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Robert Fuller’s Writings: Part II, His Non-Fiction

Walter Moss: Fuller fully understands that the ideas we each have are heavily molded by our own unique family circumstances, upbringing, and education, both formal and informal. Robert Fuller Nonfiction

In Part I of this essay, I identified three major themes that Robert Fuller dealt with in his long novel The Rowan Tree (2013). They are 1) the significance of dignity and its relationship to rankism and the distinction between somebodies and nobodies; 2) the importance of national and international diversity and tolerance; and 3) an approach to foreign countries and to war, peace, and terrorism that builds upon the first two points.

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In Part II of the essay, we will focus on Fuller’s non-fictional works (see here for his books). I will provide an overview of them, see how they relate to the three major themes, and reveal additional Fuller insights. Although he also has numerous articles and speeches (see, e.g., here) to his credit—his essays on the Los Angeles Progressive (LAP) and Hollywood Progressive (HP) sites often serialize portions of his books—all his major ideas are spelled out in the books cited below.

A few non-fiction Fuller works already mentioned in Part I of this essay are Somebodies and Nobodies: Overcoming the Abuse of Rank (2004) and Dignity for All: How to Create a World Without Rankism (2008). Coming between these two was his co-authored All Rise: Somebodies, Nobodies, and the Politics of Dignity (2006). Another Fuller work referred to in Part I is his Belonging: A Memoir (2013).

Fuller’s Memoir and Molding Influences

Fuller’s memoir (220 pages and 99 cents in its Kindle edition) is a good place to start in order to understand his entire non-fictional output. It also provides a good overview of his very active life, which has included meetings with such dignitaries as Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, U. S. President Jimmy Carter, and singers David Bowie and John Denver. In 2011 he was keynote speaker at the National Conference on Dignity for All, which was hosted by the president of Bangladesh.

Fuller fully understands that the ideas we each have are heavily molded by our own unique family circumstances, upbringing, and education, both formal and informal. Several important molding influences emerge in Belonging.

  • Fuller’s father, Calvin, “got a Ph.D. in chemistry from the University of Chicago in 1929. He worked at Bell Laboratory from 1930 until his mandatory retirement at 65 in 1967.” Son Robert (born 1936) obtained his Ph.D. from Princeton in physics in 1961. Although he would later become interested in many other subjects besides science, his scientific background is essential to understanding his later interests and activities.
  • Fuller had a privileged upbringing. Not in the sense of his family possessing wealth like that of the Rockefellers or Kennedys, but in having good parents who brought him up with good values and a firm sense of security. Moreover, he was a white male in an age when such individuals received preferential social treatment. He was also gifted with a sharp, intelligent mind—he skipped his junior and senior years of high school (he had already been elected as president of his future junior class) and entered Oberlin College in the fall of 1952.
  • From an early age Fuller displayed one of the most essential characteristics of a wise man: he was a truth-seeker. In an essay on the Russian writer Anton Chekhov, I once wrote that his truth-seeking “stemmed both from his scientific training [as a doctor] and from his humility . . . [he] knew he didn’t have all the answers. The wisdom we can gain from reading him lies not so much in the answers his characters provide, but in raising important questions for us to consider.” Similarly, Fuller displays his truth-seeking when he writes, “Nothing shapes our quests more than our questions. My questions are ones of being, becoming, and belonging. This memoir tells of my search for answers.” Both the book’s Prologue and Chapter 16 are entitled “Quests and Questions.”
  • As early as his grade school years, he was troubled by the “nobody” treatment that some of his fellow students received. For example, 27 times he mentions in his memoir an unfortunate girl named Arlene. He dedicates his book to her and then entitles his first section of Chapter 1, “Arlene.” There he tells us that in the second grade, his teacher kicked Arlene out of class and made her stand in the hall for having dirty fingernails. In her teacher’s eyes, Arlene was also grouped with the “dumb” kids, who came exclusively from the poorer kids in the class.

Fuller wonders, “Is belonging inherently exclusive, or could it someday be all-inclusive? Would there always be Arlenes in the hall, or would we eventually let them in?” Later he adds, “So long as Arlene can be banished, I can be, you can be. What has driven me and drives me still is the hunch that there’s a way to organize human society so that everyone belongs.”

Fuller continued to be fascinated with the topic of “nobodies” like Arlene and “somebodies” like himself and the other smart kids. Chapter 12 of his memoir is entitled “A Somebody Is a Once and Future Nobody”; Chapter 13 “Sojourn in Nobodyland”; and Chapter 20 (the last numbered chapter), “Nobodies Liberation.” In that final chapter Fuller writes, “Neither within us nor around us is there anyone who deserves to be dismissed as a nobody.” Yet he also sees that many people go through alternate phases, that being a “‘nobody’ is a natural part of the life cycle of any questing person.” He thinks of such “‘nobody’ phases as time-outs during which new ideas may take shape that will give my ‘somebody-in-waiting’ something to contribute. Nobodies create behind the scenes; somebodies perform on stage.”

