Nader, the debates and you

Ralph Nader has now all but disappeared from the radar screens of the national media. They did their bit for democracy, they would argue, by giving him a few electrons and a little ink last summer, but now it’s time to get serious.

After all, Al Bush and George W. Gore are in a tight race, and we must concentrate on their vital policy differences. These are, near as I can make out, having watched the first debate and listened to/read the wizards of punditry: 1) abortion, 2) whether finger-pointing is a good idea, and 3) the ethics of sighing.

Yessir. Regular marketplace of ideas. The fact is, globalization — the clash between the needs and interests of the developed and developing nations — is perhaps the biggest issue in the world today, one Bush and Gore have gotten away with virtually ignoring. This ought to stop, and I wish Nader were in these debates, if for no other reason than to force them to focus on real issues.

That doesn’t mean I necessarily agree with Nader. Frankly, there are reasons to think twice about voting for him, quite apart from boosting Puddin’head Bush. Nader has an authoritarian streak and doesn’t tolerate criticism well. Nor is it clear he could work well with others in the necessarily messy, compromise-driven world of Washington.

Yet last week’s “debate” (actually, a rigidly structured joint press conference with a single reporter) may have been the year’s most powerful argument for Mr. Ralph. First of all, there was the thuggish behavior of those running the debate, who wouldn’t even allow Nader in the hall, though he had a ticket.

Next, there was the event itself. What Nader or Pat Buchanan (who has $12.5 million, courtesy of the taxpayers) or some other third candidate could easily do is make a clip of the first part of the debate into an effective campaign commercial.

This featured both candidates talking gibberish, throwing numbers around no human could understand, and yammering about how to spend money we haven’t made yet, namely, the projected federal budget surplus over the next decade. Anybody who knows anything knows this is all guesswork, and that the only sure bet is reality will be different, better or worse. Ask the economist who said just before the crash of ‘29 that “stocks seem at a permanently high plateau.”

Later, George W. did reveal a sort of terrifying ignorance on foreign policy and got snottily personal, but by then the folks were nodding off. What was encouraging about both this and the vice presidential debate was that people may have paid more attention to substance than style. Polls afterwards showed most thought Gore, for all his annoying tendencies, won his debate. However, while Joe Lieberman was clearly more likable than Dick Cheney, the former defense secretary clearly knew more about foreign policy, and so most gave him the edge. Interestingly, Bernard Shaw, who famously asked Michael Dukakis the impossible question about how he’d react if his wife were murdered, asked the only two really tough questions of Lieberman — in a row, rather than alternating as he was supposed to do. He then gave Cheney two softballs.

Truth is, all this likely matters little. People with lives aren’t paying much attention, and as things seem to be going pretty well, that ought to be enough. As of now it is hard to see where Bush can get the electoral votes to win.

We’ll see, however. What I do know is how the vast majority of my students will vote: They won’t. Fewer than one in three of the under-25s will bother to cast a ballot. OFs like me often say this is because they are ignorant and lazy.

Otto Feinstein, who is even older, set me straight. “It isn’t because they don’t care about things,” he told me, “it’s because they don’t think anyone is listening to them and don’t know how to get them to listen.”

Unlike most of us, Otto knows. And when he talks, you otto listen. Thirty-two years ago, this brilliant Wayne State University professor helped convince Eugene McCarthy to run for president, helping turn on thousands of students to politics, most of whom were later disillusioned by the usual hacks, whose descendants are even now running and ruining the Michigan Democratic Party.

Otto, however, has been at it ever since, pushing a concept he calls “civic literacy,” which means training kids to figure out their message and how to get it across. Accordingly, he’s put together what may be a truly exciting international gathering at Wayne State, an Oct. 23-28 conference on “globalization and the politics of inclusion,” and with it a student “urban agenda” convention.

“What this is about is giving people a space to express what they think their community should look like in the future, and to get kids to put together their own ‘urban agenda’ and present it to elected officials,” one of his assistants said.

He means that; allowing young people to develop and express their own concepts, their own way, not through some “simulated” pablum like the “Model United Nations” program, now so irrelevant educators love it. To check it out further, give the urban agenda folks a call: 313-577-2235. The U.S. State Department is taking the conference seriously enough to send an observer. You might keep your eyes on the prize too.

Correcting myself:Last week I beat up on the Free Press for not correcting two errors in a Sept. 9 story. Their man now says a correction was run Sept. 19. Additionally, reader Dave Hornstein says my claim (Sept. 13-19) that Bill Clinton “solidly” beat Bob Dole in the 11th District was overstated, and he’s right. The margin was 1 percent.

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for the Metro