Why we pick on politicians

In Washington Square there are an extraordinary number of people who look like their dogs. And then there are women wearing black pants and red lipstick passing by park benches, where old men in madras shorts sit reading the SoHo News, and roller skaters weave through pedestrians like a gang of O. J. Simpsons headed for daylight. The children of the gentry, in their tasteful school uniforms, crowd around a vendor of Italian ice. Pigeons circle overhead, a hundred portable radios play a hundred different tunes, and everyone -- the punks, the pushers, the just, and the nannies -- seems an essential element of the park's thick human texture.

Richard Sennett lives on Washington Mews, one block away. The slightly Spanish facades are spattered with climbing vines, moss grows between the cobblestones, and the quiet is surprising after the chaos of the park. It is a good place to ponder. Sennett ponders all the time; in fact, he is a professional. Nominally he is founder of New York University's Institute for the Humanities, but Richard Sennett's real job consists of writing books about people and their social relationships. Washington Square, a microcosm of America, could be described as his office.

"Cities have something to do with the moral development of human beings," he says, lounging in his sparely decorated house while two cats play rodeo around the harpsichord. "City life is the only way they can learn about the toleration of diversity, which is what I think becoming an adult is all about."

There is no way Sennett could be mistaken for a day laborer. Long-faced, with thinning hair and professorial glasses, he has the quick laugh and mannerisms of a New York intellectual, the sort of person many Americans think produces nothing but a haze of words. Actually, he just takes simple questions, picks them up, and examines them at great length. His latest work is a book entitled "Authority," which will be followed in the coming years by volumes dealing with solitude, ritual, and fraternity. "Authority" tries to explain why we need people to tell us what to do, and what we think about them. A presidential election year provides an added tang for such philosophizing because it showcases the American talent for saying nasty things about political leaders.

"One thing that seems to me characteristic of modern society is we do find people who have power, who appear to us to be stronger than ourselves, and yet we don't feel that they're legitimate."

Thus the public sees politicians as wimps, crooks, fools, and geezers who have lucked onto the public payroll; bosses and foremen are Dickensian tyrants or easy marks. Of course, those in authority over us aren't usually like that. We just say they are, and this need to bring figures of power down to our level seems to Sennett indicative of a breakdown in, well, virtue.

"I think legitimate authority is basically authority in which the strong nourish the weak or recognize that the weak have rights. Illegitimate authority is a relationship in which the stronger person doesn't care. [The legitimate authority] concept is very Utopian because it introduces into things like modern offices and factories and government questions about what the medieval world called 'caritas,' quasi-Christian virtues. In modern society we don't think those things matter, when talking about power."

To soften the harsh hierarchies of job, family, and public life, Sennett recommends bosses show themselves as human and open to discussion. If employees , sons, and citizens can understand figures of authority are themselves "limited creatures in the world," then conflict will recede and the bonds of authority will be strengthened.

"That kind of loss of omnipotence seems to me a key to this whole thing," Sennett says.

The cats ignore his lecture, running laps around the table as if they were racing in a Feline 500. In the spacious apartment there is plenty of straightaway to rev up speed, past the furniture chosen and placed with the almost maddening taste of the highly educated. The house must have once been a stable, but was rehabbed as a residence long ago: Edward Hopper, the famous American painter, lived there for 54 years. The ground floor opens on a pleasant courtyard; upstairs in the studio a skylight stretches to the sky. For a city place it is airy and full of light.

Sennett pauses for the cats and begins speaking about a more concrete subject: the way people talk about politicians, and the way politicians talk to the people.

"Everytime I read my newspaper I'm stunned by the rhetoric we've developed to talk about things like the federal government. It seems there's a need to violate the notion that government should have any control over the individual. Saying 'everything would be just fine if these guys would get off our backs' is a kind of fantasy about being able to escape."

Both Carter and Reagan subscribe to this elect-me-and- I'll-save-you-from-the-federal-monster rhetoric, Sennett says. He claims it's a double language, like saying "elect me and I'll save you from myself."

"Really. I mean, 'this federal monster.'" He laughs gleefully at the thought of Godzilla in the Rose Garden and King Konthis: 'If I do things in office that you don't like, don't take them seriously. My authority is grounded in the fact that I'm not really there when I'm running the federal government.'"

This manner of speaking has evolved from generations of campaign platitudes and raised expectations. The result is the stale cynicism with which Americans regard their government.

Yet our political system seems stable as ever. This may stem from what Sennett labels "disobedient dependence," a way in which verbal and mental rebellion actually strengthen the bonds of authority.

Grossly simplified, Sennett means that when we criticize the president (or, by extension, the whole federal government), we are acknowledging his power over us. He provides a reference point for us to measure our own standing in society. As many parents know, a rule-breaking child is often just asking for attention. The truly rebellious often misbehave because they don't care, and ignore parents in silence.

If a president takes a poll and hears nothing, that'sm when he should start locking the doors to the Oval Office.

"It's the most basic need people have in society.You have to have someone to orient your behavior around, someone [whose orders] you can violate, and yet someone who is going to tell you what to do."

Sennett's solution is to replace idle sniping at authority with constructive criticism, so the chain of command will be forged of elastic instead of iron. He uses foreign corporations as an example:

"West Germany, Sweden, and Italy have forms of what's called 'co-determination,' which are ways in which there is negotiation all the way down the line as to what company policy will be. When these policies were put in, everybody thought they would be terribly inefficient, but that's proved to be anything but the case. People work very hard because they feel the rules they're working under they helped negotiate themselves."

This concept of an involved work force or electorate seems idealistic, and illumines what Sennett laughingly calls his "flaming past." Studying for his doctorate at Harvard in the middle of the riotous '60s, he became very active in the New Left -- the loose conglomeration of radical activists not known for their benevolence toward figures of power.

"We thought [that] to have freedom you had to dispel people's need for authority, and that's inhuman. Everybody needs authority. In any society there have to be images of people who are strong and people who are weak."

The philosophy Sennett espouses today seems half optimism and half anarchy, much like Washington Square on a sunny day. If pressed, he will admit to being a professor of sociology, but claims to disbelieve in the academic brand of that discipline. He works at New York University's Institute for the Humanities, which he founded, and thinks of himself as a writer about social life.

"I was trained as a demographer and I ran a computer, all that sort of crazed stuff. I wanted to do something tangible. We all make mistakes."

Sennett decided he was no academic, after all, but an artist. He abandoned the deserts of tangibility for a unique, broadly philosophical style of writing.

"To me, someone like [George] Orwell is a very admirable person. He combined being an artist with being a social critic, and that's something I would like to achieve."

Much of Sennett's work has dealt with the city and the uses of city life. He seems to view New York City not as an inchoate mass, but as a kind of force unto itself with the capacity to inspire, like a symphony or play. This force comes from the sheer, overwhelming diversity of 8 million people. Learning to live with that diversity cracks an individual's sense of self-importance, teaching with a clarity nothing else can match that values are relative.

"I spent about eight years in Cambridge [Mass.] and the difference between Cambridge and New York is vast. It's a nice city, but Harvard is very claustrophobic. What are they all cooking now, Cuisine Minceur?"

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