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Barack Obama and the Politics of Dignity


Barack Obama is offering Americans dignity, and they're grabbing it with both hands. Dignity permeates his speeches, informs his policies, and is evident in his manner. Whether he intended to or not, Obama has become a herald of the politics of dignity.

But dignity for whom? For blacks and whites, for men and women, for gays and straights, for young and old, for rich and poor, and for immigrants and the native-born. Obama also reaches out to both sides of the aisle -- liberals and conservatives -- and to other nations and their leaders. Americans, eager to move beyond the fractiousness of identity politics and to end the standoff between libertarian and egalitarian ideologies, are lining up in support. They are ready for a leader committed to building a world of dignity for all.

What exactly is the dignity that people crave? It's more than good manners, respect, and civility. It's the absence of indignity. The American people know that indignities inflicted on the world have diminished America's stature. They know that the indignities they and their fellow citizens are suffering at home are sapping the American spirit.

Barack Obama's campaign has been called a "phenomenon," one with the potential to swell into a movement. But to realize its promise, a movement must evolve from a call for change to a plan for removing the obstacles that stand in the way of that change. How can the energy that has crystallized around Obama's candidacy be effectively focused to fight the indignities of everyday life?

As the history of the women's movement shows, a movement can't deliver without identifying what it's against. The introduction of the word "sexism" provided the lens that brought gender inequity into focus and made it indefensible.

To fight back against indignity, we need to root out what causes it. The cause of indignity is not power, nor is it power differences. It is rather the abuse of power. To oppose indignity, we do not have to eliminate differences in power, nor the differences in rank that merely reflect them.

Rank is a useful tool of organization. When it's exercised with proper regard for the dignity of subordinates, we not only accept rank differences, we celebrate the people whose accomplishments have earned our respect. No one is more admired or loved than someone of high rank who treats everyone, regardless of rank, with dignity.

But, abuses of rank have no place in a dignitarian world and must go. Taking a page from the women's movement, if we are to combat such abuses effectively, we must first give them a name. Fortunately, there's a word at hand. By analogy with racism, sexism, and ageism, abuse of the power inherent in rank is rankism. Once named, you see it everywhere.

The outrage over corrupt executives is indignation over rankism. Sexual abuse by clergy is rankism. Elder abuse in life care facilities is rankism. The power of lobbyists to subvert the people's will is rankism. Photos of the humiliation of Iraqi prisoners gave the world a look at rankism's arrogant face. Hurricane Katrina made visible rankism's most common victims -- the sick, the elderly, the poor.

Like racism, rankism has its most debilitating impact on those lacking the protections of social rank -- the poor. And nowhere is rankism more dangerous than in foreign relations. International terrorism has multiple, complex causes, but one factor we can address is rankism between nations. There is no fury like that borne of chronic humiliation. Senator Obama understands that a vital part of a strong defense is not giving offense in the first place.

Rankism distorts personal relationships, erodes the will to learn, taxes economic productivity, and stokes international enmities. The effects on its victims are like those of racism and sexism on minorities and women. But, unlike these better-known isms, rankism knows no limits and plays no favorites. So long as anyone's dignity is at risk, everyone's is. With its inclusiveness, Obama's politics of dignity has struck a chord.

Before they'll march for justice, people will stand up for dignity. Obama has got them on their feet, and that's a start. The next step--building a dignitarian society -- is the work of several generations, but the hopes for a peaceful and prosperous twenty-first century rest on our taking it.

Robert W. Fuller is the author of All Rise: Somebodies, Nobodies, and the Politics of Dignity (2006). He is co-author, with Pamela Gerloff, of Dignity for All: Rankism Unmasked (forthcoming, Spring 2008).