[cross-posted at Culture Matters]
Ralph Nader has announced that he is again running for president in the United States. As the BBC notes, the 2% of votes that he received in the 2000 elections when he represented the Green Party was a deciding factor in Bush’s win over Gore, and this time around, Republicans again welcome his candidacy, since it is again expected to split the Democratic vote.
So, on the occasion of Ralph Nader’s entry into the 2008 U.S. presidential election, let me tell you how I first found out who Ralph Nader was.
It was the summer of 1994, the year before my last year of undergrad at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, and I was in Walnut Creek, visiting my grandparents. I was also getting ready to apply to grad school to do a PhD in anthropology, and we had a family link to Berkeley, since my parents had met there in the 60s, and it just so happened that one of my anthropology heroines was on the faculty of the anthropology department there. So I made an appointment to go talk to Professor Laura Nader.
Now, most anthropologists probably know Laura Nader from her famous “Studying Up” article, in which she urged anthropologists to study elites, the affluent, bureaucracies, the powerful and the colonizers, rather than the poor, the downtrodden, and the colonized. But she has another article, published in a somewhat obscure journal, that is a cult classic with anyone who is interested in the Middle East and gender. It is called “Orientalism, Occidentalism and the Control of Women” (Cultural Dynamics 1989; 2:323-355). In it, Nader points out (with amazing prescience) that the same sort of rhetoric that we Americans heard years later on the eve of the invasion of Afghanistan — about how we needed to save the poor Afghani women from their burkas and the Taliban — is mirrored by similar rhetoric in Middle Eastern countries. At the time, I was a voracious consumer of the Saudi English-language press, which was replete with denunciations of the vile treatment of women in the West. For example, consider this excerpt from an article in the Saudi Gazette circa 1992:
It is one thing to clamour for the rhetoric ‘women are equal to men,’ but when that very equality means in pure and simple language exploitation of the privacy and unique beauty of women, such as is witnessed in advertising anything from a screw to a tractor with a semi-clad beauty, the attitude of Islam begins to take on a new dimension — even for non-Muslims. (“Islam treats ladies with real respect,” Saudi Gazette, 24 April 1992, p.5)
Nader expands Said’s “observations that the Moslem world exists for the West, to include the notion that the West also exists for the Islamic world and serves as important contrastive comparison” (Nader 1989:324). She then goes on to argue that claims of ‘our women are better off than your women’ is an essentially male discourse that serves to distract women from the real issues and from the processes that serve to control women in both worlds. “[B]y taking a position of superiority vis-a-vis the other, both East and West can rationalize the position of their women” (ibid p.328)
Anyway, she’s better known for her other work with indigenous people in Latin America, but that was the piece that I loved most, and I idolized (and frankly still do) Laura Nader. I wouldn’t have had the guts to go meet with her to tell her how much I wanted to do my PhD under her if it weren’t for my parents’ encouragement, so they came with me. Nader graciously received the lot of us in her office at Berkeley. I told her how much I admired her work. She asked me about my own interests in anthropology. I told her about my perceptions of life in Saudi Arabia, where I’d been living with my family and working as a teacher and photographer before I went to McGill. My dad asked her if she was Arab, with the last name Nader (which is from the Arabic for “rare”). She said that yes, she was American-born to Lebanese immigrant parents.
Then my dad asked her if she was in any way related to Ralph Nader. She sighed and gave the impression that she was barely restraining herself from rolling her eyes. “Yes, he’s my brother,” she said.
“Who’s Ralph Nader?” I asked. I was naive. I felt really stupid for not knowing who they were talking about. But she smiled in a way that told you that she was pleasantly surprised to find someone for whom the name “Nader” meant “Laura” and not “Ralph.”
— L.L. Wynn