Ralph Nader, the famed anti-corporate activist and frequent presidential candidate, seemed to be preaching to the converted—almost literally—at the Jamaica Plain Forum held Oct. 30 at the First Church in Jamaica Plain Unitarian Universalist.
“Amen,” one audience member in the pews said during Nader’s two-hour assault on corporate control of American society, which revolved around his new utopian novel “Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us!”
“Washington, D.C., is corporate-occupied territory,” Nader said, and no one disagreed.
But Nader, ever the intellectual gadfly, challenged the near-capacity crowd as well. Progressives are too quick to stereotype all rich people in class-war terms, he suggested, and end up proposing smart but ineffectual solutions.
“The Green Party thinks money is dirty,” complained Nader, who famously ran as the party’s presidential candidate in 2000. “The liberal progressive movement is in a rut.”
In a question-and-answer session, Nader even fenced briefly with Jill Stein, co-chair of the Massachusetts Green-Rainbow Party. He had suggested that the Green Party’s meager fund-raising indicates its members are “concerned” but “not serious.”
“Just to let you know, the Green-Rainbow Party is getting serious,” Stein said, pointing to such items as a voting-reform ballot initiative the party worked on this year. The party was unable to get the initiative on the ballot this year, but is targeting it for next year.
“Would a quarter-million [dollars] have put that on the ballot?” Nader asked. When Stein said it would have, Nader replied, “Thanks for making my point.”
That point, which upset some audience members, is that the very billionaires who run some of those menacing corporations could and should revolutionize American civic life with massive donations.
That is what happens in Nader’s novel, where real-life “enlightened billionaires” such as Warren Buffett decide to transform America within a year by funding community organizers, advertising campaigns and similar efforts as a direct challenge to corporate control. Despite the book’s tongue-in-cheek title, its main idea is presented as a serious alternative to traditional philanthropy or charity giving.
“A society that has more justice doesn’t need as much charity,” Nader said. “We’re on a treadmill with charity.”
In the 1960s and ’70s, Nader essentially invented the consumer-protection movement by writing books and starting lawsuits. Some audience members suggested he is now a sell-out or pessimist who believes money really is the solution.
Nader noted that many successful social justice campaigns have had wealthy backers. “The abolitionist movement…benefited from more than a few rich Bostonians,” Nader said. “This is not an across-the-board ideological surrender, that we can’t get angry and go fight City Hall without being bankrolled by some rich person on Beacon Hill. It’s not either-or.”
But today, Nader said, his successes of earlier decades would never happen, because he would never be able to get a Congressional hearing. He blamed that on the enormous sums of money spent by corporate lobbyists, as well as well-funded political lobbies such as the National Rife Association and the “pro-Israel lobby.”
Billionaire backing could help average Americans beat the corporations at their own game, Nader said. An example is single-payer universal health care, where millions in insurance-company lobbying dollars appear to be breaking the will of a president and Congress who want it, he said, while there is “not a single lobbyist” for the single-payer model. But with $1 billion put into a populist campaign, “Eighteen months, we get single-payer. That’s my best guess,” Nader said.
“Enlightened” rich people already exist, of course—and one of them was in the room for Nader’s speech. That was Chuck Collins, Nader’s longtime associate and a creator of the Jamaica Plain Forum. An heir to the Oscar Mayer meat company fortune, Collins gave most of his money away, and co-authored a pro-estate-tax book with William Gates Sr., the wealthy father of Microsoft’s Bill Gates.
Collins is a JP resident and heads a branch of the Institute for Policy Studies, a sponsor of the forum, at The Brewery complex on Amory Street.
“My 13-year-old daughter Nora asked me, ‘Who is this Mr. Nader?’” Collins said during an introduction. “I said, ‘He’s someone we have to thank for lots of things we take for granted.’”
Collins also announced that the Jamaica Plain Forum soon will host another famous anti-corporate activist: Naomi Klein, author of “No Logo” and “The Shock Doctrine.”
Nader and the book
Nader is reportedly a minor millionaire himself and gives away much of his money. But he is a very private person, so few details are known. His Jamaica Plain Forum appearance included some rare remarks on religion and his childhood.
“I’ve always believed Unitarians alone could turn the country around—until I found out how few there are,” Nader joked, also praising the social activism of Quakers.
Nader also illustrated some of his points about social conformity with references to grade school. In the third grade, he said, his teacher talked about the local “public library,” which in fact was privately created and funded. When he pointed this out, the teacher punished him by making him sit on the “dunce chair.”
