'A Thousand Small Sanities' Is A Lesson In Understanding Liberalism

19 hours ago

Jostein Gaarder's Sophie's World was one of the most memorable books I read in my early teens. The brilliance of that book came from Gaarder's ability to make complicated concepts easier for young minds to digest. Adam Gopnik's A Thousand Small Sanities: The Moral Adventure of Liberalism does the same thing with liberalism — but for politically engaged adults.

Liberalism and liberals are under attack. In the current political landscape, the attack is coming from both right and left and rides a wave of events that threaten democracy and that have produced a mounting crisis of faith in liberal institutions while criticizing the core of liberal thought. A Thousand Small Sanities stands against this charge. By (re)defining liberalism, tracing its impact on history, society, and politics, and engaging with a mix of intellectuals, theorists, writers, and political figures such as Frederick Douglass, Bayard Rustin, John Stuart Mill, Robert D. Putnam, Michael de Montaigne, Adolf Hitler, Benjamin Disraeli, Philip Roth, George Eliot, Harriet Taylor, G.H. Lewes, Michel Houellebecq, and Jürgen Habermas, Gopnik demonstrates how liberalism is, more than a term for political centrism or the idea of free markets, a concerned, ever-expanding search for positive, inclusive changes at all social and political levels. Ultimately, by showing the impact it's had in the past, Gopnik presents liberalism not only as a moral adventure but also as a necessity in an age of resurging autocracy and rampant bigotry.

Gopnik wants readers to understand liberalism. However, liberalism is many things. Throughout this book, he explores its history and explains its need, but he never loses sight of his main goal: making people understand what it is because understanding it is understanding the need for it. To achieve this, he defines and redefines liberalism in various ways, tying it to the human condition, to our growing set of problems, and to shifting political realities. He starts with simple, somewhat humorous statements like this: "Liberalism is our common practice of connection turned into a principle of pluralism, teenage texting raised to the power of law." From then on, he complicates and simplifies the definition, adapts it to new problems, and gets to its humanist core:

"Liberalism is a fact-first philosophy with a feelings-first history. Liberal humanism is a whole, in which the humanism always precedes the liberalism. Powerful new feelings about a compassionate connection to other people, about community, have always been informally shared before they are crystallized into law. Social contacts precede the social contract. Understanding the emotional underpinnings of liberalism is essential to understanding its political project."

One of the ideas at the center of this book is that liberalism's main goal from a sociopolitical standpoint is reform — and that liberals "believe in the possibility of reform" and think of it as something that "is always going to be essential" and constantly required:

"The next reform is necessary not because we changed our views but because new kinds of cruelty are always coming into existence or into view. Our sights sharpen. Our circles of compassion enlarge. No sane society reaches a secure balance point. We always need change. The process of reform is never ending not because we are always searching for utopia but because as the growth of knowledge alters our conditions, we need new understandings to change out plans."

As with any nonfiction book about big ideas with a political slant, A Thousand Small Sanities will cause much debate. It's a startingly intelligent, passionate, well-researched manifesto, but contains so much that it's impossible to engage with on only one level, or to agree or disagree with its entirety. In fact, while I agreed with most of the book, I found some issues. For example, Gopkin says it's OK to let small things slide in order to focus on the bigger picture. Furthermore, he never engages with scholar and feminist critic Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak's work, which would have enriched and complicated things wonderfully. And he defends freedom of speech and the proverbial "slippery slope" in a way reminiscent of those who make eloquent defenses of people like Jordan Peterson, Milo Yiannopoulos, and Alex Jones (none of whom Gopnik defends or even mentions, obviously).

If Sophie's World was Gaarder teaching young readers about philosophy, A Thousand Small Sanities -- which Gopnik writes for his teenage daughter (he refers to what he does in the book as "dad-splaining" in the acknowledgements) — is one of sharpest contemporary works teaching us about liberalism and convincingly framing it as one of the most powerful tools we have to change our current situation:

"Liberalism isn't a political theory applied to life. It's what we know about life applied to a political theory. That good change happens step by step, stone by stone, and bird by bird, that we advance in life by invisible thoroughfares and, feeling our way along in their darkness, awaken to find ourselves changed and, sometimes, improved."

Whether readers agree with Gopnik or not, this is an important, timely book that should be required reading because it points to everything that's wrong and then takes it a step further — a crucial step most others fail to take: It offers a viable solution.

Gabino Iglesias is an author, book reviewer and professor living in Austin, Texas. Find him on Twitter at @Gabino_Iglesias.

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