The Republic of T.

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People Who Matter — An Open Letter to Newsweek

Note: This is a somewhat extended version of a “Letter to the Editor” I emailed to Newsweek upon seeing their December 19th issue.

To the Editor:

Newsweek 121909

I know what was meant by it, but I couldn’t help rolling my eyes when I read the subtitle of your December 19th issue: “People who matter, on what matters most.” Frankly, that struck me as precisely our problem in this country, on so many levels.

The very idea of “people who matter” inevitably comes paired with the idea that there are “people who don’t matter.” It’s the basis of what Robert Fuller calls “rankism” — which, instead of seeing the world in black and white, sees it populated with “somebodies and nobodies.” Fuller writes, “‘Somebodies’ are sought after, given preference, lionized. ‘Nobodies’ get insulted, dissed, exploited, ignored.”

Fuller elaborated further a “Psychology Today” article:

Rankism is what people who take themselves for “somebodies” do to those they mistake for “nobodies.” Whether directed at an individual or a group, rankism aims to put targets in their place and keep them weak so they will do as they’re told and submit to being taken advantage of.

In the examples above, rankism consists of abuse of the power attached to rank. Another expression of rankism occurs when the abuse lies not in how rank is used, but in the very fact of ranking in the first place. There are lots of hierarchies whose only purpose is to justify privileging one group over another. Then, high status is used by the creators of these fabricated hierarchies to rationalize the privileges they’ve arrogated unto themselves. Contrariwise, the inferior status of the less powerful is invoked to justify their on-going exploitation. The irony is that while the less powerful are forced to serve as benefactors to those of higher rank, they are routinely depicted as dependent and inferior.

Examples of rankism based on pseudo rankings include the illicit hierarchies maintained by racism, sexism, ageism, classism, ableism, and heterosexualism (or, homophobia) — in short, the familiar isms that plague societies and that, one by one, are being discredited and dismantled.

Like abuses of legitimate rank, the use of illegitimate rank is a source of humiliation and indignity. Both expressions of rankism are indefensible violations of human dignity. Rankism is simply an umbrella name for the many ways that people put others down to secure advantages for themselves. All forms of rankism have their roots in predation and have evolved from the practice of slavery.

After 15 years of living and working in Washington, D.C., the idea that there are “people who matter” and its corollary that there are then “people who don’t matter,” are at the heart of why so much in this town comes down to what I call “the least worst option.”

Whether it’s equality, energy, the economy, health care or any number of issues — the core question is the same: Who can we afford to leave out? Who can we afford to exclude? Who can we write-off? Who can we sacrifice? Who can we vote off the island? Who can we sacrifice for our own sake? Whose votes can we take for granted? Whose money can we count on after this vote?

Who are the “somebodies” and who are the “nobodies”? Who are the “people who matter” and who are the “people who don’t matter?”


In the past year, we’ve almost all been “outranked” by “people who matter.” Main Street has been “outranked” by Wall Street, and is still waiting for its own bailout. Voters have been “outranked” by the health insurance industry, and will have to wait for the kind of health care reform we hoped for and voted for. We were outranked on the extension of a war that’s been a drain on our economy and doesn’t appear to have made us any safer.

We were, in fact, out ranked by some of the very “somebodies” you interviewed for the feature. Just a couple of quotes from Tim Geithner, dismissing the criticism of the Wall Street bailout and the lack of a Main Street bailout, illustrates this much.

Tim Geithner and Barack Obama in the Roosevelt Room

So you don’t think the bailouts were too friendly to Wall Street?

The idea that the strategy was unfair and has principally benefited a small number of institutions in New York is a mischaracterization of the design and result of the strategy. I thought people would have understood this after the failure of Lehman Brothers. But when you do too little and you leave the system with real fear that everything is going to fall apart, like any financial crisis, it hurts the poorest most. A just and fair strategy, even if it is politically hardest to explain and justify, is to use well-designed but massive force to stabilize the system.

…There’s a perception that you regard your portfolio narrowly, as primarily focused on the health of Wall Street, with Main Street a distant second


My first and essential responsibility was to fix and reform the financial system. That was necessarily going to be the principal part of what people saw. About half my time from the beginning has been spent on the design of the broader economic strategy. The idea that we did not do much for the broader challenges facing the country is completely unjustified. The Recovery Act itself was not just a sweeping, essential force for growth, but included a bunch of targeted investments in education, energy, environment, health care that will have huge long-term benefits.

And of course, now that the “people who matter” have been bailed out, a billionaire “somebody” like Pete Petersonwith the help of the “somebodies” at the Washington Post — is campaigning for “austerity,” which has always and only ever meant tax cuts for “people who matter” (like him) and more painful cuts for “people who don’t matter” (basically everyone from the middle class on down.)

I understand what Newsweek was trying to do. Jon Meacham said as much in his lead article for the feature.

In listening, so to speak, to the voices here, you will, we hope, feel as though you are sitting down with some of the world’s most intriguing people, talking about things that matter. With apologies to Matthew Arnold, that, anyway, is one of the promises of journalism: to give readers intellectual access to the best that is thought and said in the moment.

Still, Meacham’s title — “The View From People Who Make a Difference” — elicited another groan, for reasons stated above.

Corny as it may sound, until none of us are “nobodies” and we are all “people who matter”, we can only expect to make progress in fits and starts — and then only to a point.

That day may yet be a long way off, perpetuating the notion of that there are “people who matter” and the unavoidable (though usually unspoken) conclusion that there are “people who don’t matter” puts it even further out of reach.


  1. I had the same reaction to that cover. I didn’t even bother to read it. We’ll never solve anything unless we stop with all the hierarchies.

  2. You are absolutely right. This is also the reason that blacks are dismissed to a large extent in politics except among themselves. They are, in the eyes of the two parties, viewed as irrelevant. The democrats assume they will always vote for every democrat issue and thus don’t pay them heed. The Republicans assume they’ll never get enough black votes to matter so they don’t bother either. I think something you’ve tangentially said here and which I agree with, is that in order to be seen as relevant you have to always keep people guessing and make them anticipate your next move. Relevance happens when someone does something unexpected.