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A Thousand Small Sanities: The Moral Adventure of Liberalism

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The New York Times-bestselling author offers a stirring defense of liberalism against the dogmatisms of our time Not since the early twentieth century has liberalism, and liberals, been under such relentless attack, from both right and left. The crisis of democracy in our era has produced a crisis of faith in liberal institutions and, even worse, in liberal thought. A Tho The New York Times-bestselling author offers a stirring defense of liberalism against the dogmatisms of our time Not since the early twentieth century has liberalism, and liberals, been under such relentless attack, from both right and left. The crisis of democracy in our era has produced a crisis of faith in liberal institutions and, even worse, in liberal thought. A Thousand Small Sanities is a manifesto rooted in the lives of people who invented and extended the liberal tradition. Taking us from Montaigne to Mill, and from Middlemarch to the civil rights movement, Adam Gopnik argues that liberalism is not a form of centrism, nor simply another word for free markets, nor merely a term denoting a set of rights. It is something far more ambitious: the search for radical change by humane measures. Gopnik shows us why liberalism is one of the great moral adventures in human history--and why, in an age of autocracy, our lives may depend on its continuation.


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The New York Times-bestselling author offers a stirring defense of liberalism against the dogmatisms of our time Not since the early twentieth century has liberalism, and liberals, been under such relentless attack, from both right and left. The crisis of democracy in our era has produced a crisis of faith in liberal institutions and, even worse, in liberal thought. A Tho The New York Times-bestselling author offers a stirring defense of liberalism against the dogmatisms of our time Not since the early twentieth century has liberalism, and liberals, been under such relentless attack, from both right and left. The crisis of democracy in our era has produced a crisis of faith in liberal institutions and, even worse, in liberal thought. A Thousand Small Sanities is a manifesto rooted in the lives of people who invented and extended the liberal tradition. Taking us from Montaigne to Mill, and from Middlemarch to the civil rights movement, Adam Gopnik argues that liberalism is not a form of centrism, nor simply another word for free markets, nor merely a term denoting a set of rights. It is something far more ambitious: the search for radical change by humane measures. Gopnik shows us why liberalism is one of the great moral adventures in human history--and why, in an age of autocracy, our lives may depend on its continuation.

