Political activist, author and five-time candidate for President of the United States Ralph Nader visited McMaster this week speaking at an event sponsored by OPIRG McMaster and Bryan Prince Bookseller. Among many other things, Ralph Nader was responsible for founding the PIRG movement. He sat down for a face-to-face with assistant news editor Tyler Welch.
The Silhouette: Why are you here? Other than selling books, what message are you trying to get across?
Ralph Nader: The message basically is Canadians have to learn why they have to remain independent of U.S. control. Which is swallowing Canada in so many ways—foreign military policy, corporate policy and so on. And this is why years ago we wrote this book Canada Firsts, it’s all the things Canada led the way with: the first daily newspaper is North America, first credit unions, on and on, science, technology. A lot of it would not have happened if, you know, Canada were just five states or something.
Also, it’s good for the U.S., because we look to Canada as rational to change things in the U.S., like Medicare.
After that, I want to talk about how citizens can become sovereign again, and redirect the country away from its downward slide. It’s almost following the U.S. except in the banking area.
The indicator is more poverty, exporting jobs, shredding public services, cutting back on necessities, giving more tax breaks and subsidies to corporations.
Power is being concentrated in fewer and fewer hands. That spells decay and decline, if not worse.
Are things like citizen sovereignty and maintenance of Canada’s independence really possible, or are they just wide-eyed ideas?
It’s easy. What if, suddenly, you were driving on the highway and all the cars stopped because there was a boulder blocking the way, and they all got out of their cars and nobody lifted a finger, and then someone said “Oh this boulder, it’s impossible to do anything about it.” Then everyone agreed except for one, who said, “Have you really given it a try?” Then he tries, and the big boulder doesn’t move. Then everyone says, “See, it doesn’t move!”
But then what if six or them try to move, or sixteen? And they all give it a shoulder, and the boulder rolls away.
See, it’s all about how many people get involved, how smart they are and what the agenda is.
How many people does it take for real change?
One per cent, for real change, that would be about 330,000 people in Canada, connected together, in all the ridings, with a full-time staff. They can raise for themselves a few bucks each and have a full-time staff coast-to-coast.
Then they’ve got to ask what institution can make the change the fastest, and seek to influence them. In our country [U.S.] it’s the Congress. In your country, it could be Parliament or Provincial Parliament. But one thing is certain, three hundred thousand people is a lot more than the number of MPs.
Let’s talk about the emotional change that is needed for that. Many students focus on earning something marketable and seeking a good career, but you got a law degree from Harvard—pretty marketable, if you ask anyone—yet you still chose the activism route.
There’s a certain immaturity that modern industrial nations ascribe into their citizens until they’re almost 30. In a more simple society, people become adults and take on adult responsibilities at a much younger age.
People have to unlearn a lot of things. Like the free market. Free? It’s rigged in all kinds of ways. Corporations are on welfare—tax breaks, bailouts.
You’ve got to ask: “Is it a strong democracy, a weak one, a middling democracy, or is it really just a democracy in name?”
They have to unlearn a lot of things that have been controlling them, controlling their expectations, teaching them powerlessness and encouraging them to wallow in cynicism. There is nothing that the ruling classes need the most to stay in power than widespread public cynicism. Because that involves a withdraw. The more you become cynical and powerless, the more power you give away to the few.
Many say that young people are the most withdrawn from public life. True?
People say “That’s for the student government to do” or “This other club will work on that.” They wallow in their own narrow routine, everyday. That tends to magnify personal problems, they don’t have a larger framework—they’re looking through a smaller lens—and that makes them more susceptible to addictions, distractions and to that lethal little thing in their hand called and iPhone.
You just have to talk to one another more, that’s how students rose in the 60s—they talked to each other. They didn’t send telegrams to each other. It’s personal, a conversation. It develops a maturity that develops self-respect. They have to believe that they can reshape their country, because they can.
Were you ever tempted by the other route? The good job, nice house, nice car, nice family?
No, it just trivialized your life, that route. So what, you get paid more, big deal. You want to make zillions? What’s the point? The price for that is to further the ruling class. Harvard Law School is like a finishing school for corporate supremacy.
There’s been a lot written about you living below your means, and giving away most of your income—living on a budget that many people think is impossible.
First of all, when you work as hard as I do, you don’t have time to squander all kinds of money. When you do buy all these extra things, is distracts from the focus. This is serious business, taking measure of these large corporations. A yacht, a fancy car, a fancy house, they’re not compatible with that.
I know somebody that had all these things and more and one day he sold them all. He said, “I bought a lot of things and they began controlling me.”
People are trapped in this pursuit. You know this Snapchat thing? It’s worth $3 billion and they turned it down—they think they can get more. In the meantime, the necessities of life and being ignored; people are going hungry, their housing is bad, their retirement security is shot. You’ve got to get serious, and when you do, you have an incredible increase in quality of life—gratification, joy, challenge, find a different definition of friendship, and by time you’re 65 you don’t have regrets when you look back.
You can’t do this forever. For the next generation of activists, what are the most important issues they will face?
There is too much economic wealth in too few hands, and the few decide against the interests of the many. And, of course, there are the global issues: war, peace, poverty, and climate change. There’s a lot of backlog here—centuries to catch up on.
But the biggest thing is to structure community and civic values so that corporate values are subordinate to them. Another way to put it is “Markets make good servants, but bad masters.” Markets need to be servants or a larger framework of human values and human livelihood.
Where do they start?
To do that, you have to start with young students. Give them civic values and civic skills. Teach them about town halls, how the courts work, elections and institutions. You’ve got to start at that level. Otherwise, education is just vocation—just trade school with different names.
What is something that you wish someone had told you in university?
I wish that people told me, or all the law students, that they were heading for highly rewarding, trivial and damaging work.
Instead, they were told that they were heading for highly prestigious law firms where they would be architects of a dynamic economy, and do all kinds of important and good things.
Many of them are now greasing the way for corporate criminals, allowing the exploitation of fossil fuels, blocking the courtroom door for negligently wounded workers, making us sign fine print contracts, stripping us of any semblance of freedom of speech.
Photo Credit: C/O Wikimedia Commons