Here's what I've read about Bob Fuller before we meet: He's tall (which he figures is the main reason he was appointed president of Oberlin College when he was just 33 years old). He's married, the father of four grown children, and lives in Berkeley. He has had a varied work life, moving from professor of physics at Columbia University to the Oberlin presidency to advocate for justice. And he's messianic on the topic of somebodies versus nobodies, a subject that I realize I've hitherto not really thought about and that is making me strangely uneasy. It sparks memories of Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront, mumbling out those great loser lines: "I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am...." It makes me recall a story my mother loved to tell about her father's great ability to socialize up or down the chain of class. He was a milkman, doing his rounds in a horse-drawn cart, able to curse with porters and say, "Lovely day, ma'am" to ladies. This fact invariably makes me ache—his chameleon charm sounding undignified to me, as if he was always false, always a flatterer, afraid to be simply himself.
When I do meet Fuller, I'm struck by how easy he is in his own skin, the way spiritual people often are. He's a speed runner and has the lean frame the sport demands, making him appear younger than his 66 years. He also has enormous curiosity, asking questions that are honed to find out how you got to be whoever it is you are. He conveys trust, confidence, and the quiet assurance that comes from many years clearing a path through one's own prejudices and assumptions.
Somebodies and Nobodies (which Fuller first titled The Nobody Manifesto, until one publisher too many turned it down on the grounds that "nobodies don't buy books") was many years in the making. As Fuller explains it, "In the early '90s I found myself studying the arc of my own identity and its periodic crystallization into something specific and marketable, and those much larger times when it was diffuse and unmarketable." He began to see that issues of rank, of where he stood in the social order, not only governed whether or not he could get his phone calls returned, but went to the heart of the social advocacy that had come to dominate his life.
"It started off very small," Fuller notes, "but I finally realized that rank issues are everywhere—from my own treatment of my children to the medical office." He suggests asking yourself these questions: Why is it that we "learn the names of our doctors, but not those of their assistants who schedule our appointments"? Why do we "expect our employer to pay our benefits and contribute to our social security, yet we do not provide the same for those who do household labor for us"? Taken to their inevitable conclusions, these are not small-potato questions.
The attitudes behind our personal behavior—this sort of sucking up to those we perceive to have authority and brushing off of those without—have a part to play in corporate corruption, school dropout rates, even in terrorism. This might seem far-fetched, but what Fuller argues is that "the notion of rankism is the bridge that links two revolutions of the 20th century—civil rights and human rights." At the macro level, equal dignity translates into social policy. "The nonnegotiable demands of a dignitarian movement are likely to include," Fuller writes, "a living wage, universal healthcare, and quality education for all." At the level of daily life, what Fuller is promoting is shockingly simple: "The fact that life isn't fair doesn't mean we have to be unfair to each other.... We don't want authority over others half so much as we want to avoid subservience ourselves. Equal dignity both suffices and satisfies."
We Hear You!