30 review for A Thousand Small Sanities: The Moral Adventure of Liberalism

  1. 4 out of 5

    Warwick

    ‘Liberal’ is a tricksy term, and I'm not really sure what it means, even after reading Adam Gopnik's airy defence of it. In the UK, it brings to mind historical thinkers such as Locke, or John Stewart Mill; in the US, it vaguely means ‘supportive of the Democratic Party’. With the addition of a harmless prefix – neo – it's a bogeyman of the new world order. For Gopnik, it seems to represent a kind of benevolent pragmatism, opposed to both ‘the revolutionary tendencies of the left and the authorit ‘Liberal’ is a tricksy term, and I'm not really sure what it means, even after reading Adam Gopnik's airy defence of it. In the UK, it brings to mind historical thinkers such as Locke, or John Stewart Mill; in the US, it vaguely means ‘supportive of the Democratic Party’. With the addition of a harmless prefix – neo – it's a bogeyman of the new world order. For Gopnik, it seems to represent a kind of benevolent pragmatism, opposed to both ‘the revolutionary tendencies of the left and the authoritarian tendencies of the right’. This leaves liberals – and indeed his book – in the unfortunate position of being hated by both sides, and sure enough, A Thousand Small Sanities has been generally ignored by right-wing publications, and ripped to shreds by left-wing ones. One can see why. The problem is not so much the politics – which, to be honest, are thin on the ground here – as Gopnik's chin-stroking, wishy-washy style, which on the whole prefers to look at interpersonal relationships and literary ‘exemplars’ than to explain any practical liberal policies. (Mill's radical politics, for example, are almost completely glossed over in favour of his relationship with Harriet Taylor.) With such weak definitions, Gopnik is free to co-opt ‘good’ policies as liberal, while those that are bad he assigns variously to the right or left wings. This is not in any sense an intellectual history of liberalism, or even a summary of its key thinkers. It is more a sort of personal apologia, a cri de cœur for a sociopolitical stance that Gopnik feels is unfairly attacked. And he's right, it is; and as a fan of liberal democracy myself I would agree that it needs some spirited defence right now, which is one of the reasons this particular effort is a bit disappointing. I am probably closer to ‘classical liberal’ than I am to most other political labels, and even I found myself annoyed by Gopnik's defence of the tradition, irritated by the way he constantly turns dynamic political or economic ideas into sentimental domestic parables. Liberalism here is not so much about political convictions as it is about vague states of mind – ‘a temperament and a tone and a way of managing the world more than a fixed set of beliefs’. I can understand why Gopnik is at pains not to reduce his ideals to political slogans: his central point is that, for liberals, all ideology should be overruled by context and each situation is unique (‘the opposite of liberalism is not conservatism,’ he says appealingly, ‘but dogmatism’). But we need something a little more concrete to go on. Otherwise we're just left with a lot of very empty-sounding banalities: Humanism precedes liberalism. Connection comes before action. A readiness for self-inspection precedes an effort at self-improvement, and a confidence in our neighbors precedes faith in citizenship. …blah blah blah, in other words. In lieu of a proper explanation of liberal beliefs, what we get is his discussion of the arguments against liberalism, both from the right and the left, followed by Gopnik's rebuttal. He is at his best when dealing with these head-on criticisms – though even here there are problems, not least the fact that we're relying on Gopnik's own characterisation of his opponents' arguments, which means the danger of fighting a straw man is never far off. This didn't bother me so much when it came to the rightwing position, though presumably if I had more rightwing tendencies it would have done. I was much more interested in how he discussed the conflict between liberalism and the left. This seems to come down, for Gopnik, to a disagreement on freedom of debate: The leftist or radical view is that freedom of speech is less foundational than the right to protect difference, the right not to feel threatened or aggrieved or set upon, and the right not to have to tolerate intolerable views. This takes us into the now-standard debate on identity politics that I had thought was already a feature of leftist discussion, but which Gopnik presents as an argument between the left on one side, and its liberal opponents on the other. He has some lively things to say on this subject, though again, they are compromised by his lack of sources. As, for instance, when he accuses the left of what he calls ‘opportunistic essentialism’: Kids are taught in progressive schools that all gender is fluid and constructed—except for that of transgender kids, which is an absolute and essential feature, locked in early, never to be questioned. Citation, as Wikipedia would say, needed. On the one hand I find Gopnik's conclusions quite appealing (‘Intersectionalism in a sense does not go far enough. There are countless nodes on the network of social categories. We call each one a person’), but on the other hand it's a little too neat. I think criticisms of identity politics are important, but it has surely taught us that there are at least valid questions to ask about the unconscious prejudices behind a given argument – which doesn't necessarily clash with the liberal ideal that the validity of an argument should be independent of the person making it. A lot of the discussions in this book are, I think, more interesting than my criticisms might suggest…and I suppose what's behind all my problems, really, is the figure of Adam Gopnik himself. He comes across in this book as the most clichéd example of the ‘metropolitan liberal elite’ that his critics could have hoped for – musing around New York, talking about cycling holidays up the coast, pontificating on the crucial importance of good coffee to political history. When he looks outside the United States – frankly, when he looks outside Manhattan – he seems desperately out of his depth. His references to once-thriving British towns ‘like Blackpool and Salford in the north of England’ make you instantly convinced that he's never been near them, and his summaries of world-historical events like the Congolese genocide are trite. This is thrown into embarrassing relief by his references to France, a country where he lived for five years. I know this because he mentions it repeatedly, and even includes it in the ‘About the author’ section on the back cover, like a student talking up their gap year. Every now and then in the text he will make grandiose comments about how things are done in France, the cafés in Paris where politicians like to hang out, or use ‘a favourite expression of mine in French’; these are toe-curlingly transparent ways to draw attention to what is, clearly, a very superficial understanding of France. (There are also plain mistakes, as when he gives the title of Houellebecq's novel as ‘Les Particles Élémentaires’.) The tone becomes a problem because he makes tone so integral to his idea of politics. Ultimately I like Gopnik's idea of political pragmatism, and I, too, prefer incremental but realistic solutions to ideal solutions that will never happen. The problem is, incrementalism is not sufficient right now, and he never properly addresses that problem. Incremental advances may perhaps be enough to deal with fascist populism – though I'm not convinced – but they certainly aren't enough to deal with civilisational threats such as the climate crisis, which really does require the kind of radical solutions that are anathema to Gopnik's ‘so far so good’ brand of liberalism. I still don't know if I'm a liberal or not, but I do know that I'm not quite on Adam Gopnik's wavelength. If this is sanity, perhaps a little bit of craziness is called for after all.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Seema Rao

    Thought-provoking ~ Well-written ~ Right-on tl:dr: Liberalism isn't crazy; its human and important. Gopnik starts with a story about helping his teenaged daughter through the political stresses of the 2016 election. From that introduction, the reader is introduced to Gopnik's approach, wide-ranging but grounded in reality. Gopnik's book about Liberalism as a function of humanism is a compelling, and comforting, text for any reader who feels unsettled by the contemporary political climate. He help Thought-provoking ~ Well-written ~ Right-on tl:dr: Liberalism isn't crazy; its human and important. Gopnik starts with a story about helping his teenaged daughter through the political stresses of the 2016 election. From that introduction, the reader is introduced to Gopnik's approach, wide-ranging but grounded in reality. Gopnik's book about Liberalism as a function of humanism is a compelling, and comforting, text for any reader who feels unsettled by the contemporary political climate. He helps frame the backlash against liberals as well as helps historic movements in the formation of American liberal politics. Gopnik's exceptional prose is broadly accessible. Gopnik pulls from a variety of sources; his reading list must be encyclopedia. This book is one of the best books about contemporary American politics that I have read. Thanks to NetGalley for the ARC in exchange for an honest review. Seema Rao Write : Instagram| Blog| Twitter|

