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A Thousand Small Sanities

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Adam Gopbik is attempting to explain to his child the current state of affairs in this country. My problem the books is it is extremely wordy with massively long sentences that could have made the same point with much fewer words. I had just finished reading Rabbi Sack's book on Morality, which covers the same topic in a much more succinct manner. Personally I can't imagine a teenager reading this book or getting anything out of it.
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Gopnik's defense of liberalism begins with the author taking a walk with his daughter following the 2016 election. And, he writes about the history and development of liberal democracy and liberalism in the context of that fateful American election. His tone is conversational and generally the book reads like a prolonged essay - Gopnik is an essayist and staff writer for the New Yorker, and he writes like one. This is a book about ideas and the history and evolution of ideas less than an examination of our current moment. It is as if the author is, himself, processing how liberal democracy could have possibly lead to this moment in this country and the world.
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Eye-Opening Book on Humanism-Centered Liberalism

Even though this book was published over a year ago, it couldn't be more prescient to what we are going through now in the United States with overextension of executive branch power that is impacting lives across America as never before. The way they have treated the protesters in my home state of Oregon is not something that I ever would have imagined happening in the America of my youth. Autocracy and authoritarianism have replaced democracy, and that is something that the book speaks a fair amount to. In the introduction to the book, the author states, “... the liberal tradition is in still greater danger. It isn’t just an issue of the survival of ‘democracy’… It is the practice of *liberal* democracy, that magical marriage of free individuals and fair laws…”

The author grounds true liberalism in humanism, pluralism, and community—and rightly so. He delves into some history of liberal thought, and why liberalism threatens both the “true believers” on the right and on the left. I found his arguments to be cogent and well made. They resonated with me as I've always considered myself a liberal, but I never had a deeper understanding of what that meant that this book helped provide. Now I'm even happier to claim the term and its heritage. I found this to be a deeply thought-provoking and at times eye-opening book. Once the era of autocracy is beyond us, let's consider returning to the ideals that should be at the heart of a liberal democracy, “...not [just] *liberty* and *democracy* alone—vital though they are—but also *humanity* and *reform*, *tolerance* and *pluralism*, *self-realization* and *autonomy*, the vocabulary of passionate connection and self-chosen community.”
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Liberalism is a word that triggers people right now, but I strongly believe that is due to a lack of understanding what it stands for.  The author perfectly explains it and how change is made when people do little by little, but constantly.  However, a lot of people think that it means that people want everything for nothing (I have heard this from people on the left and the right!).  I highly recommend this book to anyone looking to better understand liberalism.
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We seem to be living in an age of ‘cancellations.’ If the rabid Coronavirus is not busy cancelling our well laid out plans, we seem to be busier cancelling out each other. The Left brigade unsatisfied in its pursuit of cancelling the Right, is now steadfast in going after its own creed. What’s Left over after not being the target of the Left is derisively labelled as “Woke” and is in spectacular irony hunted down by the “Wokes” themselves! What an era of paradox mankind seems to be inhabiting. In the words of the irreverent and inimitable Matt Taibbi, “On the other side of the political aisle, among self-described liberals, we’re watching an intellectual revolution. It feels liberating to say after years of tiptoeing around the fact, but the American left has lost its mind. It’s become a cowardly mob of upper-class social media addicts, Twitter Robespierres who move from discipline to discipline torching reputations and jobs with breathtaking casualness.”

Liberty, and its natural concomitant liberalism, however, is not a zeitgeist that loses its temporal worth once it has outlived its utility. Passé! Instead it is the very gestalt upon which humanity bases both its credence and claims. Immutable yet inevitable; intangible yet indispensable. It is to this gestalt that acclaimed New York Times journalist, Adam Gopnik pays unashamed homage in his stirring work, “A Thousand Small Sanities.” Evoking the benevolent John Stuart Mill & the irreverent David Hume, Mr. Gopnik a la Ta Nehisi Coates pens a letter to his daughter waxing eloquent about liberalism. Mr. Gopnik begins his defense of liberalism with a paean to the immortal couple, John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor. Mr. Gopnik does not however defend liberalism with a vigour bordering on the biased or with a frenzy that is a synonym for the irrational. He evaluates the arguments posited by the anti-liberals both on the Left as well as the Right before refuting them methodically and yet being mellow all the while. Brooding on why ‘The Right Hates Liberalism’, Gopnik abridges the conservative lament. He posits that those ‘treating millennia-old beliefs as though they were as disposable as Kleenex’ need to talk to, or at least read, some actual liberals. Quoting Mill in On Liberty: ‘It would be absurd to pretend that people ought to live as if nothing whatever had been known in the world before they came into it; as if experience had as yet done nothing towards showing that one mode of existence, or of conduct, is preferable to another.’

