A Thousand Small Sanities:
The Moral Adventure of Liberalism
by adam gopnik
basic, 272 pages, $28
Adam Gopnik is the New Yorker columnist notorious for comparing the post-9/11 scent of death in lower Manhattan to that of “smoked mozzarella.” His editor, David Remnick, has been forced to defend Gopnik’s myopic interest in “bourgeois pleasures.” Now, as cultural institutions fail, deaths of despair climb, middle-American communities collapse, and sex enters a recession, Gopnik is waxing bardic, unaware that he is out of key. Liberal values, he muses in A Thousand Small Sanities, allow us “to spend every day with better music, more poetry, better food, better wine grown in more places. To make love with whom we want instead of with whom we’re ordered.”
It’s tricky to pin down his conception of “liberalism” amid all the hedging and gushing, but it is perhaps best illustrated by the book’s opening motif—what Gopnik calls “one of the most lyrical love stories ever told.” In 1830, the ravishing Harriet Taylor fell in love with John Stuart Mill. Unfortunately, she was already married. Unwilling to cut all ties with her husband, she started an open relationship: The two men shared Harriet—and the Taylor household. “Taylor paid the bills, while Mill stocked the wine cellar.” On certain days of the week, Taylor entertained guests with Harriet; on the remaining days, Mill enjoyed his privileges. The three kept up this arrangement for years, until Taylor finally died in 1849, and Harriet and Mill were wed.
According to Gopnik, their relationship symbolizes liberalism at its best—a bundle of compromises, a “knot tied tight between competing decencies.” In other words, liberalism is like an open relationship. “Recognizing that intimate life is an accommodation of contradictions, they understood that political and social life must be an accommodation of contradictions too.” A few pages later, Gopnik adds another example of his ideal polity: George Eliot’s adulterous relationship with George Henry Lewes (both abandoned their spouses and “declared themselves married”). “Love, like liberty, tugs us in different directions as much as it leads us in one,” Gopnik writes. “Love, like liberty, asks us to be only ourselves, and it also asks us to find our self in others’ eyes.” One wonders what the Taylors’ two children, the citizens of Gopnik’s ideal liberal regime, would make of all this.
Gopnik dismisses the “myth . . . that liberalism is obsessed with individualism.” He celebrates “passionate connection and self-chosen community.” But he doesn’t have much to say about community that’s not chosen: needy neighbors, irritating grandparents, unplanned children. Citing the affection between Harriet and Mill, in LGBT relationships (“gay marriages tend to be extremely well produced”), and in “online communities where fetishist speaks to fellow fetishist,” he concludes that “the supposed loss of secure community is in itself a chimera.” More evidence: “In my experience, no orthodox marriage on a Greek island is celebrated with as much solemnity and ceremony combined as is a gay marriage on Fire Island in New York.”
Gopnik hopes we can overcome our differences by patronizing coffeehouses. “Learning just to sip alongside a stranger makes for a potable kind of pluralism,” he muses. “In many ways, this is the cumulative understanding of liberalism. It touches on compassion, sympathy, community, emergent states, and decent coffee.” Although he admits that this understanding of liberalism may exclude some (“the coffee house is closed to anyone who can’t pay for the pastry”), this limitation does not seriously disturb him. On Fire Island, everybody can afford fine pastries.
If Gopnik seems unrealistic when it comes to solutions for the working class and its collapsing communities, he is doubly out of touch when it comes to solutions for the traditionally religious. He wants to assure religious conservatives—whom he calls “theological authoritarians”—that liberalism is not out to destroy religion with militant secularism. “Nothing exists to prevent someone from articulating a conservative Christian or Islamic code in public in any of the great democracies,” Gopnik states. Unfortunately, his notions of compromise and tolerance don’t extend to those whose convictions profane liberal pieties.
The issues on which Christians particularly tend to rest their case for intolerance and persecution turn out to be, in any sane historical perspective, absurdly tiny—the possibility, for instance, that a fundamentalist baker might be forced to bake a gay cake.
Absurdly tiny? This is not the language of a man who genuinely cares about tolerance. The religious are supposed to recognize how good they’ve got it—and fall in line.
“Faith, in truth, has never flourished so freely and variously as it has in the liberal city,” Gopnik continues. For proof, he turns to Williamsburg, where hipsters and Orthodox Jews both have their enclaves. “If liberalism is in any sense intolerance then it is hard to see it on the street.” True, liberalism has little trouble tolerating marginal and colorful minorities. What it cannot abide is any real contender that offers an alternate vision for ordering public life. In Israel, where Hasidism has much greater political presence, liberals oppose it intensely. Likewise, American liberals fight against public manifestations of Christianity that challenge liberal predominance. Religious believers are welcome to join the liberal menagerie, but they must stay in their cages.
Liberalism “hates dogma,” Gopnik declares. “If you do not want to have your dogma put up for debate, the liberal state will be an uncomfortable place to live within.” Perhaps—except that the one dogma Gopnik thinks shouldn’t be up for debate is his own liberal creed. He cannot refrain from using religious language to describe the liberal belief system. Voltaire is “an apostle”; Gopnik praises liberal “saints,” declares liberalism “blessed,” and spends several pages articulating “a liberal catechism.” It all reads like a painfully didactic homily, a deluge of “shoulds,” “have-tos,” and “musts”—“Liberalism ought to be agnostic”; “liberals should never be arrogant, but they should never be apologetic either.”
Casual mentions of Upper East Side restaurants, Williamsburg yoga studios, Cape Cod summer houses, and tuition at Sarah Lawrence stud the book. They are a reminder that Gopnik writes not so much to vindicate a philosophy as to defend the habits and prejudices of a select social class. He praises liberalism for letting us “look at the stars and taste new cheeses and make love, sometimes with the wrong person.” Ultimately, all A Thousand Small Sanities argues is that liberalism is superior because it has worked out pretty well for Adam Gopnik and people like him.
Ramona Tausz is associate editor of First Things.