Before commenting further on his memoir, we should note the subjectivity of any such work. For example, he briefly describes the circumstances leading to the divorce from his first wife, nee Ann Lackritz, and separation from his second one, Alia Johnson. The view of these two women toward married life with Fuller would no doubt differ, at least somewhat, from his. Thus, in reading any memoir we should not equate it with absolute truth. Fuller himself recognizes the elusiveness of memoirs: “As we put memories into words, the words enshroud the memories. Before long, we are revisiting not the virgin memory, but our rendition of it.”

Major Themes: Dignity, Diversity, and Peace

Listing the titles of Fuller’s books dealing with dignity, rankism, and somebodies and nobodies—and dealing with these topics in my Part I essay on The Rowan Tree—hardly does justice to them. Take, for example, his book All Rise. His first three chapters deal with Rankism and Dignity, and then the next seven chapters deal with more specific venues where dignity is not yet valued as much as it should be: in the workplace, in education, in health care, in regard to the impoverished, in politics, in culture, and on a global scale.

His non-fiction writings touching on national and international diversity and tolerance (the second theme mentioned in paragraph one) include the following quotes.

Most people of my generation— black and white— will admit to harboring residual racist and sexist attitudes. Yet most of us have learned not to indulge in racist or sexist behaviors. My four children show no signs of racism and have all dated interracially. And their children, my grandchildren, are of mixed race, and wonder what all the fuss was about. Of course, racism still exists. There’s never a day that it’s not in the news. But, we’ve come a long way since “Whites Only” signs were taken for granted [from Belonging].

As rankism is identified and rejected and dignity becomes secure, the differences that diversity brings to the workplace are welcomed [from All Rise].

Claims to represent higher authority are not given special credence and do not exempt a doctrine from scrutiny. Infallibility is out; questioning authority is not only permitted but encouraged. The one thing dignitarian tolerance does not extend to is intolerance—that is, to those who would resort to coercion to achieve their own agenda [from All Rise].

Opportunity is really all that ever works because without it there can be no dignity. But now it must be provided the world over. Facilitating this internationally and conforming the foreign policies of developed countries to such a goal will be difficult, but not impossible. Among other things, it requires systematically identifying and eliminating rankism in relations with other societies, cultures, and nations [from All Rise].

By pursuing nonrankist international policies that safeguard the dignity of all, we can support a nonviolent democratic approach to the inescapable challenge of the twenty-first century: achieving global social justice [from All Rise].

Fuller’s approach to war, peace, and terrorism are also clearly spelled out in some of his non-fictional writings. In his memoir, he tells us that he spent most of the 1980s “in search of a better game than war,” and he mentions some of his travels to foreign countries in an effort to promote it.

In a 1983 interview he indicated some of the thoughts on war and peace that he would develop more thoroughly later. One of them was that war stemmed primarily from our fears and inability to imagine what a world without wars would be like.

It’s illuminating in approaching a war to look at the histories of some other human scourges such as illiteracy, slavery, and hunger. . . . We can transcend a condition like illiteracy or slavery when we can thoroughly imagine and know how to produce another condition that’s manifestly preferable. . . . The bypassing of war will require the delineation of a set of activities that can serve certain of the purposes that war has served, that provide people with something to do, and can meet the real needs that wars have met in the past.

Both back then and today Fuller remains optimistic. As Steven Pinker emphasized in The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, Fuller believes that humans have evolved morally in many ways and that as Martin Luther King said (and Fuller has repeated), “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

In his 2006 book, All Rise, Fuller states his belief that “from the perspective of human social evolution, we . . . [are] now emerging from a long history of predation.” And “with the advent of a dignitarian world, humankind will set war aside like children putting away their toy soldiers for the last time.” He recalls that “a century ago, the American psychologist William James famously called for a ‘moral equivalent to war,’ and people have been trying to come up with a better ‘game’ ever since.” Like James, he acknowledges that war appeals to some positive human traits as well as more destructive ones. By 2006, he is more specific than he was in 1983 and writes, “the moral equivalent of war can be found in the conscious, dedicated pursuit of model building.”

Although at first “model building” does not sound very inspirational, the concept reflects Fuller’s scientific background and conveys some powerful truths. In All Rise he devotes a whole chapter to it (see the Hollywood Progressive sections of the chapter here and here, from which the following quotations are cited).

