Adam Gopnik’s slim new book A Thousand Small Sanities: The Moral Adventure of Liberalism is strange. I can tell you what it is not. It isn’t a history of liberalism, at least in the broad sense of analyzing its origins, how it has been politically implemented, and how it has evolved. While the book acknowledges that liberalism is in crisis, it doesn’t offer an explanation of how the current crisis came about, or how it could end. Nor is this an intellectual history. Gopnik competently summarizes the ideas of liberal, conservative, and radical thinkers and artists, but he doesn’t chart how their ideas interacted with one another, or how they were borne from and interacted with the respective times and places in which they were articulated. And it isn’t well written, which is disappointing for someone who usually enjoys Gopnik’s fluid essays in The New Yorker, where he’s a staff writer.
Gopnik claims to present a “real and unapologetic contemporary defense of liberalism,” which would be welcome since liberalism seems to have been having a rough go of it lately. Illiberal movements are spreading across the world, and reactionary governments are undermining or dismantling liberal institutions and norms. Attacks from both the left and the right on fundamental liberal ideas—like free speech, capitalism, separation of church and state—are part of mainstream politics.
Gopnik acknowledges all of that, yet the terms of his defense are about “attitudes” rather than tangible interests. Gopnik’s liberalism isn’t so much about the struggle to broadly distribute political and economic power among citizens. It is about “compassion, sympathy, community” and “incremental reform”—and, not to mention, “decent coffee.” Gopnik writes: “My idea of liberalism, while having much to do with individuals and liberties, has even more to do with couples and communities.” Liberalism “suffers from being a practice before it is an ideology, a temperament and a tone and a way of managing the world more than a fixed set of beliefs.”
That temperament and tone, for Gopnik, is best captured by the “coffeehouses and salons of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.” His book is rife with cheesy (and dubious) lines like “democracy was not made in the streets but among the saucers.”
In a way, A Thousand Small Sanities feels like we’re joining Gopnik for a latte in a mythical salon full of his liberal “exemplars.” Since Gopnik’s liberalism doesn’t represent a “fixed set of beliefs,” it frees him to claim that “poets and novelists and painters, a Trollope or a George Eliot or a Manet” are “better guides” to liberalism’s “truths.” Also briefly joining us throughout are Michel de Montaigne, John Stuart Mill, Adam Smith, David Hume, Frederick Douglass, and others. Even then, Gopnik’s choice of focus is at times bewildering. More sentences are devoted to J.S. Mill’s unconventional romance and marriage with his brilliant wife Harriet Taylor than about his (still radical) idea of economic democracy, which only gets the briefest of nods. In Gopnik’s hands, politics turns into an excessively sentimental story that is determined to elide conflict.
The irony is that the best part of the book is when Gopnik confronts attacks on liberalism. He decently summarizes long-standing critiques of liberalism, and even does a decent, if mixed, job of rebutting them. Gopnik handily dispatches “theological authoritarianism” and “triumphalist authoritarianism” (i.e. nationalism). Although when it comes to radicals, he performs the well-worn routine of co-opting their views and achievements as liberalism’s own—posthumously, of course. This baptism for the dead is extremely annoying for those of us who respect radicals as radicals, and know that liberals are often dangerous compromisers.
But Gopnik does his best work repudiating the favorite hobbyhorse of today’s pseudo-radicals: identity politics. It’s a preoccupation that depends “on forms of determinism and essentialism that have in the past always rightly been seen as reactionary.” The idea that the merit of an argument depends on the origin of the person saying it is, in fact, “the root doctrine of reaction.” The obsession over pronouns is a matter of courtesy, not cognition. Using masculine pronouns for collective nouns is not, in and of itself, inherently sexist. “We should not think that any words, including pronouns, can compel thoughts we don’t want to have.” It’s no surprise that Gopnik’s best writing happens when he’s most lucidly in conflict with opposing ideas.
What’s missing is any sense of urgency. I did not come away with the impression that any real, tangible interests are at stake. Gopnik’s tone is less defensive than reassuring: liberalism has worked, it’s still working, and it’s the only thing that will work. Donald Trump’s presidency, while unfortunate, comes from democracy, which flows “from the ground up, and as long as the space of common action [is] available, no one bad leader could affect it.” Right-wing authoritarianism is on the rise, but “strongman politics and boss-man rule, in simplest form, is the story of mankind … it can always rise.” The causes of populism “are permanent … these passions … are alwaysready to explode.” This is banality dressed in the neat clothing of sophisticated wisdom.
The world’s troubles feel very, very far away in this book. Gopnik is concerned that liberalism is as unpopular as ever. I don’t think this book will win it any sympathy.