It's over a decade since I last heard Ralph Nader speak in Charlottesville, Va., and I was curious to see what kind of crowd would greet him Monday evening. The answer was one of the biggest rooms on campus packed, and mostly with students, enthusiastic students who gave standing ovations, and laughed and responded throughout a 90-minute speech.
There are not many -- if any -- other speakers who can get young people in the United States to turn out for a political speech like this. And they didn't just turn out. They enjoyed being called slackers and given a swift kick in the butt. Nader was advertised as speaking on energy policy, but he opened with an ancient Chinese saying: "To know and not to do is not to know," and he never let go of that theme even when he finally did touch on energy policy.
A professor had given Nader an excellent introduction, denouncing the myth that he'd helped elect George W. Bush -- a myth you'd think wouldn't get past the initial fact that Bush was never elected.
Nader had only wanted to speak at the university, not in any other location, when planning to come to Charlottesville, and his speech was directed to students. He pointed out other myths, including those taught in law schools, such as that defendants in the United States are innocent until proven guilty or that Congress must declare war or that we have a right to habeas corpus.
Corporations are now our masters, rather than our servants, Nader said. We now have what FDR would have called fascism. We're in the midst of a corporate crime wave, and universities are not even studying corporate crime. The reason for this, Nader pointed out, is that universities are being corporatized. UVA was a perfect location at which to make this point, given its advancing merger into the military-industrial-research complex. Jefferson would be disgusted with the state of his school in that regard.
In a democracy, Nader said, the government can behave as a dictatorship 98 percent of the time, as long as it leaves you personal freedoms. But civic freedom, Cicero's "participation in power," is another question entirely.
Local organizations like People's Alliance for Clean Energy (PACE) and the Coalition to Save McIntire Park had organized the lecture, and Nader helped introduce students to the activist issues in the town around their campus. Saving a park scheduled to be destroyed by a new highway, Nader said, should be part of the university curriculum. What better way to learn than by doing something useful?
Nader jumped around in his unscripted remarks, hitting themes he's mastered over many years, returning time and again to strengthening young people's conceptions of their own power. What do you own? Nader asked. Aside from what you think you own, he said, you also own a great commonwealth, public works, public lands, parks, the air waves. We have to think in those terms, Nader said, and lose our corporatism, our ethnocentrism, our militarism, and our two-party tyranny.
Nader began to touch on energy by pulling out some little known history. In the 1920s, he said, Ford, Edison, and scientists from MIT proposed an economy based on carbohydrates instead of hydrocarbons. That opportunity was passed by. In 1952, Truman's Materials Policy Commission recommended a shift to solar power, predicting that three-quarters of homes would be solar powered by 1975. That opportunity was passed by too.
We don't have a technical problem, Nader stressed. We have a political power problem. People prefer renewable energy. It's not a difficult choice. But energy corporations make less money the more efficient the energy is, and even Exxon can't order up a partial eclipse of the sun to increase profits. They want energy they can control, Nader said. He might have added that in the long run, of course, this is leading to something we cannot control at all.
Everybody, Nader said, makes excuses. Everybody! With very few exceptions. It's always less than 1 percent of the people who take action, he said. I'd spoken to Ralph earlier in the afternoon and mentioned Bruce Fein, someone I know Nader agrees with on certain issues and disagrees with on others. But Nader's comment was an enthusiastic: "He's got fire in his belly!" That's true, and that's what Nader seems to think most people lack -- a lack that, in his view, may destroy us.
Nader even gave the tea partiers credit for "having a pulse." But, he said, they are so "factually deprived" that they are very vulnerable to manipulation. They oppose "big government" as if it is something different from the big businesses that tell every government agency what to do.
Nader veered back to energy, recounting the successful organizing against nuclear power in the 1970s and laying out the case against nuclear power. This is a local issue in the Charlottesville area, where a third power plant has been proposed for Lake Anna. What other form of energy, Nader asked, requires an evacuation plan, presents a national security risk, can't obtain private insurance, licenses its officials to arrest you, and produces highly dangerous waste that never ever goes away? Nader cited Amory Lovins for a claim that we are now twice as efficient in our use of energy as in the 1970s and could be much more so, could eliminate 90 percent of the energy we use.
Nader swerved back to people's failure to take action even on their perceived injustices. I recalled a conversation I'd just had that afternoon with a friend at a reception for Nader. She'd told me that she was working on the question of what motivates people to become activists. In her case, she said, it had been an injustice she had experienced. The injustice was not terribly relevant to the areas in which she now did activism. That didn't seem to matter. The same is true for me. I experienced an injustice and began to fight against injustices faced by others, no matter how different they were.
We talked about how much easier it was to get people to take action against wars when they were Bush-Cheney wars, and how much harder it was to get people to oppose wars while supporting the face of the war machine. I decided we would need to create a cartoon personification of the Pentagon, an Uncle Sam gone bad, perhaps a character named Mick (Military Industrial Complex Killer). We could oppose --him-- whether the current president was supposed to be on the good team or the bad team. (Hey, cartoonists, feel free to run with this!)
Nader jumped back to nuclear power and renewable energy, the populist and progressive movement. He went into community solutions: credit unions, community health clinics, community energy, coops, micro energy. The local power company, Dominion Power, Nader pointed out, was already making us pay for the construction of a power plant that was not producing power and would probably never be built, and we were paying as well for Dominion Power's advertising and propaganda, and for its legal fees when we fight it in court. And it doesn't have a vote, Nader said, only human beings have votes.