  3. 4 out of 5

    MGF

    Yes, I decided to read this so the author could preach to me in the choir, and while that did happen, I found the “preaching” flying right over my head in many cases. There is no doubt there are many highly intelligent and highly quotable lines in this book, but it felt like I needed a pre-reading list to fully grasp the messages. The book was logically laid out, but I still had the impression of being bounced around - it all lacked a certain flow. All-in-all it packs a dense punch, and I’m glad Yes, I decided to read this so the author could preach to me in the choir, and while that did happen, I found the “preaching” flying right over my head in many cases. There is no doubt there are many highly intelligent and highly quotable lines in this book, but it felt like I needed a pre-reading list to fully grasp the messages. The book was logically laid out, but I still had the impression of being bounced around - it all lacked a certain flow. All-in-all it packs a dense punch, and I’m glad I pushed through, but I’m not really sure if I learned anything more about liberalism than I did previously, except for some of the lesser-known players.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Matt Schiavenza

    Reading an Adam Gopnik book is like having dinner with a witty, erudite, charming friend who nevertheless leaves you wondering what the conversation was about. I don't mean this as an insult — I generally enjoy Gopnik's writing, but readers looking for precise argumentation here will be disappointed. Gopnik organizes his book elegantly, devoting a chapter to what liberalism is and one each to why the right and left hate it so much. But I occasionally found it frustrating parsing through the digr Reading an Adam Gopnik book is like having dinner with a witty, erudite, charming friend who nevertheless leaves you wondering what the conversation was about. I don't mean this as an insult — I generally enjoy Gopnik's writing, but readers looking for precise argumentation here will be disappointed. Gopnik organizes his book elegantly, devoting a chapter to what liberalism is and one each to why the right and left hate it so much. But I occasionally found it frustrating parsing through the digressions and cultural references to figure out what, exactly, he was arguing. Never mind. This is a work by a supremely intelligent, humane writer, and I'm happy to have read it.

  5. 5 out of 5

    David

    An absolute embarrassment.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Paul Kelly

    10 Quotes that will help you evaluate this book 1. The secret truth is that what we are having most of the time is the same reform, over and over again, directed to new places and people: a removal of socially sanctioned cruelty. 2.The real source of reform is often far from any obvious political action. Morals and manners change politics more than politics change morals and manners 3.The reason liberals are confident that reform can happen is because they know, instinctively and empirically, that 10 Quotes that will help you evaluate this book 1. The secret truth is that what we are having most of the time is the same reform, over and over again, directed to new places and people: a removal of socially sanctioned cruelty. 2.The real source of reform is often far from any obvious political action. Morals and manners change politics more than politics change morals and manners 3.The reason liberals are confident that reform can happen is because they know, instinctively and empirically, that much of the work of reform is largely done before politics take place 4.The opposite of humanism is not theism but fanaticism; the opposite of liberalism is not conservatism but dogmatism. 5 They [conservatives ] say that liberalism is the natural enemy of community, and of the families and traditions that make communities stable, and that stable communities are essential to happy lives 6. What actually and effectively separates liberal and mainstream conservative parties and politicians, seen squarely, are certain ideas about respect and certain rituals of reverence—particularly respect for the military and reverence for religion 7. [Triumphalism] is based on the belief that the most crucial dimension in life is weakness and strength, and that liberals are incurably weak...Theological authoritarians hate liberalism not because liberals are weak but because they seem so strong, so arrogant and complacent in their denial of divine truth...[Tragic authoritarians]. , the past is not a place to be outstripped and discarded, surpassed and condescended to. The past is in a real sense the only place we have 8. As Penn Jillette once said, the argument that liberal humanism is a religion like any other is the same as the argument that, since stamp collecting is an obsessive hobby, then not stamp collecting must be an obsessive hobby too...In fact, people who don’t collect stamps don’t have an alternative passion for not collecting stamps. If you don’t love stamps, you don’t hate stamps. 9.There is a tragic rule of twenty-first-century life, a rule of double amnesia: the right tends to act as though the nineteenth century never happened, while the left tends to act as though the twentieth century never took place. 10.The world is made of rooms—the world is the room, times many millions. Which doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be busy fixing and healing the world. It just means that real changes begin in our minds and in our immediate daily practices. That’s a commonplace not just among quiet, inward-turning contemplative types; it’s what every successful social agitator preaches as well. The change has to begin at home, or nowhere.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Paul Szydlowski

    The most important passage in this book refers to the salons of the 17th and 18th centuries, out of which liberalism and democracy grew, finishing with the observation that parliament is only as strong as the coffee house next door. That single sentence inadvertently captures what ails American politics today, thanks to what at the time seemed a good idea - Newt Gingrich's instruction to his new GOP majority in 1995 that they refrain from moving their families to Washington, as had been the trad The most important passage in this book refers to the salons of the 17th and 18th centuries, out of which liberalism and democracy grew, finishing with the observation that parliament is only as strong as the coffee house next door. That single sentence inadvertently captures what ails American politics today, thanks to what at the time seemed a good idea - Newt Gingrich's instruction to his new GOP majority in 1995 that they refrain from moving their families to Washington, as had been the tradition, and instead travel home to their districts each weekend. Keeping in touch with those one represents would seem to be sage advice, but what it did was change the working relationships within Congress. Whereas our representatives and senators once fought tooth and nail during the week, but then got to know each other personally at weekend dinners and Little League games, they now returned to their often gerrymandered echo chambers, simultaneously narrowing their world view while eroding the working relationships that made compromise and effective governance possible. The rest of the book is good, too. But not as good as that one sentence.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Albert Stern

