Ralph Nader discusses corporate violence and power
BROADCAST: Jun. 23, 1968 | DURATION: 00:51:51
Discussing corporate violence and power with lawyer Ralph Nader. Also reading two related N.Y. Times articles and playing Pete Seeger songs.
Tap within the transcript to jump to that part of the audio.
Studs Terkel Both of us are guests of the owner and driver of an automobile, Ralph Nader and I sitting in the back of a car on his way to the airport after speaking last week for the Illinois Federation of Consumers. Mr. Nader, I think, by this time is well-known to millions of Americans ever since he wrote "Unsafe at Any Speed," I suppose he might be considered gadfly and perhaps more than that, protector of the interests of, you might say those hitherto unprotected, primarily consumers and this time might include all those battling to save our environment. In a moment, the conversation in automobile, non-speeding but heading for the airport with Ralph Nader. The remainder of the program will be some readings, one by Josephine P. [sic] Johnson, Pulitzer Prize winner, of a piece she wrote recently for "The New York Times" on the subject of environment.
Studs Terkel 'Til he's hoarse, and he has been, for the last several years. The audience, of course, is well aware of his work. We're sitting, it's very ironic, we're sitting in an automobile right now. He just finished lecturing to the Chicago Federation of Consumers. I suppose then, the theme of the word that is most used in the American headlines these days is violence, law and order, and Ralph Nader has been hitting the theme of corporate violence. This is little talked about, isn't it?
Ralph Nader Yes, it is, because our perception of violence in this society is restricted to the more primitive forms which we label as crime in the streets. And yet to corporations who produce dangerous products, that pollute the air and pollute the water and allow pesticides and other contaminations to get into our food, are perpetuating forms of violence which, in terms of the numbers of people affected and the seriousness of the injuries, far exceed the so-called crime in the street. Just take unsafe automobiles as just one example.
Studs Terkel As you're talking now, as we're -- Both of us being driven to the airport where you're going to speak now to another group in Minneapolis on the subject. For the past couple of years now, you've been before congressional committees talking about the drug industry, about food, and about automobiles, of course, about polluted air and streams, and the public itself has a feeling, you sense, of impotence. What can we do about it? And you've been touching on this theme, that there's something that can be done. The various groups seem to be disconnected, and you're speaking, even hinting the fact, there may be a new kind of coalition.
Ralph Nader Yes, I think what we're seeing primarily, because these problems are so pervasive and have consequences throughout our society, is a combination of early and weak, to be sure now, of consumer groups, conservation groups, and poverty groups. Of course, if this coalition is strengthened and focused on these consumer problems and grounded in the factual disclosure of these massive abuses in the marketplace and in our environment, we'll have a real political force.
Studs Terkel We think, for example, Ralph Nader, of the, say the, conservation groups for a moment. During your speech tonight, the last part of which I heard, you were saying how much more vague it is, because everyone is affected, not just poor, and something could be pinpointed, at least a group could be pressuring, but everyone is affected, our whole society, the world, by the polluted air itself. So it seems hard to tackle, doesn't it?
Ralph Nader Yes. You know, it doesn't, pollution doesn't discriminate on the basis of race, color, and creed as such because it affects everybody. It doesn't affect specific groups in a specific way. Also, it's a silent type of violence, you know, people go about their work in a polluted urban environment, they're having their health impaired over time. People come down with emphysema, cancer, respiratory diseases, etc., but simply because it's a silent form of violence over time, we don't react with the indignation and concern as we do with crime in the streets. And that's very unfortunate, because unless we do, we're going to so pollute this environment that the world just won't be livable.
Studs Terkel As you're talking about this, as we're driving now, this automobile, all the automobiles we see along the boulevard here, causes of pollution in many ways because the industrial military complex and many causes have felt quite obvious. And now the automobile and pollution, since you've been campaigning for some form of reformation, have you been heard by the corporate boys? Have they been --
Ralph Nader Just, just very slightly. The whole anti-air pollution movement is exceptionally weak. We spend more on bad breath, to fight bad breath in this country than we do to fight polluted air. Certainly the grassroots indignation has yet to build, because our leaders are not focusing on the true culprits here, which are the corporations and their pell-mell rush for profits and to keep things going as they are, instead of changing them with new infusions of technology that will give us fresher air to breathe. The laws have not caught up to them. The penalties have not caught up to them. The public funds for enforcement and research is not up to the task. Here we have pollution affecting almost 200 million Americans, we're spending less and less on it each year than in the construction and manning of one atomic submarine.
Studs Terkel You're talking about pollution, then. In "Unsafe at Any Speed," some time ago when you wrote that, you talked about safety itself, now about pollution in the automobile, what role does that play? I think you named some figures that presented it was quite astonishing.
Ralph Nader The automobile is now responsible for roughly 50 percent of the air pollution in the country. In some areas like Los Angeles, it's as high as 90 percent because the Los Angeles county people have cleaned up many of the other sources of pollution, incinerators, for example.
Studs Terkel Let's say I'm the corporate advocate. I'll be advocate, and I'm saying to you, Ralph Nader, you're the gadfly, and I say to you, "Well, what can we do about it? Here's the auto, and here are the exhausts we have."
Ralph Nader Well, I'll tell you what they can do. Instead of GM spending 250 million dollars in the last two years to change it signs so that every sign, and the dealer and its corporate products has that sign, "GM Mark of Excellence," it could spend 250 million dollars to give its engine a mark of excellence, that is, one that doesn't pollute the air. Instead, that company even under all the pressure and all the outcry, isn't spending 20 or 30 million dollars a year on air pollution. And yet it alone, General Motors, a private corporation, is responsible for 35 percent of the nation's air pollution by way of tonnage, and I think this is an outrage. I think it's anarchy. I think it's a abuse of law and order, and I think basically it shows just how impotent the citizens of this country are in curbing a major form of violence not only to themselves but also to their descendants.
Ralph Nader Exactly.
Studs Terkel Well, you've been hitting different views [unintelligible] and seated here with Ralph Nader heading toward the airport in this automobile, of which there are millions that quite obviously, and the latest research indicates this we seem aware of it and yet we seem impotent about doing something about it. If perhaps, before we come to this question of the coalition you are talking about, the other worlds and the other fields where depredations are being performed by corporations on people, drugs of course, drugs. I know you've been hitting pretty hard on that
Ralph Nader theme. Well, we have two problems here, useless drugs and harmful drugs, over-prescription of drugs. The problem that has received the least publicity is the compilation of some 300 drugs, some of them household names, by the National Academy of Sciences in Washington and the Food and Drug Administration, which have been determined to be ineffective for the use for which they are advertised. In other words, money down the drain, not to mention perhaps harmful effects of taking drugs that don't have any purpose whatsoever. I think this is an example of looting the public, millions and millions of dollars every year for the benefit of the drug industry.
Ralph Nader Yes.
Ralph Nader Yes. The Federal Trade Commission knows about this. They leave it up to the Food and Drug Administration, which tried to delegate the responsibility to the National Academy of Sciences, which isn't an enforcing agency, it's just a study group of scientists, many of which are exceptionally conservative and reluctant to speak out against industrial abuse. And one thing delays another.
Ralph Nader Yes. Of course, the most spectacular tragedy is the thalidomide tragedy in 1960, early 1960's, when about 10,000 babies in western Europe were born with horrible deformities: stumps for legs and arms. And this drug was a mild sedative, and it was taken by pregnant women, and it led to these birth defects. Fortunately, it was stopped before it became widely distributed in this country. But 10,000 horribly deformed babies is a massive, a massive expression of violence, man-made violence, by a company that didn't test its product and then suppressed tests when it found out that they were adverse to its economic interests.
Ralph Nader Yes. Let me give you one statistic. All of the riots throughout the country in the last three years have totaled 260 dead and 500 million dollars in property damage. Now just take auto crashes; 260 dead is less than two day's toll on the highway. Five hundred million dollars' worth of property damage is less than one month's property damage as a result of cars crashing.
Ralph Nader Corporate-bred violence, not only because of often often conscious applications of designs to vehicles that are hazardous, such as sharp edges and doors that don't lock properly, and seats that rip up, throw people through windshields in a collision, but also inaction. The stagnancy of their technology, which could have been applied in a more creative way to produce cars that would protect people against death and injury, even if collisions occurred, up to at least 60-mile-an-hour impacts, and make higher speed impacts survivable. But the emphasis is on style, gimmickry, expensive promotion and technological stagnation, not on safety, reducing pollution, the kind of creative innovation that would serve human needs.
Ralph Nader There have been some changes, particularly in protecting people during collisions. We have a collapsible steering column now, with a less, less of a tendency to impale drivers in front collisions. We have cleaned up some of the dashboard protrusions and padded some of the internal areas of the car. We have improved, to some degree, the structure of the vehicle, at least it's claimed, like in some cars side structure protection, particularly some of the larger cars. We have a long way to go. To give you an illustration, with less than a million dollars' investment, a couple of companies in this country over the last few years have developed an airbag restraint system. What that does is that, when a collision occurs, instantaneously an airbag is inflated coming out of the dash pan or out of the back of the front seat for backseat passengers, and envelops them, and then also instantaneously disinflates. So basically, people in a collision go into a pillow, for example, and this can save thousands and thousands of lives. We could have had it years ago. We've done much more technical and sophisticated things in this space, in automated machinery and defense system. But the problem is, we've never demanded industry to distribute to the mass of the people the benefits of modern science and technology. Modern science technology has been maldistributed away from the needs of the people who are in education, in hospitals, in surface transportation. Many areas. Life hasn't changed much for most people. In fact, in some areas it's regressed: We have even worse surface transportation, fewer passenger trains, worse mass transit, more congestion on the highways. So I think it's time that we begin democratically distributing the great benefits of science and technology for the, for the use and welfare of 200 million citizens.
Ralph Nader That's right. The leadership must come initially from those who know, and for those who are most capable of generating national concern, and that means lawyers, and doctors, and engineers, and economists, and other specialized skills. Unfortunately, most of these professional people are entwined with invisible chains, with allegiances to corporate power or bureaucratic government power or union power. Their voices are stilled, they are not professionals so much as they are simply technicians, order-takers, not life-givers and it's the hope that the younger generation, a portion of them, with their idealism and their activism, will add new dimensions to the legal and medical and engineering professions, and get this process of democratic control over corporate power and technology underway.
Ralph Nader Exactly.
Ralph Nader That's right. We have what is called in scientific circles "a massive technological assault on the biosphere." Air pollution, water pollution, soil contamination, the entire planet in terms of livable space which is called the biosphere. It is about two miles up from the ground, and one mile down. And that's where three billion people live and breathe and work and pray. And that's a very thin slice of life around the earth. And if we continue with this imbalanced technology that's running amok polluting the soil, water, and air, the prime prerequisites of human survival, health, then perhaps we'd better increase the funds for our space program and discover other planets quickly.
Studs Terkel Immigrate to another planet. A couple of more things, then, you rest up here, I think. You mentioned so many aspects of the assault we have, that we're not aware of, the question of food, processed foods.
Ralph Nader One of the greatest frauds in the consumer marketplace. Billion-dollar looting. Example: Ten years ago, the fat content in processed meats was about 18 percent. It's gone up to about 33 percent; frankfurters, sausages, all these popular forms of processed meat. Why? Because the food processors know, and have put into effect, a simple cost principle: Fat is cheaper than meat. And so the average frankfurter, nice colored up so it looks fresh and seasoned, is composed of 33 percent fat, 10 or 15 percent cereal or other binder, 10 or 15 percent water, and the rest substandard meat. But as long as it's colored and seasoned and preserved, the consumer doesn't know the difference. Not only is that defrauding him of his consumer dollar when he thinks he's buying an all-meat frankfurter, but he's giving him a high animal fat content diet without his knowing it. There is no labeling of fat content. The industry successfully fought this requirement. And so, we have a major health hazard involved here. This is looting. This is criminal behavior because these companies are measuring these ingredients into frankfurter and sausage and others to the last decimal point and percentage in terms of quantity and cost. So they know what they're doing, they know the consequences of it, and they should be culpable for these consequences. Also, there's the contamination, the unbelievable filth. Consumers Union tested pork, pork sausage last year, and 25 percent of their non-federally-inspected sausage, which were incidentally samples from Illinois, contained rodent remains, rodent remains. And this massive defrauding of the consumer, this industrial and commercial violence, never is brought to to the concern of a representative.
Studs Terkel As you're talking, I think of the remarkable irony with 1912 that Upton Sinclair wrote "The Jungle," around there at the time of Theodore Roosevelt, and the public was shocked at the time, and that dealt with conditions as well as what you're talking about now, so there's a good half-century.
Ralph Nader Because people think the government is protecting them. The government will never protect them unless the citizens operate to make sure the government protects them. You cannot have an operating democracy of 200 million people with only a handful of citizens. As long as they're going to re-elect people like Senator Dirksen, who has the interests of special interests and industry groups and commercial groups, over the interests of the public and citizens, then the democracy will never function to protect the people, no matter what the names of the laws are, or what the agencies may be, in terms of their missions.
Studs Terkel If we can perhaps, just, let Ralph Nader rest now, just wind up with the comment you were saying about people's voices and the feeling is one, you are a muckraker in the marvelous sense of the word in the old Lincoln Steffens sense, but in a day when it's much more necessary. But the feeling is still one of, "What can I do?" The average -- Because of this, the overall general aspect of pollution, of food contamination, of all the aspects you're talking about, automobile safety. And you're speaking of a coalition of.
Ralph Nader Well, clearly, the first thing that any consumer can do is try to get smart in the marketplace, not be defrauded or tricked the way he is so easily. I mean, there are some things the consumer can't do much about, he can't discern the level of pesticide or the harmful effects of chemicals, or hidden latent defects in certain machines, in cars that he buys. But some things he certainly can if he's just sensible and he refuses to be fooled. He can just discern in a marketplace and simply not buy these products or demand that they be taken off the market or put pressure on supermarket managers and demand answers to these questions and send complaints to his congressmen and senators. One complaint doesn't do much; ten do more. A hundred, five hundred. He goes to the election booth and he votes. Now, his one vote doesn't carry much weight. But the reason why it goes down to votes is because he thinks a lot of other people will vote the same way and vote in his man. Same thing it should be so in his behavior as a consumer. I know this is in Washington where four or five complaints about a particular car, such as a Mercury Cougar which had hidden headlights that were defective, people were driving at night and the headlights would cover up because the retractable headlights would slip back, four or five complaints to Washington led to the recall of 82,000 Cougars in the spring of 1967. It doesn't take a crescendo of complaints, just detailed complaints, so that's the first element of consumer responsibility. There are a lot of other things that can be done, supporting local consumer groups such as the Illinois Federation of Consumers, supporting professional groups, urging other leaders of the society to take stands on consumer issues, whether their representatives are in Springfield or whether they're in the city council, or whether they're in Washington. These are some of the things that can be done. It all depends on what sense of urgency a particular consumer has and what his, what his position is, if he happens to be skilled in one area he can contribute more in that particular area.
Studs Terkel Well, Ralph Nader then, talking about law and order in its true sense of the word. The words used today, and violence, corporate violence. Thank you very much. He edits, by the way, he's one of the co-editors of an excellent newsletter called "Hard Times," he and Andrew Pupkind and James Ridgeway. It's published in Washington, and it's very revealing, indeed, and he spoke of the Illinois Federation of Consumers. I'll get the address of that and offer it to the audience. Again we speak of possible voices to be heard and [views? used?]. Thank you very much. As we're near the airport, Ralph Nader is pretty excited about something, he's talking this is a -- I think this is a rather hopeful note here. You're talking about students who are working with you and you recruited -- Would you mind detailing this for a moment?
Ralph Nader Yes, this summer I brought together about 100 medical, legal, and engineering graduate students. They're broken down to task forces intensively analyzing and studying various federal agencies. Air and water pollution agencies, the United States Department of Agriculture, Interstate Commerce Commission, Food and Drug Administration in terms of its food responsibilities, and the area of occupational health and safety. I think that they will learn this summer what it means to be operating professional citizens. They will learn a great deal about their own potential impact. They will really learn about the dynamics of government, about how government can be controlled by the regulatory process itself, the difficulties in meeting the public interest. I think in short they will see and get a glimmer of the new dimension of their professions, law, medicine, and engineering, that they can help carve out in terms of permanent career roles when they graduate in a few short years from their various universities.
Ralph Nader They're working on these agencies, interviewing, studying documents, and they will publish reports based on all of these agencies before the end of the year and the agencies are verbally cooperating, but I don't think they are really welcoming their scrutiny because these students have no ax to grind, they have no trade-offs that they're going to offer, they are not vested interests. They're free people with bright minds and hard workers and because of that, the agencies I don't think are welcoming their presence, although verbally they're giving their cooperation.
Studs Terkel Thank you. The address of the Illinois Federation of Consumers is 53 West Jackson, and I'm sure that the members of the Federation will be delighted to send you all sorts of information. That's Illinois Federation of Consumers, 53 West Jackson, devoted to the idea of -- Well, in the sense bettering our life, our lives, all of us collectively now, quite certainly we're in it together in this one, on this one planet together. I think a rueful footnote might be in order, too, to the conversation with Ralph Nader in the automobile that night after a lecture to the Illinois Federation. On the way to the airport, to indicate how insensitive so many of us are becoming. I speak now of myself. I smoke cigars quite often and I was puffing away at the stub of a cigar. Usually I ask guests in the studio whether it's alright if I smoke, in this instance I neglected to do so, I had forgotten to do so, was too insensitive to do so, and the conversation in the car was going along, and toward the end I was asking Ralph Nader about the nature, are they investigating cigars to the extent that cigarettes were investigated, and he says on that subject of cigars, he said, or tobacco smoking generally, he is always offended by the smokers in airplanes who pollute the air and the permission of others are not being asked, the nonsmokers, that their lives are being trespassed upon. And here was I puffing away, so I doused it immediately. And then I asked him why didn't he tell me this in the first place before the conversation began instead of just quietly and too politely allowing me to puff away and pollute the air of that automobile in which we were travelling. He said, well, in telling it to me toward the end of our conversation, the admonition might be better remembered. Indeed, I do remember it quite vividly, nor shall I forget it. And I think this is also a sign of what is happening to us even those of us who talk about the subject, a great many of us, I include I say specifically myself in this instance, just as I complain about the Muzak that is in the elevators, or the Muzak that is in a plane when it lands or before it takes off. No one has asked for this Muzak, but there it is. There is Mantovani, there is Guy Lombardo, there is Wayne King, there is Lawrence Welk. You name it, as the old phrase used to say, "You name it, I'll maim it." But no one