A Thousand Small Sanities. Adam Gopnik.

Gopnik, Adam. A Thousand Small Sanities. Basic Books, New York, 2019. NF;1/20.

I decided, ignoring inner “this is naïvely silly” warnings, to look at some current thinking about the tiresome growing polarity that won’t go away: the Left and the Right. This was the second of two books “on” the Left (after Menand’s The Metaphysical Club; maybe three books if you count Oreskes’s Why Trust Science?), and it openly champions liberalism by name and by ideology. Sanities is a nice and a bit enlightening read, but I don’t think it offers a credible way out of the polarity.

Like Menand, Gopnik finds ideological safety and lots of readership as a writer for The New Yorker. He grew up in Montréal, attended McGill and has admiration I can’t help applauding for Canadian humility and relative political common sense. He’s been involved in music and theatre as well. In this book we get a sense of his personal humility too (sometimes a bit more justified then Gopnik may appreciate), which suits his theme of liberalism: a form of muddling through.

We start with a definition Gopnik celebrates as realistically awkward. 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.

Gopnik edges this persuasion toward the political center, and argues that this is consistent with the observed fact that the world has drifted to the left. Conservatives of course are to the right, but to the left of liberals and very different from them are revolutionaries: communists, roughly. He proceeds to deal with why liberalism is superior to each of them.

Conservatives come from three ideologies, which overlap. Gopnik calls them triumphal, theologic, and tragic. Triumphalists don’t like liberals’ weakness, but we’re told this flies in the face of historical fact that liberalism has prevailed or is prevailing. The theological argument of course is based in Christian faith (see Deneen and Kimball) which isn’t happy with runaway materialism and with pluralism, but which Gopnik feels self-evidently fatally does away with equality. Most impressive he seems to think are the “tragic” group, concerned that liberalism foresees an egalitarian utopia which misses the terrifying richness of human nature and of mortality. “Truth” seems to be Gopnik’s answer to this which looks to me like he’s begging the question .

Radicals are so disgusted with conservatism, capitalism, cruelty, and wild inequality that they reject step-by-step evolutionary reform with tolerance of human difference and which appeals to reason as a solution. They believe that “(o)nly revolutionary change can bring justice and equality to a criminally unjust world.” Gopnik says the liberal and radical-left ideologies are opposed to one another “about almost every significant question of what (is) wrong, what to do about it, and how best to get it done.” Liberals “believe in reform rather than revolution because the results are in: it works.”

Gopnik’s liberals and modern conservatives actually agree on at least one thing: free enterprise capitalism is relatively good, and is necessary: “to deny that free-market economies have produced prosperity unparalleled in human history — and continue to lift more people out of poverty than any other model known to man — is to deny the thunderously plain.”

I was impressed with a moderating attitude, probably also part of distancing liberalism from the far left. Trying to

(r)eform our language, our pronouns, our cafeteria menus, our forms of addressing each other (and making) sexual acts … demand step-by-step consent … is ridiculous or can be ridiculously enforced.

And in respect of the campaign against hate especially in universities:

We have to distinguish between insulting someone’s beliefs—something none of us enjoy but which all of us have to endure—and threatening someone’s safety.

Compared to some conservative writing, we find this book easy and colloquial. Gopnik presents much of the polemic as a conversation with his university-age daughter. I was surprised though when he said “all my desires for liberalism begin with p”. As if we readers need some help memorizing them. He’s done some teaching and has an honorary doctorate from McGill, but I guess most grown-ups could do without the few bits of patronizing he didn’t seem to be able to avoid. And there were places where the thinking or just the writing struck me as a bit woolly: I couldn’t follow a logical thread at times.

Okay, what are boring pragmatic reasonable centrist Canadians (and Americans) to think about a world where Donald Trump – if he doesn’t get elected again – may be succeeded by Bernie Sanders? Is there any hope that oppositional-ideology-driven thinking might be gradually replaced by the kind of decision-making that finds realistic compromise in no-win situations (most of the tough calls that need to be made) and moves on? Can modernism and tradition coexist peacefully? Could the left and right one-size-fits-all ideologies soften and begin solving problems in a real world one at a time (a real Thousand Small Sanities)? Will seriousness ever prevail, understanding that while a full-on egalitarian utopia just doesn’t fit with human nature and economic reality, it is equally ridiculous to imagine backsliding several hundred years into a theocracy that ignores democracy, science, tolerance, and reason?

I’m not optimistic. At my age although I don’t think I’m afraid of dying I sure don’t like the prospect of missing out on what’s going to happen in the next hundred years or so. Either the United States and the rest of the West learn to be practical and compromise, or I think it will be China’s century.


About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 40 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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