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Ralph Nader's Book "Unstoppable'" is both Accurate and Useful, But ...?

By       Message Herbert Calhoun     Permalink

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... the accurate part is not very useful and the useful part is not very accurate. Allow me to explain by beginning with the accurate part of the book first.

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Using his considerable experiences and his legal skills as an activist, the reader will discover here that Mr. Nader is a walking encyclopedia of details of the activist ways of organizing. Here, to our great benefit, he has shared with us his invaluable multi-talented and multilayered experiences, which arguably, as useful as they may be to a properly constructed theory, in practice, were largely failures during his generation (and spectacularly so in the case of his presidential runs).

However, be that as it may, his ability to retell his experiences with great accuracy and cast his treatise at a rather high, abstract level of analysis, attests to both its accuracy and its profundity. Were this a book about the theory of political activism in America, then surely this exposition would make a valuable contribution to advancing our state of knowledge.

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Yet, accurate theoretical analysis, or acquiring more theoretical knowledge, is not this book's stated purpose. And while it may indeed be what American activism needs at the moment, it is not what the book is supposed to be about: This book is suppose to be about how, in the context of today's toxic political environment, "we the people" might "practically" stop the Corporate juggernaut bearing down our democratic way of life, blocking every assess to our freedoms, undermining our economy, and inhibiting democratic participation?

And for this particular goal, theoretical abstractions, no matter how accurate and profound their insights may appear to be -- especially "motiveless" "feigned morally neutral" and abstract insights -- have no place, and thus in my view, renders this book quite useless for the intended purpose.

There is yet another aspect of the author's proposals that strikes me as rather useless: According to the author's own analysis, his suggestions, at their very best, would amount to little more than a series of "one time" "ad hoc," "issue related," "poorly funded," and "poorly committed to," "tactical forays," unlikely to work except around the margins?

Pray tell? How is such clumsy tactical machinery going to go up against the well-oiled well-financed, and well-organized, behemoth called the corporate/national security/prison/drug industrial complex?
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Although the author waxes eloquent as he parses the fine points and nuances of Conservatism and Libertarianism, he forgets the competition: Liberalism -- that is, until the very last chapter, where, with an obligatory wave of the back of his hand, he pretty much dismisses liberalism as a useless after thought. I have my own thoughts about the deficiencies of liberalism, but that is grist for another mill.

In both cases he fails to descend from his very accurate but nevertheless, lofty Ivy Tower-like abstractions back down to the ground level, arguably, "where American politics lives." Mr. Nader finds it unnecessary to speak to the motivations of those who, as he so carefully points out, hide behind the label "conservative and libertarian" to justify their baser instincts and motivations. And even though on this one excursion into motivations, he is "dead on," he nevertheless quickly "tap dances" away from the darker implications of why one would need to use false labels n the first place -- unless they were being used to cover up darker more hidden motives?

Sadly, Mr. Nader slides away from this heavy clue about what is really animating American politics, and he does so without so much as even an acknowledgment of the pivotal value this mislabelling of a key ideological component of the American political process has on the objective he has set before him.

The very fact that such concepts so pivotal to a proper understanding of the American political process as racism, greed and corruption, do not appear in either the text or even in the index of this book raises a question about its real purpose and whether it can be trusted or put to any use at all in dealing with the practical issues of American politics?

For be it for me to suggest that one of the reasons the American political system is currently in such a mess, is precisely because too many people -- Mr. Nader and Mr. Obama included among them -- have decided to finesse this very issue of morality and criminality extant in American politics: They have failed to see the elementary self-evident fact that the contemporary American political process is first a battle between "good" and "evil"' and only afterwards a battle over theory, tactics and strategy.

Yes, of course, it is much easier to pretend that the moral character and quality of American politics has not diminished in recent decades, that it is still the same old morally innocent playground, where all the players and ideologies are equivalent, equally well-meaning, moral and entirely motiveless? As Nader puts it here, all sides are well-meaning and have the same goal, but differ only in the means used to achieve them? (Really? Come again?)

The cold-blooded truth is exactly the opposite: It is that one side of the American political spectrum "plays dirty and "for keeps;" while the other side continues to give the "wayward side" a pass, always explaining away the vulgarness and baseness of their ideas; always bending over backwards to give them the benefit of the doubt and plenty of maneuver room -- treating the morally bankrupt, bought-and-paid for conservative movement as if it is the moral equivalent of the other side.

That same wayward side then goes for the "balls" first, and only afterwards for the "jugular." But the meeker side, then just continues to rationalize for the wayward side's destructive actions, holding out until hell freezes over for more "Congressional bipartisanism," and in the case of this book, holding out for more meaningless Left-Right coalition building? Is it possible to keep yielding to America's wayward conservative child without doing permanent damage to adult political attitudes?

