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Ralph Nader ’55 laments corporatization of civic life, citizen apathy

Photo Credit: Sam Kagan / The Daily Princetonian
Photo Credit: Sam Kagan / The Daily Princetonian

Former Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader ’55 addressed roughly 70 people in the Whig Senate Chamber on Wednesday, Dec. 11, at an event hosted by the American Whig-Cliosophic Society, touching on matters of citizen activism, political power, and his time at the University during an hour-long talk.

Nader, a longtime activist whose work influenced the passage of legislation such as the Freedom of Information Act and the Consumer Product Safety Act, sounded alarm bells about the state of modern American life in his speech.

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“You should know this is the smallest audience I’ve ever addressed at Princeton,” he said, “which indicates something which we can talk about during the questions period, discussion period.” Nader went on to lament the state of activism and civic engagement on modern college campuses.

Wearing a red pin that read “Axe the Max,” in reference to Nader’s campaign to stop flying the Boeing 737 Max, the consumer advocate reprobated his college years and corporate control of America.

“Corporate violence is by far the greatest preventative violence in this country,” Nader said. “I went to a high-priced trade school called Harvard Law School. They ought to have a curriculum called ‘Harvard Lawless School,’ because lawlessness is institutionalized by the rich and powerful. If they don’t write the laws to exonerate them and exempt them from criminal behavior, they have corporate lawyers who know how to get them free from criminal prosecution.”

Later, Nader considered the role of students, encouraging young people to engage with philosophical dilemmas as he criticized the work of Jeff Bezos ’86.

“If you like what you hear, or it challenges you, and you don’t read the materials that are there, whether they’re free or they’re from Labyrinth — an independent bookstore you want to support — protect it from the Amazons, usurper of mainstreet and small businesses — you’re not serious,” Nader said. “I’m not here to flatter you or to regale you, I’m here to say you’re needed.”

According to the Woodrow Wilson School (WWS) concentrator, students at elite institutions too easily allow themselves to move into and work for an unscrupulous world of business.

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A recent investigation by The Daily Princetonian found that a higher percentage of WWS students enter finance and consulting after graduation than all but three other A.B. majors.

“The problem with people today at ... the best law schools is that they do not have an adequate estimate of their own significance of life,” Nader remarked. “They’re willing to sell their talents for lucrative compensation and represent corporate [interests], become cogs in the corporate, military-industrial, pharmaceutical, health machine. And that’s where most of your graduates go. They’re going into the corporate world. The corporate world has turned our democracy into grotesque, inverted, totalitarianism.”

Kris Hristov ’21, a Wilson School concentrator himself, found Nader to be engaging and thought-provoking.

“I thought it was fantastic, personally,” Hristov said. “Obviously the rhetoric was a little stronger than what most people were expecting. But the fact that he engaged with civic virtue ... [and] talked about the blatant problems was very good.”

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Hristov is a staff writer with The Daily Princetonian.

After the talk, Nader sold books and handed out a collection of his writings. Among the papers were a list of “The Concord Principles,” “25 Ways the Canadian Health Care System is Better than Obamacare,” “Land of the Lawless,” and “An Open Letter to Harvard Law Students.” The latter two pieces were packed together with a title page that read, “Please read these articles before the Harvard Law School curriculum culture envelops you. Thank you. — Ralph Nader.”

Whig-Clio president Grace Collins ’21 noted that the Society’s decision to host Nader, with support from the Projects Board of the Undergraduate Student Government and the Program in American Studies, was a consequence of his unique message and emphasis on individual activism.

“He’s a very participatory-focused person ... I think he’s not only an engaging speaker, but he talks about engagement, he brought information for us,” Collins said.

“I feel like we talk some about the free speech issue, we talk about censorship ... but we don’t talk about ... the bigger problem, which is that people, for the most part, choose not to engage with things at all,” Collins said. “It’s not that they’re silent — it’s that they’re apathetic, or they choose not to be informed.”

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