Happy Birthday Ralph and Elaine!

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I wanted to take some time on the blog here to offer some belated birthday wishes to my grandmother (a woman of great integrity and love who has set a great example of discipleship over the years) and to a man whose writings and leadership have begun to edge into a prominent place in my life over the past year. As of last Friday, Elaine Fike turned 80 years old and Ralph Nader turned 75 years old.  

While the focus of this post is on Ralph Nader, please don’t interpret that as me being more in awe of someone “famous” than someone “regular,” because I reject those distinctions.  But I want to spend some time expressing my thanks to Ralph because of his impact on my life especially centered on this year.  I personally hope both of these great people will be alive, active, and sharing their passion and wisdom for many more years.

Now, moving to Ralph, If you had asked me a shade over eight months ago how I felt about Ralph Nader, I would have had to take the wise path and throw up my hands and say, “I really don’t know enough to comment on that.” Personally, with the density and general ignorance of the American public, I wish more people would take the path of refraining from comment when they know little to nothing about persons, their positions, and their visions for the future.

Political campaigns have become an exercise in futility in our society, and this most recent presidential campaign especially. I honestly could not even guess how many chain emails of wide variety (though all centered on one individual, coincidentally, and not the other) I received that nearly all carried some sort of closeted fear about politicians whose skin color and policies are different and thus fear-inducing just because they are different.

But I digress…kind of.

Because Ralph Nader has changed a whole lot of things in me, and to honor him I’d like to make a short list of some of those changes.  It all started for me on July 12th, 2008 not only when Ralph’s speech inspired me, but also when he answered my nervous and rambling question with a thoughtful reply.

1)  Ralph has taught me not to accept the typical answer in our society, because the typical answer is most often one provided by powerful multinational corporations that pump us with their propaganda on a daily basis.

Exhibit A: Remember the story of the woman who dumped McDonald’s coffee on her lap and sued them and won? You know, the story that proves we are a nation of frivolous people who sue for anything and everything, bringing these helpless companies down and ruining our society? That’s been the propaganda fed to us by corporate PR firms and the mainstream media. Listen to the other side of the story that Nader awoke me to;

First, McDonald’s coffee was far hotter than normal coffee, causing a greatly accelerated burn rather.
Second, McDonalds had received 700 complaints of burns prior to this incident, but stubbornly refused to lower the temperature or place a clearer warning on coffee cups.
Third, the 79-year-old victim, Stella Liebeck, suffered third-degree burns on her thighs, buttocks, and genitals, requiring a week of hospitalization and subsequent skin grafts.
Fourth, shortly after the incident she wrote a letter explaining that she had no intention of suing and requested only that McDonald’s cover her medical and recuperation costs and look into its coffee-making process to avoid future injuries.
Fifth, McDonald’s declined to change its policies and offered Liebeck an insulting $800.
Sixth, only $160,000 of the $2.9 million verdict went to compensate Liebeck. (The jury arrived at $200,000 for compensatory damages, including pain and suffering, then knocked off 20% because Liebeck’s negligence contributed to her injury.) The rest was for punitive damages.
Seventh, a major goal of punitive damages is to deter future misconduct, and in this case it worked- McDonald’s in Albuquerque, NM cooled its coffee after the verdict.
And eighth, the trial judge reduced the punitive damages by 82% to $480,000, bringing the overall liability down to $640,000. To avoid the expense and uncertainty of an appeal, the parties reached a settlement for less still.

In Nader’s words,

“In sum, an arrogant, megabillion dollar corporation, indifferent to numerous injuries caused by its scalding product, was brought to heel by a jury of ordinary citizens. The verdict compensated an elderly woman for severe suffering and forced the company (and perhaps other companies) to take action that spared future victims. To the extent the verdict was excessive, a built-in corrective mechanism in the court reduced it.

In other words, the system worked.

But why let the facts interfere with a perfect propaganda opportunity? Similar distortions and dishonesty are seen across the board. Company spokesmen and CEOS insist that lawsuits and insurance premiums are financially devastating. Yet, the very companies most loudly proclaiming hardship…report megaprofits on an annual basis! Moreover, according to Ernst and Young and the Insurance Risk Management Society, in 1999 the total of all business liability costs combined were $5.20 for every $1,000 in revenue.

