A Thousand Small Sanities: The Moral Adventure of Liberalism

272 PP., $26.00

The late pundit Irving Kristol, whose career began in left-wing politics and ended in neoconservatism, famously declared, “A neoconservative is a liberal who’s been mugged by reality.” A Thousand Small Sanities’ author Adam Gopnik might counter that nonliberals mugged by reality become liberals. For Gopnik, reality is the essence of liberalism and of his book, which is an account of what liberalism is, why it’s great, and some of the author’s historical heroes—including Michel de Montaigne (“the first liberal”), John Stuart Mill, Frederick Douglass (“the greatest of all Americans”), and the political activists Bayard Rustin and Emma Goldman (I wasn’t persuaded by Gopnik’s defense of her, but his advocacy makes a certain sense on its own terms). It’s also, more broadly, an account of what liberalism is and of why liberalism is great.

Gopnik suggests that liberalism, in a nutshell, has been the source of all that’s civically decent and humane in the world for at least the last two centuries. However, because the author is fair and thorough, he also explains why liberalism is detested not only by much of the right but by the far left. And yet, in our embattled, egregious era, can a magnanimous liberal be too fair—and too genteel? Or do the times demand the persona that your testy reviewer coincidentally happens to epitomize: the grouchy liberal?

A Thousand Small Sanities was prompted by the 2016 presidential election, composed as a letter to the author’s teenage daughter Olivia, who was devastated by the election results. (Wasn’t everyone with a nanogram of sanity?) This book is an attempt to persuade Olivia—and all Americans—why liberalism will survive and, in effect, rescue the republic. I can only discuss some of the author’s explications and tenets, but readers can rest assured that the book provides a methodical overview of its subjects.

What makes liberalism liberal? In answering this question throughout the book, Gopnik, a New Yorker staff writer, can be somewhat abstract: “a hatred of cruelty,” a political philosophy that “has in its favor…the facts,” “a program for permanent reform based on reason,” “a belief that life should be fair,” and so on. But Gopnik does offer a relevant, piquantly useful metaphor: liberalism is a rhinoceros. “Most political visions are unicorns, perfect imaginary creatures,” he writes, countering that a rhino is “hard to love. It’s funny to look at. It isn’t pretty but it’s a completely successful animal.” One of the motifs of the book is that liberalism isn’t glamorous, or glib; liberals have to work hard, sometimes brutally hard, to implement their agenda, and that agenda is often initially treated with disdain by nonliberals and even some liberals. (One of this book’s lessons—unintentional, I’m sure—is that too many liberals are too insecure.) I personally think the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare, is a good example. Signed into law in 2010, the act was probably the main reason Democrats lost the House and Senate that year. (Nevertheless, Republican attempts to dismantle it probably allowed Democrats to regain the House in 2018.)

Gopnik doesn’t actually slight the specifics of liberal aspirations—free speech, public education, the importance of science, “egalitarian social reform,” et al.—but he does seem especially fascinated with the processes and the catalysts that he believes implement those aspirations. Take incrementalism: liberals “favor reform over revolution,” and they’ve learned the hard way that “effective reform almost never happens as the result of big ideas sweeping through the world.” Rather, “chipping away at a problem is usually the very best thing to do.”

A complementary precept Gopnik says liberals must bear in mind is that actual reform commences modestly, on a small scale, outside of government institutions. “Morals and manners change politics more than politics change morals and manners,” he writes, “…much of the work of reform is largely done before politics takes place.” And liberals should be humble (I said I was grouchy, not perfect). They should understand that new problems will always emerge to plague societies and that while they embrace superior principles, they’re still imperfect human beings. “Liberalism is fallibilism,” Gopnik avers, and at the end of the book he maintains that “No wise liberal has ever thought that liberalism is all of wisdom.” (Apropos of the latter, I’m puzzled that Gopnik devotes more space to monarchical Belgium’s devastation of the Congo than to America’s Vietnam war, which was, sad to say, mostly the responsibility of many deluded members of this nation’s liberal elite.)

Gopnik conscientiously devotes many pages to explaining why the extreme components of the right and left loathe liberalism and to rebutting their vilifications. (If this sounds disingenuous—is Gopnik setting up and demolishing his own straw men?—well, it’s his book.)

The author divides conservatives into four categories: constitutional, triumphalist, theological, and tragic. He is only mildly dismissive of constitutional conservatives—“the old responsible-government core of the Republican party” whom he considers “neighborly” (and of course there are few, if any, left). Gopnik aims his harshest fire at the radicalism inherent in the other three categories. Theological conservatism is self-explanatory. Triumphalist conservatism “is invariably rooted in a raw sense of humiliation.” Tragic conservatives believe that life is ultimately so grievous that liberal programs for betterment are distractions from what should be a tragic sense of life. What we need, tragic conservatives advise, is “self-recognition.” As Gopnik says about another of his heroes, Samuel Johnson, “He thought that life was too sad to be cured by politics.” In the interest of being succinct, I’m going to conflate some of the criticisms of liberalism that the four conservative ideologies respectively proffer: secularism, cosmopolitanism, anomie, permissiveness, relativism. Gopnik, who is nothing if not scrupulous, refutes them all (e.g., faith flourishes in the liberal city), as well as myriad others.

