by Gilles d'Aymery
Nader, Ralph: The Seventeen Traditions, HarperCollins, New York, 2007, IBSN: 0-06-123827-9, 150 pages (hardcover).
"To know and not to do is not to know."
—Ancient Chinese proverb (cited by Ralph Nader, Page 148 of The Seventeen Traditions.)
(Swans - December 3, 2007) When I landed at J. F. Kennedy Airport in New York on December 22, 1982, thus realizing a sixteen-year-old dream to come and live in the United States of America, it did not take long to find out that the country had little to do with my original dream. A B-movie actor was presiding over the destiny of the country, mixing metaphors of a "city on the hill" and the "evil empire" archenemy, all the while implementing reactionary and regressive social policies. In 1989, his vice president took over the helm of state and proceeded to invade Panama and destroy Iraq on the flimsiest of reasons, carrying on the regressive domestic policies of his predecessor. I was in despair. The Clinton-Gore ticket won in 1992. Friendly acquaintances assured me that with the Democrats in power America would turn for the better. I believed them -- even wrote a naïve letter to the newly elected president to pledge my readiness to serve in the forthcoming administration. (In return I got a fundraising letter.) By 1996, after Somalia, Bosnia, the birth of neo-liberalism, and domestic political triangulation, I had figured out the meaning of "Tweedledee and Tweedledum." My companion, fully dispirited, refused to vote for the same ticket again and wrote in the name of Janet Wolf -- and we searched for real political alternatives. I don't recall the first time I had the opportunity to watch Ralph Nader on TV. I think it was a short interview. He was speaking quietly, yet passionately, about social justice, the need for people to wake up and oppose special, corporate interests, and the ardent civic duty to revive the ideal of small-community democracy. He looked genuine; talked to the issues with a candor I had never heard before. I remember thinking to myself: "This man characterizes my America, the America of my dream." From that day on I became what is known as a "Naderite." Not that I idealize the man -- I do not -- but simply because he represents many of my deepest aspirations as a human being. The question that kept popping into my mind was, "how come?" What makes Ralph Nader who he is and reflect so much of my own political convictions? From all the books he has written and that have been written about him (and myriad articles), there is nothing comparable to his latest production, The Seventeen Traditions. It provides the answers to the origin of his extraordinary civism, idealism, almost innate sense of justice, and his great equanimity in front of the mud that has been slung at him over the years by foes and friends alike.
As he simply puts it when asked what shaped him, "'I had a lucky choice of parents.' My brother, two sisters, and I had a remarkable father and mother, who cared for us in both direct and subtle ways. The examples of their lives set us on the solid paths we have explored ever since."
This book is above all an ode to his parents and his family, and a sketch or depiction of a set of values -- which he calls Traditions -- that were instilled in him and his siblings by their unordinary mother and father and their extended Lebanese family. Mr. Nader might take exception with the "unordinary" qualification and would posit that there are many more ordinary families in this world than extraordinary ones. But how many families do forsake physical coercion to inculcate discipline? How many families encourage independent thinking and questioning out of the box based on careful listening and research? How many families teach history and geography, and promote education, equality, reciprocity, charity, civism, or the value of work, patriotism, and -- think about it -- solitude, the importance of reverie, and simple enjoyments? One day, as the young 10-year-old child was walking back from school, his father asked, "What did you learn in school today, Ralph? Did you learn how to believe or did you learn how to think?" One wishes that question had been asked to a young George W. Bush... Ralph Nader was quite lucky, indeed.
The reverence and love for his parents permeate the pages of The Seventeen Traditions. Both were born in Lebanon in small towns where they learned the oral traditions of their ancestors and integrated parts of the culture brought by foreign occupiers -- the Ottoman Turks and the French colonizers -- which they merged with those of the New World where they immigrated in their late teens, eventually settling in the small town of Winsted, Connecticut, where his father ran the Highland Arms, a restaurant famous for the lively political discussions he engaged with his customers, ranging from local public affairs to national issues. Holding nonconformist viewpoints and often contrarian opinions, Ralph's father was oftentimes questioned on his patriotism by the "love it or leave it" crowd. But as Nader relates it, "such taunts were his [father's] delicious cup of tea." To wit:
"Do you love your country?" he would ask with a quizzical smile.
"You're damn right I do."
"Well, why don't you spend time improving it?" He would respond.
Ralph Nader continues,
Mother put us children through a similar drill: "Ralph, do you love your country?" she asked when I was about eight.
"Yes, mother," I said, wondering where she was going with this.
"Well, I hope when you grow up, you'll work hard to make it more lovable."
Surely enough, Ralph Nader has worked very hard to make America more lovable. From taking on General Motors in the mid 1960s for their blatant disregard of car safety (Unsafe at Any Speed), Nader has been instrumental in the implementation of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Consumer Product Safety Commission, the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Meat and Poultry Inspection Rules, the Air and Water Pollution Control Laws, and the Freedom of Information Act -- all laws and regulations that made us safer and freer, and which are being slowly gutted by the Democratic-Republican duopoly. There is very little, which we take for granted and yet is being taken away from us, that Ralph Nader did not generate.
All in all, thanks to remarkable parents and a set of values that rendered him incorruptible, whatever the naysayers and the mud-slingers may say, the accomplishments of Ralph Nader are mind-bogglingly astonishing. For more than 45 years he has fought the good fight and been a voice of the people.
Of all the values he has carried on, the joy of simple pleasures and the tradition of frugality, which he calls "scarcity," are worth highlighting. Independent thinking, facts above beliefs, civism, equality, and all the other traits that epitomize Ralph Nader would not take place without his ability to enjoy time alone, play marbles, or remember to turn off the lights or shut off the tap water when washing one's teeth.
It may look simplistic, but Nader, being a child of the Great Depression and the son of singularly conscious, open, and aware parents, would not be the gift he is to us all, without the marbles and the tap water. To this very day, in his seventies, he embodies saving and conserving. Last summer, Nader answered a letter I sent him with a short hand-written note on a slim 5"x8" piece of paper. The envelope contained the book, which he gracefully signed and dedicated "for all the children." The return address was written in his own hand. The mailing address was cut out from my original letter and taped to the envelope. Not only had he recycled environmental resources, he had done it himself, without the hand of some helper...and here is someone I could play marbles with (and talk and argue) if marbles were still found in American stores. From his public positions and advocacies for a simpler, more democratic, community-based America, frugality and uncomplicated youthful joys remain the core of his thinking -- notwithstanding the need to be politically active.
There is not one iota of aggression or hate in this man -- only love and kindness toward his fellow human beings and the natural world that allows us to perdure -- albeit it's not a given. Ralph Nader wants us all to understand that the struggle for a better world is the work of our daily and dedicated lives. His traditions go a long away toward that unpretentious achievement.
Somehow, The Seventeen Traditions reminds me of Saint-Exupéry's The Little Prince. Not that Nader's prose equals the poetic metaphors and literary prowess of the French author, but adults with young children -- or before they have children -- will be well advised to read his welcome contribution to a civilized discourse. Poetry apart, Nader teaches us all the merits of democracy with a small "d," which in my book should be capitalized. Give The Seventeen Traditions to your daughters, sons, and grandchildren. Their lives will be enriched by the extraordinary experience that Ralph Nader brings to humanity.
If thoughtfulness, kindness, and hope for the future are part of your paradigm, rush to the bookstore. You too can make a difference. Get involved!
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