    Just finished this and some of the reviews, mostly from left-leaning publications like The Nation and New Republic that basically eviscerated it. From a right of center point of view, what's annoying is that Gopnik equates liberalism with virtue, that it is born of and embodies all that is best of the human spirit. The deeper flaw is his failure to acknowledge how both modern middle of the road liberalism and conservatism are products of classical liberalism - I got this quote of Alan Wolfe's of Just finished this and some of the reviews, mostly from left-leaning publications like The Nation and New Republic that basically eviscerated it. From a right of center point of view, what's annoying is that Gopnik equates liberalism with virtue, that it is born of and embodies all that is best of the human spirit. The deeper flaw is his failure to acknowledge how both modern middle of the road liberalism and conservatism are products of classical liberalism - I got this quote of Alan Wolfe's off a wiki page, and it sums up the connection: "When instead we discuss human purpose and the meaning of life, Adam Smith and John Maynard Keynes are on the same side. Both of them possessed an expansive sense of what we are put on this earth to accomplish." By focusing as he does on intellectuals in the 19th century as the font of free speech, equal rights, etc., Gopnik doesn't take into account the classical liberal ideas that preceded those thinkers. For example, he writes "The liberal view of free speech comes down to us from that bedrock document, [JS] Mill's 1859 'On Liberty.'" Really? Free speech was enshrined in the Bill of Rights three-quarters of a century before Mill wrote his essay, a hint that maybe the liberal view of free speech came down to us from earlier thinkers. In any case, the Founding Fathers were not thinking about John Stuart Mill when they enshrined freedom of speech in the First Amendment, which still guides the governance of the United States (as well constituting a bedrock of American identity). While hundreds of millions of people live the First Amendment, I can't imagine that each year more than a few thousand people read (or re-read) Mill's essay. Gopnik writes that his idea of liberalism comes from feelings - much quoted in reviews is his line "Liberalism isn't a political theory applied to life. It's what we know about life applied to a political theory." In my opinion, what the Founding Fathers were up to was applying what they knew about the nature of tyranny to a political theory - I don't imagine that "feelings" figured much in their thinking. And that may be the divide between the conservatism and liberalism born of classical liberalism. Gopnik's thinking in this book is so squishy, so Pollyannaish, so incomplete, it's hard to take his conclusions seriously - to put it crudely, his head is a little too far up his own tuchis. However - I gave the book two stars because peppered throughout are sharp insights and a willingness to be critical of liberalism when he sees fit to do so. And many of his criticisms of conservatism are spot on. Still, conservatism is not the antithesis of liberalism, nor is it liberalism's evil twin - it's a different philosophical approach on how we might best fulfill "what we are put on this earth to accomplish."

  9. 4 out of 5

    Glenn M

    Horribly pretentious

  10. 5 out of 5

    E.

    Gopnik offers a robust defense of the liberal worldview as the great human moral adventure. He writes, "Whenever we look at how the big problems got solved, it was rarely a big idea that solved them. It was the intercession of a thousand small sanities. A thousand small sanities are usually wiser than one big idea." Liberalism he defines as "an evolving political practice that makes the case for the necessity and possibility of (imperfectly) egalitarian social reform and ever greater (if not abso Gopnik offers a robust defense of the liberal worldview as the great human moral adventure. He writes, "Whenever we look at how the big problems got solved, it was rarely a big idea that solved them. It was the intercession of a thousand small sanities. A thousand small sanities are usually wiser than one big idea." Liberalism he defines as "an evolving political practice that makes the case for the necessity and possibility of (imperfectly) egalitarian social reform and ever greater (if not absolute) tolerance of human difference through reasoned and (mostly) unimpeded conversation, demonstration, and debate." He admits this is an unwiedly description, but that's how liberalism works. It cannot be easily contained within slogans and catchphrases. Liberalism emerges out of humanism, and Gopnik argues that humanism continues to come before liberalism. The movement begins with Montaigne's critical self-examination and willing to try out new ideas. It develops through modern efforts to eliminate cruelty. What Gopnik does is not present simply the ideas of major thinkers, but he describes the lives of various figures, with John Stuart and Harriet Taylor Mill as his paradigm examples. For he believes that liberalism is a way of life more than a set of ideas and that we learn about it by learning about the lives shaped by it. I found the ideas he advances to be Mill as filtered through Karl Popper and updated by Richard Rorty. This despite Popper rarely appearing explicitly in the book (though his defenses of the open society and scientific thinking do) and Rorty is only mentioned once in the bibliography (though his spirit and themes are throughout the book). Gopnik refines his presentation of liberalism by contrasting it with both the Right and the Left. In each case, he looks for the best examples of each (Charles DeGaulle and Emma Goldman) instead of arguing against straw persons. And he shows how liberalism has learned from both movements and also contributed to them. I very much appreciated the chapter contrasting liberalism with the Left, as it helps to clarify tensions I have felt professionally and personally in recent years as different approaches to Trumpism and other issues have emerged. In this chapter he tackles many current topics including free speech, religious tolerance, pronouns, etc. Note: Gopnik argues that Liberalism is NOT centrism, which is its own movement. A chapter contrasting the two would have been helpful. It is interesting to note that David Brooks's column from last week mentioned this book and is why I ordered and read it. Overall, I recommend it. Now, what I'd like is for Amy Kittelstrom to moderate a discussion over liberalism with Gopnik and Marilynne Robinson (her recent article in the NY Review of Books sets up an alternative view of liberalism's origins) and then for the responder to be Wendell Berry.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Joseph Stieb

