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A Thousand Small Sanities: The Moral Adventure of Liberalism

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A stirring defense of liberalism against the dogmatisms of our time from an award-winning and New York Times bestselling author.
Not since the early twentieth century has liberalism, and liberals, been under such relentless attack, from both right and left. The crisis of democracy in our era has produced a crisis of faith in liberal institutions and, even worse, in liberal thought.

A Thousand Small Sanities is a manifesto rooted in the lives of people who invented and extended the liberal tradition. Taking us from Montaigne to Mill, and from Middlemarch to the civil rights movement, Adam Gopnik argues that liberalism is not a form of centrism, nor simply another word for free markets, nor merely a term denoting a set of rights. It is something far more ambitious: the search for radical change by humane measures. Gopnik shows us why liberalism is one of the great moral adventures in human history -- and why, in an age of autocracy, our lives may depend on its continuation.

272 pages, Hardcover

First published May 14, 2019

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About the author

Adam Gopnik

89 books394 followers
Adam Gopnik is an American writer, essayist and commentator. He is best known as a staff writer for The New Yorker—to which he has contributed non-fiction, fiction, memoir and criticism—and as the author of the essay collection Paris to the Moon, an account of the half-decade that Gopnik, wife Martha, and son Luke spent in the capital of France.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 162 reviews
Profile Image for Warwick.
812 reviews14.5k followers
July 23, 2019
‘Liberal’ is a tricksy term, and I'm not really sure what it means, even after reading Adam Gopnik's airy defence of it. In the UK, it brings to mind historical thinkers such as Locke, or John Stewart Mill; in the US, it vaguely means ‘supportive of the Democratic Party’. With the addition of a harmless prefix – neo – it's a bogeyman of the new world order.

For Gopnik, it seems to represent a kind of benevolent pragmatism, opposed to both ‘the revolutionary tendencies of the left and the authoritarian tendencies of the right’. This leaves liberals – and indeed his book – in the unfortunate position of being hated by both sides, and sure enough, A Thousand Small Sanities has been generally ignored by right-wing publications, and ripped to shreds by left-wing ones.

One can see why. The problem is not so much the politics – which, to be honest, are thin on the ground here – as Gopnik's chin-stroking, wishy-washy style, which on the whole prefers to look at interpersonal relationships and literary ‘exemplars’ than to explain any practical liberal policies. (Mill's radical politics, for example, are almost completely glossed over in favour of his relationship with Harriet Taylor.) With such weak definitions, Gopnik is free to co-opt ‘good’ policies as liberal, while those that are bad he assigns variously to the right or left wings.

This is not in any sense an intellectual history of liberalism, or even a summary of its key thinkers. It is more a sort of personal apologia, a cri de cœur for a sociopolitical stance that Gopnik feels is unfairly attacked. And he's right, it is; and as a fan of liberal democracy myself I would agree that it needs some spirited defence right now, which is one of the reasons this particular effort is a bit disappointing. I am probably closer to ‘classical liberal’ than I am to most other political labels, and even I found myself annoyed by Gopnik's defence of the tradition, irritated by the way he constantly turns dynamic political or economic ideas into sentimental domestic parables.

Liberalism here is not so much about political convictions as it is about vague states of mind – ‘a temperament and a tone and a way of managing the world more than a fixed set of beliefs’. I can understand why Gopnik is at pains not to reduce his ideals to political slogans: his central point is that, for liberals, all ideology should be overruled by context and each situation is unique (‘the opposite of liberalism is not conservatism,’ he says appealingly, ‘but dogmatism’). But we need something a little more concrete to go on. Otherwise we're just left with a lot of very empty-sounding banalities:

Humanism precedes liberalism. Connection comes before action. A readiness for self-inspection precedes an effort at self-improvement, and a confidence in our neighbors precedes faith in citizenship.

…blah blah blah, in other words. In lieu of a proper explanation of liberal beliefs, what we get is his discussion of the arguments against liberalism, both from the right and the left, followed by Gopnik's rebuttal. He is at his best when dealing with these head-on criticisms – though even here there are problems, not least the fact that we're relying on Gopnik's own characterisation of his opponents' arguments, which means the danger of fighting a straw man is never far off.

This didn't bother me so much when it came to the rightwing position, though presumably if I had more rightwing tendencies it would have done. I was much more interested in how he discussed the conflict between liberalism and the left. This seems to come down, for Gopnik, to a disagreement on freedom of debate:

The leftist or radical view is that freedom of speech is less foundational than the right to protect difference, the right not to feel threatened or aggrieved or set upon, and the right not to have to tolerate intolerable views.

This takes us into the now-standard debate on identity politics that I had thought was already a feature of leftist discussion, but which Gopnik presents as an argument between the left on one side, and its liberal opponents on the other. He has some lively things to say on this subject, though again, they are compromised by his lack of sources. As, for instance, when he accuses the left of what he calls ‘opportunistic essentialism’:

Kids are taught in progressive schools that all gender is fluid and constructed—except for that of transgender kids, which is an absolute and essential feature, locked in early, never to be questioned.

Citation, as Wikipedia would say, needed. On the one hand I find Gopnik's conclusions quite appealing (‘Intersectionalism in a sense does not go far enough. There are countless nodes on the network of social categories. We call each one a person’), but on the other hand it's a little too neat. I think criticisms of identity politics are important, but it has surely taught us that there are at least valid questions to ask about the unconscious prejudices behind a given argument – which doesn't necessarily clash with the liberal ideal that the validity of an argument should be independent of the person making it.

A lot of the discussions in this book are, I think, more interesting than my criticisms might suggest…and I suppose what's behind all my problems, really, is the figure of Adam Gopnik himself. He comes across in this book as the most clichéd example of the ‘metropolitan liberal elite’ that his critics could have hoped for – musing around New York, talking about cycling holidays up the coast, pontificating on the crucial importance of good coffee to political history. When he looks outside the United States – frankly, when he looks outside Manhattan – he seems desperately out of his depth. His references to once-thriving British towns ‘like Blackpool and Salford in the north of England’ make you instantly convinced that he's never been near them, and his summaries of world-historical events like the Congolese genocide are trite.

This is thrown into embarrassing relief by his references to France, a country where he lived for five years. I know this because he mentions it repeatedly, and even includes it in the ‘About the author’ section on the back cover, like a student talking up their gap year. Every now and then in the text he will make grandiose comments about how things are done in France, the cafés in Paris where politicians like to hang out, or use ‘a favourite expression of mine in French’; these are toe-curlingly transparent ways to draw attention to what is, clearly, a very superficial understanding of France. (There are also plain mistakes, as when he gives the title of Houellebecq's novel as ‘Les Particles Élémentaires’.)

The tone becomes a problem because he makes tone so integral to his idea of politics. Ultimately I like Gopnik's idea of political pragmatism, and I, too, prefer incremental but realistic solutions to ideal solutions that will never happen. The problem is, incrementalism is not sufficient right now, and he never properly addresses that problem. Incremental advances may perhaps be enough to deal with fascist populism – though I'm not convinced – but they certainly aren't enough to deal with civilisational threats such as the climate crisis, which really does require the kind of radical solutions that are anathema to Gopnik's ‘so far so good’ brand of liberalism.