Similarly, Mr. Gopnik takes the Left head on in their objections to the liberalism’s ‘fallible’ nature. One of left wing’s favourite gripe against liberalism stems from a perception where liberalism is viewed as a dogma that enriches and embellishes the privileges of old white men. Britain’s colonial conquests that left more than half of the world reeling under the catastrophes of induced famine and internecine civil strife being a classic case in point. However, the Left is caught off guard when Mr. Gopnik points out the futile bent of the left towards ‘intersectionalism.’ ‘Intersectionalism in a sense does not go far enough,’ Gopnik writes. ‘There are countless nodes on the network of social categories. We call each one a person.’ This is also the very reason why  Bayard Rustin leaves a memorable imprint in Mr. Gopnik’s book as an indomitable protagonist standing up for the ideals of liberalism. As Mr. Gopnik himself reveals in an interview, “Rustin now looks like a fount of common sense. You know, he’s a totally, in the proper sense, radical figure. He organizes the March on Washington. He goes to prison 24 times. In no imaginable sense is he a centrist. But when black nationalism becomes the dominant strain, he says, “This makes no sense for us as a people. To be isolated outside a broader coalition of progressives.” And he was excommunicated, again, from the movement for saying that and he remains a staunch member of the Democratic Party and, not least, vehemently anti-communist throughout his entire career”

An arresting feature of the book is the employ by Mr. Gopnik of some stellar albeit eclectic figures who have unassumingly, but powerfully stood up for liberalism. The philosophy espoused by the likes of Frederick Douglass, Bayard Rustin, John Stuart Mill, Robert D. Putnam, Michael de Montaigne, Benjamin Disraeli, Philip Roth, George Eliot, Harriet Taylor, G.H. Lewes, and Jürgen Habermas, illustrates in a striking manner how liberalism transcends from something that is a mere lip service for free markets, and distinguishes itself as an inclusive, embracing tenant that keeps bigotry at bay.

The very fact that discourses are being held across the world at the time of this writing over matters that were hitherto considered sacrilegious – such as the rights of and privileges for LGBTQ, the case for and against abortions, discrimination against people based on caste, creed and colour – bear monument to the distance liberalism has traversed in its attempt to instantiate an element of inclusiveness even among warring factions. This concept is illustrated by the painstakingly elaborate and telling definition of liberalism itself:

“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.”

The objective of liberalism according to Mr. Gopnik is to achieve by gradual and non-violent means, “(imperfectly) egalitarian social reform and ever greater (if not absolute) tolerance of human difference.” Thus, for the author, For Gopnik, liberalism is neither a complex and esoteric doctrine, a set of abstract principles, nor a group of fixed political institutions, but it is the very way of life.

We tend to concur!

 (A Thousand Small Sanities – Adam Gopnik is published by Basic Books, an imprint of Perseus Books, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group Inc and will be released on the 14th of July 2020.)
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A love note from the author, an involved liberal (in the current US usage of the term “liberal”), to all involved liberals everywhere. I enjoyed this book. Your opinion may vary depending on your attitude towards involved present-day US liberals. However, even a review that was generally critical of the writer's politics had to admit that Gopnik's writing possessed the following qualities: “engaging, conversational prose; a wry sense of humor; a seasoned eye for the telling anecdote; and a great deal of learning, lightly worn”.

