Ralph Nader — pictured here at a recent book signing appearance in Ridgewood — visits the Lincroft campus of Brookdale Community College this Saturday, brought to you by BookMark It Events. (Photo by Sylvain Gaboury PR)
By TOM CHESEK (First published on Red Bank oRBit December 1, 2009)
Ten minutes with Ralph Nader. For some, the stuff of fantasy.
For others — the old guard at General Motors, say, or titanic captains of modern industry, or anyone whose chad’s still in a dangle over the 2000 presidential election — those precious moments would seem an eternity.
Since he emerged on the national radar in the early 1960s with his bestseller book Unsafe at any Speed (an indictment of mighty Detroit in general, and the rear-engined sardine can Chevrolet Corvair in particular), the Harvard-educated activist lawyer with the rumpled ascetic vibe has inspired more hyperventilating than pretty much any other non-elected official in American history. Not that he hasn’t tried, with four runs at POTUS and a rumored mulling of Connecticut’s upcoming US Senate seat race.
More than forty years after his first magazine cover, the 75 year old Nader remains a public figure of remarkable longevity, inspiring valentines and vitriol alike to this day — sometimes brickbats from former supporters and booyahs from the Foxholes. The folks at Sesame Street made him an honorary Person in the Neighborhood.
One thing that Ralph Nader hasn’t been called over the course of some thirty books has been “novelist” — and according to the publisher of his new volume Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us!, he’s still not going to be able to hang that shingle on his office door. Positioned as a work of Practical Utopian Fiction (or, PUF), the book is the stuff that dreams are made of, particularly if your name is Nader.
If your name is Warren Buffett, George Soros, Ted Turner or even Yoko Ono, you might find the book interesting as well, seeing as how you’re a character in it. Using actual names of real people (plus the occasional Brovar Dortwist) and assigning them words and actions that have surprised a few of them, Nader the novelist spins a tale in which Buffett, clearly distressed over the Bush adminstration’s misplay of the post-Katrina Gulf Coast, assembles a Justice League of sorts from his fellow multi-billionaires. The non-shadowy cabal teams up to take down the two-party system, put corporate culture on a short leash and pretty much do everything that Ralph has urged us to do from the get-go.
They do this in part through a behavior-altering invention of Yoko’s called the seventh-generation eye — and Nader accomplishes everything in just over 730 pages, well short of the fifth Harry Potter book, but still far outstripping any pamphlet left lying around a laundry room. And, although this one-time host ofSaturday Night Live has never been above a little awkward self-parody, this is a serious read.
This Saturday, December 5, Ralph Nader visits the Warner Student Life Center of Brookdale Community College in an appearance presented by the locally based BookMark It! Events — producer of other recent happenings at BCC featuring former major league ballplayer Daryl Strawberry and “death expert” Alix Strauss. Nader will be on hand to sign copies of Super-Rich, field questions from attendees and discuss his work with BookMark It founder Jacquie Dalton.
Red Bank oRBit was delighted to get our ten minutes on the phone with Nader, as the galloping gadfly rushed off to yet another speaking appearance. So fasten your seatbelts — you know, those literal savers of life and limb for which you can thank Ralph Nader — and Continue Reading for the interview that almost didn’t take place at any speed.
RED BANK ORBIT: So what makes this book a work of “practical utopian fiction” rather than a novel?
RALPH NADER: That’s the publishing industry that came up with that — apparently a novel has certain standards, in terms of plot and character development.
Then does your book have a literary precedent; some past work that inspired you in some way, or stands as a sort of ancestor to your work?
There was a book called Looking Backward, by Edward Bellamy, which was published in the late 1800s and sold two million copies. It was embraced by the progressive populist movement of the time.
No doubt you and your publisher would like to sell millions of copies, but at its core would you say that your book is designed to be read by just 17 very specific people?
Well, I guess if the right 17 people pick up on it, I’ve done my job. But it’s really for everyone who cares, anyone with a social conscience. If you’re feeling powerless, it could give you a morale boost.
At over 700 pages, though, it’s something much different than a feel-good tract. Why so long?
Well, it’s intricate, because there’s no magic wand solution proposed here. But the type is large, and if you take it 50 pages at a time, it’s not a difficult book to get through.
It’s interesting to me that you went ahead and used the real names of these public figures; Warren Buffett for example, instead of Mr. Muffitt. Were you able to represent these people by putting forth sort of an idealized version of who they are in public life and calling it as such?
It’s clearly labeled fiction of course, but I did make an attempt to have it be a reflection of the character of these people whose names I used.
I like to think that in their later years, the enlightened ones will be concentrating upon a special issue that’s important to them, whether it’s peace, mass transit, single payer. If you think about it, if a bunch of billionaires had put a hundred million dollars into organizing the generals who were against our going into Iraq, to get them to present their case to Congress to expose Bush and Cheney’s reasons for going to war, it would have been a powerful force.
It sounds, then, that you DID write this book with those 17 potential readers very much in mind.
I wanted to give them a model to think about — to think in terms of political philanthropy. Not foundation charity work, which is certainly important, but more activist applications — economic conditions, preventing hunger, social justice funding.
Normally I’d think a super-rich type would just go about his business not caring what you or anyone else thought about him. But would you say there’s at least some damage control going on now, showing some connection with the average person now that the billionaires have probably taken a bath also?
You know, those guys will always do alright for themselves. Even if you have 3 billion and lose 30 percent of your worth, you’ve still got 2 billion dollars.
There’s been some criticism that some of the guys who act so altruistically in your book haven’t necessarily come into their huge fortunes by playing nice in real life. Would you then argue that the super-rich have the good of mankind at heart, or is the current consensus that they’re all crooks not so broad a brush?
Certainly there are bad super-rich guys out there. We learned that in October 2008 on Wall Street. We just don’t always get to know about it at the time. In the old days you knew the names Gould, Rockefeller, Carnegie — but this time there were no well-known rogues before it all came down. Afterward we had a few names and faces to put on the poster.
I’ve been wanting to ask you this question especially — what, in these very interesting times, has Ralph Nader found to be the most astonishing development of the past couple of years?
The extent to which the crooks on Wall Street were able to enact their dastardly raiding of pension funds and savings. How it only came to light as they brought us into a serious decay spiral — and how these same guys wound up in positions of power at Treasury and in Washington.
So this to you is more amazing than the rise of Obama, or the fall of General Motors?
The bad guys who demanded and got the bailout were able to work the system in a way that’s affected every aspect of our lives. That’s one of the reasons I was inspired to write my book — to plant the seed of the idea that we can still work to change things, and that change can come from the top of the economic structure on down as well as from the ground up.
There are things you’ve written and said in recent months that intersect a bit with the whole populist Tea Party thing, and yet what you’re proposing in this book is almost the complete opposite of the grass-roots approach; the whole notion that indeed, only the super-rich can save us.
The woman who typed this manuscript, she’s a friend who owns a small diner, said that when she read it she came away with a nice feeling about rich and powerful people.
So you didn’t type it out yourself word by word on your old Underwood! Just one more question if you could, Mr. Nader — between the gas-powered vehicle, and the daily newspaper, which one of these things does Ralph Nader see disappearing first from American life?
Gas powered vehicles. I think that newspapers will hang on, because there’s a physical attraction there; a visual, tactile advantage over looking at a screen hour after hour. A letter to the editor reads differently than an angry, anonymous comment fired off to some blog.