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The Emptiness of Adam Gopnik’s Liberalism

His new book lacks a fundamental understanding of political-economic power.

Illustration by Steve Brodner

When I heard last year that Adam Gopnik was writing a “stirring defense of liberalism” titled A Thousand Small Sanities, I had many questions. How would he turn liberalism into a story about his kids gliding through gilded cities, or the passionate romances of famous historical figures? What would a typical sentence look like, between Gopnik’s penchant for wince-inducing half-jokes and his tendency to invert the terms of his sentences? “You don’t revolt your way to reform, you reform your way to revolt,” perhaps. I wish I had been wrong.

by Adam Gopnik
Basic Books, 272 pp., $28.00

A longtime essayist for The New Yorker and a best-selling memoirist, Gopnik likely needs no introduction. But for the purposes of reviewing a book that strenuously asserts that the term “bourgeois” is a slur devoid of meaning, it is worth recalling that Gopnik came of age in 1980s New York where, arriving starry-eyed from Montreal, he quickly penetrated the world of genteel bohemia and scaled the heights of elite journalism. Abandoning a graduate degree in art history, he wrote about the art world and New York cultural life, gradually expanding into numerous and sundry aesthetic subjects. After he moved to Paris in the 1990s and recounted his family’s charmed life there, first-person essays formed the basis of his brand. In addition to bemused, self-deprecating, and often unabashedly saccharine narrations of family life, Gopnik’s job at The New Yorker seemed to involve running around the city doing things that normal people imagine rich New Yorkers doing, like going to an artist’s study on Friday afternoons for a “year or so” to draw nude models, or spending six years in psychoanalysis.

All the while, Gopnik maintained his ambitions as a critic, producing an expansive archive of work touching not only on art, but on literature, history, philosophy, and religion. Intellectually no less than materially, Gopnik is a product of his time, a child of the end of history and the first wave of ecstatic globalization. As he noted in 2002, a number of American intellectuals in the final decade of the twentieth century made Isaiah Berlin, “the image of enlightened humanism,” their guiding star. One of the important features of Berlin’s thought was, as Gopnik put it, that “liberal humanism is superior precisely because it can encompass the humanity of even those who are most anti-liberal.” Berlin was famous for his empathetic readings of counter-Enlightenment thinkers, which warned of the always-present irrational side of human nature.

A loose consensus formed around Berlin’s argument that “positive liberty”—the attempt to define liberty for everyone—was at the origin of totalitarian dictatorship. Berlin’s devotees in the 1990s, especially Michael Ignatieff and Mark Lilla, put considerable, if not uncritical, stock in Berlin’s visions of inherent human violence and its potential to break loose at the first sign of an overly ambitious political project. The “Berlin consensus,” which Gopnik seems to have absorbed, held that a more limited “negative liberty”—allowing people to pursue their own definitions of liberty—could protect individuals from such projects. No matter the scale of crises or the structural impediments to reform, liberal incrementalism was the only answer, because everything else has proved to lead to mass murder. Reading Berlin was one way of turning no-alternative politics into intellectual heroism.

But this always sat oddly with Gopnik’s rhapsodic persona and at least part-time belief in human beings’ power to expand the reach of justice and equality. He was perhaps closer to money and glamour than other representatives of the Berlin consensus, and those forces acted as powerful stimulants. Even more important, Gopnik has never been able to keep his bottomless enthusiasm for bourgeois domesticity contained to his personal essays: With an almost clockwork consistency, he loses himself rifling through the lives of famous thinkers for evidence of the “bourgeois obsessions” he explored in Paris to the Moon, especially romantic marriages (Napoleon, Darwin, and Lincoln all loved their wives uxoriously) and shopping (“There are few more premonitory or touching documents than Voltaire’s shopping lists”).