I used the word “involved” above with the following riddle in mind:

                 In a bacon-and-egg breakfast, what's the difference between the Chicken and the Pig?
                 The Chicken  is involved, but the Pig is committed. (hat tip to Wikipedia)

Even before the pandemic, I didn't get out a lot, so I can't tell if this metaphor, in its various incarnations, is merely well-worn or has crossed over into cliché. (Wikipedia tells me that cartoonist Scott Adams was already ridiculing this story in 2008.)

Cliché or no, it seemed appropriate for this book at this moment as, if I'm understanding the signals from my society, liberals are coming in for a boatload of abuse from both sides of the political spectrum for being involved but not committed. From the right, liberals are pious hypocrites giving away other people's money. From the left, they are unwilling to do the hard work of equality: they will sit next to disadvantaged people on public transit, but they won't surrender their child's career-advancing summer internship to them.

This book reminds you that merely being involved can be a burden, an effort, and an important moral choice. (Remember: there were also people spitting on the people attempting to integrate schools and lunch counters, and a greater number of people just standing by and doing nothing.) Liberals shouldn't be ashamed of the measures, even the often watery half-measures, that they have managed to achieve. Gopnik reminds that incremental progress makes the world a better place. If liberals (always open to a good session of self-criticism) haven't done nearly enough, they've done some things to proud of. This book makes liberalism's shared history to be a long and dignified adventure of generally steady improvement, although – as we are no doubt too aware these days – there are sometimes steps backwards. “Wherever there is a movement for humane reform, there is always a liberal around somewhere,” Gopnik says (Kindle location 99).

I am liberal, but I am also human, so I completely understand that, when you see a successful, erudite, and happy man in the process of book-length self-congratulations, the nearly-irresistible urge is to give them a good swift kick in the pants. For this reason, Gopnik's trousers have been on the receiving end of some violence. In addition to the relatively mild boot from The Nation referenced above, Gopnik has received a thoroughly ill-tempered thrashing from The New Republic.

The author of the review, David Sessions, dislikes Gopnik's politics, which is certainly a basis for a negative review, but he also seems to be bent on attacking Gopnik's associations and interests as they appear in the book. Meaning, he characterizes Gopnik's occasional mentions that he is fond of his children as “saccharine”, and indicates New Yorkers who take drawing classes and see mental health professionals are worthy of ridicule. To see how ridiculous this is, let me turn the tables on Sessions, based on five minutes' worth of internet searching: I can say, for example, “Sessions is the sort of Boston insider that needs the shelter of an institute of higher learning which has still not apologized for its decades-long complicity in pedophilia, nor for its shameful role in concealing evidence about Irish Republican Army atrocities. On a personal level, he has taken an elitist exception to leaf blowers, a tool which helps poor people support their families in the US and elsewhere by allowing them to work in the gardening and lawn maintenance. I'm sure he'd rather see their families starving.” Silly, right? So is Sessions' criticism of Gopnik's place of residents and hobbies.

After I got a free electronic review copy, I was surprised to see that this book had been out for almost a year, and had already gotten both severe thumpings and happy applause from media outlets that will have far, far more readers than I will ever have. I don't understand the motivation for giving me a free copy but I was glad to get it. The book's public reception drove home one of the books important messages – O fellow liberals, you can't expect a lot of hurrahs for championing incremental change, you just have to take solace in the fact that, in the infrequent moments when things change for the better, you were involved.

Thank you to NetGalley and Basic Books for a free advance review copy of this book.
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TL;DR

Adam Gopnik’s A Thousand Small Sanities defends contemporary liberalism as an heir to humanist tradition and posits that real change comes from building community. This isn’t a sexy or flashy political firework; it’s the light that illuminates and creates space for work to be done. Recommended

Review: A Thousand Small Sanities	

Lately, I’ve been looking back on my life, and it’s strange to see the winding, twisting journey that I took to get here. Politically, I feel like I’ve swung far and wide across the spectrum, but in reality, I’ve been a moderate most of my life. Whether leaning right in my youth or leaning left today, I haven’t strayed far along the political spectrum, but all along I’ve approached politics through a small “l” liberalism. I would never have come to that realization without reading Adam Gopnik’s A Thousand Small Sanities. Gopnik lays out the case for liberalism by discussing its historical and philosophical roots. He makes a strong case that the boring, incremental approachs to improving society work the best.