His appearance was officially a stop on a book tour. Nader said that, not to his surprise, he was having trouble getting book-promotion appearances in major corporate media. The Boston Globe, Boston Herald and local TV stations ignored his JP appearance (though the Globe reviewed the book earlier this year).
Unlike most book-tour authors, Nader did not read from his book. Instead, he explained its themes and sources, including how he wrote it old-school style on an Underwood typewriter.
“Until recently, the word ‘utopia’ to me was something like a commune or science-fiction,” said Nader. But, as he considered writing his first fiction book, he learned that most utopian literature is about social justice and personal transformation.
He said a major inspiration was Edward Bellamy’s 1888 novel “Looking Backward: 2000-1887,” about a man who finds himself in a future Boston that is a socialist utopia.
Nader’s version is modern and set in the real world. Its plot is closer to a benign version of conspiracy theories about billionaires gathering to plot a New World Order.
“Frustration tends to produce demoralization or creativity,” Nader said, adding that he hopes his book inspires real action. “This book is intended to jolt people into new levels of imagination,” he said. “I hope you’ll write your own practical utopia based on your own experience.”
The real-world civic action could happen here in Massachusetts, he added. “Isn’t that where everything is supposed to start?”
In a sometimes rambling but always sharp style, Nader used history, sociology and economics to illustrate his concern about overly powerful corporations.
He described Americans as brainwashed with a “market fundamentalist ideology.”
“Our definition of the American dream is material wealth for individuals,” rather than “liberty and justice for all,” he said.
“People have given up on their own significance,” he said, noting how Americans accept low wages, poor education and expensive health care. “We have the lowest expectation levels of any people in the Western world, hands down.”
That is thanks to society-wide messages that keep people in line, he said, adding that there is no need for a “Gestapo…breaking down doors” to suppress Americans: “We do it to ourselves.”
His view of American society is a struggle between “corporate” and “civic” values. “Any functioning democracy has got to have commercial-free zones…Commercialism über alles stomps on civic values,” he said, adding that multinational corporations have “no patriotism, no allegiance to the country where they were born.”
His book, he said, shows the “common ground between liberals and conservatives—not between liberals and corporatists.”
JP is already home to some of the reforms Nader suggests, such as farmers markets with locally grown food, and businesses that operate as cooperatives.
Asked by a JP resident about the Massachusetts Senate race, Nader said he has not been following it, but that he had heard US Rep. Mike Capuano is the “more progressive” candidate. “It’s sad to see Ted Kennedy not there,” he said, adding that Kennedy was “held back” by the Democratic Party’s new focus on serving corporations.
JP resident John Swan asked about the feasibility of campaign finance reform—including publicly funded elections—and getting rid of the Electoral College, the body that actually elects American presidents.
Nader called publicly funded elections a “perfect example” of his utopian reforms, suggesting totally accessible national elections could be accomplished in two years with a $1 billion effort.
“The Electoral College is an absurdity,” Nader added. “We’re lecturing people [in other countries] about democracy?”
Nader criticized Massachusetts elections as a “coronation” system, noting that a majority of candidates in the Democrat-dominated state run unopposed. He called for independent redistricting panels, a “binding none-of-the-above” choice on the ballot and mandatory voting. Boston City Council President Mike Ross recently told the Gazette he also supports mandatory voting.
“If we have to obey thousands of laws, many of them we don’t like, why don’t we have voting as a civic duty?” Nader asked.
Stein, co-chair of the Green-Rainbow Party, told the Gazette after the forum that JP is still “very much” a hotbed of Green-Rainbow support. While the party is recruiting candidates for state offices—possibly including the governor’s race—next year, Stein said, no JP-area offices are under consideration right now.
Nader’s status as the Green Party candidate in the 2000 election—where some Democratic partisans blamed him for supposedly “spoiling” the race for Al Gore—was remembered by at least one audience member. “Whose mask is this?” asked a woman after the forum, holding up a Halloween mask of Al Gore that someone in the front row had brought along.
Stein said the Green-Rainbow Party is rebuilding support after many progressives voted for Barack Obama, a Democrat, in last year’s presidential election. JP’s Green-Rainbow vote mirrored that plunge as Obama won the neighborhood heavily.
“We’re seeing defections as the Obama bubble bursts,” Stein said.