By David Frum
A review of:
A THOUSAND SMALL SANITIES
The Moral Adventure of Liberalism
By Adam Gopnik
The New York Times
Witty, humane, learned, “A Thousand Small Sanities” is a book that some of its author’s many fans may be tempted to read too fast. Adam Gopnik wants to smite the authoritarian populists. He wants to assimilate and domesticate the illiberal left, to the maximum extent he can. But diverted by the book’s charm and erudition, readers may overlook its more challenging purposes.
With the authoritarian populists, Gopnik deals bluntly and brusquely: “This is not a special feature of one era or another. Strongman politics and boss-man rule, in simplest form, is the story of mankind.” In our time, he writes, boss-man rule looks simply squalid. “How paltry its avatars can seem and how ridiculous and trivial their guiding ideas so often are. It’s all half-witted tweets and Berlusconi-style clowning.”
No, what commands Gopnik’s attention is a challenge to his convictions more formidable and more intimate: the resurgence of the illiberal left from the post-Communist wreckage.
It’s an intimate challenge because Gopnik to some degree accepts the premises of the illiberal left, even as he mordantly doubts the outcome of its radical politics: “The basic American situation in which the right wing wants cultural victories and gets nothing but political ones; while the left wing wants political victories and gets only cultural ones. … The left manages to get sombreros banned from college parties while every federal court in the country is assigned a far-right-wing activist judge.”
“A Thousand Small Sanities” is a product of the period that some wit has dubbed “the Great Awokening.” The Awokening is defined less by what it believes and more by what it dislikes — and those dislikes tend to converge upon that vituperated category, dead white men. The founders and heroes of the liberal tradition are indubitably very male, very white and, for the most part, very dead.
Gopnik does not write in their defense. To a great extent, he is almost as uncomfortable with these dead white giants as any intersectional critic. “I’ve tried not to write too much about the famous 17th- and 18th-century English philosophers who helped found the liberal credo, concentrating instead on liberal lives that offer a better guide to living liberal practice.”
You’ll find more here about Harriet Taylor and Frederick Douglass; Emma Goldman and Bayard Rustin; George Eliot and E. D. Morel (a journalist who helped bring to light the horrors of the Belgian Congo) than about Locke, Jefferson, Smith and Bentham — or even John Maynard Keynes and Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
This despite the fact that few of Gopnik’s featured characters would have been described in their time as “liberals.” Taylor, Douglass and the others are valuable to Gopnik precisely because they advanced causes that discomfited most of their contemporaries who did call themselves “liberals.” By assimilating what was once radical to his variety of liberalism, Gopnik hopes to prove to contemporary progressives that they can champion the woke causes of the 21st century without surrendering the liberal heritage of free speech, rule of law, scientific inquiry and individual conscience.
Like the Great Awakenings before it, the Great Awokening is a spiritual movement more than a political one. It offers redemption, not reform. It reckons not with adversaries, but with heretics. It rejects tolerance for precisely the reasons Gopnik himself offers in his description of dogmatic religion: If you think you have unique access to the truth, why wouldn’t you be intolerant of those who reject that truth?
Gopnik is alive to the intellectual deficiencies of wokeness. Wokeness knows arguments only from authority, because evidence is always subordinate to identity. In a striking formulation, Gopnik writes that “the idea that one should trace the source of an argument backward, to its origins, rather than play it forward to the evidence for its claims is the root doctrine of reaction.”
He is irritated by the moral pretensions of the illiberal left as well. “The romantic utopian visions, put in place, always fail and usually end in a horrific car crash. … The left treats the obvious and inarguable lessons of the 20th century about radical revolutions … as though they had never been learned and learned in the hardest of hard ways.”
And yet in the end, he can’t quite quit those visions either. “Reform is an ongoing process, rarely begun or completed by liberalism alone,” he concedes. He won’t say Yes, but he cannot quite say No.
In a short, elegant discussion of the conservative counterpoint to the liberal tradition, Gopnik invokes the thought of his fellow Montrealer, the philosopher Charles Taylor. “Taylor’s point is that to know who I really am is to know where I am — how I’m placed within a social context that I didn’t make and can’t control.”
Unillusioned as he is, Gopnik is placed within a social context in which events and circumstances have taught his kind of liberal to look right for threats and left for possibilities. If the time could ever arrive when it becomes necessary to overcome and reverse those ancient reflexes — that is an adventure of liberalism that may have to wait for the next installment of the serial.