May 23, 2004

Ralph Nader

Thank you very much, President Rogers and congratulations on your tenure here. I particularly appreciate the invitation from the Class of 2004. I want to recognize the board of trustees, the deans and the administrators of Bucknell and the workers who have worked so hard to make this ceremony what it has come to be. 

"Civic Engagement" is my charge this morning which I would like to discuss this beautiful morning in central Pennsylvania on the planet Earth. It is, to be sure, a tormented Earth and most of the billions of people on Earth believe they can’t do much about that.

They believe they can’t do much about its wars or its diseases or its illiteracy or its environmental devastation or its hunger or its poverty. They don’t believe they can do much about denials of democracy or the suppression of so many available solutions, technical and social, that are waiting to be applied for a better life. There are so many forms of applicable knowledge in our world that would enable the pursuit of happiness, through the pursuit of justice which should be everybody’s birthright.

For you, the Class of 2004, the pursuit of justice or, as Senator Webster once called it, "justice – the great work of human beings on Earth." The pursuit of justice is an option. It’s not a duty. Not a legal duty. It’s an option whose exercise invites an application of the liberal and technical arts that you have learned over the past four years. It’s an option that demands if it’s exercised a claim on your time and talent and your energy and your humane values as a public citizen.

Yet your private lives compete for this time, talent and energy when the two — public citizen, private citizen — should be complimentary rather than competing for your time, talent and energy. They both sustain each other. It is difficult to have a very nice private life if the society around you is deteriorating. It is difficult to have a good public citizen life if you don’t pay attention to family and friends.

Civic duty: That is the entry into the arenas where communities make decisions within the framework of a deliberate democracy — local, state, national, and international. Civic duty is not required in our constitution. There is no duty implied in our constitution except jury duty. We have the Bill of Rights; we have the elaboration of all kinds of rights under our constitution, but no duties required by that document.

Where there is no mandatory duty, there needs to be a moral imperative. You are in the top one percent of people your age in the world in terms of your education, your health and your ability to make a difference because of the country you live in. The top one percent. Billions of people your age are wondering where they are going to get the next meal and they are doubled over with 20 inches of worm in their gut or they can’t speak out because they live in dictatorships or oligarchy.

So it behooves you to consider how you are going to spend the next 15 to 20 thousand days of your active life would that it even be more. But if you are 21 or 22 now you have a little over 15 thousand days before you turn 65. A little over two thousand weeks and if you think last week went quickly you haven’t seen anything yet. Ask your elders how fast it occurs.

So you shouldn’t waste your creative twenties trying to get over personal hang-ups that you should have resolved in your adolescent years. These are your most creative years. You’ll have more judgment, more wisdom later on. But your creative bursts — the kind of directions that you are going to follow in life; the kind of innovations, the ideas, the willingness to ask the impertinent questions: That’s what your twenties will afford you.

But as Gertrude Stein once said when someone asked her, "Miss Stein, what are the answers?" And she looked at the questioner and said, "What are the questions?" And that is what you have to start with: What are the questions. That’s what good scientists start with, that’s what good civic advocates start with. You want to ask yourself, in addition to making a living, raising a family, being part of a community. What is your civic task, where are you going to plant your flag of justice?

That beautiful flag there, that does not stand for being turned into a bandanna, or a gag or fig leaf. That flag stands for the last words of our Pledge of Allegiance quote with liberty and justice for all. That’s what that flag stands for, and you have to make sure that nobody takes that meaning away from you, and despoils that flag for very narrow purposes.

The challenges in the next 50 years that confront you are beyond any challenges in human history. They may still deal with virtue and greed and fragility and courage. But technologically there are challenges, the likes of which we have never seen. The next 50 years of science and technology will be able to change the nature of nature. Genetic engineering — the genetic inheritance of our planet is up for grabs. Whether it can be monopolized under a patent system by corporations, your human genes, the genes of flora and fauna. Or whether they are going to become part of the commons, the common heritage of human beings.

Artificial intelligence will be another one. The role of a runaway computer. A runaway computer capability will raise very momentous ethical issues. Some of the problems will be age old, like hunger and poverty. Some of them will invite age-old solutions. Some of them will invite new solutions.

Most people attach themselves to one area or another when they are civically active, where they want to improve the world. Have no fear: you will be able to pick the problem or injustice of your choice. There are plenty around.

You want to ask yourself or ask yourselves who is going to finally roll back the scourge of poverty in the wealthiest country in the world where tens of millions of Americans work hard and are poor.

Who is going to develop a society that has more time for its children, instead of an economy that absorbs so much family time on congested commuting highways back and forth from work?

Who is going to define environmental pollution as a form of inefficiency, not only death and violence which is what it is, cancer and respiratory illness?

