WEIRDLAND: "The Moral Adventure of Liberalism" (A Thousand Small Sanities) by Adam Gopnik

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

"The Moral Adventure of Liberalism" (A Thousand Small Sanities) by Adam Gopnik

It’s a myth that liberalism is obsessed with individualism, a myth that liberalism doesn’t have a rich imagination of common fates and shared values. Adam Smith, though today he’s been appropriated to right-wing think tanks and even right-wing neckties—Milton Friedman always wore one—thought in terms of cities and of how they share sentiments before he thought of individuals and how they price goods. It was the victory of the Union that helped prod the democratization of Britain, and the vindication of republicanism in the United States and Britain that played a large role in re-moralizing the French republicans. The greatest monument of modern liberalism began precisely in that moment, as a gift from nascent French republicanism to triumphant American republicanism. Liberalism accepts imperfection as a fact of existence. Some imperfections can be remedied. Many can’t be ever fixed. Fixing cruelty is hard work. Liberalism’s task is not to imagine the perfect society and drive us toward it but to point out what’s cruel in the society we have now and fix it if we possibly can. We don’t know what is good, but we do know what is bad. Cruelty is bad. State murder is bad. This kind of liberalism extends the French humanist tradition, turning pessimism about “truths” into optimism about acts.

We have allowed the Statue of Liberty to be subsumed into the narrative of American immigration, and understandably, so given that for many millions of American ancestors this French thing was the first American thing they saw. But it was first imagined, in that pivot year of 1865, as a tribute to the shining light of the republican ideal at a time when it still seemed impossible in France. It was an imaginary dream figure celebrating the vindication of liberty in America with an eye to its eventual vindication in France: you’ve married her; we will, too, some day. She is a crucial figure, in which modern liberalism is mostly forged. The hallucinatory photographs of the statue rising in a small Parisian atelier remind us of its impossible conception. It ought to be, like the dream of liberal democracy itself, left in the large dustbin of unrealized projects, like Tatlin’s later Monument to the Third International. It isn’t. It’s there. It shines. Liberty’s light beams out from her lamp—infinite gradations of radiance, a flood of illumination at once encompassing and specific. Liberty in liberal imagery is a field of energy, which makes us see all that’s there around us. The first fully realized theory of electromagnetism—of light, like liberty, as a field emitted, as we know now, by countless particular waves—was published by James Maxwell exactly in our magic year of 1865?

The search for radical change by humane measures, far from producing a dry, atomizing, and emotion-less doctrine in which all social relations are reduced to the status of a contract, makes liberalism one of the great moral adventures in human history. Far from being fatuously materialistic and profit driven, the rise and triumph of liberal ideas is the most singular spiritual episode in all of human history. The essential point of Montaigne’s great, foundational essay “On Cruelty,” in which he considers the emotions of a deer being hunted, is that when it comes to cruelty, we should second all other reasoning to the essential fact of the stag’s suffering. We can always rationalize our way past someone else’s suffering. Reasoning past suffering is not reason at all. This side of Montaigne’s work had an enormous influence on Shakespeare, who read Montaigne in a beautiful early English translation by John Florio. He adapted his thoughts on cruelty and put them in the mouth of his wise misanthropic character Jaques in As You Like It. The urge to commit atrocities is standard to all human systems; the institutionalized urge to amend them is not. Removing aboriginal kids from their homes is wrong; it is not on the same wavelength of wrongness as murdering thousands of dissidents without trial or starving whole nations into submission. Liberalism without vision is, indeed, merely comfortable, but radicalism without realism will always be blind—and then surprised by the next great catastrophe. Radicals who have not learned the necessity of liberal institutions have learned nothing at all from history. What liberalism can say on its own behalf is that no system of power in human history has tried so hard to inject a corrective conscience into its institutions.