Adam Gopnik starts A Thousand Small Sanities as a meditation on his daughter’s reaction to the election results of 2016. The two of them, surprised as everyone else, realising that the rules of their democratic society are in danger. Gopnik looked for a contemporary defense of the U.S.’s liberal traditions. But he found none. In fact, he found the opposite. In the U.S., no one likes liberals. For the political right, liberals are lumped in with the far left; yet the true left sneers at liberals and labels them as neo-liberals because the neo- makes it sound smart. Since he couldn’t find a defense, he decided to write one. And he succeeded. Not wildly but in a very liberal way, patiently with polish.

To accomplish this goal, Gopnik doesn’t look at the contemporary state of the world. Instead, he looks to history and philosophy for traditions that make up liberalism. John Stuart Mill, Harriet Taylor, David Hume, Adam Smith, Frederick Douglass, Bayard Rustin, George Eliot, G.H. Lewes, and Montaigne, all inform Gopnik’s liberalism. He pulls from their writings, their lives, their deeds to show liberalism in action. For Gopnik, one principle emerged. Humanism precedes liberalism. Liberals recognize that lasting change comes when the masses change. For example, in the U.S. today, homosexual men and women are much more accepted in society than the 80s or 90s. While there are still reactionaries who target the LGBTQ+ community, the masses of the U.S. now accept the community as an open part of the nation, so much so that gay marriage is now legal. The fights in the courts aren’t about existence but about whether denying business services is discriminatory. There is no one person to point to for these changes. The LGBTQ+ has many heroes who fought, who struggled, to better society by treating their community with respect, and while many, unfortunately, didn’t live to see their efforts, their efforts resulted in a more inclusive society. Some impacted societal consciousness in profound ways; others made small changes by living their truth. But changes were still made, and those changes added up transforming the masses of U.S. society.

This illustrates another aspect of liberalism that, while not sexy, is incredibly effective: incrementalism. Breaking a project down into small steps is not fun. Setting goals across years seems like defeat. The revolutionary fervor doesn’t rise when setting attainable milestones and plans of action. But incrementalism works, and no one knows this better than the far right. Ever since Newt Gingrich led the GOP in Congress, his style of take no prisoners politics has spread throughout the party. But they make small changes to laws here and there. They push the Overton Window to the right, and they’ve pushed it so far that they elected an authoritarian who begs other countries to interfere in our elections. Liberals seek to engage as many as possible to build consensus.

Reality Through the Lens of a Liberal

One of the more interesting parts of Gopnik’s definition is that liberalism is a practice. By framing it as practice and not ideology, he takes as written the fallibility of humanity. Practice associates with improvement meaning that society will have to continually work towards those improvements. When one milestone is reached, liberalism should not rest on its laurels but should look to the next issue. Liberals believe in reform because humans are equally as likely to get something wrong as they are to get it right. Societal practices that were once thought helpful may eventually be deemed harmful. Before the 70s, homosexuality was considered a form of mental disorder. It was even labeled as such in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). But now, it’s recognized that this practice was incredibly harmful to many. No serious therapist would diagnose anyone as having a mental disorder because they’re gay. Reform recognizes that change is necessary now and will be necessary in the future.

Arguing the Negative

A Thousand Small Sanities isn’t a sales pitch for liberalism. The book makes an argument, and successful arguments address critiques from opponents. Gopnik takes serious the criticisms from the right and the left. In the book, he lays out these criticisms and their likely foundations. Then he addresses them successfully.

I really enjoyed these rebuttals. He took the critiques of liberals seriously and worthy, which is rare nowadays. Too many people caricature their opponents' views making it easier to ‘defeat’ them in debate. Gopnik’s responses feel more like a conversation than a debate. The point isn’t to win; it’s to grow. I like to debate on social media, and I have a lot to learn from Gopnik’s handling of liberalism’s critiques. It’s elegant and strong without being condescending. I found this incredibly refreshing in a world where the phrases ‘libtard’ and ‘neo-liberal shill’ exist.