Who is going to transform a tax system so that it taxes things we least like, instead of things we most like — and does it fairly. Why don’t we tax pollution? Why don’t we tax gambling? Why don’t we tax the addictive industries more? Why don’t we tax stock speculation before we tax food and clothing and furniture and earnings?

Who is going to finally do what President Harry Truman proposed in 1948 — universal health care. We are still the only country in the western world without it. The Institute of Medicine in Washington estimated recently 18 thousand Americans die every year because they can’t afford healthcare. That’s six 9/11’s every year. Who weeps for those people, who grieves for them, who champions them. Many of them are children.

Who is going to redesign styles of violence, so that the cardinal issue is the prevention of violence, not just its motivation? Deliberate violence takes fewer lives than inadvertent and negligent violence like pollution, occupational diseases, medical malpractice and so many other byproducts of an industrial society.

Who is going to use this sun? Does anybody doubt the power of the sun this morning to convert our society into renewable energy and all its manifestations, solar, thermal, wind power, photovoltaics. Some of you will be involved in that enormous, gigantic, rewarding, global warming-depressing industry.

Who will try to change our society’s attitude toward addictions? Instead of treating them as crimes, they’re treated as health problems, treated as possessing people who need help.

Who will stem the tide of commercial definition of our culture and, at the local level, make the arts and the crafts and the music flower again from the imaginations of people who live and work near you instead of people you see on television.

Who is going to open access to justice and change our criminal injustice system which is so discriminatory and so punitive and so recidivist-prone?

And who is going to give us access to our courts in a more effective manner? Well, you are.

When you come back 20, 30 years from now for reunions, you will look back and say, What did we do for our country and our world. It is good to start now. Your class represents almost every talent needed, every skill needed, because of your diverse specialties which you will hone in the coming years.

But you should never think you don’t count and you don’t matter and what difference does it make, you are only one person.

What difference did it make when six women got together in 1846 in upstate New York to start the organized women’s suffrage movement? They didn’t shortchange themselves and that was a real uphill fight. It was against industries that didn’t like women campaigning against child labor and other hard edges, the early industrial revolution.

What did a few abolitionists in the southern states think of themselves when they started the drive in the 1700s against slavery, one of the two of the greatest crimes on the North American continent, the other being our treatment of our first native Americans and their tribes. They thought a great deal of themselves, because they braved the ire and the brutality of the cotton plantation owners who thought that human beings should be used as slaves and families should be separated because they can be sold off from their mothers and fathers for higher prices.

Those sit-down workers in General Motors in Flint, Michigan, Warren, Michigan, in the ’30s when they started the United Auto Workers: They thought more of themselves, they had to because there was no other job for them. If they lost their jobs there was no unemployment compensation, there was no social security. That was it.

They put their entire livelihoods on the line, just the way the coal miners did many years ago when they formed the United Mine Workers. Four hundred thousand coal mine workers since 1890 have died for their companies in the form of victims of coal mine collapses, and coal mine pneumoconiosis, that black lung disease. That’s more than all the Americans killed in World War II and that’s just one industry. They put it all on the line, their jobs, their families, everything; and they thought more of themselves.

Rosa Parks who refused to go to the rear of the bus in Montgomery, Alabama, in the ’50s. She thought more of herself. She said enough is enough and started the Montgomery bus boycott which sparked the civil rights movement.

We don’t spend enough time becoming motivated by the heroics of our forbearers. If we did we would be more motivated ourselves, we wouldn’t feel that we can’t do much. We wouldn’t feel so self indulgent in rationalizing our own futility, which we are often very good at.

Citizen action by individuals, these were ordinary people in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries who did extraordinary things. Ordinary people did extraordinary things. You are extraordinary graduates. You don’t want to just do ordinary things. Democracy is like the Mississippi River in a way. By way of metaphor: the Mississippi River starts with a few drops of water in northern Minnesota, they become rivulets, the rivulets become brooks, and the brooks turn into streams and the streams turn into tributaries and the tributaries turn into the Mississippi River.

Our inputs as citizens strengthen our democracy which is the greatest instrument ever devised in the world to foresee and forestall problems and to solve problems and remedy injustices. We have got to work hard at building it.

You will know that you are succeeding when someone comes up to you some morning years hence and says, "How are you doing at building democracy?" instead of just "How are you?" We all have that duty.

I feel, if you’ll forgive a personal indulgence. When I was your age, one thing struck me in my class as how many people in my class were killed in auto crashes. It was relentless, both during the four years and in the succeeding 10 years; the alumni magazine was full of the obituaries. I used to hitchhike a lot and came across a lot of crashes, sometimes before the police. I did a little research at law school on it, and I realized in the medical journals, engineering journals that cars could be made much more safe. Very inexpensively, and if you added the auto insurance, very, very frugally you actually saved money by having safer cars. Never mind just saving lives and all the economic human anguish that proceeds from it.

