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Community service is a good first step, but only grassroots political advocacy can save American democracy from corporate interests, Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader told an audience of 200 at MIT Monday.
Nader, a lawyer and consumer advocate who made his name in the '60s by exposing American cars as unsafe, urged civic-minded students to get involved in politics.
"To know and not to act is not to know," he told the crowd, quoting an ancient Chinese proverb.
"I believe we can have a major progressive political party in this country," he said. "Do we have the desire to do it?"
Nader ran for president as a Green in 1996, but he spent only $5,000, leading to grumbles that his heart wasn't in the campaign.
This election season, he vows to win five percent of the popular vote nationwide, thereby guaranteeing the Green Party federal matching funds in 2004.
He said he hopes to capture the attention of voters disillusioned by the two-party system, especially 18 to 25-year-olds who have been conditioned to expect nothing better than the government they currently have.
"If you didn't think there was any other food than greasy McDonald's hamburgers," he said, "you would put your teeth in greasy McDonald's hamburgers."
Powerful corporate interests, Nader argued, are largely to blame for these distortions of politics and public policy.
He said that America takes the Home Shopping Network for granted, never questioning why commercialism dominates the public airwaves.
"We don't have a citizens' channel. We don't have a labor channel. We don't have a students' channel," he said.
"You buy the politicians," Nader told the crowd. "And if you can't buy them, you rent them on the installment plan."
Nader targeted rising income inequality and the persistence of poverty as further symptoms of a democratic system that he repeatedly called "grotesque" and "beyond satire."
According to Nader, 20 percent of American children live in poverty. Only three percent of children in the Netherlands are in poverty, he said.
"And they're ashamed about it!" he exclaimed.
He also said that the richest percent of America's population has financial wealth equal to that of the bottom 95 percent.
"A strong democracy doesn't tolerate poverty in an affluent society," he said. "It doesn't tolerate everything for sale."
Nader bemoaned what he considers the destruction of America's bright minds by poor education and overspecialization.
"They keep you so busy, you don't even have time to think," he told MIT students.
Nader, who graduated from Harvard Law School in 1958, poked fun at the school.
"The word 'justice' was almost never used," he said.
It wasn't until the student protests of the '60s and '70s that the Law School curriculum changed to include topics like corporate crime and civil rights, Nader said. It didn't change on its own.
"It was the fires in cities like Detroit and Newark," he said.
Nader's relatively long stump speech--far longer than the one given last fall by Bill Bradley in the same auditorium--was warmly received by the audience.
Cory Welch, an MIT engineering graduate student, said he was "intrigued" by Nader's ideas on the environment and income inequality.
According to Welch, he had never heard Nader speak before, but will now consider voting for him.
Another MIT grad student, Stephen Smyth, said he was impressed by Nader's focus on meeting with small community groups rather than using traditional media outlets.
"They're preoccupied with Elian," Nader had joked during his speech.
Grad student Aimee L. Smith, who was tabling on behalf of the MIT Greens, said she hopes Nader can get the 10,000 signatures he needs to qualify for the general election ballot in Massachusetts.
"We're trying to reinvigorate democracy by giving people options they can stand behind," she said.
If Nader is able to siphon away even a small percentage of the liberal/progressive vote, the presidential prospects of Democrat Al Gore '69 may suffer.
The most recent national polls, including one released yesterday by CBS News and the New York Times, show Texas Gov. George W. Bush beating Gore by more than seven points. Still, the Times/CBS poll shows that while voters favor Bush's personality, they are more comfortable with Gore's policy proposals.
Nader, who ran his 1996 bid out of California, admitted on NBC's Meet the Press that his candidacy may help to depress Gore's progressive base, particularly in Western states.
Marc Stad '01, the president of the Harvard and Massachusetts College Democrats, said that every vote counts for Gore, even in Massachusetts.
"I would prefer if Ralph Nader was not running," the Gore supporter said. "A vote for Nader is a vote for Bush."
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