I still don't know if I'm a liberal or not, but I do know that I'm not quite on Adam Gopnik's wavelength. If this is sanity, perhaps a little bit of craziness is called for after all.
Profile Image for Barbara.
267 reviews206 followers
August 23, 2020
How can I adequately review this book? I will do my best, but one really needs to read it to understand all that it contains, perhaps reread it and reread it. I am grateful I had my own copy. It is now marked up like a college textbook with exclamation and question marks and side notes.

Adam Gopnik, a staff writer for The New Yorker, details the history of liberalism and what it means to be a liberal today. Through the evolution of liberal thinking from Montaigne (often considered the father of liberalism) , Voltaire, Thomas Payne, John Stuart Mill, Frederick Douglas, and Abraham Lincoln the similarities and differences are discussed. On specifics these historic figures have differed, but they all believed in many of the tenets of modern liberalism; skepticism of authority, compassion for those who suffer, and hatred of cruelty. Liberalism is a broader term today. There is spectrum of liberal thought, from the radical thinking of the far left to the moderate. The difference is not in what needs to be done but in how it is done and how quickly. Radicals maintain liberals just put Band-Aids on problems- reform, reform, reform. But as David Brooks says in his editorial in the NYT on 8/15 "Radicals are good at opening our eyes to social problems and expanding the realm of what's sayable." The author cites Douglas and Lincoln as examples of sliding on the liberal spectrum. Douglas became less radical as Lincoln moved more to the left.

Gopnik has a chapter devoted to why conservatives hate liberals. He divides the right into three groups: triumphal authoritarians, theological authoritarians, and tragic authoritarians. Again, it is a spectrum, but all believe liberals hate authority and without authority is chaos. They believe liberals break down communities and religion. They don't value family, culture, or the military. They cannot agree even among themselves. They are weak - more interested in understanding our enemies than in defeating them; they are "bleeding hearts". Gopnik says liberals do not hate conservatives; they just hate dogma. They are all for community, a community of inclusiveness and tolerance. "Whenever you look at a group with secure clan identity, there's always conformity and a radical course of culling out of those who don't belong." Love your country, love your town, but always see its flaws and question the authority. "Between anarchy and authority lies argument and argument must be based on evidence and shared facts."

Gopnik's book will certainly not appeal to everyone - not even all liberals. Some may argue he oversimplified. Some may think he didn't delve deeply enough. Some will argue he misrepresented people and/or their beliefs. But for me the book was exactly what I needed. It clarified some of my beliefs, gave historical perspective, and helped me understand the political divisions we see, not only in the U.S., but in many countries worldwide. We can learn from the past, but we cannot return there. We must go forward and do better, in small ways and in sweeping ways. I highly recommend this book.

The "isms" of liberal thinking today that I gleaned from this book.

1.Liberalism is the belief in reason and reform.
2. Liberalism believes incremental change will eventually lead to social change " a thousand small sanities".
3.Liberalism seeks and eventually sees or admits its own failures.
4.Liberlism believes in nonviolent tactics, constitutional means, and democratic procedures.
5.Liberalism is preceded by humanism.
6.Liberlism is tolerant of human differences.
7.Fanaticism is the enemy of liberalism.
8. Liberalism values debate and hates dogmatism.
9.Liberalism believes strongly in community - a community not based on exclusivity.
Profile Image for Mehrsa.
2,234 reviews3,659 followers
August 25, 2019
There's a lot to think about in this book and a lot to agree with. I share Gopnik's views of how reform is done--little by little, but constant. Revolutions don't always work out so well. I don't know if the thing he is defending is Liberalism per se, but the impulse for swift change. The right and the left are pushing for big and fast changes and Gopnik is worried. I worry about the effects of sudden upheaval too, but I think Gopnik too easily dismisses the harms of centrist neoliberalism. He seems to give its self-proclaimed defenders a pass. I know he's defending a theory, but in practice neoliberalism was pretty radical and it has led to some serious harms. Some of the nationalist/populist responses to those harms are troubling and it's good to defend the theory of democratic change, but we need to be clear that neoliberalism was not some electoral result of the democratic process. Often, it was a top-down program.

Also, It's hard to rally people for "liberalism" because people need to belong to something and have some sort of shared political identity. Even the famous liberals he points (Douglass, Bayard Rustin, etc) out were only successful because of the radicals that stood next to them. I don't think we get abolition or Civil Rights without radicals. Read MLK's letter from Birmingham Jail. I would have liked to see Gopnik's response. Yes, MLK believed in liberalism and democracy, but he also believed in revolution. Abolition needed a freaking war--the debates just did not cut it.
Profile Image for Seema Rao.
Author 2 books42 followers
February 25, 2019
Thought-provoking ~ Well-written ~ Right-on

tl:dr: Liberalism isn't crazy; its human and important.

Gopnik starts with a story about helping his teenaged daughter through the political stresses of the 2016 election. From that introduction, the reader is introduced to Gopnik's approach, wide-ranging but grounded in reality. Gopnik's book about Liberalism as a function of humanism is a compelling, and comforting, text for any reader who feels unsettled by the contemporary political climate. He helps frame the backlash against liberals as well as helps historic movements in the formation of American liberal politics. Gopnik's exceptional prose is broadly accessible. Gopnik pulls from a variety of sources; his reading list must be encyclopedia. This book is one of the best books about contemporary American politics that I have read.

Thanks to NetGalley for the ARC in exchange for an honest review.

Seema Rao Write : Instagram| Blog| Twitter|
189 reviews1 follower
June 5, 2019
Yes, I decided to read this so the author could preach to me in the choir, and while that did happen, I found the “preaching” flying right over my head in many cases. There is no doubt there are many highly intelligent and highly quotable lines in this book, but it felt like I needed a pre-reading list to fully grasp the messages.

The book was logically laid out, but I still had the impression of being bounced around - it all lacked a certain flow. All-in-all it packs a dense punch, and I’m glad I pushed through, but I’m not really sure if I learned anything more about liberalism than I did previously, except for some of the lesser-known players.
Profile Image for Matt Schiavenza.
189 reviews3 followers
June 20, 2019
Reading an Adam Gopnik book is like having dinner with a witty, erudite, charming friend who nevertheless leaves you wondering what the conversation was about. I don't mean this as an insult — I generally enjoy Gopnik's writing, but readers looking for precise argumentation here will be disappointed. Gopnik organizes his book elegantly, devoting a chapter to what liberalism is and one each to why the right and left hate it so much. But I occasionally found it frustrating parsing through the digressions and cultural references to figure out what, exactly, he was arguing.

Never mind. This is a work by a supremely intelligent, humane writer, and I'm happy to have read it.
Profile Image for Sheri.
1,194 reviews
August 28, 2019
So I'm feeling a little like I just drank the kool-aid and a little like I found a nice framework within which I can wiggle. Moderation is one of my most favorite sayings; not abstinence (with most things) or complete indulgence, but the recognition that a little bit of almost everything is okay.

In this treatise to liberalism, Gopnik rejects the existence of the unicorn and claims the hardier, pragmatic, and competent breed of rhinos as his mascot for the liberals. He presents a typical wishy-washy hand wringing and very Woody Allen-esque framework (even working in two female dominated love stories--George Eliot and Harriet Taylor)for what it means to be a liberal.

