Reprinted from Truthdig
NEW YORK -- There was a time in Washington when a letter from Ralph Nader to the president or a Cabinet official might evoke not only a response but a press conference, news reports and action. Nader, with his armies of lawyers and citizen action committees behind him, could mobilize formidable forces, inside and outside government, on behalf of citizens. But with the rise of the corporate puppet Ronald Reagan, and once Bill Clinton and the Democratic Party sold out to corporate power in exchange for corporate money, electoral politics became farce, legislation and laws were turned over to lobbyists and corporate attorneys, and the citizen, whom Nader has spent his life defending, became irrelevant.
Nader still writes letters to the powerful, pounded out on his 50-year-old manual Underwood typewriter, but they are rarely answered. That he writes them, that he refuses to surrender and doggedly struggles against all odds for a restoration of American democracy and the rule of law, makes Nader one of the moral and intellectual giants of our age.
Nader's newest book, "Return to Sender: Unanswered Letters to the President, 2001-2015," a collection of letters to Barack Obama and George W. Bush (whom Nader once called "a corporation running for the presidency masquerading as a human being"), was inspired, he said, by the letters between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams and between Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes and Harold Laski.
In Nader's letters the path to ruin built by corporate and imperial power is laid bare and the vision of a future freed from environmental catastrophe, corporate totalitarianism and financial exploitation and collapse is spelled out with quixotic clarity. Bush and Obama may not have read these letters, but American citizens should. True to Nader's understanding of the vital importance of public utilities and public service, he dedicates the book to "the U.S. Postal Service, the people who make it work, and those citizens who have defended its critical role in thousands of communities throughout our country's history starting with Benjamin Franklin."
"Correspondence with presidents or politically elected people is the only way a citizen can connect with an elected representative, and deliver a fact," Nader said last week when he spoke at the Barnes & Noble bookstore in Union Square in New York. "If you try to do it through the press, it'll either be blacked out, censored, filtered, ignored. If you try to do it at a fundraiser, there are no deliberative dialogues at fundraisers. If you try to do it at a rally, where the attendees are preselected, you put your hand up and ask a pointed question they'll escort you out of the auditorium. The only way you can try to connect with your political rulers, whether it's legislators, governors, presidents, whatever, the only way you can connect is through correspondence. And that is being shut down at an accelerated rate, especially since the onset of the Internet. It's as if the politicians said, 'You don't have to write us letters, you can always tweet us, or you can always send us an email.' Well, the White House shut down its fax machine, and has an email restriction to 2,500 characters."
"It's not easy to put together a book of letters and admit on the cover that they weren't even acknowledged," he said. "Because most people would say why would I want to minimize myself? Why would I want to admit doing this? And my answer is that when the system is so closed and self-replicating that it renders us powerless, the first step in gaining power is not to appear like we have no power. It's not to concede our powerlessness."
"The importance of correspondence also is extenuated by the overwhelming focus on screens, especially by the younger generation," Nader went on. "If I was to attach an element of animism to some words in the dictionary, 'horizon' would say, 'Oh me, oh my, so few people look at me these days.' And the word 'sidewalk' would say, 'Oh me, oh my, I've never had more people look in my direction, as these days.' And they [members of the younger generation] are looking at screens. People spend endless time text-messaging, all the rest of it, day after day, hour after hour, minute after minute. They know what they're doing through their iPhone. What they don't know is what their iPhone is doing to them. They don't know what the opportunity cost is, the lack of sociability, the lack of human personal connections. I don't know any other way to start social movements of change unless people get together person to person. The Internet will tell you there's an event. The Internet will bring you incredible information [at] ... the speed of light. But it will not motivate you. With very few exceptions it does not go from virtual reality to reality. It will motivate some people to connect, but a large percentage of people don't connect. The sidewalks are uninhabited. The city councils are full of empty seats [in the audience areas]. The courtrooms are barren, when they're operating these days. The rallies have never been smaller."
Nader's dry humor is evident throughout the letters. For example, one of his letters to Obama came from "a captured" bacterium in a petri dish. "Dear President Obama, My name is E. coli O104:H4. I am being detained in a German Laboratory in Bavaria, charged with being 'a highly virulent strain of bacteria.' ... The E. coli points out that malaria, mycobacterium tuberculosis and the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) alone cause more than 3 million deaths each year. It argues that the most deadly global "terrorists" are disease-resistant bacteria and viruses. E. coli urges the president to devote far more resources to protecting citizens from epidemics rather than waging endless and futile wars in the Middle East.
Another letter is a response to a solicitation in 2014 to donate money to the George W. Bush Presidential Library.
"Dear President Bush," Nader writes, "A few days ago I received a personalized letter from your Presidential Center that included a solicitation card for donations that actually provided words for my reply. They included 'I'm honored to help tell the story of the Bush Presidency' and 'I'm thrilled that the Bush Institute is advancing timeless principles and practical solutions to the challenges facing our world.' (Below were categories of 'tax deductible contributions' starting with $25 and going upward.)
"Did you mean the 'timeless principles' that drove you and Mr. Cheney to invade the country of Iraq which, contrary to your fabrications, deceptions and cover-ups, never threatened the United States? Nor could Iraq, under its dictator and his dilapidated military, threaten its far more powerful neighbors, even if the Iraqi regime wanted to do so."
As a gift for the library's collection, Nader enclosed in his response the book "Rogue Nation: American Unilateralism and the Failure of Good Intentions," by Clyde Prestowitz.
The letters cover the urgent need for labor reform, the restoration of the rule of law domestically and internationally, a call to restore the quality of the nation's drinking water, the necessity of campaign finance reform, the importance of raising the minimum wage, prosecution of corporate criminals on Wall Street, the structural violence of poverty, the need to put on trial those U.S. leaders who orchestrated our war crimes in the Middle East, the demand that Israel be sanctioned for its crimes against the Palestinians, an end to wholesale government surveillance, and the importance of empowering regulatory agencies.
Nader writes the letters -- given titles in the book such as "Protect Gaza," "The Abuse of Prisoners," "Take Labor Day Seriously" and "Pardon John Kiriakou" -- from the perspective of those who suffer from the abuses of corporate and imperial power. His outrage at what is done to the vulnerable and the weak is palpable.
He wrote President Obama on Nov. 9, 2013: