The Arrogant Advocate

'An Unreasonable Man' admirably presents both sides of Ralph Nader's legacy

Like many Americans, I've had a six-year-long sinking feeling as the country I love has turned from a beacon of freedom into a kind of neo-Stalinist cartoon-ocracy. Advocacy and use of torture, unlawful imprisonment and the abandonment of habeas corpus (perhaps our most important legal institution) have migrated from dystopian fiction to official policy. Meanwhile, the K Street Project and its shocking uptick in the idea that government is that thing you buy on your way to the arms market has almost completely erased the distinction between the public and private sectors.

Strangely, other than the immediate culprits, the man most often blamed for this is a nerdy, 73-year-old consumer activist. Prior to his recent vilification, he was better known as the force behind the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and the Consumer Product Safety Commission. It was he and his team who brought us the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Clean Air Act and one of the greatest things ever to happen to democratic governance and UFO conspiracy theorists: the Freedom of Information Act.

And now Ralph Nader presents an interesting problem: While his early career is responsible for saving hundreds of thousands of lives, he may well be remembered, fairly or not, as the person who spitefully and without foresight ushered in an era of unprecedented incompetence and anti-Americanism in governance by allowing Vice President Lex Luthor and his Crime Syndicate to seize power. (For the one out of three Americans who, either through ignorance or active embrace of torture, still think Bush is doing a good job, let me just say: Hey, God bless you. Really.)

But is that fair? An Unreasonable Man takes on this problem by laying out, in some detail, Nader's early career as a kind of defense-by-character for his later decisions. Clocking in at just more than two hours, it's an in-depth look at the man who, through his legislative efforts in the '60s and '70s, almost single-handedly made the U.S. government into an oppressive nanny state that won't let us drive our faulty death-mobiles at 300 mph with our seatbelts unbuckled and a newborn baby tied to the antenna.

The film opens with a series of talking heads, including the likes of Pat Buchanan, Mark Green, Phil Donahue and Eric Alterman, either praising Nader like he was the Arthur Fonzarelli of consumer advocacy, or condemning him as the man who, out of a megalomaniacal desire to get his aging face back in the spotlight, destroyed our country's moral standing in the world.

It all comes down to how you view his effect on the 2000 elections. As Mark Green points out, the Democrats were partially responsible for keeping him out of the debates on the pretence that his candidacy didn't matter, and then claimed that it mattered so much that it cost them the White House. And in general, the Naderists in the film keep claiming that it's not Ralph's fault, that it's Gore's fault or the Democratic party's fault or Bill Clinton's fault that George W. Bush took power.

Alterman rebuts that of all the people who are to blame, only Ralph Nader had the decisive power to simply choose to throw the election to Gore. A strong speech saying that, yes, we don't want to settle for the lesser of two evils, but sometimes, one of those evils is so dire that we have to, would have pushed things Gore's way, even if only a third of Nader's voters had followed his advice.

Alterman accuses Nader of being a "Leninist," in that he thinks Nader wanted things to get worse so that people would be roused to make them better. Maybe so, but it's only in hindsight that we could see how much worse things could get. Who knew going to an anti-war rally would wind up getting you on a no-fly list, or that phone-tapping without a warrant would be considered defensible, or that we'd be unable to prosecute hundreds of terrorists because they were subjected to torture?

The sympathies of directors Henriette Mantel and Steve Skrovan seem to be with Nader, but they do their best to present opposing views. They even give Pat Buchanan some uninterrupted time to question Nader's early work in safety legislation. But the thrust of the film, and of any work on Nader, is going to come down to how to judge his 2000 presidential campaign.

His message that the two parties were really one party has, ultimately, been shown to be wrong by about 20 percent, and if that 20 percent were just the difference between farm subsidies and corporate welfare, maybe all his old friends would still idolize him. When it's the difference between the rule of law and having your head stuck in a tank of icy water while dogs maul your genitals, it becomes something of a big deal.

In the end, An Unreasonable Man is two films. The first is the story of the man who made our food safer, reduced the damaging effects of medical X-rays and improved working conditions for coal miners, among dozens of other advances. The second is the story of what happened when that man lost his power of influence, and the tragedy that resulted from his efforts to regain it. Together, they present a compelling look at the life of an important American patriot, and the powerful effects, intended and unintended, that he's had on our country.

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