I understand the reasons his tone may not appeal to all (and Gopnik goes to great length to explain the ways that both right and left dislike the liberal: "Historically and still today, both the far left and the far right hate liberals more even than they hate their opposite extreme, with whom they share—even if they don't recognize it—a common ground of absolutism.”), but personally I agree with most of what he says and would eagerly join a group of "people and parties with an equal commitment to reform and to liberty, who want both greater equality among men and women and an ever greater tolerance for difference among them too.”

He presents the case for compromise, not because that is the best scenario, but often because it is the only way to move forward: "Liberalism ends in the center not because that's where liberals always think the sanity is, but because they recognize that there are so many selves in a society that must be accommodated that you can't expect them to congregate in a single neighborhood at one end or another of the city.”

Overall Gopnik has a great story teller voice. He is firm in his descriptions and convincing in his argument for reasoned, progressive reform. He gives a few specific suggestions for dealing with the incredibly divided America of 2019, but in general reminds us that "Whenever we look at how the big problems got solved, it was rarely a big idea the solved them. It was the intercession of a thousand small sanities. A thousand small sanities are usually wiser than one big idea.”
Profile Image for Craig.
66 reviews18 followers
December 23, 2020
You can sculpt something by addition, packing material together until you’ve built up the figure, or you can sculpt subtractively by chipping away all the extra until only the figure remains, having emerged from previously formless stone. This book aims to define liberalism on the way to defending it, but Gopnik sculpts his definition mainly by subtraction rather than addition. Ostensibly once you’ve chipped away the flakes of revolutionary and reactionary politics, what’s left should be a well-formed statue of liberalism. But the book dwells mainly on what liberalism isn’t, and on what isn’t liberalism. When the assertions about liberalism are direct rather than indirect, they can seem tendentious and self-serving—it’s easy to keep the best of historical progress for liberalism and leave the rest, and Gopnik does seem to do this now and then—but he does try to inch along with scrupulous, brow-furrowed liberal care too, or at least to appear to. I am grateful for certain things I picked up along the way here, though; hardly the most lucid of writers at times, and given at times to an elliptical, essayistic sweep (which, when you really think about it, displays little of the incrementalism and cautious fallibilism that are purportedly characteristic of the liberal cast of mind), Gopnik is also always good for a few clarifying moves like this: “the right wing wants cultural victories and gets nothing but political ones; while the left wing wants political victories and gets only cultural ones” or “the right tends to act as though the nineteenth century never happened, while the left tends to act as though the twentieth century never took place.” These reversible “winged” witticisms verge on tote-bag sloganeering at times, and like his profligate use of dash-bound insertions—he is Dickinsonian in his em-dashing, just like this, and the prose clanks and jars sometimes as a result, forcing the reader to dig back through sentences to recover its core idea—they can seem a bit like a tic now and then (see what I mean?). But I did feel that these assertions were often revealing and helpfully organizing too.
Profile Image for David.
643 reviews233 followers
July 8, 2020
A love note from the author, an involved liberal (in the current US usage of the term “liberal”), to all involved liberals everywhere. I enjoyed this book. Your opinion may vary depending on your attitude towards involved present-day US liberals. However, even a review that was generally critical of the writer's politics had to admit that Gopnik's writing possessed the following qualities: “engaging, conversational prose; a wry sense of humor; a seasoned eye for the telling anecdote; and a great deal of learning, lightly worn”.

I used the word “involved” above with the following riddle in mind:
In a bacon-and-egg breakfast, what's the difference between the Chicken and the Pig? The Chicken is involved, but the Pig is committed. (hat tip to Wikipedia)
Even before the pandemic, I didn't get out a lot, so I can't tell if this metaphor, in its various incarnations, is merely well-worn or has crossed over into cliché. (Wikipedia tells me that cartoonist Scott Adams was already ridiculing this story in 2008.)

Cliché or no, it seemed appropriate for this book at this moment as, if I'm understanding the signals from my society, liberals are coming in for a boatload of abuse from both sides of the political spectrum for being involved but not committed. From the right, liberals are pious hypocrites giving away other people's money. From the left, they are unwilling to do the hard work of equality: they will sit next to disadvantaged people on public transit, but they won't surrender their child's career-advancing summer internship to them.

This book reminds you that merely being involved can be a burden, an effort, and an important moral choice. (Remember: there were also people spitting on the people attempting to integrate schools and lunch counters, and a greater number of people just standing by and doing nothing.) Liberals shouldn't be ashamed of the measures, even the often watery half-measures, that they have managed to achieve. Gopnik reminds that incremental progress makes the world a better place. If liberals (always open to a good session of self-criticism) haven't done nearly enough, they've done some things to proud of. This book makes liberalism's shared history to be a long and dignified adventure of generally steady improvement, although – as we are no doubt too aware these days – there are sometimes steps backwards. “Wherever there is a movement for humane reform, there is always a liberal around somewhere,” Gopnik says (Kindle location 99).

I am liberal, but I am also human, so I completely understand that, when you see a successful, erudite, and happy man in the process of book-length self-congratulations, the nearly-irresistible urge is to give them a good swift kick in the pants. For this reason, Gopnik's trousers have been on the receiving end of some violence. In addition to the relatively mild boot from The Nation referenced above, Gopnik has received a thoroughly ill-tempered thrashing from The New Republic.

The author of the review, David Sessions, dislikes Gopnik's politics, which is certainly a basis for a negative review, but he also seems to be bent on attacking Gopnik's associations and interests as they appear in the book. Meaning, he characterizes Gopnik's occasional mentions that he is fond of his children as “saccharine”, and indicates New Yorkers who take drawing classes and see mental health professionals are worthy of ridicule. To see how ridiculous this is, let me turn the tables on Sessions, based on five minutes' worth of internet searching: I can say, for example, “Sessions is the sort of Boston insider that needs the shelter of an institute of higher learning which has still not apologized for its decades-long complicity in pedophilia, nor for its shameful role in concealing evidence about Irish Republican Army atrocities. On a personal level, he has taken an elitist exception to leaf blowers, a tool which helps poor people support their families in the US and elsewhere by allowing them to work in the gardening and lawn maintenance. I'm sure he'd rather see their families starving.” Silly, right? So is Sessions' criticism of Gopnik's place of residence and hobbies.

After I got a free electronic review copy, I was surprised to see that this book had been out for almost a year, and had already gotten both severe thumpings and happy applause from media outlets that will have far, far more readers than I will ever have. I don't understand the motivation for giving me a free copy but I was glad to get it. The book's public reception drove home one of the books important messages – O fellow liberals, you can't expect a lot of hurrahs for championing incremental change, you just have to take solace in the fact that, in the infrequent moments when things change for the better, you were involved.

Thank you to NetGalley and Basic Books for a free advance review copy of this book.
Profile Image for Paul Kelly.
31 reviews
July 22, 2019
10 Quotes that will help you evaluate this book

1. The secret truth is that what we are having most of the time is the same reform, over and over again, directed to new places and people: a removal of socially sanctioned cruelty.

2.The real source of reform is often far from any obvious political action. Morals and manners change politics more than politics change morals and manners

3.The reason liberals are confident that reform can happen is because they know, instinctively and empirically, that much of the work of reform is largely done before politics take place

4.The opposite of humanism is not theism but fanaticism; the opposite of liberalism is not conservatism but dogmatism.

