A Call to Action

The College’s Unruh Institute plays host to a message of student action and engagement from activist Ralph Nader.
Wayne Lewis

Former presidential candidate and activist Ralph Nader spoke to a rapt, standing-room-only audience of USC students. He had a serious message to impart.

“Dissent is the mother of ascent,” Nader said. “All the things we take for granted that have improved in our history started out with a few dissenters.”

His Oct. 24 speech in Taper Hall, entitled “Don’t Waste Your 20s!,” aimed to inspire undergraduates to be leaders in the struggle for social justice. Nader pinpointed the 20s as a crucial decade in a person’s life — when idealism and energy are at a peak.

“Here you are, you’re moving into your 20s, and they’re your most creative years,” Nader said. “These are the years that are going to vector the direction for, probably, most of your life.… What you want to do with your life and your talents and your skills pretty much will be shaped in your 20s.

“And yet so many people just waste their 20s.”

Nader’s appearance at USC was sponsored by the Political Student Assembly, a nonpartisan student group promoting open, respectful debate, and the Unruh Institute of Politics, a USC College institute that aims to motivate students to become active in politics. Lindsay Lau, executive director of the PSA, organized the event.

Introducing Nader, Alison Dundes Renteln, professor of political science and director of the Unruh Institute, described him as a “brilliant champion of social justice for Americans everywhere.”

Renteln elaborated afterward. “He inspires people to work for social change. That kind of idealism is something I admire, and I think young people need to be encouraged to hold on to their idealism.”

As a student, lawyer and professor, Nader cultivated a questioning mind and contrarian skepticism during his own 20s. He went on to a career as an advocate for the American consumer — while remaining a staunch critic of consumer culture.

In 1965, by the age of 31, he had published Unsafe at Any Speed, an exposé of automobile industry negligence that led to tighter safety standards — and saved lives.

Said Nader, “The death toll has gone from a statistical 5.6 deaths per 100 million vehicle-miles in 1965 to 1.4 last year. That’s over 140,000 lives saved a year, just from these simple things.”

His continued work brought to fruition numerous federal consumer protection laws and contributed to the founding of regulatory agencies such as the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency.

Nader‘s most recent book, The Good Fight (Regan, 2005), critiques monolithic corporate power and the two-party system. He is the subject of “An Unreasonable Man,” a critically-lauded 2006 documentary telling the story of his life and career.

The activist warned the students in attendance that they would face some bleak realities in the coming years. Nader lamented a sped-up modern culture, poverty both in the U.S. and worldwide, and trade agreements that pull down the standard of living in the United States while exploiting an underpaid overseas workforce.

He cautioned students to avoid the pitfall of “growing up corporate” — his term for an unquestioning attitude in the face of societal wrongs, compounded by the belief that change is impossible.

“It’s this sense of defeatism and desperation that you’ve got to erase from your young, boisterous lives,” Nader said.

As examples of activism that successfully fought the popular tide, he pointed out the civil rights and women’s suffrage movements, as well as his own success in taking on the auto industry.

His prescription for students? They need to get a little bit angry.

“It starts with a level of social indignation,” said Nader. “We’re not talking about rage here…. We’re talking about… emotional intelligence.”

Nader went further and urged students to start now.

“It’s good when you’re here at college and you have discretionary time to think and to ask questions of yourself,” he said. “It’ll be a long time before you have your own newspaper like you have now. It’ll be a long time before you have your own radio station or television channel or gathering places or laboratories or experts at your bidding, called faculty.

“Take advantage of it.”

Nader suggested that students initiate a new course on practical civics — a sort of how-to for informed citizenship and grassroots activism.

“What you’re about here, is to ask questions that are almost never asked of our society and our culture,” said Nader. “For example, why are there 15 million bird-watchers in the country, and no more than 25,000 Congress-watchers?”

In concluding the evening’s activities, Renteln explained that the beginning steps for such a course were already in place at USC College.

“The Unruh Institute does sponsor seminars in practical politics,” Renteln said. “There’s a political internship course, Poli Sci 395. Last spring the Political Student Assembly held a one-day conference on political organizing. But it is true that there’s more to be done.”

Nader issued a challenge.

“How many people here, after you finish your formal education, expect and desire to be leaders in the advancement of justice here or anywhere in the world on matters that you think require change?” he asked.

All around the room, hands flew up.

“If you stick with that,” he said, “you’re going to have one of the highest percentages of leaders of any class in American universities.”

The students seemed ready to meet his challenge. They came away from Nader’s presentation energized.

“I don’t think anyone can really leave and go on doing what they were doing this morning,” said Shane Carney, a junior who majors in broadcast journalism and American studies. “A lot of people who came here have thought about, not necessarily trying to save the world, but at least trying to help it. Hopefully now it’s something they’ll actually pursue.”

Isaac Mason is an undeclared junior thinking of a double major in political science and fine arts. Nader’s call to action reaffirmed his interest in political change.

“I was kind of reconsidering political science as where I wanted to go, and he definitely reminded me why I wanted to,” Mason said. “His dedication to social justice, the heart for reform it’s clear he has, that’s the same way I feel.”

Zebah Pinkham is a member of USC’s chapter of the California Student Public Interest Research Group, which is currently seeking university funding. Standing in line after the talk to get a book signed by Nader, the founder of the Public Interest Research Group, she hoped to gain his advice about how to proceed.

Pinkham, a sophomore environmental studies and film production double major, felt Nader’s message deserved an even wider airing at USC.

“His speech was powerful because he focused on issues that literally every person our age should find it in their interest to care about,” she said. “There wasn’t any political partisanship, which might make people feel left out.

“I wish the whole school could have been here listening to him.”