Public advocate Ralph Nader took to the podium in Keating Hall with a strong message for Fordham students:

He told them they had “grown up corporate,” which means they had been trained to accept unfair treatment from corporations; to have low expectations of their political leaders; and to recognize only a limited number of options for making their lives better.

Ralph Nader tells students at Fordham: “If you don’t turn on to politics, politics will turn on you.” Photo by Joseph McLaughlin

“Growing up corporate means that corporate commercial values control our knowledge base and our imaginations,” Nader told the near-capacity crowd in Keating First Auditorium on Dec. 3.

“Corporations mean to constrain our very imaginations,” he said. “We are not offered the full panorama of possibilities that would lead to critical minds, and that would, in turn, result in the raising of expectations in this country.”

Nader asked the crowd how many of them had been to a shopping mall, McDonald’s or Wal-Mart and nearly everyone raised their hands. Then he asked how many had attended a city council meeting or gone to a court proceeding without legally needing to be there. Only a few hands were raised.

“If you want to buy things, you go to the mall. If you want to get fat and increase your chances for disease, you go to McDonald’s. If you want to participate in the downward pressure on wages, you go to Wal-Mart,” Nader said.

“If you want a well-functioning democracy, you go to a city council meeting or court of law,” he told them.

“But you’re not there.”

To exemplify his message about corporate control, Nader pointed to the pages of small-print legal contracts that regular citizens must sign to achieve the tools necessary to negotiate modern society, such as checking accounts and cars. These contracts, he said, are intrinsically unfair and purposely made to increase corporate control over individuals.

“The banking industry makes $26 billion a year on bounced checks. They charge you sometimes $40 or $60 for a bounced check when it costs them only $2 or $4,” he said. “Why does this happen? It was part of the contract that you had to sign.”

Government, he said, was culpable by refusing to protect its citizens.

“Sixty thousand people die each year from pollution,” Nader said. “You might ask why your government doesn’t do anything to protect you from that.

“Because it’s not preventable? It is preventable,” he said.

“If Osama bin Laden said he was going to destroy 60,000 people in the workplace this year, you bet we would have safeguards in the workplace, so we have to get over this idea of the stratification of types of violence.”

Nader rose to prominence in the mid-1960s when he wrote Unsafe at Any Speed (Grossman, 1965), which detailed how car manufacturers refused to install safety features on their automobiles.

He was at the vanguard of a movement that caused the government to limit corporate power and protect citizen interests through the 1970s. The Clean Air and Clean Water Acts came into being during that period, as did the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

Since the 1980s, Nader said, corporations have regrouped and worked to eviscerate or totally strike down those protections.

“The expansion of corporate power has been truly relentless in the past 20-25 years,” he said.

Nader told the Fordham students that if they were angered by how American life is constructed, they could work to alter the balance of power by becoming expert consumers, active citizens and demanding taxpayers.

“There is a gap between knowledge and action,” he told them. “It’s not enough to know; you’ve got to have fire in your bellies. You have to have intellectual intelligence and emotional intelligence.”

He offered the titles of seven books that he said would make up for the insufficient education that the students had received. Reading them would be a primer on civic involvement.

“Corporations want you trained, but not educated,” he said. “They don’t want you to bring your conscience to work—so you will be an ethical whistleblower—or to the marketplace—so you will be an expert consumer.”

The choice, he said, was up to them.

“What kind of human being are you going to be—a person who achieves an ample standard of living but is devoid of any moral, ethical, civic, or spiritual components?” Nader asked.

“What we really need to do in this country is to liberate our imaginations so that we can have a greater reach, so that we can have a greater grasp.”

His appearance was part of the American Age Lecture Series at Fordham.