"The Seventeen Traditions": An Interview with Ralph Nader
By: Cait O’Connor/Arab America Contributing Writer
Much of the ease of modern life and the degree of its conveniences are safe for us to use because of Ralph Nader. Nader, who was mainly influenced by his Lebanese parents. His transformative influence in the field of consumer affairs cannot be overstated.
Ralph himself, however, is somewhat understated. Having dedicated his life to civic pursuits, he has never married. This month he turns 85 and he continues to fight for citizen’s rights and social justice, although he has traded the media spotlight for a quiet office in the Carnegie Insitute for Science, in the quiet, leafy D.C. neighborhood off of Dupont Circle.
That is where we met recently, on a Friday afternoon to discuss his publication, “The Seventeen Traditions.” The book is a compilation of anecdotes, aphorisms, and memories from Ralph’s childhood. It reads like a diary spiked with parental wisdom and moments of fond recollection that bring the esteemed social activist down to earth, specifically to the cherished land he grew up on in Winsted, Connecticut. In the course of half an hour, we discussed explicitly the Arab aspect of his identity, and how that impacted his childhood and his sense of civic duty.
Q: What role did Arab culture play in your life growing up and did it influence your sensibilities?
Nader: Well, we grew up in an Arab-American family household, and we spoke Arabic. Not all the time, but they called it “household Arabic,” and that meant that we heard a lot of Arab proverbs. Whenever we misbehaved we were given an Arab proverb rather than a spanking, and it had a more significant impact on us because the proverbs, you know, meant the test of time, so if we were unruly and if we were too rambunctious, there’s always a proverb for it. It was a family that treasured education-reading; we had a lot of books at home. Had an entire encyclopedia, which at that time was a big deal. My parents used to say to the four children-we had two boys, two girls, I was the youngest-that they were trained in school, educated at home, and excited in the corner library–the library around the corner. So we had the school, at home, and the corner library. Some of the traditions that we learned, and they were not necessarily attributed to only Arab culture but they came out of the Arab culture for our purposes (because our parents were born in Lebanon), and so we were taught how to listen, how to do our chores. We were taught how to respect civic obligation and civic engagement. My parents were civically involved in the community, so we learned by example. They took us to the New England town meetings, for example. We went to the town hall, and school auditoriums for various gatherings, so we observed, and we learned. They didn’t give us a didactic ten-point instruction; they just had us tag along and listen.
And, we benefited from Arab cuisine that’s what we ate. We did not eat hot dogs, we did not eat corn flakes, we had yogurt, we ate grape leaves, we had fatayer, we had all kinds of porridges, and all sorts of blended vegetable dishes-we had hummus, we had baba ganoush, so…that was Arab American.
And, we put some of this in the book, 17 Traditions, which is the only book I’ve ever written that everybody loves. Because it’s so practical-it’s all examples and stories-how parents taught their children, inspired their children, disciplined their children with words and proverbs-educated their children. And above all, gave their children self-confidence to be civic leaders-all of us are civically engaged and leaders in our field. My brother started the first community college in Connecticut in 1965-the Northwest Connecticut Community College. My sister Claire, when the hospital closed down, she mobilized the community to begin a Winsted health center. My other sister Laura has been teaching anthropology at Berklee for over 50 years-UCLA Berklee. And she’s one of the leading anthropologists in the country, and quite importantly, has a top-rated course with thousands of students over the years, on controlling processes how corporations control us, how power controls us without us even being aware of it. And so she leads the students to educate themselves and learn what controls them in their life and whether it’s legitimate or illegitimate and what they can do about it.
Q: Is there one aspect of this Arab identify that you can identify as the most powerful or influential in terms of your values?
Nader: Yeah, well I think it was to develop a critical capacity. So, unlike most immigrant families, who were very sensitive about being accused of disloyalty, so they were hyper-patriotic, with the flags, and they would never criticize the U.S. Well, my parents were different. My father once said he ran a restaurant, a bakery, a delicatessen–there was a lot of talking back and forth, it wasn’t like a fast food restaurant today, it was like a town meeting every day. And whenever he criticized our country, or our state or our town, it was always a solution to deal with the problem. And whenever anybody said, well “Nader, why don’t you go back where you came from,” he said, “Well, when I sailed past the statue of liberty I took it seriously, don’t you?” So you see, that’s what we learned. That’s fairly unique of immigrant families who are always on the defensive. And my mother defined patriotism as, not only loving your country but working hard to make it more lovable, she said. So, I think that’s a unique thing. That’s what let us be civically active.
Q: Do you think, especially today, there’s maybe too much patriotism, to the point of ignorance or lack of self-reflection?
Nader: Yeah, well it’s sort of phony patriotism. They say they love their country, but their letting big corporations and government abuses run our country to the ground without doing anything about it. Half of them don’t even vote. Half of the people don’t vote in congressional elections, ⅔ don’t vote they stay home. So, patriotism means that you are civically engaged. It doesn’t mean just singing the star-spangled banner and saluting the flag.
Q: So I guess one of my questions was if you could identify a certain point in your career in which you considered your Arab identity, but I guess that would be the civic engagement part, right?
Nader: Yes, that’s right. Also, we grew up extremely sensitive to the need that the girls are treated just like the boys. There’s never any differentiation. We’re all going to go to college; we’re all going to get advanced degrees and so when we saw families with double standards we couldn’t understand it at that time.
