Last night I attended a press screening for “An Unreasonable Man”, a documentary on Ralph Nader that opens in theaters around the country later this month. It is an absolute must for anybody who is trying to understand the ongoing political crisis in the United States, reflected most recently in the Democratic Party’s abject failure to mount an effective challenge to Bush’s escalation in Iraq. It is also a stunning dramatic portrait of why Ralph Nader rose to the challenge of resolving this crisis despite having to face a torrent of abuse and political/economic/legal reprisals.
“An Unreasonable Man” reminded me of an observation I made a month or two ago in an email discussion. In places like Colombia, the left’s biggest obstacle is physical violence organized by the army, police and paramilitaries. In a rich democracy like the United States, the left instead has to endure social pressure and the threat of ostracism. It is to Ralph Nader’s everlasting credit that he has stood up to this kind of bullying as if it were a bullet aimed at his head.
The liberal media’s portrait of Ralph Nader is that of a Jekyll-Hyde. There is a “good” Nader who took on GM, built the consumers’ rights movement, inspired progressive legislation, etc. Then there is the “bad” Nader who somehow out of the blue (bit by a vampire?) decided to help elect George W. Bush. This is explained as a function of his “megalomania” and his inability to see the obvious, namely that the Democrats are better than the Republicans.
In a brilliant stroke, directors Henriette Mantel and Steve Skrovan include interviews with Eric Alterman and Todd Gitlin, two of the more hysterical critics of the Nader campaigns. They serve as a kind of Greek chorus throughout the film reminding the audience of Ralph Nader’s perfidy. They only end up indicting themselves through their willful refusal to acknowledge why Gore lost in 2000. Nader’s campaign manager Theresa Amato presents that case most effectively. Her affable demeanor is in stark contrast to the glowering Alterman and Gore, who spit out their words. She points out that Gore could not even win in Arkansas and Tennessee, the home states of the 2-term incumbent Democrat president and vice-president. She also pointed out that the margin of victory in Florida for Bush was less than the vote totals for a slew of 3rd party candidates. Why blame Nader for “stealing” 527 votes from Gore in Florida when even the SWP candidate received more votes than that?
Since Ralph Nader has led a monastic existence for his entire adult life, there is not much in the way of biographical material that would present itself in a project such as this. His career and his life are practically equivalent, just as is the case with somebody like Fidel Castro. The key to understanding Nader’s evolution is his family life in Winstead, Connecticut. In interviews with his sisters Laura and Claire, we learn that their father, a Lebanese-Christian, was so passionate about discussing politics that friends warned him about driving customers from his restaurant. His reaction was to say that they could go. As an immigrant to the United States, he believed in the bill of rights and other democratic guarantees and refused to be blackmailed into silence.
Nader’s mother was just as outspoken. After Winstead’s downtown was heavily damaged by a flood, she made sure to get Senator Prescott Bush (George W.’s grandfather) to promise that he would fund a dam. When he was in Winstead for a typical “meet your senator” visit, she stood patiently on line until her turn. When Bush shook her hand, she made the case for a dam and wouldn’t release his hand until he agreed. With parents such as these, it should not come as any surprise that Nader sticks to his guns.
The film begins with Nader’s famous confrontation with Detroit over safety. We see some amusing old commercials that depict cars as the key to happiness and success with the opposite sex. What they never revealed was how dangerous they were, like unprotected sex with a stranger in some ways. Nader decided to look into auto safety after a classmate and good friend at Harvard was killed in an automobile accident. While Nader was no expert in the matter at that time, he soon became the country’s leading authority and the nemesis of the big three auto-makers.
William Greider and James Ridgeway, two journalists who were instrumental in publicizing his early career, give testimony to his tenacity and his brilliance. Furthermore, both of them–despite their connection to mainstream liberal publications–both understand why Nader decided to risk the enmity of wealthy liberals who were all too happy to back his consumer rights activism but not his electoral bids: he is driven by idealism, not Machiavellian calculation. Ridgeway, who does not mince words, says that people like Alterman and Gitlin are “the meanest bunch of motherfuckers” you’ll ever run into.
In his early career, Nader was no enemy of the Democratic Party. His consumer organizations worked closely with the Democrats and actually stumped to get them elected. His status as an insider was cemented after Jimmy Carter’s election. Carter invited Nader down for some consultations after taking office and it was expected that his administration would defend the rights of the consumer.
As a symbol of that breakthrough, Carter appointed long-time Nader associate Joan Claybrook as head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Once again demonstrating that principles were more important than political horse-trading, Nader broke with her when she agreed to an air-bag regulation that he deemed inadequate.
When voters perceived Walter Mondale as a continuation of Carter administration ineptitude, they elected Ronald Reagan. Reagan, and every politician who succeeded him including the “liberal” Bill Clinton, has been hostile to the kind of pro-consumer legislation that Nader fought for. Finally Nader decided that it would require action in the electoral arena in order to counteract a two-party crusade against everything he believed in and fought for. Put succinctly, it was not Nader who changed but the Democratic and Republican Parties. It was these two powerful institutions that were subverting the Jeffersonian dreams of his parents. Nader believed in small-town values, including town meetings and family-owned businesses. If it took a radical challenge against an increasingly monolithic pro-corporate two-party system to turn the country around, he was willing to step forward even if it seemed Quixotic.
When some of his old friends and associates interviewed throughout the film worry about how posterity will view Nader (Jekyll or Hyde), Nader assures his interviewers that there is nothing that his liberal critics can say that will tarnish him. Even though a seat belt in your automobile does not have the legend “Made by Nader” stamped on it, it might as well have.
The title of the film comes from George Bernard Shaw’s “Maxims for Revolutionists”, a section in the 1903 “Man and Superman”:
The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.
Long live Ralph Nader and long live being unreasonable!
Film website, with schedule information about openings this month.