Swans Commentary » swans.com August 11, 2008  



Ralph Nader: An Unreasonable Man


by Charles Marowitz


Film Review



An Unreasonable Man, A Two Left Legs Productions, 2005.
Writers/directors/executive producers: Henriette Mantel, Steve Skrovan.
DVD Release: June 2007, ASIN: B000N2HDHS.

An Unreasonable Man was one of 18 documentaries (out of 760 submissions) accepted into Documentary Competition at the Sundance Film Festival 2006, and it was broadcast on PBS in December 2007. The DVD can be purchased through anunreasonableman.com.


(Swans - August 11, 2008)   After watching the documentary film Ralph Nader: An Unreasonable Man, one is left with two overwhelming emotions: Depression and Anger. The depression is due to the fact that the forces mounted against a passionate idealist in America are so deeply rooted and so immutable, nothing can overcome them. Like Sisyphus, Nader rolls the boulder of his good intentions up a mountain and, no matter how great his effort, it comes tumbling down again. The conservative forces rallied against him are so deeply entrenched in the political mindset of the nation that no amount of zeal or brilliance-of-rhetoric can dislodge them.

The anger, of course, follows directly from the former. Nader, once one of the most respected, even revered, Americans as a consumer advocate and an articulate liberal-populist has now become anathema to many of the people that once worshipped him. A "spoiler," an "egotist," "the man who made Bush's presidency possible," he now incites rage where he once inspired admiration. It matters very little that the charge regarding the defeat of Gore in 2000 is an unsubstantiated legend, and even less that without ego and an independent spirit, Nader would never have achieved the social boons he did in the 1960s and '70s when he dramatically enhanced the safety of drivers and the well-being of consumers in many different categories. Ironically, many of the Nader Raiders have now forsaken the man who was once their hero and, as the film illustrates, even champions such as Michael Moore now openly deride him for running for elective office. Watching the numbers of defectors rapidly fleeing the candidate, you would think Nader himself would be depressed and a little circumspect, but when one's convictions are as deeply-rooted as Nader's, it seems that nothing can shake them -- not even the mutiny of solid old stalwarts.

What becomes clear from Henriette Mantel and Steve Skrovan's documentary on the tarnished white knight of alternative politics, is that when a man is as rooted in sound principles as Nader, virtually nothing can dislodge him. In this, he brings to mind the plight of Eugene V. Debs, a labor leader from the early years of the 20th century; a man who, like Nader, was constantly cold-shouldered out of established politics and who, like Nader, felt the only way he could make a real difference was to make a run for the presidency. Debs did so five times; the last campaign being in 1919, and from a prison cell. Despite his straitened circumstances, he won 913,664 votes -- which was 3.4 percent of the populace and the highest number of votes for a Socialist Party presidential candidate in US history. While incarcerated, Debs, unlike Nader, was converted to Marxism, which tended to diminish the number of his supporters. His most famous declaration, and one that I am sure Nader would subscribe to, was made as he was being sentenced to ten years of imprisonment: "Your honor," he said, "years ago I recognized my kinship with all living beings, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on earth. I said then, and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it, and while there is a criminal element, I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free." This may sound like the plangent rhetoric of Nathan Hale or Huey Long but it was rooted in a solid identification with the working classes and inspired by a genuine desire to change a system that was stultifying millions of Americans before the formation of labor unions and in an era when the gulf between rich and poor was (as it is today) vast and protected by bought politicians. Debs was pardoned by President Warren G. Harding, who commuted his sentence to time served, and released from prison. Shortly afterward, he was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize on the grounds that he "started to work actively for peace during World War I, mainly because he considered the war to be in the interest of Capitalism." Debs, like Nader, saw through the roseate war propaganda that was decimating American youth and his antiwar stance was simply another rock thrown through the stained-glass windows of the corporate chieftains who benefited from that war as contemporary corporations have been benefiting from the war in Iraq.