So I went to Washington in the ’60s and I had one goal. I was going to regulate that industry. I was going to get the federal government to lay down safety standards for crash worthiness, brakes, tires, handling so that people who were struck by other vehicles or people who had a bad minute and fell asleep or shouldn’t have been drinking won’t be subjected with their families to capital punishment.

At that time we had a responsive Congress and a responsive White House. We could have hearings. There were members of the House and Senate and both parties who thought it was a good idea. The motor vehicle and highway safety laws were passed. And before we knew it, modest implementation of these laws have saved over a million American lives and upgraded the safety of foreign car manufactures who have to sell into our market and billions of injuries prevented.

When people say, How did you do this? I just wanted to. No that’s not what I am asking, How did you do this. Because I wanted to: That’s all you have to have is the desire. There is no Einsteinian breakthrough here. It is just having a higher estimate of your own significance as a citizen. The doors are open, the opportunities are there and you can go through life either apathetic and feeling powerless or dynamic and feeling empowered and wanting to empower others, who are disempowered.

Whenever you are discouraged — and you will be involved in all kinds of fights for injustice where you live and where you work and on a broader geographical plane — just think of your forebears, think what they did, think of your own absorption of the many problems and injustices that we should be addressing if we were a more serious society. Setting aside some of our entertainment time. And if that isn’t enough to motivate you, think of the day when you will be a grandmother or grandfather and that inquiring 9-year-old is sitting on your knee and looking searchingly in your eye and saying, "Grandma, Granddaddy, where were you when all these things were getting worse and worse?" You don’t want to have to answer them that you were otherwise preoccupied by watching the third rerun of Friends.

You are probably the last generation that has to give up so little in order to achieve so much. You know what’s coming if we don’t have a strong democratic world. Just in terms of environment you know what’s coming. If there were two cars in every Russian, Chinese, Indian, Indonesian, Brazilian, African garages built the way they are now with the infernal internal combustion engine, this world would not be habitable.

Global warming is serious. So are a lot of other things. like microbes, viruses and bacteria some of you will be working on. So we have to change the way we use our time to provide more time for civic engagement.

The ancient philosopher Heraclites once said, "Character is destiny" and I would add personality is decisive. Because you can have the same skills as your classmates but some of you will herald your career as tribunes of justice and others will not. Personality is decisive.

Cicero, while we are quoting the ancients, once defined freedom as participation in power. I think it is the best definition of freedom that I have heard. Freedom is participating in power such as a deliberative democracy, such as government, such as corporations, such as trade unions. People have to participate in those areas of power that affect their lives so intimately.

Sound bites aren’t usually wise, but I want to share a few with you from Mahatma Gandhi, the great strategist of nonviolence in British India, which led to India’s independence. He listed seven social sins which should be avoided, and he did it with a remarkable brevity. Here they are: To be avoided politics without principle, wealth without work, commerce without morality, pleasure without conscience, education without character, science without humanity, worship without sacrifice. I would presume to add two more: avoid belief without thought, and avoid respect without self respect, because that’s where respect starts.

I want to congratulate you on your four years achievement, hoping that you will come back as alumni and help form alumni civic groups the way we have done for our Class of 55 at Princeton. We have Princeton Project 55. It’s known to people here at Bucknell, there are efforts here to emulate that effort.

Your alumni class: how many other groups are you going to belong to where you knew each other when you were 18 or 17? Where you didn’t have to pontificate in front of them, where you were candid and forthright? You want to preserve that coherence of your Class of 2004 as we did at a late date on our 35th reunion, when we established a Princeton Project 55 Center for Civic Leadership. Right opposite the campus which is placing hundreds of Princeton undergraduates in summer and postgraduate citizen action groups, not to mention a global tuberculosis project that we have, a mentoring project and getting reacquainted with one another. Making reunions something other than wallowing in nostalgia and overdrinking. I urge you to bond together at a young alumni age and just dare to see how much you can accomplish as a permanent 2004 alumni civic organization.

I want to congratulate your parents, your friends, your relatives; you know what they went through. I want to congratulate your teachers and administrators and try to leave you with a sense of your own determination not to allow the forces of trivialization overcome you on a daily basis, but to fight them, fight trivialization and raise your sights.

There are people in the world who are looking for your leadership, and there are people in your community who are doing likewise. I hope you will stay in touch with each other, forge new bonds and pursue justice which is the predicate for the pursuit of happiness. Thank you very much.