    Thought this was a brilliant defense of liberalism as well as a fair-minded and thorough consideration of conservatism and leftism. You might be wondering: What could Gopnik possibly contribute to the proliferation of defenses of liberalism? Well, he starts by clarifying that defending liberalism is not the same thing as defending moderation or centrism. Liberalism is much more than that. Historically it is a challenge to entrenched privilege and injustice and a demand that human practices and i Thought this was a brilliant defense of liberalism as well as a fair-minded and thorough consideration of conservatism and leftism. You might be wondering: What could Gopnik possibly contribute to the proliferation of defenses of liberalism? Well, he starts by clarifying that defending liberalism is not the same thing as defending moderation or centrism. Liberalism is much more than that. Historically it is a challenge to entrenched privilege and injustice and a demand that human practices and institutions be subjected to reason, evidence, and moral norms like human rights. Gopnik focuses his defense of liberalism on some mini-biographies of key liberals, less for their ideas and more for the ways that their lives shaped their ideas. For example, he shows how George Eliot and George Henry Lewes, as a couple, advanced Liberal politics in England: the former through her writing and the latter through his ownership of newspapers and status in politics. He shows the loving relationship between Harriet Taylor and JS Mill, showing how their personal search for liberation and meaning drew them to elucidate crucial principles in liberalism. The point here is that liberalism started with the primacy of empathy: the ability and willingness to see as others see and feel what others feel, and to treat the horror and outrageousness of their suffering as a moral and political force. This argument about empathy (very similar to Pinker's in Better Angels of Our Nature), is probably the most original aspect of the book, although as a whole the argument is vivid and compelling.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Tom Walsh

    Makes a good case for a formal definition of Liberalism. Highly readable, not bogged down by politics, but occasionally padded with more biographical information of his Liberal/Socialist/Communist heroes. I liked his largely successful attempt at a definition that will survive today’s ideological ephemera.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Kevin

    3.5 stars. Loved the thesis, but the writing was clunky.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Patrick

    If you read one book this year, let it be this one.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Ginny

    I listened to this as an audiobook. Partway in I wished I'd had an actual book so I could re-read some sections.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Mark Lawry

    Liberal and conservative are two words that have evolved over the last few 100 years. This fact almost makes these two words meaningless. A great frustration for myself is that being an American liberal does not make one a classical liberal, or even a liberal. As Gopnik points out Adam Smith was understood in the 18th and 19th centuries to be a liberal. In fact, he was a radical. Smith explained why and how slavery destroyed wealth. This a generation before people seriously spoke of the abolitio Liberal and conservative are two words that have evolved over the last few 100 years. This fact almost makes these two words meaningless. A great frustration for myself is that being an American liberal does not make one a classical liberal, or even a liberal. As Gopnik points out Adam Smith was understood in the 18th and 19th centuries to be a liberal. In fact, he was a radical. Smith explained why and how slavery destroyed wealth. This a generation before people seriously spoke of the abolition of slavery. He argued against secure borders because people need to be free to move within the global economy to develop their skills. Today we call this human capital. He argued against war and colonies and he pushed for public education. American leftists tend to know as much about Adam Smith as any current populist republican. Which is to say few in the American left or right have read Smith and both would be shocked that Gopnik would call him a liberal. Gopnik gives one example after another of liberals using existing systems within governments to advance policies to improve lives without calling for revolution. Revolution has proven over and over to be a disaster from the French to the 1917 Russian revolutions. Before the U.S. Civil War many white abolitionists were willing to burn down the country to end slavery. While Frederick Douglas was against this plan. He believed the framework for freedom for African Americans was there in the constitution. It only needed to be tweaked to include all. The book points out anybody can be a liberal. An ardent Muslim, Catholic, capitalist (my own bias,) an agnostic, a socialist. While an American Democrat or leftist can be very anti-liberal and intollerant of other ideas. Probably nothing profound here beyond that of a 3rd or 4th grade social studies class. Still a fun conversation of the history of liberal thinking over recent generations and how and why it can improve lives.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Richard Gilbert

