Ralph Nader on fiction and social change

Via Democracy Now! “Ralph Nader on the G-20, Healthcare Reform, Mideast Talks and His First Work of Fiction, ‘Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us!’”

AMY GOODMAN: Your book, “Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us!”, it’s just out. Kind of fiction, not really nonfiction, you call it a practical utopia. Where did you get the title?

RALPH NADER: The title came from—Warren Buffett was watching post-Katrina in his living room in Omaha, and he saw these streams of poor people fleeing the floods and the winds, and no food, no water, no shelter, on the highways north of New Orleans. And no one was helping them. And so, he couldn’t take it anymore, and he got a whole convoy of supplies, and he took them down to the New Orleans area. He went down himself and distributed all the food and the tents and the medicine to these desperate families and came across an African American family, who was helping, and the grandmother grabbed his hands, looked up at him and said, “Only the super-rich can save us.”

And that haunted him all the way back to Omaha, where he developed a plan to get seventeen older super-rich enlightened Americans at a hotel on a mountaintop in Maui, Hawaii, and basically asked themselves, what is it going to take to turn this country around? It’s going to take mass media. One of the seventeen is Barry Diller. And it’s going to take a reversal of the insurance industry. It’s Peter Lewis. It’s going to take dealing with deficits and subsidies and organizing the veteran and veteran groups and the women’s clubs around the country. Ross Perot. It’s going to take a real coordination and putting in a lot of money. That’s what they all represented. Bill Cosby is one of them. Phil Donahue is one of them. Yoko Ono is one of them. William Gates, Sr., Leonard Riggio, Bernard Rapoport. These and others get together, and it all happens in one year, 2006.

When you read this book, you’ll not only get a lift in terms of the feasibility of change, if we only change the predicates and stop trying to go after trillion-dollar industries with a few million dollars of citizen group budgets, and you not only get a lift, but you can see, step by step, the strategy, the tactics—how they set up a People’s Chamber of Commerce with tens of thousands of progressive small businesses around the country; how they set up a sub-economy, where they bought all kinds of businesses and got inside the corporate beast, because they own these companies; how they developed mass media; how they got people’s attention through the use of, for example, this parrot, Patriotic Polly, which got on TV early in 2000 and got millions of emails when it kept saying, “Get up! Don’t let America down! Get up! Don’t let America down!”

You know, in the early part of the twentieth century, Amy, and the latter part of the nineteenth, there were practical utopias, or there were just plain utopias, like Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, that really infused and raised the horizons of the progressive movement and people like Eugene Debs. In fact, that book sold a million copies,Looking Backward. We’ve stopped doing that in the last two generations. Our imaginations have been stifled by the grim reality of concentrated corporate power.

But when you see how these Meliorists, which is what these seventeen super-rich elderly progressive Americans called themselves, when you see how Sol Price, who started the Price Club, took on Wal-Mart to unionize Wal-Mart, you will see what happens when there’s smarts, determination and adequate money to take on a behemoth like Wal-Mart. You’ll also see how entrenched right-wing politicians, when they’re surrounded with mass movements back in their congressional district, and they’re basically confronted with ultimatum in this climactic scene in Congress at the end of the book, how they react.

And it’s important, I think, for all of us to stop just documenting and documenting and diagnosing and proposing these things, when there’s no power behind, there’s no juggernaut, there’s no pressure to organize the mass of the citizenry in the directions that really reflects their public sentiment, to use Abraham Lincoln’s phrase.

AMY GOODMAN: Ralph Nader, why fiction?

RALPH NADER: Because nonfiction prevents you from imagining. You have to, in effect, document Blackwater. You have to document the atrocities in Iraq, the military-industrial complex. All of these books, wonderful books, are coming out, more than ever in American history. You’ve had many of the authors on your program. But they are bound by nonfiction. They’re bound by the realities of concentrated power, which they are exposing in terms of their abuses. So you have to have fiction to raise the imaginative capability, what is feasible to fulfill life’s possibilities for people in this country and abroad. And that’s why fiction is so important.

I didn’t take the novel approach, because that’s very restrictive. That’s why it’s called a practical utopia. A professor in California, Russell Jacoby, wrote a book in 1999 called The End of Utopia, and I picked it up. I said, “What’s this all about?” because, you know, utopia, in most people’s minds, is like off-the-chart science fiction. It turns out he documented how, even in the academic world, the capacity and ability to imagine has been frozen. It’s been stuck, just like the society is stuck in traffic. So that’s why the fictional approach was used.