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He indicates there that “grand unifying models are the holy grail of every branch of science. In biology, Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection is such a model.” But “the use of models is not limited to science.” Models also include “cultural codes of conduct” like the Ten Commandments and “governance models of nation-states”—one thinks of our constitution. Models, however, are provisional, not eternal. “In fact, what we like to think of as the unassailable truth is actually just our best current understanding of things—in other words, our latest model. Nothing is more natural than that models should change with time.” One example is our “shift from the geocentric. . . to the heliocentric . . . model of the heavens.”

This approach to modeling reflects Fuller’s commitment to truth-seeking as mentioned near the beginning of this essay. And he states that “the idea of partial, ever-evolving truth is a keystone of dignitarian culture,” and that “humility is not simply a trait to be admired; it’s dictated by the incontrovertible fact that there are viable alternatives to our habitual ways of doing business.”

Model building, he believes, can better serve some of our psychological needs than wars and “without destruction of property or loss of life.” Secondly, “there is the richness, excitement, and fulfillment that we experience in exercising our model-building skills.” And in being so engaged, people “are less susceptible to the drumbeat of war because they are already fully engaged. They are immune to demagogic calls to battle because their personal quests feel as heroic and noble to them as any military undertaking.”

Finally, he concludes, “model building can be applied to the very political contradictions that in the past have triggered violent conflict. A team of model builders—people who have traditionally been called diplomats, mediators, or negotiators—can be assigned the task of coming up with a metamodel that embraces and resolves the competing positions of potential adversaries.”

In addition to model building, Fuller believes that our propensity to engage in violence will decrease as we become more and more aware that we are less a “self” and more a part of a larger “superself.” As he states in his Genomes, Menomes, Wenomes: Neuroscience and Human Dignity (2013), “‘Self’ is a misnomer . . . it masks the “indissoluble interconnectedness of selves.” And, “having acknowledged our predatory past, we should expect war-making to diminish in tandem with the growing realization that far from being separate, distinct, autonomous beings— pitted against one another— our creativity is co-creativity, our existence is co-existence.”

Fuller’s evolutionary optimism calls to mind here that of the French Jesuit philosopher and paleontologist Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955), who perceived the world evolving toward a noosphere “constituted by the interaction of human minds,” that included “for example, legal, educational, religious, research, industrial and technological systems.” Although people of his time still emphasized “strength, the key and symbol of violence in its most primitive and savage form of war,” he believed that the time would come when “the masses will realize that the true human successes are those which triumph over the mysteries of matter and of life.” And “at that moment a decisive hour will sound for mankind, when the spirit of discovery absorbs all the momentum contained in the spirit of war.” Then a “boundless field of evolution” will open up, a “field of collective creations, associations, representations and emotions”

Fuller’s de-emphasis on the self and emphasis on the superself also is similar to that of Zen Buddhists such as Allan Watts, who believed there is “no individual ego-self.”

Least one think Fuller is completely utopian, in All Rise he does recognize that “to combat terrorism, societies must of course pursue and neutralize violent extremists just as they do criminals within their borders and aggressor nations.” But the lasting solution for reducing terrorism is eliminating terrorist sympathizers alienated by the rankism and lack of opportunities that exist in their societies. “Opportunity is really all that ever works because without it there can be no dignity. But now it must be provided the world over. Facilitating this internationally and conforming the foreign policies of developed countries to such a goal will be difficult, but not impossible. Among other things, it requires systematically identifying and eliminating rankism in relations with other societies, cultures, and nations.”

In Fuller’s most recent book, The Theory of Everybody (2015), he reiteratees his emphasis on the “superself,” and he ends his book with these words: “Humanity’s next step is to build dignitarian societies in a post-predatory world. Knowing that the moral arc of history does indeed bend towards justice gives reason to hope that this may be possible.”

Religion, Science, and Technology

In 2012 Fuller indicated the philosophic basis of much of his thinking in his Religion and Science: A Beautiful Friendship? In 2014, his The Wisdom of Science, consisting of numerous quotes dealing with science and scientists and their relationship to other subjects such as religion, politics, and art, revealed some of the ideas of others that have influenced him. He also indicated there his belief that much of technology, for example, “electricity, antibiotics, cars, planes, phones,” were “fruits” of science and were embraced by all but a few people.

