The prism that I've always seen life through is radically challenged by what Fuller says. I believed the ills of the world sprang from deep sources, with poverty, class, and race leading the list of demons. But I'd always presumed that one of the indicators that these forms of discrimination were being overcome was the fact that some of us had climbed the social ladder, broken through the glass ceiling, trailblazed. I was the first in my family to go to college, the first to have a major job in one of the glamour industries (publishing) that granted endless perks, from hobnobbing with celebrities to a clothing allowance. I had made it past the velvet rope. I thought I was chasing what Brando gave up on—I was a contender, a somebody. According to Fuller, I am simply in thrall to the "somebody mystique," and have fallen for the notion that there's something superhuman about those who have high rank, whether they're celebrities, politicians, old-fashioned aristocrats, or new-fashioned technocrats. In short, I've mythologized my own specialness in being the "one who made it." As Fuller teases out this idea, I become defensive about my character, a bit like J.Lo—Used to have a little, now I have a lot.... I'm still Jenny from the block. So that's one element of the unease he's stirred up—I've sometimes feared in my life that I might be a fake, that I might not deserve the good fortune that's come my way.
But what's new and startling to me is this: While I might not be prone to either bullying or toadyism, by coveting "high status for the perks and protections it offers," I've played my part in holding up the edifice of rankism. Here's Fuller's explanation: "We covet the rewards that come to the somebodies of the world, so we're willing to endure a lot for a shot at the life we see them leading—even if that shot is a long one. Should we, by hook or crook or sheer luck, acquire fame and fortune, then we too could insulate ourselves from the cruelties of life." What's so bad about wanting that? Well, while Fuller repeatedly makes the point that he's not against earned rank and appropriate use of authority, the problem is that nine times out of ten we try to freeze the cycle, to stay "somebody" forever (have you noticed how the most successful people cluster together at a party, bolstering each other's status?), and that makes us prone to flattery and isolated from the conditions that might have inspired our success and creativity in the first place. Tommie Smith, the superstar American sprinter who took the gold medal for the 200 meter race at the 1968 Olympic games and famously gave the black power salute at the awards ceremony, sees it this way: "Somebody, nobody—in my time I've been both. Most of us have." And if you don't agree that sooner or later in life each one of us will be taken for a nobody, then Fuller suggests you pay a visit to a nursing home.
Fuller's favorite example of the somebody-nobody paradigm is Einstein—whom he groups with Darwin and (this for me was a leap) Paul McCartney—because all of them had second acts to their lives and didn't coast on their first fame. According to Fuller, Einstein "knew that he was ordinary and didn't fall for the somebody mystique about himself." While Einstein was certainly "asking the right scientific questions," Fuller emphasizes that Einstein was simply the first to make the right conclusions from the available data, not the only one equipped to do so. "Long after he'd ceased to hit any jackpots, Einstein kept trying to unify the laws of physics, but he was no more successful than others in the field. Similarly, after Darwin published his theory of evolution, his work did not stand out from that of the other researchers.... [Einstein] could easily have been seduced by celebritization, but he knew his rank had been earned in physics and physics alone, and instinctively avoided the accompanying enticements of fame—declining, for example, the presidency of Israel."
The lack of such awareness, Fuller argues, leads to hero worship and abuse of rank, the "mortar," as he would have it, of the rankist world we inhabit.
Instilling respect up and down the chain of command so that we can rebalance our relationships in the workplace, at home, even in how we as a nation treat other nations, is an idea that is not new, of course; Fuller cites several pages worth of books to read that have touched on these ideas. But the prospect of a dignitarian movement that links all of these spheres is new. As we've seen, in everything from the anger over the abuse of power that Enron represents to the challenge to the Catholic Church's authority, this is a movement that started before it had a label. Now Fuller has given the target a name. "That's what victims of rankism need in order to protest it, that's what links it to the other great protest movements," he says.
We Hear You!