For a long time I couldn't understand why more people didn't vote for Ralph Nader in the U.S. presidential election, though after listening to him speak on Friday, October 28, at the Ryerson Theatre, it's a source of wonder to me that 394,578, actually did. The Centre for Social Innovation-sponsored event begins with a laudatory intro by the Toronto Environmental Alliance's Keith Stewart and Democracy Watch's Duff Conacher outlining the career of the Harvard- and Princeton-educated consumer rights activist.
Nader, hero or villian of the last two presidential rounds, depending on your point of view, then launches into a warm-up speech of sorts for the UN Climate Change Conference, scheduled for Montreal from November 28 to December 9. For his hour-long oration, he receives a standing ovation, and it's easy to see why.
Deploying his patented attack on corporations, he insists they are well able to adhere to environmental practices in spite of the bottom line.
"Corporations, for all the things one can say about them, are very expedient,' he says. "They will adjust when they're told they have to adjust. They adjusted to the abolition of child labour, they adjusted to Medicare, they adjusted to auto safety standards, they adjusted to various standards getting lead out of gasoline . Technologically, they adjust."
He also offers insights into Canada, praising PEI's commitment to generating all its electricity via renewable resources by 2015, and slamming Ralph Klein, saying, "May he retire before the Raging Grannies do."
But look past the wizened face, grey suit and professorly, curmudgeonly demeanour and one sees a certain unattractive bitterness. Nader directs it at a variety of non-active activists he sees "sitting in some countercultural restaurant pondering the cosmos. They've got a brilliant series of diagnoses of the concentration of power and wealth and the abuses of corporations. They have their appetizer, and they diagnose, then the entree, and they diagnose, then the dessert comes, and they diagnose, and then as they're going out they sort of hug each other in a cataclysmic expression and rationalization of their own futility."
The packed house - evidently active activists each and every one - drink it all in, as if the project of changing the world had no use for private folk who talk among their friends about issues, choose locally owned restaurants and speak out quietly by boycotting dirty companies or consuming environmentally friendly products.
Then, strangely, Nader implores the crowd to approach these very same people as a way of spreading the message. "We really have to converse more, friend to friend, relative to relative, neighbour to neighbour,' he says. One has to wonder if the front yard is any better as a venue for this than the local hip eatery.
The crusader certainly hasn't lost his touch. In August, he pressured Ford to recall vehicles with suspect cruise control switches, and in October he announced he was returning to the bruised car business.
He also hasn't lost his bite, chomping left and right at foes and friends. He finishes the evening in a glow of adulation.