The idea of sympathy as the glue of good societies is one that began to have an especially intense life in the eighteenth century. Indeed, the idea of sympathy is at least as important to the birth of modern liberalism as the practice of science. What’s called the Enlightenment—in France it’s called the Lumières, the Enlighteners—obviously plays an enormously important role in most histories of how liberalism happened. Adam Smith wrote two great books: the first, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, is lesser known; the second, The Wealth of Nations, is canonized by right-wing libertarians—but without knowing a thing about Smith’s theory of morality. In both books, Smith suggests that it’s normal for human beings to want to live in a prosperous society, but that it’s also normal for them to want to live in a just society. Their desire for self-improvement was rooted not in greed but sympathy and was inherently social. What moved men to make markets was their love of pleasure and happiness. Who, he wondered, could live happily in a society where all of the wealth has been confiscated and kept in a few hands? Smith believed not that markets make men free but that free men move toward markets. The difference is small but decisive; it is most of what we mean by humanism.

As Abraham Lincoln said in his second inaugural address on March 4, 1865: "With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right." In presidential ranking polls conducted in the United States since 1948, Lincoln has been rated at the top in the majority of polls. Generally, the top three presidents are rated as 1. Abraham Lincoln; 2. George Washington; and 3. Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Lincoln was a "moral visionary" who deftly advanced the abolitionist cause, as fast as politically possible. Liberals are not afraid of revolution. But liberals will remain reluctant revolutionaries. It is one reason why the American Revolution went so much better than the French one. What is liberalism, then? A hatred of cruelty. An instinct about human conduct rooted in a rueful admission of our own fallibility and of the inadequacy of our divided minds to be right frequently enough to act autocratically. A belief that the sympathy that binds human society together can disconnect us from our clannish and suspicious past. A program for permanent reform based on reason. The opposite of humanism is fanaticism; the opposite of liberalism is not conservatism but dogmatism. 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 demonstration and debate.

The Byrds were an American rock band from California who were the first to wear long hair, play electric guitars, and have hits with electrified (guitar and bass, plus drums) versions of Dylan songs, including “Mr. Tambourine Man.” It was said at the time that they were Dylanized Beatles, but the great rock critic Ellen Willis pointed out that they were Beatleized Dylans—from the same background as Dylan who had heard the Beatles and gone electric. It was a crucial point in rock music history. It justified the preference for highly artistic pop over folk protest singing. The difference between Dylanized Beatles and Beatleized Dylans seemed small but meant everything. Love is love and kindness is everything. They’re true. Entirely true. The Beatles say so, which ought to be proof enough. I fear to hear radical-minded people talk about key liberal institutions and practices—the insistence on pluralism, the respect for a free press—impatiently. They speak as though these institutions and practices are the self-evident ground of social life, ones that can be depended on to renew themselves, or easily reconstructed after a revolution, rather than as the immensely delicate, hard-won, and historically unique things they really are. The contemporary left can sometimes seem to have an insufficient respect for the fragility of the very same liberal institutions that allow its views to be broadcast without impediments. The left makes an unfortunate alliance with right-wing authoritarians when it deprecates those institutions. It does this sometimes with impatience, sometimes with the illusion that things have to get worse before they get better. Marxists called this “heightening the contradictions” of the system. But no good has ever come from heightening these contradictions. All that happens is that the institutions get weaker, and authoritarians become stronger in the weakened spaces.

