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A Thousand Small Sanities: ‘White dude’ mansplains US liberalism

Book review: “White liberal dude” Adam Gopnik assesses the left in Trump's America

American writer Adam Gopnik. Photograph: Mondadori via Getty Images
A Thousand Small Sanities: The Moral Adventure of Liberalism
A Thousand Small Sanities: The Moral Adventure of Liberalism
Author: Adam Gopnik
ISBN-13: 978-1529401578
Publisher: riverrun
Guideline Price: £14.99

Adam Gopnik’s reputation precedes him – talented but perhaps a little too facile and pleased with himself, parading in the New Yorker his fabulous life. Imagine then, per his latest work A Thousand Small Sanities, Gopnik turning “centrist dad” to extol (read “mansplain”) to his radical-curious Trump-traumatised daughter the virtues of liberalism, considered by many today to share these besetting vices: precious, preening, elitist.

Gopnik is an easy mark. And he’s set himself a thankless task: rehabilitating a shrivelled husk-like (“Dukakis in a tank”) split-the-difference creed forsaken by the cool kids. Found complacent and insufficient to the times, it exists for leftists strictly in negative space, defined by what it isn’t. Through the depredations of neoliberalism, not to mention the “consent-manufacturing” of its brass, it’s even assumed a sinister cast. And it fares little better on the right; held to be an agent of soul-sick materialism, fount of permissive ersatz values, purveyor of anomie and slippery slope relativism.

Gopnik's rapture at liberalism as a "solvent" for social ills can seem convenient, quietist

In a 2007 takedown of Gopnik, James Wolcott wrote of finding him ingratiating. But Wolcott also conceded he “isn’t . . . imperceptive”. Gopnik is no naïf. Here, he’s written a tract that yes, betrays his bouginess (a subject on which he’s more than a little touchy: “No one ever self-identified as a bourgeois. It was an invention designed to create a convenient counterobject, even a hate object.”), but also marshals a historically grounded case for liberalism as “radical realism”, a vital force for change in this world, rather than some ideal one, for a left that would do well to play the ball not the man.

Gopnik professes bemusement about what neoliberalism is, though like quarks we surely know it by its effects. And his rapture at liberalism as a “solvent” for social ills can seem convenient, quietist.


But he’s alive to liberalism’s plain-sight grotesqueries: noblesse-oblige on the back of sweated labour, for instance, “people who generously contribute to worthy causes but spend their business lives finding ever-cheaper places in . . . developing countries to manufacture clothing”. And he’s attuned to the monstrous externalities, in imperial subjugation, of domestically reformist liberal regimes like those of 19th-century Britain he otherwise admires.

Valorising “western civilisation as though this was not a cheap cover for a great variety of enterprises”, he writes, is not merely witless but gross.

With the quest to unseat Trump spooling up, Gopnik hits hardest though in dissecting self-defeating left-liberal pieties. Not least among them: the conviction, in contravention of unswerving historical record, that the working class should feel an affinity with “social democrats”.

Recalcitrant proletarian obtuseness spurs endless exasperation, but cannot be explained away as Fox News-inculcated “false consciousness”. “[I]dentity or national pride . . . has proven time and again to be incomparably more powerful than economic self-interest narrowly defined.” It doesn’t help that universal healthcare comes freighted with sundry “antitraditional” policy effronteries.

Disraeli knew this, and Gopnik lionises him as a yeoman-by-stealth for liberalism –“bull[ing] through mass enfranchisement [and] endorsing . . . even engineering essential public works programs”, while courting British workers through jingoism.

This gambit came friction-free when its external costs could be palmed off on colonial subjects, but Disraeli’s realpolitik offers a guidepost to liberal pols on-the-make: “In a progressive country change is constant; and the great question is, not whether you should resist change which is inevitable, but whether that change should be carried out in deference to the manners, the customs, the laws, the traditions of the people, or in deference to abstract principles and arbitrary and general doctrines.”

Another unlikely hero of the cause: de Gaulle – assiduously draping himself in pomp and solemnity yet presiding over an “entirely technocratic and reformist [regime] ”.

In the left’s focus on race and gender Gopnik finds a substrate of “essentialism” that while wielded as a corrective to centuries of bigotry bogs down in an exclusive preoccupation with identity. “What is she really, it makes us ask. Who said it? Where does it (or her) come from? When the questions we should be asking are: What relation does what’s being said have to what actually happens? Or, more simply: Is that true?”

Gopnik’s pronouncements on liberalism –”It’s what we know about life applied to a political theory” or “It doesn’t give you the answers in advance. It makes you take the test, over and over,” – are epigrammatic, or too cute. But if we can stand to hear it, in 2019, from a boutique white liberal dude, he’s written an adroit call to the centre as the proving ground for ideas, crucible of heroic compromise and locus of progress whereof “our circles of compassion enlarge”.