SYNOPSIS: Nader's extremist anti-Corporate hatred is not unlike a religious Jihad.
Saints," wrote George Orwell, "should always be judged guilty until proved innocent." I don't think he was talking about garden-variety hypocrisy -- although many supposed ascetics do turn out to have something to hide. The more important point is that there are other temptations besides those of the flesh. And those who renounce small pleasures may be all the more susceptible to monomania, to the urge to sacrifice the good in pursuit of the perfect. In other words, beware the cause of the rebel without a life.
Some commentators have made much of the secrecy shrouding the accounts of Ralph Nader's organizations, of the revelation that speaking fees and stock market investments have made him a multimillionaire, and of hints that his lifestyle might not be quite as austere as it seems. But what should worry those sympathetic to Mr. Nader are not his vices, if he has any, but his virtues -- and his determination to impose those virtues on the rest of us.
Mr. Nader did not begin as an extremist. On the contrary: in the 1960's, when he made his reputation, the striking thing about Mr. Nader was his relative moderation. Fashionable radicals were preaching revolution; he was demanding safer cars. And because his radicalism was practical and realistic, it left a lasting legacy: our tradition of consumer activism, a tradition that rightly honors Mr. Nader as its founding father, makes this country a better place. One might even give Mr. Nader some credit for our current prosperity: if Japan had shared our healthy distrust of claims that what is good for General Motors is good for America, its current economic morass might have been avoided.
But somewhere along the way the practical radical disappeared. The causes that Mr. Nader and his organizations have pursued in the last couple of decades seem to have less and less to do with his original, humane goals.
Everyone knows about Mr. Nader's furious opposition to global trade agreements. But it is less well known that he was equally adamant in opposing a bill removing barriers to Africa's exports -- a move that Africans themselves welcomed, but which Mr. Nader denounced because of his fear that African companies would be "run into the ground by multinational corporations moving into local economies." (Most African countries would be delighted to attract a bit of foreign investment.) Similar fears led Mr. Nader to condemn South Africa's new Constitution, the one that ended apartheid, because -- like the laws of every market economy -- it grants corporations some legal status as individuals.
Or consider another example, one closer to home -- my home, in particular. When my arthritis stopped responding to over-the-counter remedies, I brought it back under control with a new regime that included the anti-inflammatory drug Feldene. But Mr. Nader's organization Public Citizen not only tried to block Pfizer's introduction of Feldene in the 1980's; it also tried to get it banned in 1995, despite what was by then a firm consensus among medical experts that the drug's benefits outweighed its risks.
If you look for a unifying theme in all these causes, it seems to be not consumer protection but general hostility toward corporations. Mr. Nader now apparently believes that whatever is good for General Motors, or Pfizer, or any corporation, must be bad for the world. To block opportunities for corporate profit he is quite willing to prevent desperately poor nations from selling their goods in U.S. markets, prevent patients from getting drugs that might give them a decent life and prevent a moderate who gets along with business from becoming president.
At times Mr. Nader's hostility to corporations goes completely over the edge. Newt Gingrich disgusted many people when, in his first major speech after leaving Congress, he blamed liberalism for the Columbine school shootings. But several days before Mr. Gingrich spoke, Ralph Nader published an article attributing those same shootings to -- I'm serious -- corporate influence.
And was I the only person who shuddered when Mr. Nader declared that if he were president, he wouldn't reappoint Alan Greenspan -- he would "re-educate" him?
Many of those who are thinking about voting for Mr. Nader probably imagine that he is still the moderate, humane activist of the 1960's. They should know that whatever the reason -- your amateur psychology is as good as mine -- he is now a changed man.
Originally published in The New York Times, 7.23.00