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Books Adam Gopnik’s subtle and sophisticated defence of democratic pluralism may struggle to reach its audience

Adam Gopnik's apology for 'liberalism' should be more properly seen as a defence of what the academic left now calls conservatism. These are upside-down times.

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Adam Gopnik’s sensitive and unassuming defence of what he calls liberalism comes at a time, it is said, when middle-of-the-road democratic and pluralist values are under assault from the right. The promotional material around this book, A Thousand Small Sanities: The Moral Adventure of Liberalism, and many media reactions to it so far, stress its relevance in the age of Trump and Bolsonaro and Duterte and Orban and Duda and the Alabaman senate. Indeed, Gopnik frames his disquisition as a reassuring letter to his teenage daughter Olivia after Donald Trump’s election victory. But the book spends fewer of its entertaining pages defending liberalism from the right – a fairly easy process for an erudite such as Gopnik – as it does earnestly pleading for its preservation against the radical left (which sometimes includes Olivia, a product of the increasingly impatient liberal university). This apology for “liberalism” should be more properly seen as a defence of what the academic left now calls conservatism. These are upside-down times.

What, then, is liberalism? Much of the book is taken with this definition, and the problems with definition generally. According to Gopnik, liberalism is the European enlightenment philosophical tradition that created European and American democracy. It is fundamentally secularist. Its heroes are Montesquieu, John Stuart Mill, David Hume, Frederick Douglass. It permits free markets but is willing to regulate them – and here it differs from one older definition of liberalism (at one point liberal was a purely economic term meaning laissez-faire – what would now usually be called neoliberal). The liberals believe in individual freedoms, and reform that comes in slow incremental change; they have no strict doctrine because doctrines are dangerous. They believe in compromises rather than radical solutions, and accept that each solution will create a problem of its own. One of Gopnik’s clever analogies is to the evolution of the rhinoceros: a rhinoceros is an ugly hybrid, “just a big pig with a horn on it”, but it is successful and even formidable. It is the perfect liberal animal because it is the product of evolution. “All living things, Darwin taught us, are compromises of a kind, the best that can be done for that moment between the demands of the environment and the genetic inheritance it has to work with.” The unicorn on the other hand is the “ideal derived from the fact of the rhinoceros – the dream image of the rhinoceros.” Unicorns are beautiful and perfect and they do not exist. “Most political visions are unicorns.”

Gopnik stresses that despite liberalism’s admitted flaws – notably its connection to colonialism, slavery and a few horrific genocides in its name, such as the Belgian colonization of the Congo – its fundamental openness means that it learns from each of these actions; it is infinitely reformable and adaptable. The liberal has no inspiring slogan. Instead of saying, “I am for freeing man from his chains!” or “I am for faith and family!” the liberal says, “I am for an ongoing belief in the need for non-violent incremental alterations of existing institutions and an all-around effort to be nice to everyone!” These incremental alterations are the “thousand tiny sanities” of the title.

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Because Gopnik’s liberalism is so inclusive, it is hard to find fault with it. Pretty much all civilized behaviour is liberal and even uncivilized behaviour by liberals is evidence that liberals can change; even, indeed, some violent acts by radicals can be considered part of the liberal tradition if they help the liberal cause. For example, suffragettes chaining themselves to parliament fences or civil disobedience marchers in Selma count as part of his team.

My radical friends, which includes almost all my students, might take issue with this co-opting of anti-liberal tactics into the liberal mantle They might point out that these are not polite debating tactics and that they did take place outside of legislatures (where nothing was being done). Gopnik is aware that if he defines liberal as simply good or wise, then the phrase becomes meaningless. In answer to that critique he insists that even in these cases of extra-legislative protests, “their goals were specific, not utopian, capable of being achieved by democratic means in democratic legislatures, even if only when the cost of not achieving them became too great for the powers already in place.”

A large part of this book is spent on the biographies of Gopnik’s liberal heroes; Mill and Harriet Taylor, Douglass and Bayard Rustin, George Eliot and G.H. Lewes. Gopnik finds their life stories as illuminating as their theories, as much for their flaws and contradictions as for their triumphs – their personal compromises of values, he says, illustrates the great power of liberalism itself to recognize contradiction and aim for compromise. Failure, he is always at pains to point out, is part of liberal expectation.

When Gopnik mounts a defence of free speech, it is clear that he is defending his liberalism from the left rather than from the right, arguing with his liberal-arts-college-undergrad daughter rather than with Trumpian morons. He lambastes the radical left for essentialism (the belief we cannot escape the innate qualities of our racial or gender identities) and determinism (the belief that outcomes are fixed by class). He writes, “While the new radical assault on liberalism suggests a passionate politics, it still doesn’t propose a practical politics – one that seems likely to win elections rather than impress sophomores at Sarah Lawrence.”

Free speech is now – certainly in my social media feeds – often held to be a dog-whistle for racism and fascism. But Gopnik says that “Liberal tolerance includes tolerance of nonliberals and antiliberals as long as they accept the rules of pluralism” – a stance that only enrages the anti-Jordan-Peterson crowd and will get Gopnik branded as just another conservative white man by progressive Twitter. It is a paradox that the grand tolerant tradition that threw off the shackles of monarchy and theocracy in Western civilization is now seen as itself reactionary. This subtle, sensitive and sophisticated defence of democratic pluralism attempts to address the paradox, but it comes at a time of isolated echo-chambers and I wonder whether those who dismiss the writings of old white men will even care to read it.

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