Friday, April 15

In and out of tune with Nader

Last night, in Buffalo, NY, Ralph Nader gave a speech at Trinity Church. The event featured the singer Patti Smith and the short speeches or performances of a few local activists: a hip-hop verbal artist, a Green Party member, a veteran of the U.S. military, and the master of ceremonies. I was admitted at the "low income" admission fee of $8.00, while the others paid $15.00. My impressions of the event follow.
This event was similar in structure to one held a couple of years ago in Buffalo, in the more spacious and less stuffy surroundings of Canisius College's Koessler Center. However, a few things were lacking this time. For one, there were none of the community activist groups that had filled the auditorium floor with their tables. Gone, with them, was the feeling that one was participating in a truly community event. For another, the electricity and emotion of both the presenters and the audience were more often than not lacking. At Canisius College, Nader spoke about the impoverished state of "local news" and its tendency to stifle civic discourse. The topic, and his often humorous way of addressing it, created a buzz throughout the audience, and made everyone's presence seem vital and rewarded. Last night, however, Nader's chief topic was the absurd use of the U.S. military in Iraq. His speech was not, in itself, lacking in intelligence, useful facts, or spirited delivery, but it did not resonate particularly well with the audience. Buffalo, with its bankrupt city, located in a bankrupt county, certainly helps itself little by spending, as it has, approximately 126 million dollars to support Bush's take-over of Iraq industries and society, but other problems in Western New York seem too great in number and urgency for anyone to feel that Bush's most spectacular campaign of corporate enrichment to date is worth fighting against. One of the only moments of applause was created by Nader's telling the story of a soldier, now paraplegic from the injuries he received in Iraq, reportedly saying that he refused to accept his Purple Heart from anyone representing the Bush Administration. There is, however, a visible gap between the fact of despising Bush Inc. vocally, as most present were eager to do, and having the resolution and energy at home to resist Bush's corporate imperialism. The mere intention-to-act or disturbance of mind will hardly be noticed outside a few disgruntled circles. As the French would have it, il y a loin de la coupe aux lèvres.

The thrust of Nader's speech was to call for the impeachment of George W. Bush and the withdrawal of U.S. and other foreign troops from Iraq within six months. Nader supported the call for impeachment generously by citing the five different arguments that Bush and Cheney used to support their aggression in Iraq and then demolishing them -- at times mockingly, at other times in apparent exasperation -- by providing the persuasive but pitifully neglected reasons that anyone paying attention to the world beyond U.S. T.V. Land certainly knows well. As Nader pointed out in one of the more convincing moments of his talk, the fifth, "ex-post combat" rationale that Bush and Cheney pedaled into public space was the most grandiose and unbelievable of them all, given the history of U.S. interventions in Iraq to the present. The suggestion that Bush was bent on "liberating" the Iraqi people is the summit of hypocrisy. Had he been the least concerned about liberty and freedom for Iraqis, he would not have had Paul Bremmer issue a dictatorial decree -- still in effect today -- that bans the formation of unions in Iraq (to cite a single example of hostile restrictions placed on Iraqis, and not to mention the selling off of Iraqi resources and public property to foreign investors and exploiters of every stripe).

Nader used humor less often than I have ever seen, and he gave the overall impression of being a tired, embattled, but still feisty speaker. At times his exasperation seemed to spill over into general accusation, as when he said that he was "ashamed" at the refusal of a majority of American citizens to educate themselves minimally about the nature of the candidates before them. It is easy to sympathize with this feeling, but, as a listener to Nader's speech, one is entitled to expect suggested courses of action rather than deserving but easy condemnation of this sort. We know who the ignoramuses are. Surely none of them had paid to listen to Ralph Nader speak last night.

The speech was reasonable, for sure, but the entire tour of Western New York was intended not only to drum up resistance to an unjust and idiotic military and corporate take-over, but also to tackle the Nader/Camejo campaign debt, which debt Nader attributed to the Democrats' having filed 21 lawsuits against him in an attempt to keep his name from state ballots. This second, more "practical" motivation seemed to leave its mark on all the proceedings. If all Nader had wanted was money, he certainly would not have made Western New York his tour destination. Nonetheless, despite the evident intention of resisting the Iraq take-over on well-reasoned and moral grounds, the entire event was something of a reheated version of that of a few years ago -- only, this time, an accountant-like subtext cast grayness over everything.

Patti Smith, for one, was totally out of form. She had just arrived from Rome, where, she said, she had gone to "work." Aside from performing a few songs to the halting accompaniment of a man who had just rehearsed with her hastily upon her arrival in Buffalo, she subjected the audience to a miserably bombastic poem that, she explained needlessly in a tedious preamble, was written from the perspective of an Iraqi mother experiencing American bombings while trying to sing her child to sleep. Things got worse: she then recited a poem about Pope John Paul II that was simply a pious piece of vacuous admiration. Worse still: when the accompanying musician took a mandolin in hand and started strumming a single chord, Smith started singing in a different key from that being played on the mandolin. I believe she was a full four major steps below the tonic -- thus, the dissonance edged at times close to harmony, but remained dissonance nonetheless. After one verse of this pain-inducing exercise, which made me think at once of the auditioning scene from Christopher Guest's "Waiting for Guffman" (with the exception that the performance by Smith was worse than anything exhibited for humor's sake by Guest's actors), the couple stopped abruptly, seemed to commune with one another to reestablish pitch, but then picked up exactly where they had begun, and this time with dogged determination to finish their little dirge-despite-itself, and in a spirit of let-the-listener-be-damned. The breathable air within the church was nearly completely evacuated by the time this number was through. For a single but tautly stretched-out moment, the audience was held at the threshold between laughter and the pain of sympathy. The uncertain suspense was exhausting, and thus the conclusion of the piece drew an audibly general sigh and stray, compensatory clapping.

Patti Smith does has a powerful singing voice, and her onstage presence is undeniable, especially when she is backed by her band of young studs. Last night, however, she inexplicably gave the audience only a few bars of her strongest singing. The master of ceremonies mentioned that Ms. Smith intends to return to Rome this week. Given her lackluster appearance, one wonders if she would not have helped Ralph Nader more by sending him, as a campaign donation, the money she ended up spending on the round-trip airline ticket.

One wonders, more generally, if resistance to the Iraq take-over is possible in a nation that is as easily distracted as this one is by petty stories concerning Martha Stewart, Michael Jackson, baseball, and a brain-dead body's artificial sustenance. I wish I could say that I felt confident that the reportedly 59% of Americans who now are opposed to the Iraq take-over could be mobilized enough to pressure their legislators into changing course, but the dispirited performance of the Nader group last night made me feel less confident than I had been before. Is this supposed to be the nerve of the anti-corporate-war fight? This group seemed like a small band of embattled cohorts -- wounded, weary, cross, and now fighting for mere solvency, using their anti-war rhetoric both to promote social justice and to bring order to their books. I concluded, with a feeling of sad resignation, that if there is to be a spirited challenge to Bush's corporate stranglehold over Iraqi assets, chief of which we all know to be the oil industry, then Nader might chime in with his reasonable plan for removing U.S. instigation to Iraqi insurgents as well as his reminders of just how heartless our corporate-think politicians have become, but energetic and resourceful activism will surely have to come from the nation's "youth."

Now, if only said youth would learn how to view with healthy criticism their own consumption of corporate-packaged opinions. If only they reduced the quality time spent listening to corporate anger radio programs and learned how to make use of all their "freedom" and "liberty" to do something other than passively consume goods, ideologies, and services.