Q: Yeah, and I think you said you took several trips back to Lebanon when you were younger?
Q: Can you remember how those impacted you?
Nader: Well, we went back to 1938, and we came back because there were drums of war in Europe, so we came back in 1939. That helped us learn the language and sort of reaffirm ethnic ties to extended family in Lebanon. Which is always good, it’s always nice not just to grow up in your town, but to extend your framework. And then I went back in 1962-1963, and I haven’t been back since, and I went back in 1954 as a student at Princeton because I did my thesis on agricultural development in Lebanon, and then I went back in 62 and 63 to do some writing. Freelance-I was a freelance reporter, and I went all over the Middle East and Egypt and could see the not very good influence of the U.S. in that area, and also could see what happens when cultures break down and lose their self-confidence. So in Lebanon, for example, they valued higher imports. They would import ice cream from France, water from France, pesticides from Switzerland, and they thought they were superior to anything in Lebanon. So they developed a cultural inferiority complex, due in no small part to the French mandate after WWI when they occupied Lebanon, and they emphasized the French language, French culture-to the detriment of Arab language and culture.
Q: One of the things I think a lot of viewers of this site consider or maybe struggle with is a question of how much they should personally represent the Arab side of their identity. So I just wondered if you had any feelings about that, like whether it’s better to distinguish this Arab heritage or is it better to assimilate and strive for equality?
Nader: Well, you do both. You have to assimilate because you’re part of a new country, and you have to learn about the culture, the ways, and means of the country. But, the one thing about the United States, it has ethnic groups from over 100 countries, and if they put that ethnic knowledge in a closet, they’re not contributing to American foreign policy, for example. They’re not contributing to Americans whose ancestors came here decades, generations ago and don’t know anything about the world. We were astonished that there were people-like we had Italian-Americans in our hometown, and the Italian-American kids were ashamed of the language, they didn’t want the kids from other families-Yankees, to come to their home and hear the parents talk Italian. They were ashamed of Italian food that’s no longer the case with pasta, pizza, but we were just the opposite. We thought that different cultures with different ways were adapting to life on earth, and sometimes some cultures to a better job in certain areas, and sometimes cultures do a better job in other areas. For example, Arab culture and the Mediterranean is now known by nutritionists as the best cuisine in the world in terms of nutrition and diversity and positive effect on health. If you came 100 or 150 years ago to the United States, you were ashamed of your food-you were ashamed of yogurt and chickpeas-you would not make that contribution. So the more recent immigrants said that “oh no, we’re not ashamed of our food, we’re going to start restaurants all over the country-Arab restaurants.”
Q: When you were writing this book, what was your intention? Do you consider these traditions sort of universal?
Nader: Yeah, I think most of them apply to bring up children in any culture, starting with learning how to listen. I mean, I didn’t really “write” the book, I just wrote down what my parents experienced with us and told us. And one thing that was good, though, was, the siblings-once in a while they’d catch a phrase or a familiar story, and they’d write it and put it in a cigar box. So it wasn’t hard to remember these things, and we wanted all families to do that, to connect the generations. We had a website urging people to do that in their family-grandparents, great grandparents and it would be essential to recover that wisdom and humor before it is lost to history forever. And with a recording machine, it’s a nice project for young children, teenagers, to do with their parents, grandparents. And so we wanted that as a model. The book was a best-seller (Harper Collins), and there were psychologists, developmental psychologists, who said it was a wiser book for raising children than they saw in their whole professional literature.
Q: Yeah, I enjoyed it. One of the things I thought was interesting was you mentioned public spaces and how you were familiar with them growing up to be very conducive to people interacting with each other, and how maybe today it’s more exclusive and impersonal?
Nader: Yeah, well the restaurant, for example, there were a lot of ethnic groups in my hometown of Winsted, and we’d kid ourselves-we’d kid each other ethically. Now, that’d be considered politically incorrect. For example, when I was growing up, there were ethnic joke books in bookstores and libraries. You can’t see one now; it’s all politically incorrect. But, my sister Laura made an excellent insight. The ethnic jokes between Polish-Americans and Irish-Americans, Italian-Americans, French-Americans, and Arab-Americans, one of the things it served was it reduced tensions between ethnic groups, as well as being a lot of fun. So, the restaurants were open spaces. They weren’t fast food, in and out, drive up to a counter and order your snack and then drive away. So there was a lot of conversation. The other thing is, our town had a lot of homes with front porches. Because people would sit on their front porches, they’d greet their neighbors; they’d come over. Now there’s nobody on the front porch. The activity’s in the back-the barbeque; it’s in the back. It’s like people don’t want to face each other personally. They’re into watching screens-television, computer, cell phones-you don’t need a front porch for that, and I recall there’s one street where you have six front porches, big front porches, and nobody is sitting there. So there’s a new group started called “Front Porch,” and it publicizes people-to-people meetings because they noticed that phenomenon. You might look it up: “Front Porch.” And now they have gated communities. And you have zones of free speech on colleges like you can speak only on a particular part of the campus free. It’s ridiculous, what’s going on. It’s bad enough that you can’t reach people on the phone anymore and have a telephone conversation, and it’s harder and harder to reach people because they’re overloaded with emails and text messages. So you have modern communications that are so massive and prevalent that it’s hard to communicate compared to 3-4 decades ago before the Internet. Quite a boomerang situation that very few people anticipated.