For Whom the Phone Rings

And how the other 60 percent really lives

Overcoming the Abuse of Rank

I am an invisible man…. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids—and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me…. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination—indeed, everything and anything except me.

—Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man

Most of us descend from what Robert Fuller would term “nobodies”—from slaves and serfs and subsistence farmers, from rag sellers, woodchoppers, harvesters, and conscripted soldiers—from those who received the shots, instead of calling them. The thousands of years of human civilization have been characterized by small coteries of somebodies ruling the lives of the vast majority of nobodies.

Even in this democracy. We begin with the twin sins from which this country may never recover—slavery and the massacre of the American Indian. Then we consider the exploitation, abuse, and discrimination against each successive wave of immigrants to these shores—Irish, Italian, Jewish, Asian, Haitian, Mexican, and on and on. The Whiskey Rebellion and the Populist Revolt one century later were revolts against the uneven economic power relationships between the somebodies and the nobodies. The 20th century saw large-scale social movements aimed at changing legal and political systems that sustained these discriminatory relationships based on race, gender, and disability. The labor movement worked to change the equations that govern the benefits from the production of labor. But people are still treated poorly.

Robert Fuller did not begin as a nobody. He’s spent most of his life on the up escalator. He received his doctorate in physics from Princeton, taught at Columbia, and became the president of Oberlin College, his alma mater, at a very young age.

But in the mid-1970s, Fuller had an epiphany. Following his retirement from Oberlin, where he had access to foundations, corporate chiefs, and political players around the country, Fuller took time off to travel. A few years later, he found himself at the bottom of the down staircase. He was standing in a phone booth on a sidewalk in New York City, waiting for a call from several foundations. These were foundations that had sought his counsel a few years before, but this time none returned his calls. It was his existential moment. For the first time in his life, he was a nobody. (Fuller has since worked on citizen diplomacy as a solution to global conflict and served as board chair for the nonprofit international news organization, Internews. Clearly, he’s a recovering nobody.)

The revelation of his own relative powerlessness led Fuller to examine the role of rank in modern life. Unfortunately, the writing and editing of this book don’t serve his cause well. His argument doesn’t so much progress as repeat itself in slightly varied and unorganized formats.

Fuller contends that “racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, ageism, and others all depend for their existence on differences of social rank that in turn reflect underlying power differences.” This infrastructure of abuse he dubs “rankism,” a term unlikely to inspire the Shakespeare in any of us.

Fuller then proceeds to provide various illustrations of rankism, including bullying, the treatment of waiters, unearned power that accrues to tall men, the relationship of doctor to patient, the corruption of Enron executives at the expense of employees, the exploitation of graduate teaching assistants, sexual harassment, elder abuse, the relationship of authoritarian teachers to students, the disrespect accorded a public school teacher by her students’ parents who are doctors and lawyers, and, above all, the treatment of the working poor. He also applies rankism to the way some nations treat others (without naming names).

Fuller believes “power differences are a fact of life,” and that a meritocracy is justified. The problem, he contends, is when rank and power are abused through “disrespect, inequity, discrimination, and exploitation.” It all seems a little precious.

He also writes that earned merit in one field based upon work or achievement should not transfer to another nor outlast its currency. In other words, there’s no reason to ask Britney Spears whom she’s supporting for president (if in fact she knows that the president is elected and not appointed by some powerful agent like Karl Rove). And there’s no reason to believe that Arnold Schwarzenegger is qualified to be governor of California just because he’s a bad actor and used to be Mr. Universe (though being a bad actor does seem to have some currency when it comes to serving as a Republican president).

Fuller is hoping to ignite a “dignitarian” movement, which will command that we treat each other with respect. Having addressed the mass “isms” such as racism and sexism, he believes it’s time to address relative power between individuals, of which racism and sexism are subsets.

He looks forward to a mass movement of previously invisible individuals. It will include the democratization of the workplace, the school, and international diplomacy. He recognizes that, “until everyone has these basic necessities [a living wage, universal health care, and quality education], some will be competing for rank and recognition with serious handicaps.” Fuller sees a movement to restore dignity to every person as a “halfway house to justice.”

It’s a nice thought, but there’s the rub. Fuller predicates a decent society as a prelude to a just society. Since any reader of Frederick Douglass knows that power yields nothing without a struggle, it’s difficult to envision a decent but not-yet-just society except through the eyes of a somebody. And for all his liberal decency and compassion, Fuller is clearly a somebody who knew he wouldn’t have to exist long in the land of the invisible. Not with book jacket blurbs by friends such as Bill Moyers, Anthony Lewis, Studs Terkel, and Betty Friedan. Fuller does fully acknowledge that privilege is the best springboard for more privilege and the lack of the same makes personal success more difficult.

