Mon, Jul 12, 2004 - Page 16 News List

Tilting at windbags: a crusade against rank

Robert Fuller has identified a new ism that needs to be uprooted and discarded. It's rankism, and a lot of us don't even know it when we see it


Robert Fuller is shown at his home in Berkeley, California. Fuller, a boyishly earnest 67-year-old who has spent most of his life in academia, calls rankism, which he describes as the bullying behavior of people who think they are superior, the next ism that needs eradicating.


Western society has denounced racism, sexism and anti-Semitism, mobilized against ageism and genderism, anguished over postcolonialism and nihilism, taken arms against Marxism, totalitarianism and absolutism, and trashed, at various conferences and cocktail parties, liberalism and conservatism.

Is it possible there is yet another ism to mobilize against?

Robert Fuller, a boyishly earnest 67-year-old who has spent most of his life in academia, thinks so, and he calls it "rankism;" the bullying behavior of people who think they are superior. The manifesto? Nobodies of the world unite! -- against mean bosses, disdainful doctors, power-hungry politicians, belittling soccer coaches and arrogant professors.

"I wanted a nasty word for the crime, an unpleasant word, a stinky word," he said, referring to his choice of the word rankism. "Language is incredibly important in making political change. I always go back to that word sexism and how it became the catalyst for a movement."

Fuller wants nothing less than moral as well as behavioral accountability from the people in charge, whether of governments, companies, patients, employees or students. And he pitches his quixotic notion in a book, a Web site (breakingranks .net), in radio interviews and in lectures at universities and business gatherings that could be considered breeding farms for somebodies.

"The theory has the potential to explain many things we just ignore as a given," said Camilo Azcarate, Princeton University's ombudsman, who recently attended one of Fuller's lectures and bought several copies of his book to give to friends. "Democracy and education should concentrate on creating virtuous citizens. This is exactly the kind of discussion we need to have."

not a movement yet

Fuller began postulating these theories on the Internet several years ago, and then brought them together last year in a book called Somebodies and Nobodies (New Society Publishers), published recently in paperback. He can't answer how, exactly, his lofty ideas might translate into political or legal action. "I don't see the form the movement will take," he confessed in an interview at his home in Berkeley. "But I don't feel too bad about it because Betty Friedan told me she didn't have any idea there would be a women's movement when she wrote The Feminine Mystique. You need five years of consciousness-raising before you find the handle."

Friedan provided a blurb for his book. Other supporting blurbers include Bill Moyers, the political scientist Frances Fukuyama and the author Studs Terkel. So far the book has sold 33,000 copies (including bulk sales); and his Web site totals 2,000 to 3,000 visitors a week, his Web master, Melanie Hart, said.

Fuller's appeal nonetheless eludes some critics. In one of the few reviews of Somebodies and Nobodies, Clay Evans, books editor of The Daily Camera newspaper in Boulder, Colorado, was dismissive. Fuller's concepts, he wrote, "were old when Jesus was making fishers of men."

But with others, he has struck a chord. Among the 2,000 people who had downloaded a working manuscript of his were Mary Lou and Ann Richardson, two sisters living in Roanoke, Virginia. They were so inspired by that early version that they eventually met with Fuller after the book was published. The women, Ann Richardson said, had been taking care of an aging mother with Parkinson's disease and were distressed by how people's treatment of her changed after she lost her ability to speak.

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