Ralph Nader and other White Knights

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IT is 20 years since Ralph Nader wrote ``Unsafe at Any Speed,'' thereby inventing consumerism. It is a quarter of a century since the Peace Corps was founded -- a New Frontier first charted by John F. Kennedy in a 1960 campaign speech.

How remote these two acts of reformers' hope seem in the last month of 1985, even as they are being recalled!

A friend of Mr. Nader's feels obliged to describe him as ``out of fashion.'' A former colleague, writing in The New Republic, calls him a ``zealot'' -- ``paranoid'' and ``humorless'' in his views and clamped in a ``legal mind-set.'' The faint praise gets fainter as the portrait is crowned by a motto from Henry James, damning a reformer in ``The Bostonians'' as ``in love . . . only with causes.''

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All this by way of a tribute -- sort of.

Even former Peace Corps volunteers have been known to blush over their ``youthful naivet'e'' as they argue defensively for the program's ``continued relevance.'' Film scripts and stand-up comedians have made the Peace Corps a bit of an au courant joke, albeit a gentle one.

Idealism on so broad a scale -- and so innocently avowed -- appears to embarrass today's pragmatist in the cooler climate of the '80s. The ``Big Chill'' has become a wry code term to signify the conversion of hippie and Yippie to Yuppie. The word ``Camelot'' evokes a chagrined smile or sly wink.

The moral distance between the '60s and the '80s is wider than 20 years. Not only do we find it hard to understand what Nader's Raiders and the Peace Corps and the other '60s idealists cared so intensely for -- we may no longer understand why they cared.

Noting a ``sharp falloff in impassioned mail,'' the Washington columnist Mary McGrory writes: ``I have begun to wonder what people care about, or if they care at all.'' She is dismayed as well as amused that her columns of the past five years inspiring the most mail were not about African famine or Latin American politics but about squirrels. Squirrels first, Jane Austen second. It was not thus in the days of Vietnam or Watergate.

There is a name for the generic shoulder shrug -- the buzzing indifference, as if it's always 90 degrees in the shade after a large lunch. The word is acedia. It is the weariness of effort that extends to the heart and becomes a weariness of caring.

At certain periods of an individual's life, acedia may become the characteristic temptation, and at certain periods of history the temptation seems to become general, running through the population. Almost a century and a half ago, the theologian Soren Kierkegaard thought he recognized acedia, or a state rather like it, in his native Denmark. In an essay titled ``The Present Age,'' he described a society without passion, where ``everything is left standing but cunningly emptied of significance.'' For a while ``committee after committee is formed, so long, that is, as there are still people who passionately want to be what they ought to be; but in the end the whole age becomes a committee.''

Has the man been peeking in our mirror?

Frustrated by the abstracted and abstracting heart, Kierkegaard concludes in words that fit 1985 a little too closely for comfort: ``More and more people renounce the quiet and modest tasks of life . . . in order to think over the relationships of life in a higher relationship till the whole generation has become a representation, who represent . . . it is difficult to say who; and who think about these relationships . . . for whos e sake it is not easy to discover.''

If Kierkegaard is right, Ralph Nader and Peace Corps volunteers and other surviving idealists, ``doing something about it,'' deserve more than the two cheers out of three they're getting. A Wednesday and Friday column

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