Writers Bloc Presents Adam Gopnik in a spirited defense of liberalism, community, intellectual integrity, and democracy at Santa Monica’s Moss Theater
By Bliss Bowen
“Progressivism is the new liberalism” is a popular position, but does everyone understand what liberalism truly is? The political spectrum’s compass points have shifted so dramatically that some may be surprised while reading “A Thousand Small Sanities: The Moral Adventure of Liberalism,” the new book from New Yorker magazine essayist Adam Gopnik.
Gopnik was inspired to write the book for his teenage daughter as a hopeful affirmation of values while consoling her after the 2016 presidential election. (“I reassured her that democracy flowed from the ground up, and as long as the space of common action was available, no one bad leader could affect it.”) It’s a chewy read, awash in pithy phrases (“Morals and manners change politics more than politics change morals and manners”) and historical references (keep “Rights of Man” and “The Federalist Papers” close by). The avowed George Orwell fan plumbs global political history, carefully tracking the distance liberalism and conservatism have traveled from their philosophical foundations. Now, as he notes during an animated interview, “sometimes people who are truly liberal are regarded as conservative because they’re not radicals.” He calls liberalism “an ongoing political project” dependent on “nuance and subtle distinctions.” Those qualities too frequently get subsumed in a soundbite- and meme-obsessed media environment, but in their tensile flexibility, he contends, lies their enduring strength.
The Argonaut: “Liberal” has been hammered for so long by right-wingers that liberalism’s lost meaning in the public commons. Your book helpfully separates “liberal” and “conservative” from “left,” “right” and partisan distinctions. Has conflation of terms contributed to the perception of liberalism being “without vision”?
Gopnik: Yeah. I wanted to vindicate liberalism from the charge of being weak, of being a kind of spineless centrism that was prepared to accommodate anyone — sort of the bullied kid in the class who couldn’t stand up for him or herself when needed to. … I certainly wanted to detach liberalism from the notion that it’s all about individuals pursuing their own self-interest, and not at all about couples and communities finding affirmative forms of happiness. And constitutional conservatism is very different from right-wing authoritarianism; it’s a mistake to conflate the two.
The Argonaut: You write that fiery rhetoric is more appealing than circumspection, but circumspection delivers more. Circumspection was a key element of Dwight Eisenhower’s character and presidency, now receiving higher marks from historians than in decades past; yet such traditional conservatives are now deemed liberal by so-called conservatives who were once widely considered radical.
Gopnik: Totally. [As general of the army Eisenhower spoke] to soldiers and airmen the night before [the D-Day] battle with such clarity about the fight against Nazi tyranny; he didn’t talk about the battle for American supremacy, but very specifically about the fight against Nazi tyranny. And he wrote an astonishing letter in advance in case D-Day failed, saying, “All the responsibility for this failure is mine alone.” … He is in lots of ways an underrated figure, especially by liberals.
The Argonaut: Do you see any such traditional conservatives today advocating circumspection?
Gopnik: No. [Laughs] The last one was John McCain … somebody living the values of liberal democracy who was not himself a liberal. [His] concession speech on Election Night in 2008 was not just gracious, it reaffirmed the values of liberal democracy. He’s a terrific example of that temperament. It’s one of the reasons why Donald Trump hates him so much.
The Argonaut: The book frequently cites essayist Michel de Montaigne, who, you write, knew that “individual acts of cruelty could stop if people simply stopped doing so many cruel things. That insight marks the beginning of the morality of modern liberalism.” We’ve completed a circle from that point; we now have daily outcries against inhumane treatment of refugees at the border.
Gopnik: That outcry is the foundational liberal impulse. It’s to say, I don’t know all the rights and wrongs of where these refugees are coming from, whether they have rights to asylum — we can argue that back and forth as reasonable people. I do know there’s simply no reason to be made for putting children in cages. It’s just not something that human beings can tolerate.
The Argonaut: Liberalism and conservatism are taught in strikingly different ways in America and Canada, where you grew up. How do those differently taught principles manifest in how voters engage in their role as citizens?
Gopnik: Canada was founded on a 150-year-old compromise between French-speaking Catholics and English-speaking Protestants; now Canada’s filled with English-speaking and French-speaking Jews and Tibetans and Cambodians and Thais and Somalis — an incredibly rich and diverse mosaic. Canadians are taught that conciliation and citizenship are very much the same thing. Here in the US, we’re taught that citizenship is patriotism. We say a pledge of allegiance. The crucial question is, is our allegiance to a set of values and principles, or to a cult of personality? Every one of the great liberal democracies — Canada, the United States, France — have different ways of articulating the relationship between the citizen and the state. In France, for instance, you can’t bring religious symbols into public spaces, into public school … it’s very different from our model of coexistence, but it has the same root impulse to separate the public square from the concerns of the private sphere … so we can all go on living together. That’s basically what liberalism is: the practice of coexistence turned into a principle of pluralism.
The Argonaut: You write: “Strongman politics and boss-man rule, in simplest form, is the story of mankind … the real question is not what makes it happen but what, for brief period of historical time, has kept it from happening.” Expound on this in relation to contemporary American politics and EU election results, please.
Gopnik: Liberal democracy is the great exception to the story of humankind. Throughout most of human history on all sides, people are drawn to strongman rule. It can be the rule of a chieftain, a king, hereditary rule or gangster rule, but that’s been the model. Liberal democracy [says], no, that’s wrong, we can do better, we can choose our own leaders, and — just as important, because they do sometimes choose leaders in authoritarian societies —the leader is under severe constraints by law. The leader doesn’t make the law; the leader has to follow the law. That’s the great accomplishment of liberal democracies, of liberalism in my sense, and it’s very, very frightening to see it under assault.
The Argonaut: Pundits called our 2016 election a backlash against liberalism by voters who felt desperate and ignored. This year’s historic field of two dozen Democratic presidential candidates reflects the magnitude of alarm at Trumpism; do you think it’s also a backlash against either liberalism or the Democratic Party apparatus’ definition of liberal policy?
Gopnik: I’m not sure if the size of the field is a reaction against that. … I think the size of the field reflects the uncertainty of intellectual direction in the Democratic Party, and that’s one reason why I wrote this book. It isn’t that I have any platform to offer anybody, but I wanted to remind people what the core values of liberal tradition were. I think most of the people running for president believe in and embody those values. But the proliferation of candidates suggests that we’re searching, we’re groping. … Liberalism is not a cold set of ideas, but a warm and humane set. And centrism isn’t something liberals value in and of itself. The reason a piazza is in the center of every Italian town is not because that’s where all the virtue is, but because that’s where everyone can get to. As I say in the book, a compromise is not tied tight between two competing decencies, and it doesn’t mean that you have to compromise in advance, but you are going to have to compromise eventually if you are going to live in the world with people who are different from yourself.
Writers Bloc Presents Adam Gopnik at Moss Theater (3131 Olympic Blvd., Santa Monica) at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, June 20. $20 general admission; $39 general admission plus one copy of “A Thousand Small Sanities.” Visit writersblocpresents.com for tickets.