5 They [conservatives ] say that liberalism is the natural enemy of community, and of the families and traditions that make communities stable, and that stable communities are essential to happy lives

6. What actually and effectively separates liberal and mainstream conservative parties and politicians, seen squarely, are certain ideas about respect and certain rituals of reverence—particularly respect for the military and reverence for religion

7. [Triumphalism] is based on the belief that the most crucial dimension in life is weakness and strength, and that liberals are incurably weak...Theological authoritarians hate liberalism not because liberals are weak but because they seem so strong, so arrogant and complacent in their denial of divine truth...[Tragic authoritarians]. , the past is not a place to be outstripped and discarded, surpassed and condescended to. The past is in a real sense the only place we have

8. As Penn Jillette once said, the argument that liberal humanism is a religion like any other is the same as the argument that, since stamp collecting is an obsessive hobby, then not stamp collecting must be an obsessive hobby too...In fact, people who don’t collect stamps don’t have an alternative passion for not collecting stamps. If you don’t love stamps, you don’t hate stamps.

9.There is a tragic rule of twenty-first-century life, a rule of double amnesia: the right tends to act as though the nineteenth century never happened, while the left tends to act as though the twentieth century never took place.

10.The world is made of rooms—the world is the room, times many millions. Which doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be busy fixing and healing the world. It just means that real changes begin in our minds and in our immediate daily practices. That’s a commonplace not just among quiet, inward-turning contemplative types; it’s what every successful social agitator preaches as well. The change has to begin at home, or nowhere.
Profile Image for Adrian Alvarez.
489 reviews37 followers
December 17, 2021
I had to sit with this one for a few days. Adam Gopnik is my favorite writer from the New Yorker roster, his collection of essays, Paris to the Moon, has been so inspirational to me personally, that it has influenced my life choices (more on that in another review), but I found this book so soooo annoying. Why is that? All he does is carve out an articulate vision of liberalism and frame our contemporary moment in a way to temper the tug of war extremism he senses in the air. All he does is lay out the usefulness and longstanding practicality of incremental reform in the history of government. And yet... I got so annoyed!

Maybe this is me coming to terms with the fact that I am not liberal, but a far more radical political animal (probably shouldn't be a surprise). Maybe it is the tone of dismissiveness I got from Gopnik's description of liberalism. Maybe it is simply my own discomfort at letting go of my own political narratives around the bigoted right in American politics and the ineffectual liberalism standing off against the barrage of threats to our democratic institutions.

It's just... even though Gopnik makes a very reasonable argument, I sense we are not in a time of reason but a time of passion and our institutions of liberalism are in no way fated to prevail. The world is faster, slow and steady gets left in the dust, while decades (or more) of authoritarianism has the potential to take the lead. The era of small reform may (hopefully) return but these new drafts require systemic shifts that micro-adjustments are ill-equipped to handle. The changes we need feel more severe and more immediate than Gopnik seems to want to admit to.

So is this book valuable? Absolutely. It is a higher order of discussion about current American politics than you get from most places. Is it a great start for a conversation? Yes. Is it convincing? No it is not. Unless our polite dinner table conversation is happening over a bottle of fine Chateauneuf-du-Pape and a serving of roasted 1 percenters (save me a leg), I'll hold off on conversations about incremental reform.
Profile Image for Peter.
466 reviews43 followers
July 27, 2020
Sometimes I read a book and find myself a total believer; other times I don’t finish a book as I find it too obtuse or pedantic. This book found me as a fulcrum between the two.

Gopnik presents much to think about in A Thousand Small Sanities. To prove his points he invokes a panorama of people, ideas, and positions. Some of the time I followed his thoughts. Gopnik is, among other things, a person who is able contextualize ideas both large and small and do so in a convincing manner. On the other hand, I often found his comments and assertions too wide ranging, too much of a decree rather than a thought.

I admit to being overwhelmed by the depth and scope of Gopnik’s knowledge. That, perhaps, is one of the reasons I struggled with this book. It is good, proper and necessary to be challenged when reading a book. This book I found was a tsunami of information. I found myself too often swept away with his arguments and themes rather than embraced and delighted at discovering them.

This book deserves to be read. I suggest, however, you take your time or it may well drown you. Candidly, I’m not sure that Gopnik’s book will reach a broad-based audience who will willingly embrace, or be persuaded by his observations.
Profile Image for E..
Author 1 book20 followers
July 22, 2019
Gopnik offers a robust defense of the liberal worldview as the great human moral adventure. He writes, "Whenever we look at how the big problems got solved, it was rarely a big idea that solved them. It was the intercession of a thousand small sanities. A thousand small sanities are usually wiser than one big idea."

Liberalism he defines as "an evolving political practice that makes the case for the necessity and possibility of (imperfectly) egalitarian social reform and ever greater (if not absolute) tolerance of human difference through reasoned and (mostly) unimpeded conversation, demonstration, and debate." He admits this is an unwiedly description, but that's how liberalism works. It cannot be easily contained within slogans and catchphrases.

Liberalism emerges out of humanism, and Gopnik argues that humanism continues to come before liberalism. The movement begins with Montaigne's critical self-examination and willing to try out new ideas. It develops through modern efforts to eliminate cruelty.

What Gopnik does is not present simply the ideas of major thinkers, but he describes the lives of various figures, with John Stuart and Harriet Taylor Mill as his paradigm examples. For he believes that liberalism is a way of life more than a set of ideas and that we learn about it by learning about the lives shaped by it.

I found the ideas he advances to be Mill as filtered through Karl Popper and updated by Richard Rorty. This despite Popper rarely appearing explicitly in the book (though his defenses of the open society and scientific thinking do) and Rorty is only mentioned once in the bibliography (though his spirit and themes are throughout the book).

Gopnik refines his presentation of liberalism by contrasting it with both the Right and the Left. In each case, he looks for the best examples of each (Charles DeGaulle and Emma Goldman) instead of arguing against straw persons. And he shows how liberalism has learned from both movements and also contributed to them.

I very much appreciated the chapter contrasting liberalism with the Left, as it helps to clarify tensions I have felt professionally and personally in recent years as different approaches to Trumpism and other issues have emerged. In this chapter he tackles many current topics including free speech, religious tolerance, pronouns, etc.

Note: Gopnik argues that Liberalism is NOT centrism, which is its own movement. A chapter contrasting the two would have been helpful. It is interesting to note that David Brooks's column from last week mentioned this book and is why I ordered and read it.