    Gopnik is a brilliant man and a thrilling writer. That said, A Thousand Small Sanities doesn't sing and soar like his previous book I read on Lincoln and Darwin. Instead, he plows a wide, steady path toward an unexpected, important insight. He has come to draw a firm clear line between radical and liberal. And he posits that liberals have more to fear from radicals than they do from conservatives. The first instance reminded me of my decision to vote for Hillary Clinton instead of Bernie Sanders i Gopnik is a brilliant man and a thrilling writer. That said, A Thousand Small Sanities doesn't sing and soar like his previous book I read on Lincoln and Darwin. Instead, he plows a wide, steady path toward an unexpected, important insight. He has come to draw a firm clear line between radical and liberal. And he posits that liberals have more to fear from radicals than they do from conservatives. The first instance reminded me of my decision to vote for Hillary Clinton instead of Bernie Sanders in the 2016 presidential primary. I wasn't thrilled with Clinton, but could not vote for Bernie once he promised to throw out the affordable care act and start fresh. The idiocy of that, instead of shoring up, tweaking, and evolving Obamacare, especially given how hard it was to achieve in the first place, galled me. Gopnik doesn't give this specific example, or many others, but it's what he means in favoring the gradual imperfect refinements of liberalism over the risk and disruption of radical reform. As for the radical left's threat to liberalism, just the provocative contention is bracing and affirming. Again, Gopnik offers not examples but a powerful concept; it will stay with me a long time. In this view, those of us in the liberal mainstream are not so much muddled and timid as sensible and humane. Perhaps the middle way, lacking the potent identity and visceral pleasure of left or right extremism, always needs a champion. I expected more on conservatism, but what's there to say? In my lifetime, Republicans have opposed gains for women, minorities, and gays. It's the same today, with transsexuals added, but the progress came. It will continue. They slow it down, which for all I know is their evolutionary purpose, but can't stop it. This is my hope and my faith as a proud liberal.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Rachel

    I found this an interesting if slightly unfocused read. It took a meandering course through the personal history of prominent liberals like Harriet Taylor, with side discourses on various concepts like liberalism and faith and liberalism and capitalism. I learned something, which I like, but I suspect that this slim volume isn’t the first or last word on the topic. But it definitely offers further avenues of investigation. A couple of his key points: Liberalism lives in the muddle, not the ideal ( I found this an interesting if slightly unfocused read. It took a meandering course through the personal history of prominent liberals like Harriet Taylor, with side discourses on various concepts like liberalism and faith and liberalism and capitalism. I learned something, which I like, but I suspect that this slim volume isn’t the first or last word on the topic. But it definitely offers further avenues of investigation. A couple of his key points: Liberalism lives in the muddle, not the ideal (which is where revolutions live). “Liberalism is realistic about the huge task of remaking worlds. But it is romantic about the possibility of making marginally happier endings for as many as possible within this one.” The reason religion is suspicious of liberalism is because of the taste religion has for governing by pure authority. “Compassion for human flaws is a different emotion than forgiveness for sins. The second presupposes a church capable of offering forgiveness; the first presupposes only a community capable of common feeling.” “Now, in the liberal model of faith, the sacred is spread by consent rather than coercion.” Liberalism is the counterpoint to cancel culture. “The origins of our systems, and of our ideas, are less important than the ideas themselves.” This explains for me why capitalism doesn’t get away with it all (which is something I clearly should have figured out on my own but … didn’t). “It’s that corporate capitalism is still, so far, chained within a liberal society – against its own will, to be sure – and so caught up with the constant feedback processes of public opinion and the liberal courts. You can’t get away with everything. In a command economy you can because power, justice, and free speech are regulated by a single system.”