Breaking My Own Rule

I’m going to break one of my personal reviewing rules. Normally, I don’t like to compare books to others. I know the amount of work necessary to create a book, and unless they’re directly in conversation with others, I want to treat each book as a standalone. However, I read A Thousand Small Sanities right after I finished The People, No. Both books engaged me, and I thought deeply about each. At the same time, they seem like an excellent compare and contrast opportunity. Where The People, No looked to inspire a return to the original Populist Party, A Thousand Small Sanities places its faith in moderates and centrists who seek consensus. Both books support liberal institutions and want education to be more egalitarian. Both see the current political situation in the U.S. as out of balance and no longer looking to the people. Each advocates building and caring for local communities to instigate real change. But A Thousand Small Sanities didn’t engage me as emotionally as The People, No. Gopnik’s book was polished, subdued, and erudite. I think I was less emotionally wrapped up in it because I agreed more and more with his arguments. This book made explicit traits in myself that weren’t in my conscious mind until I read it. And I’m a better thinker for it.

Conclusion

Adam Gopnik’s A Thousand Small Sanities succeeds in defending small “l” liberalism. If someone asked for an ideal defense of liberals, this book is the answer. While it will not convince extremists in how to change society, A Thousand Small Sanities makes an effective argument for incrementalism as a driver for lasting change. To paraphrase Adam, social interaction begets the social contract. A Thousand Small Sanities defines and defends liberalism. Recommended!

A Thousand Small Sanities by Adam Gopnik is out right now in hardback and will be available in paperback from Basic Books on July 14th, 2020.

7.5 out of 10!
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Mr. Gopnik is an excellent scribe but his talent was wasted by this book. Well versed readers already know the history and philosophy that underpins liberal thought and ideas. He should have written about neo-Marxism which is killing liberalism from the left OR about nationalism and populism which are killing liberalism from the right.  After WWII liberals promised to build a prosperous world without borders, freed of dogmas and managed by experts. But the unwashed masses discovered that this was just another form of totalitarianism dressed in sheep clothing. This upended the progressive dreams of globalization and one-world government.
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Interesting Discussion. Let's get two things straight up front: 1) I believe this author - a Canadian-American - uses "Liberal" where far more commonly for most of his points most Americans would use "Libertarian". He uses the Canadian understanding of the term (and, indeed, most of the world outside of the US, at least according to my own understanding), which may be problematic for US audiences. 2) The 5* rating here is not because I actually agree with his points - largely, I do not, which I'll get to momentarily - but because for the style of book that it is - a discussion of political philosophy, ostensibly as a father writing to his daughter - I really can find no fault here beyond "I strongly disagree with what the author says here", and I do my best to not drop stars over such disagreements absent some more concrete issue.

On the actual arguments in question, again, I believe he is arguing more for (mostly) what an American audience would more readily understand as "libertarianism" - Rule of Law, equality of opportunity no matter one's demographics, and a strong commitment to the freedom of speech. Yes, he goes off on leftist/ progressive tangents such as gun control and universal healthcare at times, but the author does a pretty solid job of always coming back to the central thesis, and showing how both the "left" and "right" in most countries (but particularly the US) both hate what he calls "liberalism" and why both camps are wrong.  I could probably write a book concurring in conclusion but dissenting in approach myself, particularly over Gopnik's obsession with John Stuart Mill and On Liberty - a book I myself read just a couple of years ago and found useful to the overall conversation, but ultimately problematic. 

Still, as with Mills' book - a conjoining the author will likely appreciate - this text serves as a solid look at a particular way of thinking and is thus worthy of consideration. Recommended.
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I'm not well versed with Liberalism and one of my reading goals this year was to be open to learning and questioning ideas and thoughts so reading this book gave me just that.
What the author promises from the get go is that he's not out to praise liberalism and forget the various ethical failures or ills that's come with it, rather he's calling for a conversation that maybe just maybe we may not rule it out as wrong or undesirable. I think that's what I grasped from this. I'd add that I was a bit confused by all the various views shared here from different times across the years.
Thanks Netgalley for the eARC.
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A lot of words strung together which the author warns about in the introduction. It was not what I expected and it did not give me any hope for the future.
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