A Thousand Small Sanities: The Moral Adventure of Liberalism
by Adam Gopnik
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
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.
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