  19. 4 out of 5

    Carolyn

    A Thousand Small Sanities I loved this book.Brilliant. It’s a liberal education all on its own, nicely rolled in to a cohesive understanding. Read it! If you’re a liberal, this book will be right up your ally philosophically and, if you’re like most liberals - let’s say philosophical humanists by osmosis - this book will basically give you some insight into why you think what you think. This is a book for ‘real’ liberals - who aren’t academics. Over and over, I found what I sometimes thought were A Thousand Small Sanities I loved this book.Brilliant. It’s a liberal education all on its own, nicely rolled in to a cohesive understanding. Read it! If you’re a liberal, this book will be right up your ally philosophically and, if you’re like most liberals - let’s say philosophical humanists by osmosis - this book will basically give you some insight into why you think what you think. This is a book for ‘real’ liberals - who aren’t academics. Over and over, I found what I sometimes thought were my own ideas, and my ideals, affirmed; and for each one he pulled a thread to to the dilemma, the various actors on the stage of history - the philosophers, orators and writers - who tackled them, the eventual outcomes and implications of the problem solving, and the questions still to be asked. He uses aphorisms that demand you put the book down and think for a day, and metaphors - like the rhino and the unicorn, the light switch that holds behind it so many connections before the light goes on, the Cape Cod summer, and many mythical and literary allusions,(Shakespeare, LewisCarol, Trollope are but a few) that trail their own significances into the discussion, as anchors. His writing is wonderful - dense, personal, smart and sharp. As your reading you marvel at his ability to Sequa from one idea to another and still hold the argument. In the discussion and his assertions about what liberalism is he is as humble and self deprecating as he imagines we would be in the face of all this ‘enlightenment’, so it’s not an intimidating read, even though it’s dense. This is helped by the fact that he ostensibly addresses his arguments to his seventeen year old daughter. (It's not a dumb down, butte's gentle - 'now I don’t feel so bad'.) He is positive and hopeful. He does present a very particular lens -picking up the thread at 1865 with Mill’s On Liberty and Darwin’s Origin of the Species, bringing ‘modern liberalism’ from Britain and France, to blossom in America. This is arguable. I recently read two books that place the seeds of liberalism firmly in Renaissance Flanders (He doesn’t counter this. He just doesn’t go that far back.) Critics sometimes call A Thousand Small Saniites an apologia for liberalism. That wasn’t how I read it. I thought it was a manifesto (horrible word for liberals so let’s say mission statement) for liberalism. Gopnik addresses Trumpism briefly, in conclusion, at the end, which is of course the impetus for the concern of the book. To his credit he wrote a far more timeless and interesting book than just an attack on populist politics would have been. Keep it on the shelf. It's a book you will go back to again and again.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Jason Grossmann-Ferris

    Coming from my own political background, I did not expect to enjoy this book for its intended purpose (in fact, the only joy I intended to derive from it was a good laugh at whatever futile claims the author made in his attempt to properly convey his point). However, its dense nature made it entirely impossible to wholly agree or disagree with it- as per the title, Gopnik describes liberalism a considerable number of convictions, but also as an ideology that should focus on the big picture inste Coming from my own political background, I did not expect to enjoy this book for its intended purpose (in fact, the only joy I intended to derive from it was a good laugh at whatever futile claims the author made in his attempt to properly convey his point). However, its dense nature made it entirely impossible to wholly agree or disagree with it- as per the title, Gopnik describes liberalism a considerable number of convictions, but also as an ideology that should focus on the big picture instead of attacking small inconsistencies present in everyday life that may contradict their beliefs. Unlike the most radical of his fellows, Gopnik defends free speech in an almost conservative fashion, but simultaneously describes liberalism (in one of his many ways) as a constant push for reforms, and gives examples of many positive outcomes of liberal thought, ignoring the fact that many positive results have stemmed from decisions based on on ideologies of all types. Structured almost like a rebuttal to an accusation, the author makes a intricate, contemporary argument in defense of the ever-demonized liberal tradition.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Charles Eliot

    I suspect the best way to approach A Thousand Small Sanities is as one man's personal defense of his own liberalism. Gopnik didn't write a carefully crafted academic treatise, or even a polemic. He talks about the history of liberalism as he understands it and as it is relevant to his own thinking and practices, but that means there are plenty of places where he glosses over things he probably shouldn't have, or lets his interest in one part of the story distract from another less savory part. He I suspect the best way to approach A Thousand Small Sanities is as one man's personal defense of his own liberalism. Gopnik didn't write a carefully crafted academic treatise, or even a polemic. He talks about the history of liberalism as he understands it and as it is relevant to his own thinking and practices, but that means there are plenty of places where he glosses over things he probably shouldn't have, or lets his interest in one part of the story distract from another less savory part. He discusses at length the conservative and left-wing (radical) arguments against liberalism, but I suspect people more familiar with these two camps will find plenty to be annoyed with in his characterizations. For all that, I enjoyed the book as someone's entertaining, illuminating and thought-provoking declaration of "Here I stand, here's how a I got here, and here's why I think this is a good place to be". And in that spirit, I heartily recommend the audio-book version, because it's a constant reminder that Gopnik's argument is emotional and human, not polemical or analytic.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Kerry

    I'd first seen Gopnik on a political talk show and he impressed me with his insights though I thought he might "read" better in print, as many authors naturally do, than in such a contentious format. Not so much, as it turns out. I can't add much to the other reviews I've seen of this book. They are fair, if harsh. His style is frustratingly nonlinear. I was left feeling hungry for him to finish the thought(s). However, there are plenty of glimpses of a truly poetic, thoughtful writer exploring I'd first seen Gopnik on a political talk show and he impressed me with his insights though I thought he might "read" better in print, as many authors naturally do, than in such a contentious format. Not so much, as it turns out. I can't add much to the other reviews I've seen of this book. They are fair, if harsh. His style is frustratingly nonlinear. I was left feeling hungry for him to finish the thought(s). However, there are plenty of glimpses of a truly poetic, thoughtful writer exploring the origin and meaning - and defending the concept of - liberal democracy at a time that this is much needed. If you can approach this book with some patience and view it as a series of heart-felt philosophical ruminations, you will not be disappointed. I am hoping Gopnik will not give up trying to express deep thoughts (and I'm thinking that perhaps all that is needed for another attempt is a truly great editor).