Sad to say, but here too Mr. Nader has spent a lot of time rationalizing for that wayward side, a side that he seems to have a special affinity for. However, he, like Mr. Obama did, simply fails to face the reality of what that side is doing to help destroy the American polity and its way of life as we have known it.

Mr. Nader can argue that it is just a difference in means not goals if he wants to? But that is not what every Congressmen (to a man and woman) have said as they continue to retire in disgust: Each one has suggested that the Congress is a viper's nest of corruption and criminality, and nothing less. Even here, Mr. Nader himself impeaches his own well-constructed theory by noting in passing, that FDR and Ike, were not the only U.S. Presidents to warns us about where an unbridled over-reaching corporate and national security state would lead. So too did Harry Truman and Jimmy Carter.

Now to the useful part of the book.

Mr. Nader's generational experiences in the trenches of American political activism has yielded a virtual cornucopia of viable tactical necessities and imperatives. From knowing how to organize well, to knowing precisely how the legislative process "really works," to how to motivate young people to get involved in projects that may well require a life time of committed actions, is solid advice that is all to the good, and will work in any environment and at any time. This is advice that every potential political activist, or foot-soldier for the next political revolution, must have in his battlefield plan and in his tool kit. This is advice that you can take to the bank.

However, in this book, all this accurate advice, is minus a socio-political context that intersects with the realities of American politics on the ground. The way Mr. Nader has put it, Congress somehow "emerges out of the ether" as a neutral chessboard with a fixed set of rules whereby, if the pieces and players are moved about innocently according to these impersonal rules, then success, failure or checkmate following as the night follows day? Would that it were so?

But Mr. Nader knows as well as anyone that the American political system is exactly as retired Congressmen have described it: a viper's pit that no longer work for average Americans, and is no longer an innocent impersonal abstraction. Mr. Nader also knows that the American political system, no less than the American economy, does not operate according to Adam Smith's invisible and benevolent hand. It is not simply that the corporations are ruled by greed, corruption and the mindless pursuit of their own self-interests, but more often than not, so too are political activists and politicians.

How else can "bright-eyed" "bushy tailed" freshly minted college graduates" be coopted by corporations to "come over and fight for their side" (against the graduates' own interest) just to gain fame and fortune? Or, how else do we get poor conservative white people mouthing such inanities as "I want the government's hands off my medicare and social security?" How else too would the likes of Herman Cain, Michelle Bachman or a Sarah Palin, have the gall to stand up in a national debate and embarrass the nation by displaying their 5th Grade level ignorance before the entire world?

Even Nader himself acknowledges in a lengthy discussion in chapter six, that those able to muster the necessary courage to reject these corporate offers of cooptation, are soon banished to Siberia for the rest of their careers. Indeed, as the reader will discover, most of the book is less about how to stop the corporate behemoth than it is about how the corporatists have successfully outmaneuvered us to defeat every idea, every piece of legislation, and how they have proceeded to co-opt, threaten, or marginalize every committed activist or Congressman -- and indeed how they have actually succeeded at it beyond even their own fondest dreams!

In relief, it must be said that this book is little more than a backhanded Corporate State's manifesto of their successful take over of the American political system.

So, may I ask the author: Why give us an accurate but a highly abstract motiveless, emotionless, highly nuanced amoral treatise on the one hand, and practical advice on the other that has been neutered and stripped of all its useful moral and emotional content; advice standing naked before the people stripped of any useful political context?

Mr. Nader, the kind of political system you have described here, one that does not take into account the fact that racism, corruption and greed are not just the mother's milk of American politics, but also consistently throughout U.S. History has been its most salient elements, is a political system alien to the American way of life with which I am familiar? How can we trust a treatise that ignores these pivotal elements?

To conclude, no one has more respect for Mr. Ralph Nader than I do. He was and is America's last Guru, the last shining light of my generation. He has always been and will die a stalwart for all that is good and sacred about our democratic way of life. I still salute him. However, with the greatest and most sincere respect, I believe he has directed this high energy, high level treatise to the wrong audience, and to a no longer existing political system?

Unless I am terribly mistaken, the level at which I see the current American political discourse resides a couple of notches below the level this book has been cast. We are now well below the waterline of mutual respect and decency. Has anyone failed to notice how the presidency has been vulgarized through disrespect by conservatives towards Mr. Obama, and by Mr. Obama's own desultory performance? I don't like Mr. Obama either, but I would never disrespect the presidency to voice my dislike of him.

These people, who have openly and unapologetically and unabashedly and gratuitously insulted the presidency in public and on the Congressional floor, are the people Mr. Nader wants us to join hands with and sing Kumbaya? How about first trying to restore a bit of civility into the American political process? Three stars

 

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Retired Foreign Service Officer and past Manager of Political and Military Affairs at the US Department of State. For a brief time an Assistant Professor of International Relations at the University of Denver and the University of Washington at (more...)
 

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