To me, a great book is one you don't just devour: you chew it slowly, savoring every morsel, as you would a well-prepared meal.
Ralph Nader's Seventeen Traditions is such a book. Though a slim 150 pages, it is as provocative and instructive as Barack Obama's Dreams From My Father. Like Dreams, Nader's effort not only reveals much about his own life and values, it also challenges the reader to self-reflection.
There are stories from his early life in every chapter, but this is no Nader autobiographical sketch. Rather, it is a treatise on the importance of social values and the role that families play as the conveyors of those values. And it concludes with a call urging today's parents to reconnect with their traditions and their children. This much is expected from Ralph Nader, since his entire career has been focused on challenging citizens to critical thought and action.
In many ways, he has been a transformational figure in American life. For over four decades Nader has exposed problems, organized millions of citizens into more than 100 public interest groups. These efforts have lobbied, sued, and petitioned through referenda to create a framework of laws, regulatory agencies, and federal standards that have improved the quality of life for two generations of Americans.
Nader-led movements produced the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OHSA), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Consumer Product Safety Commission, and the Safe Drinking Water Act. Because of Ralph Nader we drive safer cars, eat healthier food, live with cleaner air and water, and work in safer environments.
It is sad that in our era of disposable history, too little of these contributions are known, and that for many, Nader is remembered only for what some consider his quixotic presidential bids. While critics hold Nader responsible for Al Gore's loss in the 2000 election, Nader vehemently denies the charge, presenting a detailed analysis of voting patterns to prove his case.
Now in his seventies, still organizing and fighting to empower citizens to challenge corporate greed and irresponsibility, Nader has paused to reflect on his roots and the lessons he learned from his Lebanese immigrant parents, Nathra and Rose. The product of those reflections is this book Seventeen Traditions, a catalogue of the wisdom communicated to Ralph and his three siblings by their parents example and the proverbs they used in everyday life.
For Nader, the proverbs were important both because they are a connection to the past and they teach values. For example, he observes that disciplining a child with a proverb teaches a lesson that is generations-old. It instructs, provokes thought (and maybe a little shame), and adheres much more than discipline conveyed with a threat or a punishment with no explanation. Instead of "stop talking or else," Nader's mother would say, "As we say, 'the more you talk, the less you have to say; the more you listen, the more sensible will be what you say.'" Using tradition to teach, therefore, connects parents and children, provides models for behavior, and has the added benefit of encouraging critical thought.
What may be surprising to some is the degree to which Nader's commitments to civic empowerment, corporate responsibility, equality of rights and concern for the environment are grounded in such traditional values and proverbs.
Nader's parents taught by example, as well. They taught the importance of social justice and equality, of giving "respect," as his father would say, to those who are "doing work you don't want to do, but that you very much want to have done," and of caring for the needs of the community.
The Naders brought their children at an early age to their New England community's town meetings. There the children were to listen and learn from democracy in action. It was at such a political event that Nader learned the importance of civic empowerment and persistence as he saw his mother greet Senator Prescott Bush and refused to let go of his hand until he promised to support the construction of a dam that would protect the Nader's small town from too-frequent devastating floods. As Nader's father would say, "If you do not use your rights, you will lose your rights." And use them, they did. Seventeen Traditions is filled with such examples of traditional wisdom and life lessons taught by Nader's parents.
Nader quotes his father as saying, "Imagine what bargain books are for readers. The author spends months or years writing, you reap the benefits in just a few hours." Seventeen Traditions is worth the hours you will spend reading it, and will teach years of lessons worth learning.