A Thousand Small Sanities tries to spin bourgeois bohemianism into a grand theory of liberalism, explaining why radical politics are both unnecessary and dangerous. The setting for these admonitions is a comfortable liberal family, as Gopnik pretends every once in a while that he is addressing his arguments to his (presumably) left-leaning college-age daughter, Olivia. (Too old to be written about but apparently not to be written at, Gopnik’s children have graduated from material to captive audience.) “Driving intoxicated on the rhetoric of revolutionary change is crazy,” he cautions her, “especially in light of all the fatalities already recorded.” But Gopnik’s attempt to convert her instead to the bare-minimum politics of the late twentieth century frequently lapses into parody and unwittingly exposes the emptiness of the old liberal orthodoxy.

What does liberalism mean to Gopnik? Though he gets around to a qualified defense of the free market, he is at pains to insist he is not a neoliberal, which is simultaneously not a thing (“imaginary monster,” “bogeyman,” “swear word”) and enough of a thing that he has to repeatedly distinguish himself from it (“not part of the genetic liberal line at all”). He would be fine with a sort of Keynesian social democracy, but it doesn’t really matter, because A Thousand Small Sanities is not about politics, but about feelings toward politics. Gopnik judges political positions not by the substance of their arguments, but on a scale from childish and dangerous (radicalism of all types) to grown-up and responsible (moderate reformism). Gopnik’s liberalism is first of all a sensibility based on the “psychological principle” that people are many-sided, internally conflicted, and usually wrong, thus “incremental cautious reform is likely to get more things right than any other kind.”

The imaginative locus of Gopnik’s liberalism is eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Europe. It is the liberalism of the Enlightenment café, of the bourgeois-bohemian bedrooms of nineteenth-century political theorists—what you would get if you crossed John Stuart Mill’s and George Eliot’s sex lives with Jürgen Habermas’s philosophy of rational communication. Gopnik is enamored with nineteenth-century British literature and politics, and capsule biographies of its leading lights abound. The subversive romance of Mill and Harriet Taylor, partners despite the latter’s marriage to someone else, was a lesson on messy compromise: “Recognizing that intimate life is an accommodation of contradictions, they understood that political and social life must be an accommodation of contradictions, too.” The similarly unconventional relationship between Eliot and George Henry Lewes demonstrated the radicalism of the private sphere, that “morals and manners change politics more than politics change morals and manners.”

Such relationships are intended as literary approximations of Gopnik’s romanticized notion of a civil society that generates social innovations and demands for reform. “Whenever we look at how the big problems get solved, it was rarely a big idea that solved them,” he writes. “It was the intercession of a thousand small sanities.” Habermas’s “public sphere” and Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone get cursory mentions as affirming the centrality of civil society—cafés, clubs, community organizations—to social reform.

Gopnik is aware that such notions may seem remote from our present reality—Olivia is not buying it—and does his best to give us proof that his café model of liberalism works in the twenty-first century. The answer? “Community policing,” an elastic term that has become an orthodoxy for “progressive” police reform since the 1990s, but has coincided with stop-and-frisk, mass incarceration, police militarization, and sensational episodes of unprovoked police violence. Gopnik draws on the sociologist Patrick Sharkey, whose conclusions about the decline of urban crime he flattens into an implausibly simplistic tale of community action. “The primacy of the public sphere isn’t just an abstraction of a German philosopher dreaming of a French café. It’s what stopped crime in the South Bronx.”

Like this one, Gopnik’s efforts to give his argument empirical flourishes are random, sloppy, and unpersuasive. But even in the philosophical clouds, where he would clearly prefer to stay, his claims are riddled with tensions. In the face of a revived left that he thinks has cornered the market on ambitions for a more just society, he attempts to bolster liberalism’s reputation by associating it with as many historical radicals as possible, whose “goals were specific, not utopian, capable of being achieved by democratic means in democratic legislatures.” Some of these appropriations are reasonable (Chartism, most of the suffragettes, the dominant stream of the civil rights movement), and others are much less so (the socialist-communist French Popular Front of the 1930s). Gopnik is thrilled to find historical radicals as enamored with the American Constitution as he is, reminding us repeatedly that the abolitionist Frederick Douglass believed in the promise of the Constitution, which he called a “glorious liberty document.” Most of the time, Gopnik seems inclined toward the radical strand of historical liberalism that believes that

even when legislative institutions are very unequal and even undemocratic … as long as formal freedoms are being respected … it’s possible to put enormous stress on those institutions and force reforms even when they come reluctantly.

