BY EILEEN O’GRADY ’18
Ralph Nader, tall and stoop-shouldered in his pinstripe suit, leaned both hands on the borrowed podium set up in the cozy sitting room of professor Christopher Pyle’s house in South Hadley last Wednesday evening. A group of 15 students perched on a collection of sofas and dining room chairs in a lamplit circle around him, their gazes fixed on the 83-year old political activist with rapt attention.
“This is the challenge I would like to pose,” Nader said. “If you had the backing of just 17 members of the top 1 percent, unlimited funding and one year to change the political system, what would you do first?”
Ralph Nader, a consumer advocate, author, attorney and former U.S. presidential candidate, addressed the students, members of professor Pyle’s Civil Liberties and Decision Making in American Politics classes, at a dinner party hosted by Pyle and his wife Cynthia last Wednesday evening. Nader’s sister, political scientist Claire Nader — a Smith College alum — was also in attendance. Chris Pyle and Ralph Nader have been friends for many years, ever since Nader wrote about Pyle, who is known for his exposure of U.S. military intelligence against civilians, in his 1972 book on whistleblowing.
In Pyle’s living room, Nader spoke to the students about the importance of being changemakers, and of using tools of organization and mobilization to stand up to tyrannical government and corporate power.
“Breaking through power is easier than you think,” Nader said. “Change-making is contagious. Once people realize it’s possible, more change can happen easier.”
Breaking through power is a goal that Nader has dedicated his life to achieving. Born in Connecticut and educated at Princeton and Harvard Law School, Nader first achieved national recognition in 1965 after the publication of his first book, “Unsafe at Any Speed,” a critique of safety in the automotive industry. Since then, he has been involved in consumer watchdog projects, environmental activism and has been accredited for the enactment of such regulations as the Freedom of Information Act, the Clean Water Act, the Consumer Product Safety Act and the Whistleblower Protection Act. He was a controversial third party candidate in the 2000, 2004 and 2008 presidential elections.
Nader, who once penned a book titled “Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us!” believes that America’s wealthiest individuals are the ones with the power to change the country for the better, as they are the ones with the abilityto influence politics. This is what prompted his question of what changes the students would make to the current political system if funding was not an issue. Claire Beckett ’18 suggested expanding and increasing funding to public education, while Sarzah Yeasmin ’18 suggested applying funds to remedy the student debt crisis.
In citing the experiences that led him to become an activist, Nader described his own time as a student, speaking disparagingly of Harvard Law School — a place that he dubbed “Harvard Lawless School” — for its lack of focus on what he deemed to be the lawless, unstructured and unregulated nature of American government and the corporate world.
“There wasn’t a single class on corporate crime while I was there,” Nader said. “How did I get through it? I used to go down to South Boston where the slums are, and I saw firsthand the effect of corporate crime. I saw meatpackers shipping off tainted meats to be sold at poor grocery stores. I saw the police being paid off by the businesses who didn’t comply with regulations. Then, I came back to the cloistered halls of Harvard Law School and it reminded me of what to focus on.”
When Molly Schiffer ’20 asked Nader about ways to lessen the chokehold of the fossil fuel industry, she brought up the current campaign by Mount Holyoke’s Climate Justice Coalition to get the school to divest from fossil fuels. Nader had some tips to offer the CJC of various actions to take, including disrupting shareholder means, involving the press, local congress people and the local environmental caucus in the project and beginning to convert the MHC campus itself to become greener, through the use of solar panels.
Above all, Nader reminded students that the best way to enact change is to focus on the decision-making powers.
“Don’t just have rallies that disappear off into the ether and don’t go anywhere,” he advised.
The students who attended the gathering all received copies of one of Nader’s favorite books, “Change for America: A Progressive Blueprint for the 44th President,” a compilation of essays edited by Mark Green and Michele Jolin, full of suggestions and goals for a commander-in-chief (or for 15 future commanders-in-chief) to consider.
“Always remember this,” Nader told the students. “It doesn’t take more than 1 percent of the population if you represent the majority’s sense of fair play. You all have to have a higher estimate of your ability to make a change.”