Respect in a World of Inequality Summary

Summary (Literary Masterpieces, Volume 20)

Part 1 of this volume is aptly titled “Scarcity of Respect.” From most points on the political spectrum and from widely varying religious and cultural groups come complaints about a lack of respect. “Disrespecting” others seems to come naturally to today’s youth, though they fight to keep from experiencing disrespect themselves. Lack of success in school engenders programs of “self-esteem” and “self-respect”—to many critics, an opiate that hides from youth the consequences of their indolence and failure to compete. This is not only a society which increasingly abjures titles; it is one in which it is easy to get along without knowing last names. Sociologist Robert Bly deplores the arrival of the “Sibling Society,” in which too-quickly grown children and “half-adults” awkwardly negotiate situations of presumed equality, while the genuinely mature look on with bewilderment and pain. In short, respect is a problem.

Born in 1943 in Chicago, Richard Sennett was raised by a single mother from a well-placed family. Sennett’s father (whose first name is never mentioned) was “a dreamy, irresponsible man, his thoughts gravitating to the problems of translating modern Spanish poetry.” With his brother, he fought with the anti-Fascists in the Spanish Civil War. “My father fled when I was a few months old—I never met him—and my mother was financially down on her luck,” reports Sennett. His uncle, William Sennett, had joined the Communist Party in 1931 and did not leave it until 1958, after which he became (while only moderately repentant) a wealthy capitalist. His oral history was published by the University of California in 1984 as Communist Functionary and Corporate Executive.

Thus, Sennett came by his radical credentials honesty. During his productive academic career he has been one of those rare intellectuals who could bridge the Old and the New Left, maintaining a steady interest in the lives of working-class people while appreciating the way capitalism has transformed itself in the last quarter-century into something Karl Marx could never have imagined. At the same time, paralleling a path created by the late Christopher Lasch, Sennett has integrated economics, psychology, urban planning, and nineteenth century social history in demonstrating how the “public sphere” has become both impoverished and curiously marginalized. In The Fall of Public Man (1976), he described the movement away from the res publica to a (constructed) zone of life defined as “private sphere,” “realm of intimacy,” and the realm of “narcissistic self-exploration.” Well before the Bill Clinton era, he noticed how bored society had become with the details of political programs (where “policy wonks” operate) while at the same time being far too interested in the “integrity,” “credibility,” and personal character of political leaders, especially as these are revealed in their sexual behavior.

These concerns form the background against which Sennett examines the idea of respect, especially as it impacts welfare recipients and those whose private “failures” have made them “public” persons by virtue of their “disgraceful” dependency on the achievements and talents of others. Sennett has a good feel for such persons because some of his childhood was spent in one of the United States’ most notorious housing projects, Cabrini Green in Chicago. While Sennett’s ruminations on life in Cabrini Green help structure Respect in a World of Inequality, of equal importance are reflections on how his musical and academic talents allowed him to exit this increasingly dangerous environment.

Identified young as a gifted cellist, Sennett was sent to New York to become a performer, conductor, and composer. He and his mother left the project in 1950—though she, as a professional social worker, continued to be a part of Chicago’s legendary struggle with poverty and racial animosity. Richard rose quickly in the elite world of classical music performance and developed an abiding fascination for the pleasures and disciplines of craftsmanship per se. While ambition is indispensable, “the development of any talent involves an element of craft, for doing something well for its own sake, and it is this craft element which provides the individual with an inner sense of self-respect,” he writes. Further, “It’s not so much a matter of getting ahead as of becoming inside. The craft of music made that gift to me.” Acute tendonitis in his left hand led him to a surgeon suggested by the great pianist Rudolf Serkin. However, the procedure to correct it failed, and at age twenty-one Sennett had to abandon his musical career. Still a cello player, he cherishes the memories of how his long training provided him with self-confidence, competence, and discipline.

While still a musician, Sennett had worked on an undergraduate degree in history at the University of Chicago. After graduating he entered the renowned American Civilization program at Harvard University, eager to pursue his interests in the history of cities, sociology, and psychology. His mentors were David Riesman, Erik Erikson, and Robert Merton. Deeply influenced by Marxism (as were so many in academe in these years), vividly aware of “the ones left behind” in the ghettos of Chicago and the trenches of Vietnam, Sennett disliked the pomposity of the Harvard atmosphere. Also, he noticed that many of the most vitriolic critics of “the Establishment” came from privileged backgrounds and were unaware of how their exquisite educations and economic security were the “cultural capital” they drew upon to make themselves into radicals. To be black and...

(The entire section is 2325 words.)