Overall, I recommend it. Now, what I'd like is for Amy Kittelstrom to moderate a discussion over liberalism with Gopnik and Marilynne Robinson (her recent article in the NY Review of Books sets up an alternative view of liberalism's origins) and then for the responder to be Wendell Berry.
Profile Image for Albert Stern.
23 reviews
June 21, 2019
Just finished this and some of the reviews, mostly from left-leaning publications like The Nation and New Republic that basically eviscerated it. From a right of center point of view, what's annoying is that Gopnik equates liberalism with virtue, that it is born of and embodies all that is best of the human spirit. The deeper flaw is his failure to acknowledge how both modern middle of the road liberalism and conservatism are products of classical liberalism - I got this quote of Alan Wolfe's off a wiki page, and it sums up the connection: "When instead we discuss human purpose and the meaning of life, Adam Smith and John Maynard Keynes are on the same side. Both of them possessed an expansive sense of what we are put on this earth to accomplish." By focusing as he does on intellectuals in the 19th century as the font of free speech, equal rights, etc., Gopnik doesn't take into account the classical liberal ideas that preceded those thinkers. For example, he writes "The liberal view of free speech comes down to us from that bedrock document, [JS] Mill's 1859 'On Liberty.'" Really? Free speech was enshrined in the Bill of Rights three-quarters of a century before Mill wrote his essay, a hint that maybe the liberal view of free speech came down to us from earlier thinkers. In any case, the Founding Fathers were not thinking about John Stuart Mill when they enshrined freedom of speech in the First Amendment, which still guides the governance of the United States (as well constituting a bedrock of American identity). While hundreds of millions of people live the First Amendment, I can't imagine that each year more than a few thousand people read (or re-read) Mill's essay. Gopnik writes that his idea of liberalism comes from feelings - much quoted in reviews is his line "Liberalism isn't a political theory applied to life. It's what we know about life applied to a political theory." In my opinion, what the Founding Fathers were up to was applying what they knew about the nature of tyranny to a political theory - I don't imagine that "feelings" figured much in their thinking. And that may be the divide between the conservatism and liberalism born of classical liberalism. Gopnik's thinking in this book is so squishy, so Pollyannaish, so incomplete, it's hard to take his conclusions seriously - to put it crudely, his head is a little too far up his own tuchis. However - I gave the book two stars because peppered throughout are sharp insights and a willingness to be critical of liberalism when he sees fit to do so. And many of his criticisms of conservatism are spot on. Still, conservatism is not the antithesis of liberalism, nor is it liberalism's evil twin - it's a different philosophical approach on how we might best fulfill "what we are put on this earth to accomplish."
Profile Image for Mark Lawry.
228 reviews10 followers
June 24, 2019
Liberal and conservative are two words that have evolved over the last few 100 years. This fact almost makes these two words meaningless. A great frustration for myself is that being an American liberal does not make one a classical liberal, or even a liberal. As Gopnik points out Adam Smith was understood in the 18th and 19th centuries to be a liberal. In fact, he was a radical. Smith explained why and how slavery destroyed wealth. This a generation before people seriously spoke of the abolition of slavery. He argued against secure borders because people need to be free to move within the global economy to develop their skills. Today we call this human capital. He argued against war and colonies and he pushed for public education. American leftists tend to know as much about Adam Smith as any current populist republican. Which is to say few in the American left or right have read Smith and both would be shocked that Gopnik would call him a liberal.

Gopnik gives one example after another of liberals using existing systems within governments to advance policies to improve lives without calling for revolution. Revolution has proven over and over to be a disaster from the French to the 1917 Russian revolutions. Before the U.S. Civil War many white abolitionists were willing to burn down the country to end slavery. While Frederick Douglas was against this plan. He believed the framework for freedom for African Americans was there in the constitution. It only needed to be tweaked to include all.

The book points out anybody can be a liberal. An ardent Muslim, Catholic, capitalist (my own bias,) an agnostic, a socialist. While an American Democrat or leftist can be very anti-liberal and intollerant of other ideas.

Probably nothing profound here beyond that of a 3rd or 4th grade social studies class. Still a fun conversation of the history of liberal thinking over recent generations and how and why it can improve lives.
Profile Image for Jesse Young.
121 reviews61 followers
September 5, 2019
I gave this book 110 pages before giving up. I'm not totally sure what Gopnik hoped to accomplish with this tract, but he's produced a deeply meandering and boring recitation of the lives and opinions of mostly 18th and 19th century political figures. It's exactly the kind of book he says he wishes to avoid -- a dreary intellectual history that allows him to wallow in his fetish for bygone political philosophy. Not useful or even particularly interesting.
Profile Image for Steve Greenleaf.
221 reviews66 followers
November 2, 2019
A single word can’t easily contain a complex concept, and a concept cannot easily (if ever) contain a reality. A linguistic referent (word), to supply any value, must include an essential aspect of the referred chunk of reality. So, we can go on at length, and often fruitfully, about the most important concepts we live by: love, freedom, God, imagination—and liberalism. The list could continue at length. The discussion goes on indefinitely and yet fruitfully. Might one conclude that any concept that receives a definitive definition [sic] is little better than a tautology and of little value.

That a word or concept has a history does not make it mean what it once meant. Trees have roots; human beings don’t. What they have instead are histories. Histories are ways of thinking about the past and the present, which allow us to imagine new futures.

"Liberalism is as distinct a tradition as exists in political history, but it 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. (At least this means that poets and novelists and painters, a Trollope or a George Eliot or a Manet, can be better guides to its truths than political philosophers or pundits.)"

To return to the point, defining “liberalism” is a fraught task, one that can only prove one more iteration in a continuing effort. But so be it, and if one had to deal with only one book to delineate (contemporary) liberalism, I doubt that one could find a more compelling work that Adam Gopnik’s A Thousand Small Sanities: The Moral Adventure of Liberalism (2019). Gopnik doesn’t approach this formidable topic as a political philosopher might, but as the skilled journalist that he is. (He’s been writing for the New Yorker since 1986.) Gopnik portrays liberalism primarily through its history, and its history primarily through its practitioners. And in doing so, he writes in almost aphoristic prose. Indeed, it’s a temptation to simply lay out a series of quotes from the book in lieu of a review. (I far exceeded my Kindle allotment of highlights.) Gopnik treats “liberalism” as he might the subject of one of his New Yorker profiles, bobbing in and out of personal vignettes and summary analysis.

"Liberalism ends in the center not because that’s where liberals always think the sanity is, but because they recognize that there are so many selves in a society that must be accommodated that you can’t expect them to congregate in a single neighborhood at one end or another of the city. The meeting place, the piazza, in an Italian village, is placed in the center of the town because everyone can get there. The ancient Greeks thought of this meeting place as the “agora,” which meant the market but meant more broadly the place where citizens met for unplanned meetings. Tyrants of all kinds, Persian and Spartan, feared the agora in the most literal way, and tried to eliminate it from their cities."
. . . .

"Humanism precedes liberalism. Connection comes before action. A readiness for self-inspection precedes an effort at self-improvement, and a confidence in our neighbors precedes faith in citizenship. Thinking about liberal order or the liberal future in terms of laws and legislatures is far too limiting. Park designers, sociologists, and beyond have more to tell us about building open societies."

Thus, the lead characters in this book are a pair of couples, John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor, and Mary Ann Evans (who wrote under the pseudonym “George Eliot”) and George Henry Lewes. We learn from the tale of these two couples that liberalism and feminism often go together. In addition, Gopnik delves into the liberalism of civil rights activist Bayard Rustin, who organized the great civil rights march of August 1962, where Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. Bayard worked for liberal causes as a black, gay man, making the importance of liberation and dignity inherent in liberalism especially high values in his life. Another exemplar of liberalism in life and action is Frederick Douglass, the escaped slave who became one of the great Americans of the nineteenth-century and whose oratory could match that of Lincoln for its power and persuasion (and whom Lincoln came to admire). Another, surprising choice (to me anyway), is Charles De Gaulle, the leader of Free France during the Second World War and later president of the Republic. Gopnik notes that while De Gaulle had some very conservative-leaning beliefs and attitudes, his defense of liberalism—a very lively topic in France from before the Revolution (1789) to the present—proved crucial for France.

"Modern liberalism—as distinct from earlier and more general meanings of the term as “generous” or “learned”—begins with a psychological principle, a human principle. Its foundation is fallibilism—the truth that we are usually wrong about everything and always divided within ourselves about anything we believe. Reform rather than revolution or repetition is essential because what we are doing now is likely to be based on a bad idea and because what we do next is likely to be bad in some other way too. Incremental cautious reform is likely to get more things right than any other kind."