2)  Ralph has taught me that the only reason most things seem impossible in our society is because we’re cynical, lazy, selfish people more interested in watching flickering images on screens than working to make our society (and by extension, our world) better.

We haven’t always been this kind of people, so don’t think I’m pulling the Debbie Downer card here; but the evidence is there that our society is deep in the midst of a consumerist, individualist, passive funk.  Depending on who you ask, when that funk started is up in the air, but most sane observers track the passive slide at about the time cable television became widespread; with the Internet and its entertainment options only widening the access to entertainment.  Combine this with basic human selfish tendencies that we’ve inherited from ancestors for millenia, and the average citizen would rather watch COPS than be involved in the messy process of bettering life in our society.  In fact, this funk is so deep that most persons would suggest it’s impossible to effect positive, systematic change in our society.  As recently as a year ago, I agreed.  Then I got to know Nader’s story.  Needless to say, things changed.  

If you’re interested in following the road I’ve traveled down, read Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman and Nader: Crusader, Spoiler, Icon by Justin Martin.  Forgive me for being blunt, but if you’re not a reader, start.  There’s too much at stake for us to continue sitting slack-jawed with voyeuristic pleasure at who “The Bachelor” is going to pick.  The great news about a book is that you can read it while in the bathroom instead of watching Fox News and you might actually learn something.  If you watch Fox News, you might as well flip the TV off and eat what goes into the toilet; it might be better for you.  I emphasize might be.

3)  Ralph has helped me to uncover the truth that anger isn’t bad; in fact, because of the great abuses of the powerful in our world, we all should be hopping mad.

And because things are this screwed up, what most people consider “balanced” and “even-keel” answers aren’t good enough. The scale of destruction in our society requires committed citizens who have ceased passively waiting for the system to work and who demand and cajole and leverage and castigate and rip-publicity-and-money-hounds-posing-as-societal-leaders-a-new-one…but in a wise way. And when we commit to do this, we should expect to be vilified, because the pursuit of justice and truth is a polarizing quest.

4)  Ralph has reinstilled in me through his consistent commitment to working to empower the common citizen in our society a hope and belief that things can be better; we just need to carve out the time to work together for common goals.

And make no mistake, though it is true that the average American is working more hours for less real wage than they were in 1979, and it is true that there are more activities that keep people hopping, the “I’m too busy” excuse is exactly that, an excuse. Two main commitments would restore hope that the common person can affect change;

a.  Some simple prioritization of civic activity over other activities, which includes informing our kids that they will pick one sport a year and telling them to suck it up when they get angry (they’ll thank us for it a decade later), and involves us detoxing from our addiction to television, video games, and the Internet, and

b.  A commitment to finding sources of information that inform rather than entertain, educate rather than play with our emotions, and give us complexity rather than black-and-white generalizations. In other words, turn Fox News and MSNBC and Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh and Air America and Huffington Post off and choose to direct our attention to reputable sources like National Public Radio and Public Television and (gasp) BBC.

Specifically, in my opinion, everyone must listen to On Point with Tom Ashbrook daily. DAILY. An “On Point” at day keeps the ignorance at bay. Yeah, I said it. And once you and I have gained an ear for real news and anchors who really offered wise guidance, we’ll see how absurd and disgusting and childish the Limbaughs and Savages and Frankens are, and we will never go back.  And if we do go back, we shouldn’t.  Rush Limbaugh is single-handedly causing my more conservative friends to lose brain cells and hate and mistreat people who disagree with them.

I think I could talk for a long long time about how Ralph Nader has changed my perspectives, but you’ll see more emerge over time, whether I specifically say “Nader says” or I just come out and say something. The latter, to me, is the important second stage of choosing to submit to wise leaders; that their guidance and shaping influence would empower us to find wise avenues to walk down in life that ultimately end in us oozing their approach from the pores of who we are. In this process, their habits and disciplines would move from feeling “unnatural” to very “natural” and become second-nature to us.

But first, we need to unhook from the toxic way of living we pursue in this society today.

Maybe the recession can help in this regard by forcing us to pay attention to issues of greater importance when we can no longer afford to pay for cell phones for each member of the family, 2500 TV channels, high-speed internet, our Ford Expedition SUV, and our $500,000 house from the mortgage officer without assets all at once.

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