At the same time, he seems unable to shake the Berlin consensus, preoccupied with irrationality of the human heart that politics can only contain, never satisfy. In the chapter on right-wing critiques of liberalism, Gopnik summarizes the arguments of various types of “authoritarians” that liberalism is not good at providing clear order and symbolic identity. Though he ultimately rejects such claims, he empathizes with their presentation of liberalism as narrowly rationalistic and procedural, ultimately unable to address real questions of social meaning. “The realm of affairs in which questions of government, good and bad, can speak to us is extremely limited.”

He concludes that “tragic authoritarians”—generally right-wing, anti-modernist philosophers—are a bit too pessimistic, but that they have correctly described the human condition, doomed to a certain amount of defeat and disappointment. “Even the most compassionate program of egalitarian reform inevitably ends up against the limits of being human.” While Gopnik intends such concessions as a kind of eclectic absorption of every position’s strongest insights, he doesn’t seem to realize he is taking on board deeply pessimistic premises that cut against the sunny moral teleology of his liberal reformism.

Up to this point, Gopnik manages to keep his argument on track, despite some worrying lurches. He has a serviceable command of nineteenth-century liberal writers, and knows his right-wing politicians and philosophers well enough to sort them into basic typologies. He has a lot more trouble with the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, when he struggles to understand what in the world the left is and how to refute its confusing and alarming accusations.

In the broadest sense, Gopnik defines the left as radical revolutionism, in contrast with liberal reformism; one quickly gets the impression that all left critics of liberalism seek an overnight, root-and-branch upheaval of existing society and an immediate instantiation of Soviet totalitarianism (Stalinism is first mentioned on page three). “The left-wing critique of liberalism is chiefly an attack on liberal faith in reform. Only revolutionary change can bring justice and equality to a criminally unjust world.” While in some respects leftists and liberals have more in common than either do with conservatives, leftist revolutionism makes the right look friendly: “The leftist assault on tradition and the past tends to be more breathtakingly absolute than the traditionalist authoritarian right can dream of or desire.”

When Gopnik moves on to specifics, he produces a reasonably accurate summary of the traditional left case against liberalism. The left argues that the true problem with liberalism is not its ideals but its permanent inability to achieve them. Liberalism trumpets universal human rights, but class hierarchy at home and an imperial hierarchy of nations abroad prevent a great number of people from exercising those rights; it’s hypocritical to argue for equal rights without attempting to remove the political and economic inequality that undermine the whole project. “Liberal reform is pious,” Gopnik writes, “until it runs up against the limits of what it won’t, or can’t, reform, which is the governing system of exploitation and oppression. It sends that out freely to everyone too weak to resist.” Left-wing propagandists might even borrow a few of his pithy formulations of their views: Liberalism “doesn’t just export its atrocities; it exports its exploitations and then brings back the profits to support the supposedly liberal arts.”

But Gopnik’s familiarity with the Marxist critique of imperialism doesn’t get close to a real engagement with today’s left. (Despite loving his wife uxoriously, Marx doesn’t get a Gopnikian potted biography.) Gopnik does not engage with any thinkers from the Marxist tradition; a bibliographic note explains—unconvincingly, given his success in selecting from the equally massive literatures on liberals and reactionaries—that “Marxist and post-Marxist theory comprises too vast a list of titles to be neatly enumerated here.” Nothing, either, from the expansive constellation of well-known contemporary left publications, nothing on existing left politicians, organizations, or positions that might indicate what socialism in 2019 is really about—and just how remote the sort of revolution Gopnik panics about is from the debates of the contemporary left.