And while Gopnik does an excellent job of singing the praises of liberalism, neither does he ignore its critics. Here, too, he draws upon worthy exemplars, such as Samuel Johnson and G.K. Chesterton. And of more recent vintage, political thinker Patrick Deneen, whose Why Liberalism Failed (2018) became a bit of a sensation (well, among those who read such topics), receives a fair hearing. And, as Gopnik notes, liberalism always seems caught in the middle, so the Left criticizes liberalism also. While the conservative critique says, “too much, too soon, not sure I'll work” the left argues “too little, too late, gotta have a whole new plan.” On the left, Gopnik spotlights “Red Emma” Goldman, the native of Russia who emigrated to the U.S., was eventually deported, and then went on to the Soviet Union, where she, unlike so many others, saw through the façade of Lenin’s Potemkin Village. She supplied poignant critiques of her fellow leftists and well as liberals.

"The right-wing critique of liberalism is largely an attack on its overreliance on reason; the left-wing one, mostly an attack on its false faith in reform. The right-wing assault also tends to focus on the evil that liberalism does internally to the traditional communities and nations it betrays; the left-wing pays attention, as well, and sometimes more often, to the evil that liberalism does externally to its distant victims in the foreign countries it exploits." [N.B. Yes, too many critics conflate liberalism with capitalism, sloppy move. sng]

Gopnik reports that this work arose from musings with his teenage daughter when the results of the 2016 presidential election became clear. How? Why? What went wrong? What do good and wise people stand for? What do we aspire to? Without unduly disparaging respectable figures on the right or the left, Gopnik demonstrates more than argues that despite liberalism’s reputation for a bland, middle-of-the-road, melioristic attitude, it is a rich source for establishing a good life for individuals and their communities. In Gopnik’s liberalism, there is as much of Edmund Burke as there is of Adam Smith (a misunderstood liberal: "Smith believed not that markets make men free but that free men move toward markets. The difference is small but decisive; it is most of what we mean by humanism.") or of John Stuart Mill. In fact, the inability of liberalism to strictly define itself (or care to) is its power (Compare liberalism to the endless Marxist battles around theorizing). Liberalism is protean, yet with the essential elements of liberty, dignity, and compassion, its many threads can be tied together into the beautiful and useful cloak under which we can best conduct our lives.

But let Gopnik have the last word:

"What is liberalism, then? A hatred of cruelty. An instinct about human conduct rooted in a rueful admission of our own fallibility and of the inadequacy of our divided minds to be right frequently enough to act autocratically. A belief that the sympathy that binds human society together can disconnect us from our clannish and suspicious past. A program for permanent reform based on reason and an appeal to argument, aware of human fallibility and open to the lessons of experience. An understanding that small, open social institutions, if no larger than a café or more overtly political than a park, play an outsized role in creating free minds and securing public safety. A faith in rational debate, rather than inherited ritual, and in reform, rather than either revolution or reaction. A belief in radical change through practical measures. A readiness to act—nonviolently but visibly and sometimes in the face of threatened violence—on behalf of equality. A belief that life should be fair—or fairer, or as fair as seems fair: people’s lives should not be overdetermined by who their parents were or how much money they might have inherited or what shade of skin their genes have woven. A belief that the individual pursuit of eccentric happiness can be married to a common faith in fair procedure."
Profile Image for Venky.
935 reviews337 followers
July 9, 2020
We seem to be living in an age of ‘cancellations.’ If the rabid Coronavirus is not busy cancelling our well laid out plans, we seem to be busier cancelling out each other. The Left brigade unsatisfied in its pursuit of cancelling the Right, is now steadfast in going after its own creed. What’s Left over after not being the target of the Left is derisively labelled as “Woke” and is in spectacular irony hunted down by the “Wokes” themselves! What an era of paradox mankind seems to be inhabiting. In the words of the irreverent and inimitable Matt Taibbi, “On the other side of the political aisle, among self-described liberals, we’re watching an intellectual revolution. It feels liberating to say after years of tiptoeing around the fact, but the American left has lost its mind. It’s become a cowardly mob of upper-class social media addicts, Twitter Robespierres who move from discipline to discipline torching reputations and jobs with breathtaking casualness.”

Liberty, and its natural concomitant liberalism, however, is not a zeitgeist that loses its temporal worth once it has outlived its utility. Passé! Instead it is the very gestalt upon which humanity bases both its credence and claims. Immutable yet inevitable; intangible yet indispensable. It is to this gestalt that acclaimed New York Times journalist, Adam Gopnik pays unashamed homage in his engaging work, “A Thousand Small Sanities.” Evoking the benevolent John Stuart Mill & the irreverent David Hume, Mr. Gopnik a la Ta Nehisi Coates pens a letter to his daughter waxing eloquent about liberalism. Mr. Gopnik begins his defense of liberalism with a paean to the immortal couple, John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor. Mr. Gopnik does not however defend liberalism with a vigour bordering on the biased or with a frenzy that is a synonym for the irrational. He evaluates the arguments posited by the anti-liberals both on the Left as well as the Right before refuting them methodically and yet being mellow all the while. Brooding on why ‘The Right Hates Liberalism’, Gopnik abridges the conservative lament. He posits that those ‘treating millennia-old beliefs as though they were as disposable as Kleenex’ need to talk to, or at least read, some actual liberals. Quoting Mill in On Liberty: ‘It would be absurd to pretend that people ought to live as if nothing whatever had been known in the world before they came into it; as if experience had as yet done nothing towards showing that one mode of existence, or of conduct, is preferable to another.’

Similarly, Mr. Gopnik takes the Left head on in their objections to the liberalism’s ‘fallible’ nature. One of left wing’s favourite gripe against liberalism stems from a perception where liberalism is viewed as a dogma that enriches and embellishes the privileges of old white men. Britain’s colonial conquests that left more than half of the world reeling under the catastrophes of induced famine and internecine civil strife being a classic case in point. However, the Left is caught off guard when Mr. Gopnik points out the futile bent of the left towards ‘intersectionalism.’ ‘Intersectionalism in a sense does not go far enough,’ Gopnik writes. ‘There are countless nodes on the network of social categories. We call each one a person.’ This is also the very reason why  Bayard Rustin leaves a memorable imprint in Mr. Gopnik’s book as an indomitable protagonist standing up for the ideals of liberalism. As Mr. Gopnik himself reveals in an interview, “Rustin now looks like a fount of common sense. You know, he’s a totally, in the proper sense, radical figure. He organizes the March on Washington. He goes to prison 24 times. In no imaginable sense is he a centrist. But when black nationalism becomes the dominant strain, he says, “This makes no sense for us as a people. To be isolated outside a broader coalition of progressives.” And he was excommunicated, again, from the movement for saying that and he remains a staunch member of the Democratic Party and, not least, vehemently anti-communist throughout his entire career”

An arresting feature of the book is the employ by Mr. Gopnik of some stellar albeit eclectic figures who have unassumingly, but powerfully stood up for liberalism. The philosophy espoused by the likes of Frederick Douglass, Bayard Rustin, John Stuart Mill, Robert D. Putnam, Michael de Montaigne, Benjamin Disraeli, Philip Roth, George Eliot, Harriet Taylor, G.H. Lewes, and Jürgen Habermas, illustrates in a striking manner how liberalism transcends from something that is a mere lip service for free markets, and distinguishes itself as an inclusive, embracing tenant that keeps bigotry at bay.

