Former president of Oberlin College, writing and speaking on rankism and dignity
America is broken. Even if we pull through the current economic crisis, recovery won’t last absent an overhaul of our primary institutions.
â€¢ One out of ten Americans is now unemployed and the recovery is expected to be jobless.
â€¢ Fifty million Americans have no health insurance; two million, no home.
â€¢ Two million Americans are in jail.
â€¢ Our public schools have fallen behind those of most developed nations.
â€¢ Higher education is priced out of reach of the middle class.
â€¢ Our infrastructure is in an advanced state of disrepair.
â€¢ We rank first in greenhouse gas emissions.
â€¢ Immigration, once our pride, is now our shame.
â€¢ We’re living on credit and leaving the debt to our children.
The crisis is compounded by corruption of the democratic process. Politicians who owe their seats to private and corporate money are not easily persuaded to put the public interest over the special interests of their benefactors.
If our predicament were one in which there was an emergent consensus about the proper remedy, President Obama might be able to orchestrate an epochal makeover — as President Johnson did in the civil rights crisis. Most Americans knew then that African-Americans were victims of racism and that segregation was wrong. But today, reformers are themselves divided and many of the issues are of such complexity as to defy broad public comprehension.
Despite his formidable rhetorical gifts, President Obama has yet to tell us how to repair our broken institutions. But he may be doing something equally important. He may be showing us the way. America’s problems run deep, and solutions will have to be grounded in a new politics–the politics of dignity.
President Obama is a herald of the politics of dignity. He’s an instinctive dignitarian. Not libertarian, not egalitarian. Dignitarian. It matters not when and how he acquired his dignitarian manner, or that he may not conform to it one hundred percent of the time. What matters is that in his personal relations and political positions he sets an example of respecting human dignity, regardless of role or rank.
It was Obama’s inclusiveness that first brought him to national attention. As the keynote speaker of the 2004 Democratic National Convention, then Illinois State Senator Obama struck a dignitarian note. In asking us to see ourselves not as citizens of red states or blue states, but rather as citizens of the United States, Obama gave us a preview of a new politics of dignity that can extricate us from our current crises. The dignitarian politics that seems to come naturally to President Obama represents not a compromise, but a synthesis of libertarian and egalitarian politics, and in doing so provides an analysis that reconciles conservatism and liberalism.
Dignity for whom? you ask. Dignity for all. For blacks and whites, for men and women, for gays and straights, for young and old, for rich and poor, for immigrants and the native-born, for conservatives and progressives. Obama is also trying to engage friend and foe alike in a global dignitarian dialogue. Dignity for all.
What is the politics of dignity that President Obama exemplifies? It goes far beyond good manners, respect, and civility, though it includes these. Dignity is achieved by methodically eliminating indignities — interpersonal, institutional, societal, and international.
The American people know that indignities their nation has inflicted on the world have diminished America’s stature. And, they know that the daily humiliations that they and their fellow citizens are enduring are incompatible with lives of dignity and signify institutional failure.
How could Obama’s presidency address the indignities that manifest as unemployment, corporate corruption, failed schools, no health insurance, foreclosure, homelessness, recidivism, and the subversion of our democracy by moneyed special interests?
To combat indignity, we need to be clear about its cause. 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. Persons of high rank who treat their subordinates with dignity are admired, if not loved.
Rank, in itself, is not the culprit. The problem is rank abuse, and it has grown to epidemic proportions. Abuses of rank have no place in a dignitarian world. Taking a page from the women’s movement, if we are to combat rank abuse effectively, we must give it a distinctive name, preferably one that puts perpetrators on the defensive. By analogy with racism, sexism, and ageism, abuse of the power inherent in rank is rankism. Once you have a name for it, you see it everywhere.
The outrage over bonuses for failed Wall Street executives is indignation over rankism. The power of lobbyists to override the democratic will of the people is rankism. The deregulation of the financial industry, which made a virtue of self-aggrandizement and facilitated predatory loans and Ponzi schemes, led to the financial ruin of millions and created the worst recession in four score years.
As racism denigrated and disadvantaged blacks, and sexism disenfranchised and restricted women, so rankism marginalizes and exploits the working poor, keeping them in their place while their low pay effectively subsidizes everyone else. As class membranes become less permeable, resignation, cynicism, and indignation mount.
An America in which the American Dream has become a mirage is not an America worthy of the name. The achievability of that dream is what made this country the envy of the world and made us, its citizens, proud. Making that dream good again is a challenge comparable to overcoming the second-class citizenship that has limited blacks, women, gays, and others. Building a dignitarian society is democracy’s next evolutionary step.
A dignitarian society will naturally conduct itself differently on the world stage. Nowhere is rankism more dangerous than in foreign relations. International terrorism has multiple, complex causes, but one factor over which we do have a say is rankism between nations. There is no fury like that borne of chronic humiliation. President Obama’s demeanor suggests that he understands that a vital part of a strong defense is not giving offense in the first place. His speeches abroad have begun to restore good will toward the United States, and while good will alone does not constitute a national defense, it surely beats the ill- will that we have garnered in recent years.
President Johnson, following his personal instincts, led his fellow countrymen through an about-face on segregation. Much as overcoming a legacy of racism is the work of several generations, so too is the task of building a dignitarian society. President Obama knows that solutions won’t arise out of politics as usual. His personification of dignitarian politics resonates not only with Americans but around the world. The next step is to turn from exemplifying the politics of dignity to enunciating its policy implications and molding them into a legislative agenda for a dignitarian America.
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