A Thousand Small Sanities by Adam Gopnik has been an examination of the belief system known as liberalism. The book, first published this year, has gotten a fair amount of attention among those interested in political and social issues. Gopnik is a staff writer for the New Yorker since 1986. Despite a few quibbles that I have with the author’s presentation of definitions, I found this work to be well thought out and coherent analysis of its subject. Regardless of one’s views on liberalism, it is a set of ideas that has an enormous impact on humanity. Thus, I think that this is an important book.
Before saying anything about this book, it is necessary to define a few terms both in regards to general meanings and in regards to how the author uses them. The term “liberalism” has several meanings. For the most part Gopnik is using the universal definition. That is, liberalism is really neither right or left on the political spectrum. It is the belief in tenants such as democracy, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, secular government, science, racial and gender equality, capitalism, globalism and more. It is the rejection of both right and left extremism. However, this definition gets muddled as in some countries and places liberalism refers to something else. In the United States and elsewhere, liberalism often refers to a belief in all the previous mentioned values plus a moderately activist government that provides social programs and that implements at least a moderate level of regulation. Gopnik calls this left – liberalism. Making things even more confusing is that fact that in some countries the term liberal is actually tied to a more right - wing belief system and in still other places it is tied to libertarianism. Gopnik lays this out early in the book. The definitions that the author uses are more or less in sync with my understanding of these terms as well as the technical definitions of these terms. I find his labels to be accurate and useful and will use them for this balance of this post. This work is primarily concerned with the universal definition. However, a curious quirk creeps into Gopnik’s reasoning relating to all this.
The first chapters of the book present a history of liberalism. Though not a comprehensive account, Gopnik covers the lives and beliefs of many scientists, philosophers, artists and writers who have advanced liberal ideas. A large group of individuals is touched upon including Michel de Montaigne, George Henry Lewes, John Stuart Mill, George Eliot and more. Of particular interest to me, the author talks a fair amount about Anthony Trollope’s Pallister novels. Those who are regular readers of this blog know that I am a big fan of Trollope’s books including the Pallister series. He sees these novels, I believe correctly, as an examination of liberal change and the government of Britain during the Nineteenth - Century.
Most of the balance of the book consists of Gopnik’s philosophical ponderings on the virtues of liberalism. He argues that liberalism is a key driver of progress. He contends that liberalism has been instrumental in the reduction of poverty, increased life expectancy, the reduction of violence, the expansion of freedom and equality and more. The author paints a picture of liberalism taking the middle ground between the extremes of both the right and the left. He identifies right wing populism, right wing authoritarianism, Marxism and an extreme form of leftist identity politics (what I have been calling postmodernism in previous posts) as being diametrically opposed to liberalism.
Throughout the book Gopnik tries to provide genuine arguments that come from both the right and left against liberalism. He does a very good job here and tries to present some anti – liberal arguments fairly. Furthermore, he even grants that sometimes there is a point to these arguments.
One of Gopnik’s points is that liberals often talk about concepts like reason, individual freedoms, pragmatism, democracy etc. While these are key tenants of liberalism, compassion and empathy also to play a vital part in liberalism.
Another important theme is that liberalism rejects both utopian and radical ideas. Liberalism recognizes that the world is messy. It tries to use a combination of reason and compassion to make the world better. However, liberal philosophy acknowledges that there are no perfect solutions, that gradual change is better than revolution and that persuading people through democratic means is always better then compelling people. Gopnik writes,
Liberalism accepts imperfection as a fact of existence. Liberalism’s task is not to imagine the perfect society and drive us toward it but to point out what’s cruel in the society we have now and fix it if we possibly can . An acceptance of fallibility and , with it , an openly avowed skepticism of authority — these are core liberal emotions even more than concerns about checks and balances between the executive and legislative branches
The author compares other ideologies as idealized and unrealistic visions of the future in contrast to liberalism which is not about idealization, does not look for magical solutions and is unromantic. He uses a rhinoceros metaphor below because Harriet Taylor and John Stuart Mill were two key liberal thinkers who were also involved romantically and who used to meet at the rhinoceros cage at the London Zoo. Gopnik writes,
Most political visions are unicorns, perfect imaginary creatures we chase and will never find. Liberalism is a rhinoceros. It’s hard to love. It’s funny to look at. It isn’t pretty but it’s a completely successful animal. A rhino can overturn an SUV and—go to YouTube!—run it right over, horn out.
The author digs deeply into religion’s role in all this. Like me, he sees religion as a mixed bag, sometimes people have used religious beliefs to effectively advocate for liberal values but at other times these beliefs have been used to oppose liberalism. He delves into this issue in some detail in the ways that religion and liberalism interact.
Gopnik also brings up other important issues. He believes that in the long run capitalism and globalism, a key part of liberalism, benefit humanity as a whole. However, sometimes on the local level, for limited periods of time, these systems have contributed to human misery. Gopnik ponders some liberal responses to this dilemma. Once again, I agree with the author’s reasoning here.
Up until this point I agree with almost all the prepositions that I have mentioned. However, at some points the author seems to get a little fuzzy with the meaning of liberalism. Despite clearly differentiating between universal liberalism and left – liberalism early on, Gopnik starts to mix the concepts later in the book and seems to place some clearly left – liberal ideas into the liberal basket. He seems to insert government social spending and regulation policies into his conception of universal liberalism. This might be attributable to the fact that these are not set definitions and everyone has a slightly different interpretation of all this. I should mention that I am a left - liberal myself. I believe in universal liberal concepts but I also believe in a mixed system economic system that includes a fairly robust mix of government social programs and regulations. In fact, on the vast majority of political and social issues I am in agreement with the author. However, I think that this kind of government activism is not a part of universal liberalism. Liberals, in the universal sense, include people with moderate - right views and libertarian views that are opposed to left - liberalism. I may be nitpicking here, and perhaps I am getting a little bit into an arcane argument, but I think that universal liberalism is a vitally important set of ideas that needs to fit in people that I disagree with on some of these left/right issues.
One other quibble that I have about this book is that I think that it ignores non - Western sources of liberal ideas. Gopnik focuses heavily upon enlightenment figures. He also mentions Christianity. The Enlightenment was of course vital. It was the greatest explosion of liberalism is history, at least up until that point. However, the more I delve into these issues I realize that some liberal ideas did come from elsewhere in the world, the Islamic Golden Age, Chinese Civilization, some Native American Groups, particularly when it comes to gender, are just a few examples of what I am referring to. I wish that Gopnik talked about these influences just a little. This is a bit of a controversial issues and I realize that not everyone agrees with me on this.
Despite a few qualms I have on principle with Gopnik’s drift on the definition of liberalism, I agree with most of what is presented here. I concur that liberalism has been the great force in human history that has made things better for people in almost every corner of the Earth. As they have been in the past, liberal systems and values are under pressure from both the far right and the far left. I am very much on board with concepts such as slow and careful change, democracy, basic freedoms, the value of reason matched with compassion, the rejection of both far right and far left radicalism, and more that is here.
I liked this book and I thought that it is valuable. This is an important piece of political and social philosophy that is very much relevant to the world today. Even if one disagrees with Gopnik’s premises, he is a fair writer who brings both knowledge and understanding to this topic. If one does not agree with all the precepts of liberalism, as a system and a belief system it has had a profound influence upon the world. This book is an excellent source for anyone who wants to understand that system. I highly recommend this book to those interested in these topics.