Against some pieties

Terry Eagleton, whose evisceration of Richard Dawkins still resounds, has a review in the newTLS (subscription only) of Richard Sennetts latest book, Together: The rituals, pleasures and politics of cooperation. The editors entitled the review, On meaning well, which already suggests that Eagleton, Marxist and Catholic, occasional contributor toCommonweal, andauthor of a widely noted book on evil, will be unenthusiastic. It begins:

There is something peculiarly unsatisfying about cases with which no decent-minded reader could disagree. Richard Sennett speaks up in this new study for trust, loyalty, teamwork, dialogue, pluralism, an acceptance of difference and a sensitivity to others. It is not the most world-shaking of moral standpoints. It is hard to see it competing with Machiavelli's The Prince or Nietzsche's Genealogy of Morals for sheer shock value. Not many works loudly proclaim the virtues of suspicion, disloyalty, uniformity and rampant egotism. One that did would at least have the value of contentiousness, which is more than can be said for this bien-pensant offering.

Eagleton praises Sennetts observations about the loss of the cooperative skills needed to make a complex society work, admires his unmatched power to recreate the social texture of the past, his streetwise knowledge of American social life, and his absorbing account of what [he] sees as the slow death of civility. But Eagletons Marxist and Catholic backgrounds make him dissatisfied with Sennetts analysis and proposals for remedies.

There is also a tendency to lapse into liberal pieties. Sennett believes with some reason that the United States has become an intensely tribal place, and advocates instead an acceptance of human difference. This is rather like the man who declared he was opposed to sin. There is, in fact, no absolute value in difference and plurality, whatever liberals and postmodernists may think. Six Jerry Springers is not necessarily an improvement on one. A plurality of anti-Semitisms is not to be applauded. Nor is homogeneity always to be despised. A true pluralist must be pluralistic enough to embrace it. If the human race consisted only of gay Chinese, with the odd heterosexual thrown in to keep the species ticking over, a good many bloodbaths might have been averted. It would, to be sure, represent a horrendously steep price for peace, but some (the victims of bloodbaths among them) would doubtless consider it worth paying. ...Human disagreements are not always to be "managed". The book also fails to see that a sensitive attunement to other people has its limits. It is not as though peace would break out if only we had a fuller understanding of each other's point of view. The problem is not primarily a breakdown of communication, as liberals like Sennett tend to hold. A lot of Northern Irish loyalists understand their Catholic compatriots perfectly well. It is just that they cannot stand them. It is not always necessary to speak truth to power, not least because power very often knows the truth already. It is just acting on it that is the problem. It may indeed be advisable to listen more attentively to the British National Party, but rather in the way a physician listens to one's chest for ominous symptoms of ill health. Tout comprendre is by no means tout pardonner. A better grasp of your opponent's case might lead you to condemn him more rather than less.

Sennett, Eagleton goes on, is insufficiently critical about his key concept, cooperation, which is not always commendable and can be insidious when it is used as an instrument of power. Eagleton is more sceptical than Sennett about sympathy and empathy:

Knowing how someone else is feeling will not always inspire one to treat them more compassionately. You may roast the heretic while weeping over his cries of agony. Alternatively, you might help him to escape death while feeling nothing but repugnance for his views. A sadist likes to know how his victim is feeling. The Holocaust was not, as some have suggested, a failure of imagination. It is not that the Nazis could not imagine what their prisoners were suffering. They did not care what they were suffering. I may need a surer sense of how you experience the world in order to manipulate you more effectively. One has to understand one's enemy in order to defeat him. As for empathy, it is hard to see that it has much to do with morality. One does not need to be capable of experiencing the pains of childbirth in order to sympathize with those who do. In any case, "becoming" other people will only help me understand them if I retain my cognitive and judgemental powers in the process, in which case I am still stuck with myself.Like many a liberal, Sennett is uneasy with robust assertions. One should, he suggests, appreciate the value of the odd "perhaps". The value of inserting a "perhaps" into the assertion "Pol Pot was not a democrat" is not entirely clear. Sennett's "perhaps" resembles the modern teenager's "like". To repeat the word "like" every four seconds is really an attempt to avoid the charge of dogmatism in an era of postmodern scepticism. "It's nine o'clock" sounds unpleasantly authoritarian, whereas "It's like nine o'clock" sounds suitably tentative and provisional.

Finally, Sennett offers an insufficient answer to the decline of cooperation in the modern world; he offers

an artisanal response to a post-industrial condition.... [F]or all its appeal, the notion of solving our social problems with a body of knowledge derived from the artist and artisan is vastly implausible. ... Economies ... are somewhat less easy to put together by techniques picked up from handicraft. The book's vision of social change is really confined to mopping up human damage. This, to be sure, is an urgent task, and Sennett has more ideas than most about how to go about it. Yet for all its American spirit of can-doery, Together is in this sense quietly fatalistic.

Two of the minor flaws Eagleton discovers in the book: (1) Catholic theology does not regard the eucharist as magical. On the contrary, magic and superstition are part of what Christianity seeks to combat." (2) "It is probably ill-advised at this time to give such a genially uncritical account of the Beckhams' invention of a christening ritual for their children, complete with Elton John in his silver Rolls-Royce and a six-course meal rumoured to cost 2,500 per head. David Beckham's priceless statement to the press on the occasion ("I definitely want Brooklyn christened, but I don't know into what religion yet") would seem somewhat at odds with Sennett's own respect for settled habits and traditional institutions.

Rev. Joseph A. Komonchak, professor emeritus of the School of Theology and Religious Studies at the Catholic University of America, is a retired priest of the Archdiocese of New York.

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