Liberalism has become passive, planetary, and private. It needs to become passionate, patriotic, and public-minded. There’s nothing in the liberal tradition that makes us believe that private enterprise is necessarily better than common public goods. Liberals should never be arrogant, but they should never be apologetic either. Scientific reasoning can’t give you values. But once you choose your values, it can give you lots of useful truth. There’s really an awful lot of stuff about life now known that once was not. 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. Skepticism, constant inquiry, fallibilism, self-doubt—these don’t mean not knowing. They mean knowing more all the time. Liberal cities and states are the tiny volcanic islands risen on a vast historical sea of tyranny. There lies the ultimate irony of liberalism and of liberal love stories. Liberalism is a political temperament and a credo that seeks social conciliation as a positive engine of forward movement. But the liberal is condemned and always will be to be the most embattled of all kinds. A liberal of any complexion will forever be in contest with the totalitarian tendencies of the left and the authoritarian brutalities of the right. And that fight will never end. Liberalism is blessed and continues to produce those thousand small sanities in often invisible social adjustments and improvements, moving us bit by bit a little bit closer to a modern Arcadia. And liberalism may be crushed at any time by its own inability to stop the stampede of unicorns that we call the utopian imagination. Liberalism is the work of a thousand small sanities communicated to a million sometimes eager and more often reluctant minds. That’s the work of liberalism, and even if the worst happens, as it may, it is work that won’t stop, can’t stop, because it is also the real work of being human. That’s why the prehistory of liberalism is mostly the history of commonplace civilization, of bazaars and trading ports—all those enforced acts of empathy, where we had to make bargains in the company of people we couldn’t stand—people fundamentally unlike yourself, in order to live at all. "A Thousand Small Sanities" (2019) by Adam Gopnik

Adam Gopnik does his best work repudiating the favorite hobbyhorse of today’s pseudo-radicals: identity politics. It’s a preoccupation that depends “on forms of determinism and essentialism that have in the past always rightly been seen as reactionary.” The idea that the merit of an argument depends on the origin of the person saying it is, in fact, “the root doctrine of reaction.”  "Liberalism is the movement for reform that began sometime in the 19th century that is responsible for creating the world we live in, the countries we live in here, the United States, Canada, Western Europe, that with all their vast imperfections are more prosperous, and peaceful, and certainly pluralistic, than any societies that have ever existed before, and we should be proud of that legacy. That is the point of my book," Gopnik said. Source:

Some rock critics pooh-poohed the rise of so-called “corporate rock” of the 1970s and 1980s — performers with a penchant for melodic hooks, ear-worms and perceived homogenized “product” that appeals to the masses and, therefore, tremendous commercial success. On the other are those critics who champion the obscure, the counter-culture and lyrics that defiantly run contrary to free-markets and representative democracy. Reconciling these two distinctive camps is no easy feat, but now comes “The Dean of Rock Critics,” Robert Christgau, with a salient analysis of rock music as a commercial enterprise in an interview conducted by Brett Anderson. Christgau, a self-avowed socialist, shared his rationale thusly: "The hippie movement was anti-consumption. A great deal of my supposed confrères in the counterculture... It was just a way to be a contrarian. I was listening to everything from Bob Dylan, The Beatles, The Clash and Bruce Springsteen and more obscure acts such as the Mekons, the Velvet Underground and Wire. The first group listed above recognized tremendous critical and commercial success while the second mostly enjoyed cult status and critical approbation. Both are equally valid in a free-market." If, as H.L. Mencken noted, art criticism should be a work of art completely separate from the work it covers, Christgau achieved just this end with his analysis over the past 50-some years of popular music. Christgau adds: "When I say push the envelope, when I say push the parameters, that’s the market, right? So what do I do with the Consumer Guide? I got to express ideas that were not popular ideas. And I was working in a newspaper [The Village Voice] which at that time was conceived to serve a market, get advertising, but put out provocative and unconventional opinions. I'm a socialist. But does that mean I think capitalism is bad? No. I always tell my socialist friends rock 'n' roll would not have happened without capitalism. It is a capitalist form, and it’s one of the best things about capitalism. I will tell you one thing I really like about capitalism: The people who make things and really care about what they make. And the guy who owns Barnes & Noble cares about books. Similarly, the people who own magazines should care about music." There you have it, straight from the Dean of American rock critics: Capitalism helped give birth to the predominant popular art form of the past six decades, and it is that same economic structure that continues to provide succor to both the best and worst of the genre. Source:

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