Shortly after Religion and Science appeared I quoted several lines from it in an essay on my own beliefs. As slightly revised in his version cited here, those words read:

Developments in both science and religion have made a partnership possible. Ending centuries of fruitless squabbling and initiating a beautiful friendship is no longer an impossible dream. . . . Parts of religion that are counterfactual or unproven could either be dropped— as science jettisons theories that don't withstand scrutiny— or retained as speculation, metaphor, or personal preference. After all, anyone is free to believe anything, and most of us, including scientists, discreetly exercise that right in one. . . . Science makes even more mistakes than religion; but it saves itself by being quicker to recognize and correct them.

The type of religion Fuller advocates is thus a rational one free of dogmatism, and one that would borrow from the scientists’ example of model-building (see above). “The principal tool needed to end the historical enmity between science and religion, though nothing new, goes by a name that may be unfamiliar. It's called model building. . . . [It] provides a conceptual framework broad and deep enough to hold both science and religion.” In that Fuller believes that various religions are just different “models” constructed by humans, and that like scientific models they should be willing to change and adapt to new findings and truths, he is logically consistent.

What religion has to offer to complement science’s emphasis on discovering nature’s truths is ethical ideas like the golden rule of doing unto others as you would have them do unto you. As Fuller writes, “A variant of the golden rule can be found in virtually every religion, ethical code, or moral philosophy.” He also thinks that the best religious thinking emphasizes ideas that he has longed worked for like peace and dignity. “Religion heralds ‘peace on Earth, goodwill toward men.’” Also, “the universal equality of dignity is among religion's most revolutionary ideas.”

Although Fuller stresses religion’s ethical offerings, he realizes that there is more to religion than just moral guidelines. In this sense, he is similar to Einstein, to whom he often refers and who wrote that

the most beautiful and deepest experience a man can have is the sense of the mysterious. It is the underlying principle of religion as well as all serious endeavour in art and science. He who never had this experience seems to me, if not dead, then at least blind. To sense that behind anything that can be experienced there is a something that our mind cannot grasp and whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly and as a feeble reflection, this is religiousness.

In this sense I am religious. To me it suffices to wonder at these secrets and to attempt humbly to grasp with my mind a mere image of the lofty structure of all that there is.

I quoted these words in an essay about the wisdom of another scientist, the Russian Andrei Sakharov, who also predicted that “in the next stage in the development of human consciousness, there will be some deep, versatile resolution of the perceived discord between religion and science.”

Fuller’s non-dogmatic but open, questing approach to religion also resembles that of Pope Francis, who in a 2013 sermon warned Christians against making their religion into an ideology: “Ideology does not beckon [people]. In ideologies there is not Jesus: in his tenderness, his love, his meekness. And ideologies are rigid, always. . . . And when a Christian becomes a disciple of the ideology, he has lost the faith. . . . But it is a serious illness, this of ideological Christians. . . . His attitude is: be rigid, moralistic, ethical, but without kindness.” He urged Christians “to remain humble, and so not to become closed.”

Two other recent works mentioned above, Genomes, Menomes, Wenomes: Neuroscience and Human Dignity (2013) and The Theory of Everybody (2015), best reflect Fuller’s latest thinking on technology. In the latter work he has someone from an imagined planet, Noland, say to earthlings:

What we did was grant intelligent machines selfhood. . . . Our breakthrough was the realization that sentient beings such as ourselves were intelligent machines, and intelligent machines are sentient beings. What the hardware is made of—organic matter or silicon or something else—is beside the point. Selfhood is immaterial—it inheres in the software, not the hardware, and it can be encoded in a wide variety of substances. . . . Within twenty years our progenitors had built machines that were more intelligent than they were.

But through the Nolander and other voices Fuller insists that using these smart machines properly and to maximum advantage can only work when people treat others, as well as the machines they created, with dignity, when they evolve into superselfhood. But overall Fuller is optimistic that we will use technology to our advantage because, as he thinks in general, evolution and the “arc of the moral universe” bend toward justice.

There is little doubt that Fuller’s ideas and activities have been progressive, but are they realistic or too utopian? In a 2012 essay on political wisdom I indicated that one characteristic of it was “the proper mix of realism and idealism.” But in a latter essay that year, “Cornel West and Barack Obama: Prophet and President,” I emphasized that to be politically wise a president had to be more “realistic” than someone like West or Martin Luther King, Jr., who exercised “prophetic” functions. The same goes for Fuller, who is more akin to a West or King than any politician.

For those with backgrounds emphasizing the arts or humanities, Fuller’s scientific approach and confidence in social evolution and technology may be overly rational and rosy, but he is not unaware of all our contemporary economic, social, and political failures. He chooses, however, like King, whom he likes to quote, to have a dream. And their dreams are similar, ones that envision a more just, peaceful world, where the dignity of all people is recognized. Hard to argue with that!

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Walter Moss