Singleminded and Singlehanded

When I was a small boy, my father liked to thrill me with an adventurous game. Coming home from the Little League field or an errand to the hardware store, he’d let me ride in the trunk of his black Corvair, challenging me to guess when we were home by reckoning the pattern of turns I could feel. He’d throw in a detour or two to make the game harder, as we called back and forth to one another through the dashboard panel: this being a Corvair, with its rear engine, the trunk I was riding in—the trunk my father, a physician, felt comfortable stowing me in—was in the front.

Can we say that Americans in 1965 were a tad less safety-minded, automotively, than they are today?

The end of my father’s and my heedless little game, and of his owning that car, was already in sight. For that year—in fact, fifty years ago today—a brash young Connecticut lawyer named Ralph Nader published a muckraking broadside, Unsafe at Any Speed, that skewered General Motors, and the Corvair in particular, for its appalling safety record. When the dust settled, Nader had forged a role for government in automobile safety and all but singlehandedly fashioned the concept of public-interest activism.

An article in the Times offers a look back at the book’s publishing history, noting that Nader—who’d begun researching automotive safety a decade earlier, as a law student at Harvard—was inspired by Rachel Carson’s pathbreaking 1962 work of popular environmentalism, Silent Spring. Though one publisher dismissed his manuscript as  “primarily of interest to insurance agents,” Nader—surprise!—persisted, and soon Americans were reading an opening line that fired the shot heard ‘round the auto industry: “For over half a century the automobile has brought death, injury and the most inestimable sorrow and deprivation to millions of people.” Such prose established its author’s trademark insistence that moderation in pursuit of progress is no virtue.

Within a year, the book was improbably climbing the bestseller lists (along with Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood), and Connecticut Senator Abraham Ribicoff invited Nader to testify before a Senate subcommittee on automotive safety. And the rest is history: bumbling skullduggery by GM in a lurid attempt to personally discredit the gadfly; an invasion-of-privacy lawsuit by Nader and half-million-dollar settlement, deployed as seed money for the first wave of Nader’s Raiders; the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act; and, in the decades since, seatbelts, air bags, safety-conscious auto design, and a fivefold decrease in deaths per miles driven.

When Nader’s name comes up, some liberals still wince to recall his spoiler role in the bitterly contested presidential election of 2000, when George W. Bush was shoehorned into the White House by the Supreme Court and 537 recounted votes in Florida—a state where Nader, who drew overwhelmingly from Al Gore’s tally, got over 97,000 votes. Nader’s progressive insurgency was predicated on his unshakable belief that the two major political parties are indistinguishable, and yet a plausible counterfactual history of the U.S. in the fifteen years since goes like this: no Ralph Nader, no FL vote recount, no Supreme Court ruling, no President W, no Iraq war. It is a logic that Nader has stubbornly refused to acknowledge, much less accept.

But even those who blame him for W can’t help but feel dazed with gratitude and awe by the bulky catalogue of Nader’s service to the nation. To say that the man has been indefatigable in pursuit of consumer protection is a wan understatement. At one point in the 2007 Nader documentary, An Unreasonable Man, the list of federal safety regulations that owe their existence to him scrolls down the screen, and one gasps at how productive his efforts have been. By way of assessing his impact on American life, the filmmakers, Henriette Mantel and Steve Skrovan, invite us to imagine Nader as a brand name appearing on every seat belt, airbag, tobacco warning label, and household safety product. We live in a world made safe by Ralph.

I’m just old enough to remember an era when seatbelts (the waist-belt-only kind) lay on your car seat unused and tangled like spaghetti, or when garbage would routinely fly out of car windows on the roadways. See such littering now, and you flinch with disbelief and outrage; ride more than two blocks without your seatbelt on, and you feel—well, unsafe. Intrusively at first, and then more routinely, public-interest laws change behavior, and over time those changes in turn alter—for the better—the very way we see and experience reality.

The title of An Unreasonable Man echoes a famous pronouncement of George Bernard Shaw. “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world,” Shaw observed. “The unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” Nader’s half-century of unreasonable effort on all our behalf is showcased in the newly-opened American Museum of Tort Law, in his hometown of Winsted, CT. A magnificent example of singlehandedness powered by singlemindedness, he has changed the rules of daily life—and shown how government can work—to all our benefit. Thanks, Ralph.

Rand Richards Cooper is a contributing editor to Commonweal

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