The film is by no means hagiographic. It quotes the putdowns of dubious intellectuals such as Todd Gitlin and Eric Alterman, both of whom buy into the fiction that Nader is nothing more than an egotistical spoiler, although there are counter assertions from Theresa Amato, Nader's campaign manager, and objective political consultants who provide persuasive evidence that Gore lost fair and square and not as a result of any incursions by Nader or his backers. The most resonant point, and the reason given for Nader's throwing his hat in the ring, is that as the candidate declared in 2000: there is no fundamental difference between the Democrats and Republicans, and so it is cruelly ironic that when an alternative platform (like Nader's) is posited, it is not viewed as the political alternative it really is. Regarding this point, there is an eerie clip of the two uptight lobbyists who actually run the presidential debates and arbitrarily decide who is, or is not, "a political factor" and therefore, eligible to be included. If Nader ever made it into a nationally-televised debate, he would probably run rings around both Obama and McCain. Good reason, say the arbiters, why he should be excluded. However, it needs to be said that the presidency is not a domestic playing field but an international swamp and, perceptive as Nader is about abuses committed and abetted by capitalist forces throughout the U.S., one suspects that he is less knowledgeable about the quagmire of foreign policy. It is easy to imagine him outwitting and browbeating conniving captains-of-industry who are exploiting workers and hoodwinking government agencies, but how would he deal with issues such as genocide, nuclear build-ups, internecine strife in Africa, and sectarian conflicts in the Middle East -- problems where diplomacy and realpolitik are called for? Since globalization is now a fact of life, that is a question that needs to be addressed.

The film itself, an excellent summation of Nader's background, character, and achievements, is between thirty to sixty minutes too long. Points are made and then repeated, sometimes with the same talking heads "dittoing" what other talking heads have just stated. It would have had greater impact if it had been more tightly edited. Although it offers some anti-Nader references (most of them banal and cranky), it is so clearly a promotional commercial for the candidate that it slightly offends our sense of objectivity. Still it is useful, at this stage of the 2008 election, to have a clear-cut summation of the man who, if we were all living in a fair world, would be the next president of the United States but who, if he is lucky, will probably garner only 10% of the popular vote.

For liberals, the Nader dilemma is whether or not to vote one's conscience or heed one's sense of objectivity. As Michael Moore pointed out in one of his earlier rants, choosing the lesser of two evils is still a vote for evil. But that message carried more weight when the candidates were Kerry and Bush than it does today when there is a burgeoning sense that Obama might well be able to reverse the trend of the last eight years and finally "make a difference" in the lives of many Americans. But if he doesn't, it's just as clear that John McCain would provide an addled and belligerent alternative which, if he succeeds, might prolong the American misery. That misery being as great as it is, can one in good conscience cast a vote for a candidate that cannot possibly be elected? It devolves into a choice between idealism and practicality and in America, voters are almost always inclined towards the latter.

The film's epigraph shown in the opening moments is a quotation from George Bernard Shaw's Revolutionist's Handbook, which reads: "The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man." Which clearly indicates the filmmakers' bias towards Nader. But the original GBS quotation, not included in that epigraph, goes on to say: "The man who listens to Reason is lost; Reason enslaves all whose minds are not strong enough to master her," which when you refer that sentiment to Abraham Lincoln or Franklin Delano Roosevelt -- i.e., reasonable politicians whose mastery of reason made a difference both to the preservation of the Union and the rescue of American society from a ravaging Depression -- it sounds more like flashy Shavian grandiloquence than it does sound political horse-sense. And we should remember that George Bernard Shaw was a staunch devotee of Joseph Stalin and other historical "strong men," so we should be a little wary when this excellent comedian reverts to political advice.


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External Resources

Review of the film, by Louis Proyect, January 12, 2007.


Internal Resources

Ralph Nader: Character and Integrity

Film & Theatre

Book Reviews

Arts & Culture

Patterns which Connect


About the Author

Charles Marowitz on Swans (with bio).



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Published August 11, 2008