Are Your Commie Children Right?

A Thousand Small Sanities: The Moral Adventure of Liberalism BY Adam Gopnik. Basic Books. Hardcover, 272 pages. $28.

The cover of A Thousand Small Sanities: The Moral Adventure of Liberalism

A specter is haunting the straight white liberal sixtysomething American dad—the specter of his damn socialist kids. A generation that grew up eating Cold War propaganda with their cornflakes confronts one in which socialism regularly outpolls capitalism, and it’s happening across the breakfast table. New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik’s new book, A Thousand Small Sanities: The Moral Adventure of Liberalism, is a manual for the dad side, a work of rousing reassurance for open-minded men who are nonetheless sick of losing political debates to teenagers whose meals they buy.

The book is epistolary—though Gopnik drifts in and out of that frame—with the rhetoric directed toward his daughter, Olivia, whom The Guardian once described as “bright and precocious” and whose politics (as represented to the reader by her father) are recognizably Marxist. “It’s not an accident that the fullest throated defenders of the rigging of the existing order are middle-aged white men who have benefitted from the way it’s rigged,” he writes in his daughter’s voice. Gopnik’s answer is to open his throat just a bit wider.

George Frederic Watts, John Stuart Mill (detail), 1873, oil on canvas, 26 × 21".
George Frederic Watts, John Stuart Mill (detail), 1873, oil on canvas, 26 × 21".

A Thousand Small Sanities is 250 pages of large type broken into four sections: a definition of liberalism, an analysis of critiques from the right and then the left, and a conclusion. Gopnik prides himself on offering strong versions of his opponents’ arguments, and for the most part he does so here. The book is not a work of scholarly history or political theory, it’s a rhetorical survey, more akin to the volumes of right-wing punditry that used to populate the best-seller list. But—befitting his presumptive audience—Gopnik’s register isn’t aggressive bombast, it’s humanist sentimentality. “Liberalism depends most on personal examples,” Gopnik writes, and true to form, he draws his universal lessons from dramatic biographical snippets. The juxtaposition of John Stuart Mill, George Eliot, and Bayard Rustin (among others) is supposed to bring the philosophy to life, but it reads as underdeveloped and haphazard.

The content will be familiar to anyone who reads Gopnik’s reviews in the New Yorker, which frequently focus on liberalism’s big questions and key personalities. Rather than a grand philosophical lineage, the author is interested in instances of practice (thus the title’s “small sanities”). To his credit, Gopnik doesn’t copy and paste his magazine pieces, though he seems to treat his own work as a primary source, and occasionally an unfortunate game of telephone ensues. In one particularly egregious example, referring to his hero and ideological lodestar Mill, Gopnik writes that “he did as much as anyone to make the American Civil War won by the right side by enlisting the mill workers of Britain to reject processing cotton from the Confederacy, at some cost to their own immediate interests.” This is quite a claim, and it reveals something important about Gopnik’s method as well as his ideas.

Best I can tell, Gopnik confused himself with regard to Mill’s importance. In a 2008 piece on the philosopher (“Right Again”), he concludes that the support of Lancashire cotton workers for the North on moral grounds was crucial to the Union victory, noting that “when the great American historian John Jay Chapman listed the English liberals whose words were most responsible for the workers’ resistance to slavery, he placed first the name of John Stuart Mill.” That’s not exactly what Chapman wrote. He named members of the British gentry whose “influence educated and sustained the working classes upon this whole matter,” and while it’s true he listed Mill first, that seems to have been for his fame rather than his efforts. This is classic “history from above,” where the philosopher’s thoughts are accorded more importance than the workers’ actions.

From Olivia’s perspective, it’s not surprising that Chapman would have given too much credit to bourgeois liberal intellectuals and not enough to self-organized workers—because he was a bourgeois liberal intellectual. A product of St. Paul’s, Harvard, and Harvard Law, Chapman was the son of the president of the New York Stock Exchange and a direct descendant of founding father John Jay. Right before he credits Mill, Chapman expresses surprise that the workers were quicker than the “governing classes” to understand the importance of opposing slavery—a serious failure of the historian’s imagination. Liberalism will do that to you.

To put it simply, Gopnik organizes the Right, Left, and liberals according to reaction, revolution, and reform. There’s a certain clarity and accuracy to the division, but because Gopnik’s idea of politics is primarily based on individual temperament, he’s drawn to a classification system that is essentially psychological. In his schema, conservatives are reactionaries, leftists are revolutionaries planning to bomb their way to utopia, and liberals are reformers committed to what Max Weber called the “slow boring of hard boards”—that is, parliamentary politics. This is how they’re oriented under liberalism, but liberals turn revolutionary when exposed to kings, and Marxists plan to proceed from proletarian dictatorship to communism step by nonviolent step. Hell, there’s even an important place in monarchism for wise royal reforms. But Gopnik is so committed to the temperamental model that he has been moved to question the wisdom of foundationally liberal campaigns up to and including the American Revolution.

