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Ralph Nader Talks the Seventeen Traditions

It’s more than a little ballsy for a seventy-three-year-old childless attorney to want to publish a book about parenting. But we’re talking about Ralph Nader, a person hardly expected to give a rip about what would typically qualify him for the tasks at hand (2000 and 2004 presidential elections, anyone?).

Despite his latest book’s sentimental language and appearance – the text is sepia-tone, chapters are illustrated with heartwarming sketches of his bucolic Connecticut hometown – The Seventeen Traditions is a straightforward how-to manual on turning our precious blank slates into smart, worldly agitators who challenge authority, stand up for what’s right, and do way more than just coloring outside the lines.

I called Nader recently to get his take on kids these days, their moms and dads, and whether modern urban parenting could possibly match the idyllic, safe, affordable setting of his own childhood. I also wanted to settle a personal vendetta: Decades ago, he ruined one of my own family’s cherished traditions – cruising the open highway in my grandma’s Chevy Corvair, a car Nader called “Unsafe at Any Speed” in the investigation and book that made him famous and launched his consumer and public advocacy career.

Plus, an exclusive on the 2008 elections. – Madeline Holler

What I want most for my two girls is that they learn to take risks, challenge authority, stand up for their principles and speak on behalf of themselves and others. I know from experience that can be intimidating, even alienating. It doesn’t come naturally for me. Your father said, “Don’t look down on anybody for their work, and don’t be in awe of anybody.” Is that how you can stand up to a corporation or openly criticize popular ideas or run for president two times? Not being in awe of anybody?

Well, [my siblings and I] watched our parents operate in the community. They stood up to injustice and falsehoods and bigotry. They weren’t aggressive in any way, they were very casual about it and we learned that just by watching. There was a don’t-look-down-don’t-look-up approach. We weren’t awed by kings or presidents or governors or CEOs. It was all about eye-level contact.

Is that how you can keep waging these monumental battles and not playing it safe?

Sure. And my parents raised children who had a sense of purpose, who had an ever-developing public philosophy and felt that their major purpose in life is to try to improve life.

You talk about consequences of self-censorship and conformity. In the parenting world, we’re expected to tiptoe around our differences, lest we be accused of taking up arms in the “Mommy Wars.” You write that your father engaged in political discussions with everyone who came through the door of his restaurant. How did he do that without offending people or losing customers?

First of all, he did it in a way where people felt their intelligence was being respected. There was no looking down on people. He respected their differences. He liked to engage with people though he might not agree with them. As for lost customers? He said that’s the price of freedom. He did lose some business, but he came over here [to the U.S. from Lebanon] to breathe the air of freedom, free speech.

Mowing the lawn was hardly a favorite childhood activity of yours, but you say that kind of hard work was foundational. Where I live in Southern California, nobody, much less kids, seems to mow their own lawn. Even friends who are struggling to pay the mortgage always have $60 each month to pay the gardener.

That’s a pronounced difference in the generations. These kids are missing out. They’re not exercising their bodies, they’re not getting the discipline of manual labor, which is important. Maybe later in life they’ll have white-collar jobs, they won’t know what goes into mowing or raking leaves or shoveling snow. In that sense, too, there’s a loss. It’s creating a spoiled generation, even. The discipline of work is part of being raised.

You praise your mother for not complaining about the work of raising kids. First, are you sure she didn’t complain about it? And would that have been a problem? Are today’s parents too whiny?

When the latest women’s rights movement came on, [they] made a lot of homebound moms feel guilty or feel inferior, which I think was a big mistake.It was a different generation, they didn’t complain. They knew it was part of the job – just like a doctor doesn’t go to work and complain that they have to take care of patients. Mothers were active in the community, they were raising kids. These were fulfilling tasks. When the latest women’s rights movement came on, [they] made a lot of homebound moms feel guilty or feel inferior, which I think was a big mistake by the Gloria Steinem types. They lost a large constituency that way. What they should have done was enlarge the function of staying home to include the neighborhood and the community and civic engagement. Where the people who have to go to work don’t have time for that . . . What’s the most important work? It’s civic engagement by far – state, local, national, international level.

Let’s bring your early professional life around to my young one. My sister and I loved riding in the back of our grandmother’s red convertible Corvair, top down, no seatbelts, tearing around Western Kansas. One day she parked it in a barn and never drove it again. Should I be thanking you?

[Laughs] At least it was a convertible. You wouldn’t have been exposed to high levels of carbon monoxide too.

Give me an exclusive, are you running in 2008?

No . . .

No, you’re not running or no, you’re not saying?

It’s too early to tell . . .

Are you up for it?

It’s not up to me entirely. If I can’t get on the ballot . . .

Let’s say you run. What can government do to help American families?

Affordable housing. This idea that we can produce endless numbers of iPods and computers and hamburgers but somehow there’s always a shortage of houses is an example of inverted priorities. There needs to be more participatory recreational facilities in the cities – instead of just turning kids into spectators, without being scheduled in leagues. There’s a lot of tax dollars being put into stadiums for billionaire sports owners, but the little basketball courts and recreation facilities for kids are not well-maintained and there aren’t enough.

You sound like a city councilman.

Well, there’s universal healthcare. That would reduce a lot of anxiety. Living wage. People should be able to live on one job instead of being away from home for a job and a half.

Universal childcare?

Sure. That [affordable, quality daycare centers] should be part of the neighborhood, part of our lives, just like the fire station.

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