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.
One of the many things tragically wrong with the USA today is the skewed, erroneous denigration of the term "liberal" and the concept of "liberalism" perpetrated by the right wing.
Hi Debra - I agree with you. The denigration of the term liberal is a bad trend and has led to harm. Based upon these definitions, what is being attacked is left - liberalism. Many people who identify as conservatives are also universal liberals.
Excellent review, Brian. You always give us so much to think about and you make a very good point about how Adam Gopnik by including social programs into what constitutes universal liberalism is adding on worthy goals but stretching the original definition. The same for Republicans who might want low taxes included.
Nowadays many on the right and left see liberalism as this wishy washy philosophy. But the original definition of universal liberalism can be found in the writings of John Stuart Mill and also I'm thinking Edmund Burke and his Reflections on the Revolution in France. Nowadays in my opinion its the Never Trumpers, conservatives who broke with Trump, who are displaying some of what universal liberalism was supposed to mean.
interesting analysis... Gopnik seems like a sane person with logical views... i just might point out that the Renaissance was tightly tied into discoveries of a scientific nature, contrasting real facts with the contemporary reliance on historical belief systems... in many ways society is still fighting that war; intolerance and prejudice seem to have permanent presences in the human psyche... i haven't been able to understand why people in general would rather believe things that are demonstrably untrue rather than do the work needed to discover what reality actually is... passing strange, the human species...
Thanks Kathy. Gopnik does talk about how liberalism does seem bland. Hence the unicorn verses the rhinoceros comparison.
I think a lot of people on both sides of the American spectrum are universal liberals. Most of the Never Trump conservatives fit the bill.
Hi Muddpuddle - I agree that the Renaissance played a part in all this. I also agree that human history has been to some extent, a conflict between liberal and illiberal forces.
Humans due tend to gravitate toward illogical and unscientific ideas. At least sometimes. I think it is because our ancestors evolved in an environment where scientific think thinking was only beneficial part of the time.
I think we can and should draw a distinction between 'liberty', or personal freedom, and Liberalism -- the latter of which is distinctly western, drawing from sources classical, medieval, and 'enlightened'. I'd have to read the book to see how strictly or loosely the author is using the term.
Another great and thoughtful review, Brian. It made me think of an interview I read today with Nancy Pelosi concerning the whole impeachment issue. She came across as the kind of liberal this book deals with. Also, as you know, I have been reading all the books of Richard Powers and I think you would find a kindred spirit in his novels.
I have enjoyed reading Adam Gopnik's essays however I have not read this book. Your excellent commentary provides an overview that suggests, near the end, that his view of liberalism may be somewhat muddied - that is not surprising since many liberals seem to espouse views that depart from those thinkers who founded the idea (Mill, et. al.).
I prefer to use the term "classical liberalism" to distinguish my personal views from contemporary liberals or conservatives. The thinking of Hayek and von Mises, for example, demonstrates a skepticism of the authoritarian state and the importance of the individual that represents the basis for this view. A good book on the legal philosophy of classical liberalism is The Structure of Liberty by Randy Barnett.
The cover with the eternal flame looks impressive.
I plan to check this one out, because we need voices like this. Even if his definition gets a little muddled, I like the effort made to define what it is to want a society based on certain principles like free inquiry and a secular government with meaningful checks and balances. It's disheartening to see the illiberal forces at play in society, whether it's theocratic right-wingers or a left-wing that's pushing for all kinds of censorship.
Hi Stephen - I think that the concept of personal freedom is part of liberalism. Thus, I think that it is fair to say that trends that enhanced personal freedom helped promote liberalism.
Thanks Judy - I think that many politicians, including Pelosi are universal liberals. That includes politicians on the left and the right. Pelosi is also, obviously a left liberal.
Thanks James. There is so much muddling going on. That is one reason I like the term left liberal. Thanks for recommendation, I might give Barnett a try. I also need to read others like Mills.
PS - I must give Powers a try.
Thanks for stopping by Haddock. I love the cover too.
Hi Hila - I agree, the principals of liberalism are vitally important. There are also terribly illiberal trends coming out of both the right and the left.
HI Brian. I think I would have to read the book to better understand what he means by liberalism. I often have noticed that certain groups will hijack terms to apply to themselves, even though they actually don't fulfill the meaning of the terms.
For example people who call themselves liberals and then want to impose a governmental system that would rob people of basic liberties.
People who call themselves Christians but their words, actions and beliefs contradict the basic tenets of Christianity.
Once again you've given me something to think about.
