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Ralph Nader visits Berkeley

By Brian Kluepfel, Special to the Daily Planet
Monday July 15, 2002

In a 40 minute speech Friday night at Berkeley’s First Congregational Church, 68-year-old Ralph Nader, activist and former presidential candidate, continued his three-decade-old battle against big business. 

Nader reminded Berkeley residents that victories in consumer rights and human rights won in the 1960s and 1970s were prone to a backlash that many never anticipated. Vigilance, he said, was required to wrest the power from corporate interests and put it back in the hands of the American people. 

A congregation of about 350, filling the balconies, intermittently broke up Nader’s address with applause and shouts. The event was sponsored by Cody’s Books and the Nader-founded Center for the Study of Responsive Law. 

Nader’s most recent book, “Crashing the Party: Taking on the Corporate Government in an Age of Surrender,” was the theme of Friday’s address. Nader joked as he picked up the book, “I could have called this ‘I told you so.’”  

The audience laughed in the wake of this year’s string of corporate scandals and nobody was spared Nader’s wit or vitriol: He attacked and poked fun at Al Gore, Berkeley’s cafe pontificators, Richard Nixon and George W. Bush with equal vigor.  

Nader was quick to put the onus for America’s current fiscal and political misdeeds squarely on the shoulders of the public, who, he noted, spent 500 million cumulative hours watching the Super Bowl this year. “If we had spent that much time on civic activity, we could have gotten universal health care,” he mused. 

He said it would not take a “massive dislocation of routine” for Americans to accomplish such things, only renewed energy toward “civic mobilization.”  

Much of the call to civic duty was at the end of his speech and directed toward youth who were noticeably absent from the audience. 

He reminded the audience, mostly Caucasian and over 30, that the social and political gains made in prior eras were no guarantee. “In the ‘60s and ‘70s, things did happen... but we didn’t pay enough attention to the counterattack,” he said. Nader felt a downturn was signaled by Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980, but again his message continued to deride both political parties “serving the entrenchment of corporate power.” 

He called America’s economic system not a capitalist model, but one of “corporate socialism” where big companies “don’t sink or swim– they go to Washington for a bailout.” He said only people, and not “artificial entities” like corporations, should have the rights of people in our society. He reminded his audience of how much ground and private rights are lost to corporations daily: More than 300 patents on human genetic structure are owned by corporations, he said. 

Nader had a simple solution for the Enrons and other corporations that have recently been caught in wholesale acts of financial misrepresentation and malfeasance– “Make ‘em pay it back and send ‘em to jail.” He noted that for all the investigations and committees established in the wake of corporate scandals, not one person has been convicted of any wrongdoing. 

Nader struck out at the current two-party system in the United States, stating that neither one had the courage to upset the status quo. He said that former Vice President Gore had the information, regarding President Bush’s dealings with Harker Energy, that became widely disclosed this week but did not bring it up during the campaign. 

As for any notion that he or the Green Party lost the election for Gore, Nader scoffed. He reminded his listeners that Gore did not win his home state of Tennessee, nor his own former election district within that state. 

Nader spun the wisdom of the ancients into his lecture. Again zinging the attendees, he quoted a Chinese proverb that said “if you know and you don’t act, you don’t know.” As for the situation in Cuba, he quoted Scottish poet Robert Burns: “Oh the gift that god would give us, to see ourselves as others see us,” implying that while Cubans may live a restricted life in some ways, “we bear some responsibility for the climate of fear” in the Caribbean nation. 

A planned question and answer session quickly became a chance for some in the audience to not necessarily ask Nader questions, but make extemporaneous speeches on various themes. Nader patiently waited for their points to be made and then commented on topics ranging from Cuba to Burma to political organizing.