Perhaps because it has absorbed so many of them into liberalism, the book is not overly concerned with conservative criticisms. Gopnik gives a relatively sympathetic read to Patrick J. Deneen’s (Obama-endorsed!) Why Liberalism Failed—a bland critique of liberal capitalist democracy’s spiritual deficiencies. Defending his system’s communitarian aspects, Gopnik writes, “From the devotees who travel to Comic-Con impersonating Chewbacca, to those who travel to Skepticon impersonating Christopher Hitchens, liberalism is full of community,” which is a solid trolling of everyone involved. But when it comes to the left wing, we see the author’s real frustration: Leftism is cool. As Gopnik observes:

The objections we liberals can offer always feel as feeble as a dad telling a teenage girl that she should be very careful riding in cars with other teens who drink. You sound like a schmuck compared to the cool boy who drives seat-belt-less with artfully tossed Hunter Thompson paperbacks on the back seat.

But that dad is simply, invariably right—driving drunk is an insane practice, and the liberal reproach to leftism is right, too, on more or less the same basis.

Gopnik claims that the new radical assault on liberalism doesn’t propose a practical politics “that seems likely to win elections rather than impress sophomores at Sarah Lawrence.” But there’s no actual analysis of socialism’s electoral prospects, and it all reads as thinly veiled psychological projection. Rather than analyze this historical moment with any specificity, Gopnik defaults to archetypes of parental moderation and childish radicalism that are older than Turgenev. It’s lazy, skill-less, and embarrassing. Gopnik refers to Philip Roth a lot, and though he doesn’t mention American Pastoral, the story of a prosperous, assimilated Jewish American father whose daughter falls in with dangerous radicals lurks not far behind the author’s anxiety.

For Gopnik, judging a statement based on the speaker’s identity is one of leftism’s sins. “What matters is not who says it but the sanity of what’s said,” he writes. Even more than the title suggests, the book is obsessed with the idea of sanity. As a critic I have to appreciate how honest Gopnik is with his language, though any leftist could tell him it’s considered analytically weak (and ableist) to call your adversaries “crazy.” But for him the work of liberalism is “a thousand small sanities communicated to a million sometimes eager and more often reluctant minds.” The policy choices we have to make are easy: Pick the good ones instead of the bad ones, based on science. Getting those choices made is only “hard because the self-evidence of even self-evident moral propositions is not immediately evident to every self.” If that sounds condescending, well, take a shot of liberalism and sober up, pal. And if it sounds like a recapitulation of “civilizing” colonial logic? Having been raised Canadian makes Gopnik think his nation’s crimes are small enough to excuse when compared to those of the Soviets: “Removing aboriginal kids from their homes is wrong; it is not on the same wavelength of wrongness as murdering thousands of dissidents without trial or starving whole nations into submission.” The self-evidence of that moral proposition is not evident to this reviewer’s self.

There is a small but growing industry devoted to picking apart liberals like Gopnik from the left for their brittle pomposity, their comfortable hypocrisy, their proud ignorance. A Thousand Small Sanities adds plenty of grist for that mill: The book praises William Gladstone as a “liberal internationalist avant la lettre” without mentioning his campaign (contra the brave workers of Lancashire) to protect the “rights” of Confederate slave breeders. Gopnik thinks he’s caught leftists in a bind with his new term “opportunistic essentialism”—criticizing the contradiction between the simultaneous use of essentialized identities and the critique thereof—apparently unaware that “strategic essentialism” has been an important concept in postcolonial theory for decades. There’s an asterisk for each arrogant “sanity.” But as an exercise, dunking on liberals is unfulfilling: Odds are not many people will reach for this book except to be reassured, and it does a good job of that. While good Marxists hold to the slogan “Always historicize,” Gopnik offers the alternative: “These problems are permanent.” Human nature vs. human reason is the only real conflict we’ve ever had, Trump plus global warming is a mere speed bump, and liberalism has plenty of time to make its case. Gopnik’s pop-history platitudes are “Live. Laugh. Love.” needlepoint for the MSNBC set, and the book could make a good gift. But no one should read A Thousand Small Sanities and get cocky. Any socialist teen with access to Wikipedia could rip it apart. I can’t imagine the man convinced his daughter.

Malcolm Harris is the author of Kids These Days: Human Capital and the Making of Millennials (Little, Brown, 2017) and a freelance writer living in Philadelphia.