Have a great weekend!
Hi Sharon- People do Indeed hijack words. People’s opponents do also tend to try to label folks with incorrect words. I also think that sometimes words or labels change for more innocent reasons. I think that you would get a lot out of this book.
Have a great weekend!
I had not heard of this book before. I like the definition of liberalism that you state,"the belief in tenants such as democracy, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, secular government, science, racial and gender equality, capitalism, globalism and more". Your thoughtful review has made me interested in reading more about this "rhinoceros".
I like Adam Gopnik and I think I would appreciate this book, although you did such a great review, I think that I got the gist of the book :)
It’s interesting to really examine a topic like liberalism because it is weighed down by so much baggage, good and bad, and people use the word as a label without having a firm sense of what it really means.
Hi Suko - Universal liberalism is probably liked by the majority of people out there. I would also like to read more about it.
Thanks Jane. People do throw the word around carelessly. With that, I think that left liberalism has a fairly distinct meaning. It is just a different thing from universal liberalism.
This sounds really fascinating. I spent the better part of a college history course on the liberalism of the 18th/19th centuries, and would love to read more about it. I'm a bit skeptical we can ever get back to a more central/universal position in the U.S., since it seems like conflict is more profitable (financially, politically) than compromise for both sides.
Hi Marion - I think it is OK to have the right and the left disagreeing. What is key is that they both adhere to universal liberal values.
I agree that "liberalism is really neither right or left on the political spectrum." I used to be a liberal before I walked away. (Now I'm an independent conservative.) "Liberals" are not who I'm seeing getting the attention these days. Radical leftists have taken over liberals and Democrats.
You write that liberalism "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." However, the current leftists are not interested in democracy, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, or capitalism. They want to change the Constitution (such as the Electoral College) and overturn the 2016 election; they are pushing socialist ideals; they want to censor conservatives, and they want to censor Christians,
Hi CBR - There are various groups on the left. “This current leftists” is a big, broad term and includes a lot of people. have written about what I call the postmodern left. They do often support censorship and other anti - democratic policies.
I do not believe that they or any other radicals have taken over the Democratic Party. On the censorship issue, the postmodernists are pushing that, most left liberals, including myself oppose it. Likewise most left liberals, including most of the democratic establishment support democracy and freedom of religion.
I support abolishing the Electoral College. It is undemocratic and it has allowed a minority to place an authoritarian movement, Trumpism, into power. Trumpism, like Marxism and left - postmodernism, is opposed to universal liberal values.
There are few real socialists among main stream Democrats. Sadly, the members of GOP tend to call everything that they disagree with socialism.
I have heard almost no one who wants to overturn the outcome of the election. Impeachment is a constitutional remedy. Trump has committed numerous impeachable offenses. Another President would have been long ago removed from office.
I will just add that support for impeachment, as well as anti - Trumpism in general, is not really a left or right issue. As Kathy pointed out abound, some of The most reasoned and persuasive arguments for impeachment, and anti Trumpism in general, is coming from the Never Trump conservatives. These folks adhere to universal liberal values.
I'm glad you explained & explored the various meanings of liberal & liberalism ... some of the varieties of the terms seem endless. Even the Liberal Party in Canada is quite different than the U.S. version etc. Adam Gopnik seems to write an array of books -- and I'm quite fascinated on how it all began and the Enlightenment period.
Hi Susan - It is unfortunate that the term liberalism has taken on so many meanings. We kind of just need to say universal liberalism now to be understood when talking about it in this context.
I need to check out Gopnik’s other books.
one of the most powerful and amazing review i read ever dear Brain !
special thanks for such detailed sharing of your wonderful thoughts
i so enjoyed each bit of it and felt quite fulfilled at the end
i will definitely read this book sooner or later i will for sure because it includes topics i want to know about
you presented it sublimely and this is why i could know how greatly it is written
your insightful opinion that writer must have shared his thoughts part of the set of thoughts that was result of influence of other eastern societies is very important
i am so glad i have privilege to read your blog my friend !
remarkable job you are doing here :)
Thanks Baili- I am interested in non Western sources for these things. Perhaps I will dig into this a bit in the future. I know that you are interested in these topics so I think that you would get a lot out of this book.
Sounds like an interesting book. Enjoyed your review as always.
This book would be long, indeed if it included everything to be wished for. �� I actually haven't heard of this one, even though I like to watch for books like this. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.
Hi Rachel - The book is not that comprehensive. It seems to concentrate on a limited number of people and events. It is more of the author’s musings about liberalism.
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