There was little in the legendary activist's talk to indicate that a half-century of battling injustice (and sometimes running for president) has discouraged him, let alone dimmed his sense of outrage.
In fact, his address (part of the school's Global Cultural Studies speaker series) was explicitly about spurring the mostly student audience to similar action.
Nader, 75, began with the story of how his law-school paper on automobile safety turned into the landmark consumer-advocacy book Unsafe At Any Speed (1965). Once he'd learned that cars were designed with marketing rather than safety in mind, Nader said, "It never occurred to me that the situation could not be changed."
"You're all capable of making similar advances" in fighting injustice, he told the packed auditorium. In fact, he added, otherwise "You are not a citizen."
Lacking the time or know-how for activism is no excuse, he said. "All social-justice movements start with people who have no power whatsoever," he said. "The difference between those people and today is, those people didn't make excuses."
In a talk titled "The Mega Corporate Destruction of Capitalism and Democracy," Nader acknowledged the many barriers to activism. These include the meager education our schools provide in civics and history, and our culture's implicit privileging of entertainment over education and civic involvement.
When the word "crime" makes us think of street crime rather than corporate malfeasance, and "welfare" of poor people rather than corporate giveaways -- even though the corporate kinds do more damage -- there's a lot of mindsets to be recalibrated. When big business calls the tune for government, says Nader, we live in "a corporate state" bedizened with consumer choices but little real civic freedom.
It was all cogent and uncompromising. Still, I was left wondering if there weren't a hint of discouragement in the plot of Nader's first novel, a 600-pager titled Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us! (Seven Stories Press).
The premise is that a bunch of real-life billionaires led by Warren Buffet (and including Ted Turner, Bill Cosby and Ross Perot) join forces to spark massive democratic reform of damn near everything.
The novel's protagonists, in other words, are the exact opposite of "people who have no power whatsoever."
The book's title is clearly tongue-in-cheek. Maybe it's all just Nader's way of making us imagine better possible worlds. But it also suggests more than a little worry on Nader's part that popular apathy is preventing change from the bottom.