June 10th, 2001
About a month ago in a New York theatre I was approached by an older agitated couple. “We hope you’re happy now,” they said.
“With what?” said I suspecting the answer they gave.
“Your Nader gave us Bush.” Now this wasn’t the first time since the election that I had been attacked by irate liberals who saw my support of Nader as a betrayal, as blasphemy as something tantamount to pissing on the Constitution. And I’m sure that there are one or two people in this room that feel the same way.
Before the election Susan and I had been attacked in the Op Ed pages of the New York Times, we’d received intimidating faxes from a leading feminist admonishing us for our support. A week before the election we’d gotten a phone call from a Hollywood powerbroker, who urged us to call Nader and ask him to withdraw from the race. If he did so, this mogul said he would contribute 100,000 to the Green Party. I told him that no phone call from us would sway this man, that this was not a politics of personal influence and deal making, and that the Green Party probably wouldn’t take his contribution. After the election I read an article in which a famous actor criticized supporters of Nader, calling them limousine liberals of the worst kind, unconcerned with the poor.
It was not easy to support Nader. In no uncertain terms the message sent to us by colleagues and business associates was that our support of Nader would cost us. Will it? I don’t know. After the election one of our kids was verbally admonished in public by the aforementioned Hollywood mogul. And who knows what fabulous parties we haven’t been invited to. But thanks for inviting us here tonight. So, what to make of all this? As someone who has voted defensively in the past and at one time recognized all Republicans as evil incarnate, I completely understand the reactions of these people. I like these people. Eight years ago I would have said the same thing to me. But a lot has been happening that has shifted the way I think. After talking with friends in Seattle after the protests there, after going with Susan to Washington D.C. and talking to activists at the IMF World Bank protests, after talking to 13 year olds handing out pamphlets on sweatshops outside a GAP on Fifth Avenue, after watching the steady shift to the right of the Democratic Party under Clinton I have come to the realization that I would rather vote my conscience than vote strategically.
There is something truly significant happening today. A new movement, a new aesthetic is slowly taking hold on college campuses, amongst left wing groups in Europe and human rights groups throughout the world. The protests in Seattle 1999 and the IMF World Bank protests in Washington D.C in 2000 and the continuing presence of agitation wherever there is a gathering of corporate entities trying to determine economic and environmental policies in the third world is not, as the media portrays it, fringe radicals and anarchists, but a broad based coalition of students, environmentalists, labor unions, farmers, scientists and concerned citizens that view the decisions made in these cabals as the front line in the battle for the future of this planet. This is a movement in its infancy that I believe is as significant as the early abolitionists fighting to end slavery in the eighteenth century, as important as the labor unions advocating workplace safety and an end to child labor in the early 1850s, as undeniable as the scientists that first alerted the American public to widespread abuse of our environment by corporate polluters. All of these movements were met with overwhelming condemnation by both political parties, were ignored and then criticized by the press and were harassed, arrested and sometimes killed by police and other agencies of the government. But because of the tenacity and perseverance of these early grass roots movements we were eventually able in this country to change legislation and create laws that established a minimum wage, social security, unemployment insurance, environmental responsibility and workplace safety. And how curious that despite years of progress in our own country with all of these issues we now face a reemergence of child and slave labor, of unsafe working conditions, of sweatshops and of wanton environmental destruction in the third world by the very same corporations that resisted for years the progressive gains in this country. In the interest of profit margins and economic growth our corporations have reached out to the global economy and found a way to return to 1850 on all of these issues. We have just farmed it out to other countries enabled and emboldened by free trade and the protections granted it by NAFTA, GATT and the WTO. Amidst our booming economy this is an uncomfortable concept to embrace. It certainly is not being written about in our official journals. But it is being shouted on the streets, and their arguments however disturbing do bear a incontrovertible moral weight. Ralph Nader was the only candidate to talk about these issues and embraced this new movement as his own. That is why Susan and I voted for him.
