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Nader Urges Students to Action, Activism

By Kevin Foley Article published December 10, 2003

Ralph Nader
Ralph Nader asked students to quell their complacency and become civic activists during a Dec. 8 campus appearance. (Photo: Sally McCay)

Ralph Nader has not mellowed. And after finishing an impassioned 70-minute broadside arguing for civic education and action to counter the creeping influence of corporate power, he told a questioner at his Dec. 9 campus appearance that he has not given up the idea of running for President, either. (More on that later.)

The legendary activist, who helped found an influential network of public interest research groups often tied to university campuses, and who spurred sweeping federal reforms supporting safer highways and drinking water, took the Ira Allen lectern in his trademark rumpled dark suit and urged students “to grow up civic,” and challenge a political discourse designed by profit-seeking multinationals with no allegiance to any community or nation state.

Citing two world-changing movements with heavy student participation — the Civil Rights movement and the 1970’s environmental uprising that created Earth Day — Nader challenged the 900-plus in attendance to follow their example and launch real reforms. “Students took enough time off from their routine academic life to put meaning in their routine academic life. They put knowledge into action,” Nader said.

Nader was invited to campus by Jon Erickson, associate professor of ecological economics, who initially planned a small forum on student activism with plenty of give and take between students and the founder of Public Citizen. As word percolated across campus e-mail lists, and interest in the event swelled, Nader’s talk was moved to the larger hall, which it filled with virtually no pre-event publicity.

Although most of Nader’s remarks consisted of a sweeping argument for his view that students must shake off apathy and fight for progress on environmental, economic and regulatory issues, he did offer specific praise for the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, which was founded at UVM in 1972 and funded by voluntary student fees. After students eventually decided to reject that mechanism, the group moved to Montpelier and now supports itself through door-to-door canvassing. Nader urged students to bring VPIRG back to campus, saying that the experience of researching and advocating for legislative issues was a crucial part of a liberal arts education.

“[Change] can start with a thesis, or a lab project, or the work I saw in another building here with student projects on wind power, sprawl and depleted uranium,” Nader said, describing how his class work as a law student eventually led to sweeping improvements in cars, including mandatory seat belts and other safety features. “Liberal education is not just about developing critical faculties; it’s about developing a purpose.”

Justice and joy
Nader would like to see students apply this purpose to a variety of issues. In his talk, he decried corporate crime, environmental pollution, genetically modified organisms, excessive money in politics, a winner-take-all electoral system, standardized tests, attempts to reduce access to the courts, fine-print contracts with binding arbitration, public “giveaways” of the electromagnetic spectrum and of research funds that test and develop expensive pharmaceuticals.

This was not a cheerful litany. In a fairly typical line, Nader told students, “There’s always a fight on the environment. If you let up… the polluters start spreading their silent form of violence on people, flora and fauna.”

But even as he tried to spur outrage and fight apathy by using highly charged language — “[Complacency] produced the corporate crime wave of the last three years,” went one fairly typical Nader argument, “these people looted trillions of dollars and only one CEO has gone to prison so far” — he also sought to cultivate hope, reminding students that they are among the freest, healthiest and wealthiest people of their age on the planet.

Nader said he believes in the power of individuals to make changes and pursue equity within the civic sphere. Purpose, he said, offers a pleasure far superior to that of empty hedonism and low-grade sensuality.

“Engaging in pursuit of justice is very much what is meant by the pursuit of happiness,” said Nader, describing the enjoyment and meaning he takes from his work.

When Nader finished his formal remarks, the audience stood and cheered long and loud until he opened the floor to questions. Instantly, the stentorian voice of Richard Kemp, former member of the Burlington City council, boomed the inevitable query: “Are you running for president?”

Nader said he would make a decision in early 2004, and added that his speech was not a political one. He elaborated on that answer later in the question-and-answer period, and said, "I do think, however, that the American people, and the polls show this, want more choice... They want broader agendas."