asks. Somebody decides. This reminds me of a conversation, an incident some years ago. Richard Dyer-Bennett was singing in town. After the concert a number of us gathered in a restaurant. We were the only people there. It was empty and we were talking, but it was difficult to talk because something was coming over the loudspeaker it was Muzak, and so one of us asked the hostess if she could turn it off, and she was astonished, startled, and somewhat offended, too, by the request. No one had ever asked to do that. It turned out she couldn't turn it off. The switch was elsewhere. And so we come to a question of the, that which we call the sacred precincts of human life being invaded in so many ways. This in a sense is what Ralph Nader is talking about, indeed the Illinois Federation of Consumers, too and we'll pause now. I thought for the second half of this program two items that appeared in "The New York Times," one the comments of a Princeton University Professor, Richard A. Falk, who is directing research on a project devoted to world order in the 1990's, and the other a piece written by the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Josephine W. Johnson on the subject of uprooting this country. This is a news item datelined Stanford, California; it was a special to "The New York Times." [content removed, see catalog record] I thought as an adjunct to the comments of Professor Falk, a piece written for "The New York Times" of May 10th, 1969 called "Who Is Really Uprooting This Country?" by Josephine W. Johnson. Miss Johnson is the Pulitzer Prize novelist and author of "The Inland Island" and she lives in Cincinnati, and she writes, [content removed, see catalog record]
Studs Terkel This is the writing, the thoughts, of Josephine W. Johnson, Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, author of "The Inland Island," writing from Cincinnati, it appeared in "The New York Times" May 10th, 1969, certainly a fitting epilogue to the thoughts, the comments of Ralph Nader. And I suppose, if you want a copy of Miss Johnson's piece, I suggest writing to "The New York Times," it was in the May 10th issue, Saturday, May 10th, 1969. I'm certain that the paper would be delighted to send you copies. It was "The New York Times," May 10th, 1969 by Josephine W. Johnson. There have been calls, a number of calls have come in about the address of the newsletter that Ralph, of which Ralph Nader is one of the editors, all I know -- I don't have the specific address, but I'm sure if you wrote to "Hard Times" magazine, Washington, D.C., it would reach. I haven't, unfortunately, I haven't the specific address, but it's "Hard Times," perhaps in quotes, magazine, Washington D.C. The address of the Illinois Federation of Consumers is 53 West Jackson. We have time for some music, some appropriate songs, oh, I think we have several appropriate songs. There's one that Pete Seeger has written about his own river where he lives, on the banks of which he lives, the Hudson, it's called "My Dirty Stream" pollution song.
Studs Terkel There have been a number of calls, I'll repeat the addresses where you can get the Josephine Johnson article, "Who Is Uprooting Our Country?" appeared in "The New York Times" of May 10th. The article about man's extinction held real peril, the one concerning the thoughts of Professor Richard Falk of Princeton also appeared in "The New York Times," but I have no date. Israel Shenker, S-H-E-N-K-E-R, was the reporter for "The New York Times" from Stanford, California. These two articles were sent to me by Frank McAllister living in Chicago, and I think if you merely write to the paper and mention the article about Professor Richard Falk and Josephine Johnson, with the date you probably could, as the old saying goes, 'get satisfaction.' And "Hard Times," Washington, D.C. and Federation of Consumers address, I repeat, the Illinois Federation of Consumers, who have much information, it's 53 West Jackson. Now, there is a lady, a very elderly woman living in California, Melvina Reynolds, and she's written a great many songs, which indicates, of course, that there isn't really a generation gap in the true sense, in the spiritual sense. She's a grandmother and she's written, oh, "Little Boxes," that Pete sings, and the one we'll close with that Pete will sing, "God Bless the Grass," but also "What Have They Done to the Rain," which she sings herself. She doesn't pretend to be a singer, but it's her song.
Studs Terkel So that, too, is a Melvina Reynolds song as sung by Pete Seeger. Oh, on the subject, to remind the audience that Thursday night on this program, Thursday at 8, we'll replay the conversation with Mrs. May Theilgaard Watts, the ecologist, former naturalist, naturalist emeritus of the Morton Arboretum and Julie Nadelhoffer, on this very same subject.