I think this election has brought us to an important crossroads. The closeness of this race lifted a rock to expose the corrupt, manipulative and illegal way in which elections are run in this country. Indeed the most surreal and humorous moment in this election year was when Fidel Castro offered to send election observers to monitor our election. Aside from the obvious voter fraud in Florida, a brief spotlight was shown on the racist practices that have accompanied elections for years. Whether its the roadblocks outside polling places in African American voting districts, or the disappearance of African American names from voting registers, the curious failure of voting machines in Nader strongholds, or the exposure of the Supreme Court as a partisan political institution the picture is the same. Powerful people in the American ruling class fear democracy. There was a time when I would have said that it is the evil Republicans that fear democracy but the sad realization I have had with this election and the reactions to our support for Nader is that you can count the Democrats in that bunch too. Not only do we fear democracy but many in the Democratic party elite fear if not outright despise idealism. I have lost a great deal of respect for a party that admonished its progressive wing, that had no tolerance for dissension in its ranks and sought to demonize the most important and influential consumer advocate of the past fifty years. But we shouldn’t be surprised. A similar reaction occurred earlier in this century when another leading advocate of this century, Upton Sinclair was running for Governor of California. The power brokers of the Democratic party did everything in their power to isolate him, to give half hearted if any support to his candidacy and in some cases actually endorsed his opponent, Frank Merriam. And the press? They demonized him, said he was anti-business, said he was an ego maniac. Sound familiar?
Most of the Nader supporters I met were the real deal, people who live their lives dedicated to advocacy. This was not something any of these people took lightly. These were the people that are at the front line of controversial, difficult issues, their political involvement was way beyond and deserving of so much more respect than any of the people that would wind up criticizing them. The judgmental and patronizing attitudes of those in the generation that fought to end the Vietnam War and work for women’s rights is disappointing and discouraging but understandable. But I am not of the opinion that Bill Clinton was the best this generation had to offer and I would like to believe that there is a dormant power still left in these progressives that has yet to acknowledge the significance and importance of this new movement. For while the children of the Vietnam era were concerned with protesting an unjust war I would like to believe that this was more than self preservation, an interest in not losing their lives to this war. I would like to believe that feminists, aware of what gender works predominantly in sweatshops and what gender is predominantly sold into slavery would acknowledge these issues as their own, and begin looking beyond reproductive rights as the only litmus test for a candidate. I would like to believe that higher ideals drive all of us, ideals that have to do with the world at large. These are the ideals, the issues that the sons and daughters of the 60s generation have in front of them. The issues that in these young peoples minds unite the Democratic and Republican parties and lead them into a quest for an alternative party that will not compromise this planets future for a campaign donation from their corporate sugar daddies. This new movement is a rejection of politics as usual, a rejection that has frightening implications when you consider our reaction to it. Have we become our parents? Are we the establishment? Are we now the status quo that so cynically reject those with ideals and dreams, that says to the idealist that there is no room for that in this election, that one must vote strategically, that we can’t afford your dreams, that we must accept the lesser of two evils. The couple in the theatre, the Op Ed columnist, the Hollywood mogul and the actor beat their drums once every four years for their candidate and talk about their opponents as if their election will end civilization as we know it This is an op ed columnist, gay, who would not vote for the candidate that unashamedly supported same sex marriage, this is a mogul who would not be having anymore sleepovers and private screenings in a Republican White House, this is an actor professing to care about the poor who couldn’t seem to find his way to the picket line to support his own unions strike. I don’t respect armchair activists. I respect the kids outside the GAP that don’t compromise. I’m not ready to cede their idealism and passion and vision, to compromise their integrity for a Democratic party struggling to be centrist, for a democratic party that supports the death penalty, that dismantled the welfare system while increasing corporate welfare, that helped create economic systems that tear at the heart of the labor movement. How embarrassing it must be for Democratic Senators now that the epitome of individualism and political courage in this country is a Republican from Vermont. Maybe its time to stop demonizing people for their political affiliations and to follow the example of this man who risked his political future to follow the voice inside him. To reject politics as usual and follow our grass roots hearts. To form alliances in unlikely places. It’s a long struggle for justice. Because as anyone who works with Liberty Hill knows it is grass roots movements that create real change and no grass roots movement got anywhere compromising their ideals. Real change will never happen in Washington cocktail parties or in the Lincoln bedroom. It is arduous and messy and relentless agitation that creates change. It took over a hundred years of advocacy to eliminate slavery, a hundred years of labor agitation to create a minimum wage and we’re in our 70th year of trying to eliminate poverty in California. The work that Liberty Hill is doing is unpopular and flies in the face of conventional advocacy. But it is necessary and difficult work. I am inspired by your commitment and energy and by the fact that Upton Sinclair will be remembered far longer for his unwavering idealism and beliefs than Frank Merriam will be remembered for his skills as a dealmaker. That in defeat Upton Sinclair has it all on his victor. That there are no dinners this evening or this year for that matter in the memory of Frank Merriam, there are not enough people that can muster up the worth of extending the memory of this man to have a Frank Merriam award. That in integrity and purity of belief there is dignity and honor and longevity. I am humbled to be associated with Upton Sinclair and the vital and important work of the Liberty Hill Foundation and Susan and I thank you for this honor.