But throughout this short but elusive book, I couldn’t help feeling that Fuller was unwilling to fully acknowledge the devastating effects of the growing gap between rich and poor, documented by social historian Kevin Phillips and many others.

“Equally as dangerous as the much discussed gap between the rich and the poor is the dignity-indignity gap,” Fuller writes. But what’s the relationship between the two gaps? Fuller shies away.

Midway through his treatise, Fuller draws upon the sagacity of Dean Martin, who sang, “You’re nobody until somebody loves you.” Now if you’re old enough to remember Dino on his weekly TV show, seated on a stool, empty whiskey glass in hand, you’ll also remember that the song continues: “You may be a king./You may possess the world and its gold./ But gold won’t bring happiness/when you’re growing old.” For the big ending, Dino stands up at a slight angle to the audience, throws both arms out, and beseeches his listeners to “find yourself somebody to love.” It’s just that simple. And the onus is on you.

But what about an alternative lyrical analysis, such as: “Nobody knows you when you’re down and out./In your pocket, not one penny. /And your friends, you haven’t any” ? To find the economic and class analysis at the root of these power relationships, I turned to Barbara Ehrenreich and her recent classic, Nickel and Dimed.

Ehrenreich took a series of low-wage jobs from 1998 to 2000 to see how a person survives in this country at near minimum wage. She found that she was not only underpaid, but she was also invisible. She found herself under constant surveillance, surrounded by co-workers with serious health problems but no health care, having to work seven days at two jobs in order to afford basic housing. Unlike her coworkers, she didn’t have to worry about childcare or feeding other dependents, she did have her own transportation, and she was in fairly good health when she started her job.

The loss of dignity, as mapped by Fuller, became a critical issue. But so, too, was the difficulty in meeting basic needs. Creating a mass movement from the fragmented, emotionally whipped, and resourceless economic underclass is a much different animal than that painted by Robert Fuller. Here’s how Barbara Ehrenreich tells it:

…if low-wage workers do not always behave in an economically rational way, that is as free agents within a capitalist democracy, it is because they dwell in a place that is neither free nor in any way democratic. When you enter the low-wage workplace—and many of the medium-wage workplaces as well—you check your civil liberties at the door, leave America and all it supposedly stands for behind, and learn to zip your lips for the duration of the shift. …We can hardly pride ourselves on being the world’s preeminent democracy, after all, if large numbers of citizens spend half their waking hours in what amounts, in plain terms, to a dictatorship….the indignities imposed on so many low-wage workers—the drug tests, the constant surveillance, being “reamed out” by managers—are part of what keeps wages low. If you’re made to feel unworthy enough, you may come to think that what you’re paid is what you are actually worth.

Sixty percent of American workers make less than $14 an hour, which was calculated in 1998 to be a living wage for a family of one adult and two children. Ehrenreich contends that ours is a culture “of extreme inequality.” This culture is a not fully conscious product of an economy that depends upon “the underpaid labor of others.” The top 40 percent of us can better afford housing, child care, food, and entertainment because the working poor are “the major philanthropists of our society,” writes Ehrenreich. “They neglect their own children so that the children of others will be cared for; they live in substandard housing so that other homes will be shiny and perfect; they endure privation so that inflation will be low and stock prices high.” While most civilized nations provide low-wage earners with such public services as health care, child care, and affordable housing, “the United States, for all its wealth, leaves its citizens to fend for themselves.”

It’s a helluva proposition to build a labor movement in a service economy that is founded on workplaces that are fragmented and in some cases virtual. We’ve even seen portions of the service economy move overseas. (It’s not unusual to find yourself talking to a help desk in another country when your computer acts up.) But, unlike the production of goods, care for your infant or aging parent cannot be farmed out to another country. And so we have a place to start. We also have to look at the difficulties created by welfare reform and the disasters perpetrated on the poor by recent state and federal government actions. Universal health care, a living wage, decent affordable housing, and access to higher education and job training should be non-negotiable. Currently, they’re unthinkable. That has to change. Economic justice begets dignity. Not the other way around.

Robert Fuller wasn’t cleaning out bedpans or serving Nathan’s Famous while he was waiting for that phone to ring. Barbara Ehrenreich tells us about all those who never get the call and never expect to. Both say it’s time we all got the message that this economic and social disequilibrium must be corrected.

Geoff Rips is a former Observer editor. His daughters, Gabriela and Sascha, also suggest that readers look into Waiting: The True Confessions of a Waitress by Debra Ginsberg and The Nanny Diaries by Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus.

Geoff Rips is a novelist and a former editor of The Texas Observer.

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Published at 12:00 am CST