Instead, Gopnik leads us through a fun house of his own random reading and his vague sense of the internet outrage cycle. We get an unexplained detour through the life of the anarchist Emma Goldman, whose critique of liberalism interests Gopnik less than her “enthusiastic sexual awakening” and her hatred of Lenin. Then he wades into intersectionality theory, the only major left current besides anarchism to receive something resembling direct analysis. Gopnik finds intersectionality intriguing, but worries that privileged college students may have taken it too far into “essentialism and determinism.”

Occasionally, Gopnik remembers that his ostensible opponent is revolutionary ideology, and whips out the saddest possible versions of the “it’s already been tried” argument. He attempts to don the mantle of the old anti-totalitarian, who has always presented himself as the sober student of reality. But despite his rhetoric, Gopnik is almost wholly uninterested in rooting out facts. Where, for example, did the new wave of “authoritarian” politics come from? Gopnik has heard of depressed, deindustrialized places like Akron, Ohio, and Lille, France, and even understands that the sense of degradation and abandonment has pushed them toward right-wing nationalism. He knows about the low-wage economy and economic inequality. But rather than seek meaningful explanations, he falls back on ahistorical platitudes: “Strongman politics and boss-man rule, in simplest form, is the story of mankind,” he sighs. “So rather than search for the special circumstances that make it rise … we should accept the truth that it can always rise, that the lure of a closed authoritarian society is one permanently present in human affairs.”

What is behind the climate crisis that, as an unstoppable wave of analyses shows, is headed our way with frightening speed? “Economic issues peculiar to capitalism have to be separated from those pervasive in modernity,” Gopnik writes. “Environmental disasters are the right thing to be worried about, but it is the drive for growth, not capitalism in particular, that makes them happen.” Apparently, the fact that the Eastern bloc had a bad environmental record during its 45-year existence means we should ignore that industrial production and the “drive for growth” had conquered the globe before communism ever existed, and that the last 30 years since the total global triumph of the capitalist system have been worse for the climate than the centuries that preceded them.

What these examples reveal is the deepest failing of Gopnik’s style of thinking and the old liberal consensus it parodies: Enclosed in the idealized history of political thought and the ideologized conflict between political “systems,” it lacks a fundamental understanding of how political-economic power shaped the last two centuries. It is unable to give even a basic account of how liberal capitalism reshaped the globe and established a succession of imperial orders (British, then American) at incalculable human and environmental cost. Even during the Cold War, which still forms the basic parameters of the liberal imagination, people who resisted capitalism were sharply constrained by worldwide anti-communist interference and repression, including in the heart of Western Europe. The welfare state that Gopnik celebrates as the achievement of socialists who saw the light and “went liberal” was frequently built by conservative governments working with the United States to block the more radical egalitarian aims of the left. Gopnik does not even try to explain how the welfare state came under attack in subsequent decades and what that might tell us about his idealized liberalism. He simply exhorts us to more of the same, albeit with some superficial reorientation and updated rhetoric.

We might not have expected much more from Gopnik, but A Thousand Small Sanities’ aimless joyride of free-associated clichés and its stubborn refusal to look at reality may indicate more broadly how little the American establishment has learned since the turn of the century. The climate crisis, more than anything, has highlighted the inadequacy of the liberal orthodoxy’s self-congratulatory moderation and celebration of glacial incrementalism. It poses, in stark terms, the need for dramatic action and the inescapability of confronting the powerful interests behind the deadly carbon economy. The rapid degradation of the planet has made radicalism rational and incrementalism a kind of civilizational death drive. In this context, Gopnik’s blissful ignorance reads not as comical but as deeply sinister.

“There is a tragic rule of twenty-first century life, a rule of double amnesia,” he writes, gearing up for one of his dubious historical declarations. “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.” No century is Gopnik’s strong suit, but like most defenders of the status quo he has a particular difficulty seeing the twenty-first.