. They tried to discredit Nader, hiring all sorts of independent investigators and tried to corrupt him with prostitutes to trap him into uncompromising positions, but they could not.

Ralph Nader's expose on automobile safety, "Unsafe At Any Speed" is still a classic work of investigative journalism. His advocacy lead to many of the safety features that have made modern automobiles a good deal safer.

And Ralph Nader did not stop there. He undertook a long list of activities on behalf of consumers and the public.

Had his work stopped there he might be canonized by many on the left. But he has proven over the years difficult to work with, prone to turn on would-be allies, and then there is his forrays into Presidential Politics, where he has run for the Presidency each time since 1996.

Some blame him for the loss of Al Gore in 2000. Others suggest that any spoiler role he played was unintentional. There are many on the left however who will never forgive him for 2000. Truth is Florida was so close and there were so many different kinds of problems, it is probably unfair to blame him for Florida. Moreover it is unclear that anyone voting for him was doing so at the expense of Al Gore and if Nader had not been on the ticket they would have voted for Al Gore.

I am thus willing to overlook 2000 despite the fact that I believe the ultimate outcome of the 2000 disproves any reasonable notion that there are no differences between the Democrats and the Republicans. An Al Gore administration would have taken us on a very different trajectory following 9/11 than George Bush ultimately did.

Be that as it may, the low point for Ralph Nader comes this week. In an interview on Fox, Nader said that Obama will have to decide who he will serve as President--the people or corporate America.

Then he went off the reservation in an interview with Fox News:
"To put it very simply, he is our first African American president; or he will be. And we wish him well... But his choice, basically, is whether he's going to be Uncle Sam for the people of this country, or Uncle Tom for the giant corporation."
Nader's defenders quickly argued that he did not call Obama an Uncle Tom.

Nader defended himself later in the interview:
"Look I don't like bullies like you. You can pull the plug on me if you want. I said that's the question he (Obama) has to answer. He can become a great president, or he can become a toadie for the corporate powers that have brought both parties to their knees."
But he also refused to back off the use of the phrase, Uncle Tom.

Backtracking for a second here, for me it was interesting to see Matt Gonzalez named as Nader's running mate. I know and very much respect Matt Gonzalez who was at one point a very strong figure in San Francisco politics who as a sitting County Supervisor came within an eyelash of defeating Gavin Newsom for Mayor of San Francisco.

Matt Gonzalez also has a law firm in San Francisco that has represented a number of high profile cases in Yolo County most notably Halema Buzayan, but also David Serena and Khalid Berney, among others. The Buzayan case will heat up in the coming weeks as the Federal Civil Rights trial will likely begin in early 2009.

I know Matt Gonzalez and respect him a good deal and I wish he had not chosen to run as Nader's running mate.

I find the comments posted by his law partner Whitney Leigh very instructive. Mr. Leigh also represents the Buzayans and is an African American.

He posted his thoughts on Obama's election on the Huffington Post on November 6, 2008.

He wrote:
"I've spent the better part of today the way I imagine many progressives did: basking in a feeling that lies somewhere between bewilderment and elation. I'm used to spending the days after presidential elections avoiding the news like the plague. The sensation of the Obama election felt something like what I imagine getting a bionic body would be like: great, wonderful even -- but it would take some getting used to. By ten pm last night I'd already run out of superlatives to describe what the Obama election means to me, my parents, my towns (Chicago, where I was raised, and San Francisco, where I live), the country, the world. Yesterday was a day that only Terkel, Royco, Algren or Ivins could have really captured. Wish they were here."
He went on to talk about his disappointment in the passing of Proposition 8, but then went on to talk about Ralph Nader's response.
"Then this afternoon I saw Ralph Nader's response, an ingratious and condescending admonishment to Obama not to be an "Uncle Tom," and different superlatives began reeling through my head. Like "indefensible," "galactically arrogant," and "transparently bitter." Oh yes, and "racist." Here was Ralph Nader, hero to so many, spewing hateful nonsense in what can only be viewed as a calculated effort to grab headlines. Nader fully knows that the ways in which his viewpoints differ from Obama's - ways in which I generally side with Nader - are not fundamentally about race. But he used the term "Uncle Tom", because he believes that Obama too often "acts white" (another reprehensible quote from his 2008 campaign); that is, that (1) a black man must adopt Nader's viewpoint to be really black, and (2) to "act white", is to support corporate oppression, the surrender of civil rights, etc. The flimsy, noxious and missiological nature of Nader's argument is obvious to many I'm sure. My personal anger at his statements is remarkable, if at all, only because he has been a welcomed visitor in my law office on several occasions and I have sat and discussed politics with him over dinner. And on a more personal note, one of my law partners was Nader's running mate. I for one cannot give Nader a pass this time. Regardless of his many contributions to our society, it is high time that he be judged with the same ethical rigor he would apply to others. Ralph: some soul searching would do you some good."
Those comments pretty much sum up my view on Ralph Nader's comments.

Nader has become a good object lesson for the need to compromise at times out of practical purposes. The same qualities that as a consumer advocate that made him impervious to smear tactics, are the same qualities that have crippled him in the realm of politics. In this system, you cannot simply assert your will. You have to compromise. You have to at times accept the lesser of two evils as a means to prevent the great of the evils from coming to power.

Think about everything that Ralph Nader stands for. Now let us look at what the Bush administration did for eight years--engaged in war in Iraq, failed to address global warming, abrogated critical civil liberties, enabled the US to spy on its own citizens, authorized waterboarding and other torture tactics, emboldened oil interests, allowed corrupt companies to prosper, allowed corrupt mortgage lenders to squander people out of their life savings. None of this would have come to pass under a Gore administration. Would Gore have measured up to Nader's perfection? No. Does Obama? No.

Nader fails to understand that there has to be a such thing as compromise to get things done or to win an election that means that we get some things better. Despite the fact that Obama has given some on things like FISA, Obama's administration will enable us to move on on critical reforms such as sustainable energy policy, global warming, health care, and other things that we all support.

Nader's dismissive comments to Obama mean that even the few people that were still listening to him this year--and it was hardly anyone--are forced to come to grips with the fact that Ralph Nader as we knew him 30 or 40 years ago, is a largely marginalized and tragic figure. That is the worst part of it all. America has lost a great advocate on behalf of the consumers and gained a tragic caricature who somehow believes people are still listening.

---David M. Greenwald reporting