Thomas Jefferson envisioned the “academical village” he wanted to build near his home at Monticello to be a “bulwark of the mind in this hemisphere” and a place to develop “the illimitable freedom of the human mind.”
But by the time that the university in Charlottesville opened its doors in 1825, an older, less idealistic Jefferson saw the school as way to keep genteel plantation owners’ sons from having to go up north to Harvard, Yale or Princeton and become contaminated by contact with Yankee merchants’ sons and their uncouth ways and dangerous political ideas.
“Jefferson envisaged the University of Virginia as a ‘center of ralliance’ for the southern states,” according to historian Susan Dunn, “that would keep alive the ‘Vestal flame of the doctrine of states’ rights.” In other words, a school founded to help preserve southern culture and its peculiar institution, slavery.
A different kind of enslavement was on the mind of consumer advocate Ralph Nader when, fresh off the publication of his latest book, “Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us!”, he spoke to a room of 600 college students and activists about how schools like Mr. Jefferson’s University were unsafe for freedom of thought.
“You need to unlearn as much as you need to learn,” Nader said. “You grew up corporate just as I grew up corporate. We were taught to believe and not to think; to obey and not to challenge.”
As he has claimed throughout his 40-year career as consumer advocate, the critic of the two-party system and sometime presidential candidate, Nader still thinks that the power that large corporations exert over government at all levels has effectively hobbled American democracy, making our apparent freedoms little more than a distraction from our obvious lack of real political power.
Living in the Matrix
“Personal freedom is not political freedom,” Nader said. “Societies that call themselves democracies can behave like dictatorships 98% of the time as long as they allow you personal freedom.”
Allowing us the freedom to date whom we want, take any job we can get and move to any city we can afford are just ways to cover up just how much corporations control the things that really matter: how our taxes are spent, how our natural resources are allocated and what countries our troops are sent to invade.
“Some students do 400 text messages a day. Is there some kind of emergency?” Nader asked, challenging today’s collegians to free their minds from frivolous consumerism and craven careerism, and take up the mantle of activism. “Our whole university system trains us to represent the interests of the powerful, not the powerless.”
Law schools teach lots of contract and corporate law, but little consumer law. Medical schools teach surgery and how to give drugs, but little about nutrition. Business schools nearly ignore today’s biggest business story, the wave of corporate crime that has engulfed Wall Street from Enron to AIG. And the liberal arts, which encourage critical thought, are giving way more and more to the vocational education that big companies prize.
Nader believes that, if they were not beholden to the corporate interests who fund them, colleges and universities could turn around most of the major problems that challenge America now, from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars to peak oil and climate change. His latest issue is energy; Nader is scheduled to address the Association for the Study of Peak Oil conference slated for Washington, DC in early October.
“Would you rather have energy efficiency and solar or coal and nuclear? Why haven’t the former been phased in year after year? Because energy companies sell less energy if we have efficiency. And they don’t want distributed production because they want to keep control. A highly capitalized and centralized energy system increases their political power.”
Against all the gloom, Nader calls for a new era of activism.
“Most of us make excuses why we can’t act to change things. But it’s always less than one percent who take the lead.” And throughout American history, from abolition to civil rights, that one percent has always been enough to get things started.
A Bull Moose party for clean energy
Nader urges private citizens to become public citizens in the tradition of the great populist-progressive movement that began in the late nineteenth century and culminated in Teddy Roosevelt’s run for the White House on the reformist Bull Moose ticket.
“The dirt-poor farmers who started the movement were able to talk about complex issues, they treasured newspapers, and they talked person-to-person about the change they wanted. If they could do it, we can do it. Today, talk about solar and wind power is not complex physics — it is very clear to anyone.”
It is not just technology we need to ramp up clean energy. It’s pressure from citizens on government to withdraw subsidies from coal, oil, and nukes, and to remove barriers to making and deploying clean energy technologies in the US. Otherwise, big corporations, who don’t have a vote but who do control most of the 535 members of Congress along with every state capital, will slow energy efficiency and clean energy to such an extent that we will be sure to suffer disastrous levels of global warming and loss of energy supplies.
Using a local example, Nader mentioned the political clout of Dominion, the energy company which has consistently fought renewable energy mandates, making Virginia one of 20 states without a mandatory renewable portfolio standard, a key policy measure needed to create a market for clean energy.
“Activism is exciting and there’s nobody I’ve ever met who has nothing to contribute. Start with word of mouth. Just talk to your friends, your family. Don’t be intimidated or fear retaliation. Do all the things that nobody will stop you from doing, and that will get you to at least second base. And that’s already a quarter of the way to home plate.”
Even the late-model, reactionary Thomas Jefferson would surely agree with Nader’s call to break the power of multinational corporations when they stand in the way of a sane energy policy and by so doing, endanger the pursuit of life, liberty and happiness for today’s citizens and for generations to come.