A Thousand Small Sanities

Adam Gopnik is clearly the kind of uber-liberal with whom I would disagree all the time. He is also the kind of guy I think I would really enjoy talking to and having as a friend, and his book – “A Thousand Small Sanities”- is great.

Let me start with agreement on the big issues. He is usually talking about classical liberalism, which is the tradition of the Founding Fathers and the common heritage of American conservatives and American liberals. It is as much an attitude as a set of specific ideas. In fact, the first big think I agreed with was his confession of error. None of us ever gets everything right, which is why we need be tolerant of other opinions, even those we consider stupid. That does not mean that we refrain from arguing strongly for our ideas, but just the we recognize that all our ideas are incomplete.

This leads to the next big idea I share with the author, that of incremental and iterative improvement. Revolutionary big ideas almost always end in grieve and usually horror. We should constantly be remaking our world in little ways, but not think we can understand and anticipate outcomes enough to make the big ones all at once. Gopnik admits that this frustrates a lot of people, but fast changes tend to be bad ones and/or not lasting.

Gopnik says that both left and right hate true liberals and explains the respective outlooks.

The difference on the right is that the right tends to favor stability over justice and order over equality. I think he is correct on the main. I found myself strongly in tune with Gopnik’s attitudes toward free speech, innovation, against the concentration of power and for the primacy of science and reason, not so much when the talked about justice and equality. For example, Gopnik criticizes the U.S. Constitution for not being truly democratic, i.e. people in some states have more voting power and the “will of the people” can be slowed by the various mechanisms of the laws. In fact, the Constitution was designed specifically to slow change, as they said at the time, to let passions cool. This bothers me not at all. In fact, I see it as a very good thing and when I think about why, my answer is that it adds to stability. IMO, it has helped preserve our democracy by curbing its excesses.

When he is talking of “the right” here, he is talking about what he calls “Constitutional Conservatives,” not the authoritarian variety – the blood & soil types – from Europe. He rightly criticizes authoritarianism on the right … and on the left in the next chapter.

The left, in this group he includes those who seek revolutionary or radial change, would include socialists and Marxist, but not only. These guys dislike liberals more than the dislike right authoritarian, since authoritarians have more in common with each other than they do with American style liberals. The left thinks liberals are insufficiently engaged in change. They dislike the moderation. Lately, they have also come to dislike the liberal idea of individual equality.

Identity politics is now the bread-and-butter of leftists. It is anathema to true liberals, who fundamentally believe in the efficacy of dialogue and debate. If someone can pull the trump card, to say “as a — name the group” to stop debate, every discussion is made useless. (This thought was very similar to the views in the other book I recently finished – “The Assault on American Excellence,” also by an uber liberal.) The left lives on identity, so the liberal idea that there really is none that is not changeable makes the liberal not merely an opponent but an enemy. To repeat, or at least rhyme and earlier idea, the authoritarian left and authoritarian left understand each other, since they are both much more identity based than the moderates.

I think Gopnik is fair and committed to a thoughtful process, and the scientific method writ large. I liked that he tried to explain the values of those who disagree with him. As a moderate conservative, someone he might call a Constitutional Conservative, I think he described my general value system fairly.

Gopnik’s frame for this book is him trying to explain Donald Trump’s victory to his daughter. He says that we should accept, even welcome, the periodic changes of power among Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives. But he thinks that Trump is beyond the usual, in that he seems not to respect rule of laws and the habits of the heart that make democracy work, but he has confidence in the system, that it will be self-correcting.

I find myself in agreement with him in this too. This too will pass, maybe like a kidney stone, but it will pass.


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