And also, look, you have a mega-billionaire. His name is Jerome Kohlberg. He was a big acquisition, merger person on Wall Street. His passion is election reform, which is part of this book. And while he started it a little bit, and then nobody, you know, rallied to his cause, but the key is, was he willing to spend a half-a-billion dollars getting it underway? That’s the key here. This entire redirection of our country embodied in this fiction of “Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us!” was pulled off not just by smart strategies, legions of organizers, legions of grassroot lecturers, but the whole thing cost less than $15 billion.

And you know there are people—Bloomberg is worth more than that. Carl Icahn is worth more than that. One multibillionaire. We have to imagine, step by step. So there are no magic wands in this book. This is a very realistic, month-by-month strategy for a titanic power collision with the entrenched CEOs and their political allies.

Leslie Stahl read this on her vacation in August, and she wrote me a very nice letter. You know, she’s the correspondent for 60 Minutes. And she thought the book was engrossing, creative and funny. And I said, “I’ll take all three, Leslie.”

AMY GOODMAN: Ralph Nader, why do you call these people “Meliorists”?

RALPH NADER: Because they were trying to figure out what they were going to call themselves to avoid a Bush Bimbaugh-type smear. One of the characters in the book is Bush Bimbaugh, who we all know is a takeoff on Rush Limbaugh. And a wonderful scene there when he invited Ted Turner into his studio, because he was losing ratings because of the growth of the progressive movement. They were saying, “What do we call ourselves so we’re not smeared, you know, by the editorialists of the Wall Street Journal or others?” And they came up with this word Meliorist, which means betterment. These are retired, progressive, enlightened billionaires and mega-millionaires who want to better the country. That’s what they called themselves.

But they didn’t go public until the mid-year, as they—that they were a coordinated effort. And as a result, they were able to engage in a strategy of coordinated surprise when they took on the CEOs.

And the Darth Vader in the book, who’s called Lobo, retained by the CEO Goliaths, represents every conceivable effort to stop the Meliorists. This is a titanic power collision. It’s not philanthropy. It’s not soft charity. It’s shifting power from the few to the many, top down, bottom up. That is, top down from the mega-rich, enlightened older people who are the Meliorists, down to the low [inaudible].

There’s a very good section in the book on how they did it in southwest Oklahoma to take on a thirty-eight-year-old veteran, House Rules Committee veteran, Republican—remember, the scene takes place in 2006—how they mobilized it in very practical ways. It eliminates all the stereotypes that we’ve learned to swallow as progressives about red state, blue state. It gets down to the concrete lives and the concrete hopes and the concrete capacities of our country.

AMY GOODMAN: So, have you lost faith in grassroots movements making that difference, making that change?

RALPH NADER: No, they can’t make it without very significant resources. If you want to set up 2,000 people organized in each congressional district, as the Meliorists do, you’re going to need tens of millions of dollars to get the staff, the offices, to find those 2,000 people, to root them so they go beyond the first year and they institutionalize themselves.

And this book, I hope, will be read by mega-billionaires. I hope they’ll say, “You know, all this time we wanted to do something about the crazy war on drugs or the prison reform or tax reform”—it’s inside their heads, but they’re very discouraged. I’ve talked to a lot of these super-rich, enlightened people over the years. I’ve never seen them so demoralized about the state of their beloved country. And in their advanced years, they don’t want to just watch it decay. But they’re all very egocentric, in a way. I mean, they’re entrepreneurs. They’ve done it, you know, without great help. And they don’t collaborate. And that’s the key, that the seventeen Meliorists are far more powerful than the sum of their parts, in terms of what they bring to this gigantic battle with the corporate and political power structure.

AMY GOODMAN: Have you gotten reaction from any of them, since this is a fictional account, but you’re using real people, real descriptions, real super-rich in the book?

RALPH NADER: I think they’re starting to read it now. They’ve had it for a couple weeks. It’s going to—you know, it’s a pretty hefty book, and the whole reason is because it’s all in the details. And the details are not dull. The idea here is to make apathy boring and to make civic action exciting. There are parades and bands, and the activity is in the rhythm of people’s cultural habits as they’re eased out into the public arena from the desperation of their private lives, economically and otherwise.

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