The very fact that discourses are being held across the world at the time of this writing over matters that were hitherto considered sacrilegious – such as the rights of and privileges for LGBTQ, the case for and against abortions, discrimination against people based on caste, creed and colour – bear monument to the distance liberalism has traversed in its attempt to instantiate an element of inclusiveness even among warring factions. This concept is illustrated by the painstakingly elaborate and telling definition of liberalism itself:

"Liberalism is a fact-first philosophy with a feelings-first history. Liberal humanism is a whole, in which the humanism always precedes the liberalism. Powerful new feelings about a compassionate connection to other people, about community, have always been informally shared before they are crystallized into law. Social contacts precede the social contract. Understanding the emotional underpinnings of liberalism is essential to understanding its political project." The objective of liberalism according to Mr. Gopnik is to achieve by gradual and non-violent means, “(imperfectly) egalitarian social reform and ever greater (if not absolute) tolerance of human difference.” Thus, for the author, For Gopnik, liberalism is neither a complex and esoteric doctrine, a set of abstract principles, nor a group of fixed political institutions, but it is the very way of life.

We tend to concur!

 (A Thousand Small Sanities – Adam Gopnik is published by Basic Books, an imprint of Perseus Books, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group Inc and will be released on the 14th of July 2020.)
Profile Image for Paul Szydlowski.
262 reviews5 followers
July 23, 2019
The most important passage in this book refers to the salons of the 17th and 18th centuries, out of which liberalism and democracy grew, finishing with the observation that parliament is only as strong as the coffee house next door. That single sentence inadvertently captures what ails American politics today, thanks to what at the time seemed a good idea - Newt Gingrich's instruction to his new GOP majority in 1995 that they refrain from moving their families to Washington, as had been the tradition, and instead travel home to their districts each weekend. Keeping in touch with those one represents would seem to be sage advice, but what it did was change the working relationships within Congress. Whereas our representatives and senators once fought tooth and nail during the week, but then got to know each other personally at weekend dinners and Little League games, they now returned to their often gerrymandered echo chambers, simultaneously narrowing their world view while eroding the working relationships that made compromise and effective governance possible.

The rest of the book is good, too. But not as good as that one sentence.
Profile Image for José Luis.
283 reviews17 followers
January 4, 2022
Finalmente, um livro que fala de política, mas que não é tendencioso. Utilizando o contexto histórico correto, mostra o rastro do liberalismo desde a sua gênese. Como surgiu, os precursores, as deturpações modernas, neo-liberalismo, etc. E sua comparação com o conservadorismo, também descrito desde o conceito raiz até nossos dias. Se você quer entender tudo isso sem o veneno dos dias atuais, é o livro indicado (apesar de eu não conhecer outros por enquanto). Um pouco cansativo e repetitivo em algumas partes, mas a redundância é benéfica para fixação de conceitos e ideias. Leitura muito enriquecedora.
Profile Image for Ellen.
144 reviews8 followers
August 25, 2019
I could have sworn I reviewed this book for GoodReads but maybe I didn't. Or maybe I inadvertently deleted it? I have done stranger things. I know for sure I have recommended it to every Democrat in the presidential race, every member of the DNC and Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi in particular.

So why.

I don't actually much care for Adam Gopnik. I find him supercilious and arrogant, frequently offering a subtext that says something along the lines, "I know you are nowhere as smart as I, and that most of this will go over your head, but (pat-pat on my metaphorical head) aren't you brave to read this." He is a very good writer, a fine technician with a large vocabulary; he just can't seem to wall off that annoying part of himself.

This, however, is a truly important book. I don't even find the constant references to his "smart daughter" so whom this book is ostensibly addressed troublesome. This is a book that calms the knee-jerk and finds the center from which all vantage points offer clear views.

There are three main sections. Part 1 is a general overview of liberalism, what it is, where it came from, and how it has manifested in European history of the last four hundred years or so. Part 2 addresses the question of "Why the Right Hates Liberalism." Those of us who live out on the left all sport bruises from insults involving the liberalism epithet at us. Part 3 moves in the opposite direction and discusses "Why the Left Hates Liberalism." I was glad of this as a someone who had always self-identified as liberal and then got condemned by folks further out on the progressive limb as a "neo-liberal" guilty of all manner of heinous crimes. I actually had to go look up "neo-liberal" and find out how I had ended up so far afield without being aware of moving.

I think the great value for me was finding liberal convictions on the right as well as the left--and being able to reconfigure liberalism in my head as a moral and secular humanism whose goals are often shared by diverse constituencies that have very different ways of trying to achieve those goals.

In particular I appreciated Gopnik's comparison of reform and revolution. I am reformist by nature. I may think major change is needed but I am loath to see any program, even one with which I agree, forced willy-nilly on the country from the top down. Gopnik points to Anthony Trollope's quoting of Mr. Monk in The Pallisers": "Many who before regarded legislations on the subject as chimerical, will now fancy that it is only dangerous, or perhaps not more than difficult. And so, in time, it will come to be looked on as among the things possible, then among the things probably; --and so at last it will be ranged in the list of those few measures which the country requires as being absolutely needed. That is the way in which public opinion is made." Gopnik sees an example of this process in our own day: "The movement for gay marriage in America, if someone could write its history properly, is almost a textbook case of Trollope's idea of how political reform happens at its best: an impossible idea becomes possible, then becomes necessary, and then all but a minority--a strenuous minority, often--accept its inevitability."

There is no question but that Gopnik sees today's GOP and its transformation into Trumpublicanism as a profound threat to liberalism, a movement backward into an earlier autocratic patriarchy. I certainly do as well. He seems, however, to look behind the boogeymen and grasp their thinking so that his liberalism might even make inroads there. Good for him on that.

By the way, see if you can find the egregious example of white-mansplaining why the separation of indigenous children from their families was "wrong" but not nearly on the "same wavelength of wrongness as murdering thousands of dissidents without trial or starving whole nations into submission." Extra points for anyone who recognizes the logical error in that statement, a logical error that only smug white male liberal might make.