It’s ironic that liberals and left-wingers (which for simplicity’s sake is how I’ll subsequently refer to the far left) seem to spend more time attacking each other than pummeling the right, because in the United States since 1968, liberals have wielded little political power and the radicals none (although conservatives and left-wingers both believe that liberals exercise too much influence in the media, colleges, and the culture in general). At any rate, “The left-wing critique of liberalism is chiefly an attack on its faith in reform. Only revolutionary change [left-wingers assert] can bring justice and equality to a criminally unjust world.” Gopnik scrutinizes facets of left-wing dogma, such as essentialism (the belief that knowledge is obtained by “figuring out the true nature of something”) and why free speech is a specious ideal (it’s basically a weapon of those who possess power) and explains why those principles are wrong (“free speech should be as close to absolute as possible”; “essentialism is extremism”). He sums up concisely: “the liberal reproach to leftism is right.” (No pun intended, I hope.)

A Thousand Small Sanities is a civilized work, a needed reminder in these appalling times that liberalism’s enlightened values are still viable. Parts of the book are quite insightful—for instance, why blue-collar workers, historically, have often spurned liberal economic policies that would assist them and embrace conservative doctrines that are harmful to them. (“Identity, or national pride if you prefer, has proven time and again to be incomparably more powerful than economic self-interest narrowly defined.”)

Two perhaps nitpicking points, but I think the author is wrong about them. Was John Updike really “religiously obsessed”? Yes, some of his novels incisively assay religiosity, but he was too urbane to be besotted with religion. Gopnik also suggests that good science can’t thrive in a tyranny. Nazi Germany and North Korea, unfortunately, prove otherwise.

Surprisingly, Gopnik doesn’t address cyberspace. This is a startling omission. The internet has upended politics, lifestyles, and work, and even raises serious new questions about free speech. Gopnik was remiss not to examine the subject and its implications.

Being sensitive to nuance, Gopnik affirms that “‘merely formal’ freedoms of the liberal dispensation”—legislation and court rulings—“turn out to be vital for real freedom.” But as I noted earlier, he contends that liberal undertakings begin on a small scale, in intellectual circles and the grass roots as it were, and eventually evolve into laws and a new zeitgeist. Perhaps, but I don’t think Gopnik gives enough credit to our oft-denigrated (often rightly so) politicians and judges. Liberal reforms, in this country, are concepts and goals until they are implemented through the political process and enforced. Ending Jim Crow required a determined Supreme Court and a tenacious president, Lyndon Johnson, to demolish its worst structures and strictures. I’m of the opinion that it’s not very important what people believe about civil rights, civil liberties, income inequality, and such, or whether they endorse odious conspiracy theories; if the citizenry, for the most part, obeys the law, America will remain a functioning democracy.

I was amused at Gopnik’s comment, “No-drama Obama could have used a little bit more.” I certainly prefer stable, contemplative Obama to the fatuous troglodyte now occupying the White House, and I could have used a bit more drama in this book. Which leads me to answer my question at the start of this review: Can a magnanimous liberal—i.e., Gopnik—be too fair and genteel? For the kind of book this is, I would say yes. “I’ve tried to stay away from obvious contemporary political issues,” the author states, “partly because there’s a lot of that already and more because things can change so quickly.” But I’m assuming that the readership of A Thousand Small Sanities will consist mostly of liberals; besieged and battered as we are from every political direction, surely a worthy champion of liberalism, as Gopnik undoubtedly is, should have known that he owes his allies the satisfaction of observing him excoriate our virulent president. I love reading Paul Krugman, a winner of the Nobel Prize in Economic Science and an op-ed columnist for the New York Times, because Krugman, as liberal, intelligent, and as lucid a writer as Gopnik, knows that the times demand that liberal intellectuals have a duty to speak truth with brio to imbecilic, reactionary government policies and the subversion of our institutions. I respect A Thousand Small Sanities; I don’t love it.

A final query for Gopnik: Why didn’t you confront the contemporary inclination of liberals, especially craven politicians, to use progressive as a synonym for liberal? Is this not evidence that the right has successfully demonized the word liberal? Fellow liberals, we can’t let our enemies define our lexicon. We must rescue liberal and brandish it proudly. If we don’t honor the word, why should anyone else respect us?