  23. 4 out of 5

    Ross Mckinney

    This is a very solidly reasoned book about the essence of liberalism, with chapters considering why the right dislikes liberalism, and why the radical left hates traditional liberalism almost as much. It's an enjoyable book to read, although it starts slowly. I had to be drawn into his premise. In short, and grossly over simplifying, liberals accept an imperfect society, but work constantly to change it. The pace of change, and the need for change, are not persuasive to conservatives, and the va This is a very solidly reasoned book about the essence of liberalism, with chapters considering why the right dislikes liberalism, and why the radical left hates traditional liberalism almost as much. It's an enjoyable book to read, although it starts slowly. I had to be drawn into his premise. In short, and grossly over simplifying, liberals accept an imperfect society, but work constantly to change it. The pace of change, and the need for change, are not persuasive to conservatives, and the value of changing a society, instead of blowing it up, is not persuasive to radicals. Highly recommended for people who likes books about ideas and concepts, about our culture. Well worth your time.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Dabolay

    This is the first book that I have read from Mr. Gopnik and found it to be very enlightening. I needed my dictionary and thesaurus by my side as there were a number of words that I wanted to make sure I understood. This is a library copy and I really need time to go through the book again to re-read, to think more, and to understand. For me personally... I thought that I had more of a concrete understanding regarding the subject of political theory... but after reading this... well... two words co This is the first book that I have read from Mr. Gopnik and found it to be very enlightening. I needed my dictionary and thesaurus by my side as there were a number of words that I wanted to make sure I understood. This is a library copy and I really need time to go through the book again to re-read, to think more, and to understand. For me personally... I thought that I had more of a concrete understanding regarding the subject of political theory... but after reading this... well... two words come to mind. The first is the word skeptic... and the second is the word none. I am really interested to hear what others think. As this seems to be a very fluid subject... perhaps my mind will be changed and I will consider other words.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Serge

    Very thoughtful book I appreciated Gopnik’s “passionate, patriotic, and public-minded” defense of liberalism. I particular, his argument that liberalism is first and foremost hatred of cruelty is compelling. His seamless use of classic literature demonstrates to great effect that humanism precedes liberalism. I drew great hope from his detailed response to attacks from the right and left of liberalism’s patient incrementalism. There is little doubt that a flawed but less cruel society is preferab Very thoughtful book I appreciated Gopnik’s “passionate, patriotic, and public-minded” defense of liberalism. I particular, his argument that liberalism is first and foremost hatred of cruelty is compelling. His seamless use of classic literature demonstrates to great effect that humanism precedes liberalism. I drew great hope from his detailed response to attacks from the right and left of liberalism’s patient incrementalism. There is little doubt that a flawed but less cruel society is preferable to the false Utopianism of aggrieved, populist, triumphalist authoritarianism.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Michelle

    This book is great reading for everyone to help understand more about how our American society was founded and how it functions. I consider myself a liberal, and while I don't necessarily agree with all of Gopnik's premises (I'm probably a more progressive-leaning liberal than he is), I do appreciate his general thesis of the advantages of the philosophy (liberalism as political theory vs. the way we speak about "liberal" in America). Gopnik's book also serves as a great history of liberal tradi This book is great reading for everyone to help understand more about how our American society was founded and how it functions. I consider myself a liberal, and while I don't necessarily agree with all of Gopnik's premises (I'm probably a more progressive-leaning liberal than he is), I do appreciate his general thesis of the advantages of the philosophy (liberalism as political theory vs. the way we speak about "liberal" in America). Gopnik's book also serves as a great history of liberal tradition and as a defense of it.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Alissa McCarthy

    I heard this recommended on a podcast I listen too. I acknowledge that the podcast is, if I had to classify it in political terms, "left-leaning," so the underlying assumption is that reading this book would be like singing from a well-worn hymnal. It turned out to be a hymnal a bit less worn than expected. I've spent time talking to people like Gopnik; witty, charming, and cultured; but in the end, those conversations are as mists - vague and ephemeral.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Michael

    I'm sure this is a good book, but I just don't have the bandwidth right now. Read this sentence: Liberalism is an evolving political practice that makes the case for the necessity and possibility of (imperfectly) egalitarian social reform and ever greater (if not absolute) tolerance of human difference through reasoned and (mostly) unimpeded conversation, demonstration, and debate. Okay.

  29. 4 out of 5

    Francesca

    My goodness...I could not put this down! It's the awe and wonder that comes with thinking about the how, the why, the who of liberalism and liberals themselves; what it is, how it became, what's it's become, what is feared, what is missing, and all told by a father to his daughter. So many wonderful mentions of what I studied in undergrad and so many I've added to my queue. An amazing, thoughtful read. Enjoy. And have faith!

  30. 4 out of 5

    James Hendrickson

    An expansive review of liberalism This is, in my view, a fair review of liberalism that largely focuses on liberalism itself without descending into finger pointing at the other side. Mr. Gopnik answers the question of what is liberalism that in these partisan times no one seems to have bothered to ask let alone answer so thoroughly.

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