I have my complaints but I think this is a book that needs reading right now, this early as too many Democrats vie for the nomination that is still a year away. It's a book with important ideas, certainly things we should have learned in school had we been paying attention but that may have been skipped by too many teachers.
Profile Image for Joseph Stieb.
Author 1 book127 followers
August 4, 2019
Thought this was a brilliant defense of liberalism as well as a fair-minded and thorough consideration of conservatism and leftism. You might be wondering: What could Gopnik possibly contribute to the proliferation of defenses of liberalism? Well, he starts by clarifying that defending liberalism is not the same thing as defending moderation or centrism. Liberalism is much more than that. Historically it is a challenge to entrenched privilege and injustice and a demand that human practices and institutions be subjected to reason, evidence, and moral norms like human rights. Gopnik focuses his defense of liberalism on some mini-biographies of key liberals, less for their ideas and more for the ways that their lives shaped their ideas. For example, he shows how George Eliot and George Henry Lewes, as a couple, advanced Liberal politics in England: the former through her writing and the latter through his ownership of newspapers and status in politics. He shows the loving relationship between Harriet Taylor and JS Mill, showing how their personal search for liberation and meaning drew them to elucidate crucial principles in liberalism. The point here is that liberalism started with the primacy of empathy: the ability and willingness to see as others see and feel what others feel, and to treat the horror and outrageousness of their suffering as a moral and political force. This argument about empathy (very similar to Pinker's in Better Angels of Our Nature), is probably the most original aspect of the book, although as a whole the argument is vivid and compelling.
Profile Image for Kerry.
285 reviews3 followers
August 9, 2019
I'd first seen Gopnik on a political talk show and he impressed me with his insights though I thought he might "read" better in print, as many authors naturally do, than in such a contentious format. Not so much, as it turns out. I can't add much to the other reviews I've seen of this book. They are fair, if harsh. His style is frustratingly nonlinear. I was left feeling hungry for him to finish the thought(s). However, there are plenty of glimpses of a truly poetic, thoughtful writer exploring the origin and meaning - and defending the concept of - liberal democracy at a time that this is much needed. If you can approach this book with some patience and view it as a series of heart-felt philosophical ruminations, you will not be disappointed. I am hoping Gopnik will not give up trying to express deep thoughts (and I'm thinking that perhaps all that is needed for another attempt is a truly great editor).
129 reviews1 follower
December 11, 2019
I completely stumbled onto this book as I browsed in Barnes & Noble. (Yes, I go to brick and mortar book stores and browse. Long live such bookstores and long live browsing!)
I cannot fully vouch for the scholarship or the depth, but it was just what I needed at this moment in my political life. In discussions with friends and family (who will definitely vote Democratic), I tend to agree with the key issues and desperate needs of our country, but take a more moderate view of how to make progress.
This book gave me a framework in which to think about what my political values really are, and how and why people on both the right and the left will criticize them. I'm more prepared to deal with accusations of being 'corporate' or a 'sell out' as expressed in media (friends and family would never call me names :-)) and am better able to passionately discuss the issues and evolve my positions intelligently.
Profile Image for Patrick.
15 reviews
June 10, 2019
If you read one book this year, let it be this one.
Profile Image for PhebeAnn.
341 reviews13 followers
April 7, 2021
On the whole, I appreciated Gopnik's defence of liberalism. This is a very readable primer in liberal political philosophy. If it hasn't entirely convinced me that I'm a liberal ideologically, it nonetheless has cemented the appeal of liberal techniques, which seem the most pragmatic way to make change, gradually, over time, through public debate and reform. Much less bloody than a revolution.

My chief complaint is that I felt like he glossed over the criticisms of liberalism from the left in his response to those criticisms. For example, he's quite critical of the way some purveyors of leftist identity politics strategically employ essentialism. In general, I agree with him that these cherry-picked appeals to essentialism (e.g. gender is constructed, except trans women simply are and have always been women, no ifs, ands or buts) are inconsistent and not exactly logical. But they do serve a political purpose. I guess I see it from the vantage point of all's fair when you're desperately trying to get the right to just exist in the world. Furthermore, many queer folks, feminists and other folks who are part of communities that sometimes desconstruct and sometimes appeal to essentialism would agree with Gopnik that appeals to essentialism are not a good strategy. The essentialist/constructivist debate is a longstanding point of contention within the feminist movement. That wasn't the only such moment I felt Gopnik did a disservice to radical left criticisms. However, I recognize the book is a high-level overview so the amount of time he has to unpack these debates is limited. Ultimately, he demures and says the leftist/radical criticisms of liberalism are valid, and luckily liberalism's role is to puzzle out how to incorporate them, as it has done with much of the landmark social and political changes we've made over the past ~250 years, frequently inspired by radical thought (e.g. ending slavery, civil rights, women's liberation, 2SLGBTQ+ rights). If liberalism is the dull but stalwart rhino, then radicalism is the unicorn in Gopnik's metaphor. The impossible but beautiful vision liberalism can draw energy from.

There are also some areas I wish he had explored more, like the connection between liberalism and capitalism. I understand why the free market is valued from a liberal perspective (it can respond more quickly to certain needs) but he also suggests that regulation, and even forms of socialism are also compatible with liberalism. He doesn't, however, explore this in depth.

I enjoyed and appreciated Gopnik's character studies of key liberal thinkers, from John Stewart and Harriet Taylor Mill, to Frederick Douglass, to Bayard Rustin (whom I'd never heard of). I also appreciated his love of Emma Goldman though I think she's rolling in her grave to the sounds of him arguing for her liberalism.

Overall, an enjoyable read I'd recommend to a lay person looking to know more about the key ideas and history of liberalism.
Profile Image for Paul.
28 reviews
April 8, 2020
For those who might enjoy some Political Science, this is a good read. I haven't done this much Poli-Sci since college. I have always been a bit to the left of center, certainly Liberal, but not comfortable with either the extreme left and certainly not the extreme right. I seem to feel most comfortable in what I call a "blended" economy, with both a strong dose of capitalism and with checks and balances of socialism. Clearly a social safety net is necessary. Health Insurance for all is but the latest advance on top of Social Security and other important social achievements. We have only to look at the current debacle with the bungling of the COVID-19 crisis to see what happens with a Reaganite philosophy that states; "The least governed is the best governed."
Too little government is as irresponsible as too much government is oppressive. Liberalism as Adam Godnik expresses it in this fine book is incremental, inclusive, intelligent, passionate, critical and ethically compassionate. Much how I approach my faith tradition, I refuse blind faith, but require a critical eye. A healthy note of skepticism helps keep folks honest.
I have always known that I am liberal. Gopnik helps me understand why and how I am liberal.
At the same time, the author gives a healthy dose of honest self criticism and self awareness. But that too is a "liberal" approach to liberalism.
Many of us are concerned about the broadside against our democratic institutions we see in the Trump administration. For those who might want to take a fresh look at what it might mean to be a passionate and positive "liberal" take a look at "A Thousand Small Sanities." It is a challenging and intelligent read.
Profile Image for Tom.
369 reviews
September 2, 2021
In these hyper-partisan times it is important to state clearly the meaning of the terms we use. Adam Gopnik sets out to define the term liberal. The book is framed as a letter to his daughter who is, in his view, struggling with the what is happening in politics presently.

He begins with a pedantic definition of the term liberal: “Liberalism is an evolving political practice that makes the case for the necessity and possibility of (imperfectly) egalitarian social reform and ever greater (if not absolute) tolerance of human difference through reasoned and (mostly) unimpeded conversation, demonstration, and debate.” (p24) He seeks to make this clearer through small biographies of liberal thinkers beginning with Montaigne and including Gladstone and so on. I found this initially interesting, but he tends to wander and lose the plot.

Sometimes the best way to describe a vague concept is to describe what it is not. The next two chapters set out to describe why the right hates liberalism and then why the left hates liberalism. These were useful chapters, but in laying out the cases of the right and left he muddies his argument by countering their arguments, opening himself to the charge of simply setting up straw-men.

The term neoliberal is one that I have found difficult to understand and Gopnik sees it as one of the vaguest terms used by the left to criticize liberalism. He distinguishes between liberal thinking and progressive politics seeing the latter as more about revolutionary change rather than gradual and reasoned change. This is pertinent certainly to the current problems faced by the Democratic party in the US, but is also in high relief in the current Canadian federal election.

Besides the wandering style, the book suffers from lack of an index.

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