JOANNE MYERS: Good morning. I'm Joanne Myers, director of Public Affairs programs, and on behalf of the Carnegie Council I'd like to welcome our subscribers, guests, and C-SPAN Book TV to this breakfast program.
Our speaker is the best-selling author and widely acclaimed essayist for The New Yorker, Adam Gopnik. For more about our illustrious guest, please take a moment to peruse his bio, which was handed out when you checked in this morning, and you'll see what an extraordinary literary career he has had and continues to have.
Today he will be discussing his latest book, entitled A Thousand Small Sanities: The Moral Adventure of Liberalism, in which he offers a stirring defense of liberalism against the dogmatisms of our time.
Of the three dominant ideologies of the 20th century, fascism, communism, and liberalism, only liberalism remains, and it is notoriously difficult to define. The term has been used to describe a sprawling profusion of ideas, practices, movements, and parties in different societies and historical periods. In acknowledging that what defines a liberal or liberalism can be open to debate, our speaker takes us on this challenge and approaches it as one of the great moral adventures in human history.
Adam tells us that A Thousand Small Sanities had been gestating for some time, as it is the end product of a lifetime's reading of philosophy, art, history, literature, and biography. Yet the urgency to write this book was prompted by the results of the 2016 election and the desire to revive an unapologetic defense of liberalism and humanistic values to his then-high school daughter as he consoled her over the results of the presidential election.
In making the case for liberalism our speaker advances his argument through the lives and places of people who invented and extended the liberal tradition as a search for radical change by humane measures. He illustrates his argument by revisiting important and inspirational thinkers, such as John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor, Montaigne, George Eliot, Bayard Rustin, and Frederick Douglass, in order to demonstrate how they were guided by their principles to commit to many small acts which helped move us closer to improving the human condition.
At a time when liberal traditions are being seriously challenged from both the right and the left, the question we might ask is how can we reconnect liberal practices with moral values. Or, put another way, is there a way to affirm our moral values with liberal traditions?
Please join me in welcoming one of the most lauded literary scholars of our time, a voice for sanity, Adam Gopnik.
ADAM GOPNIK: Thank you, Joanne. What a lovely introduction. I thank you for it very much. Thank you all for coming out this morning. I have not been up this early in a very long time, since my daughter graduated from middle school, actually.
One of the reasons I stopped editing 20 years ago and became a writer was exactly for the hours which writers get. I came of age at a time in the New York magazine business when the "power breakfast" was the major means of advancement, conversation, and conciliation.
My first job in New York was at GQ magazine, if you can imagine. I was first the grooming editor of GQ magazine, and then I was rapidly promoted to become the literary editor of GQ magazine, and when I tell my children that now, they give me a bemused look since it sounds like being the poetry editor of TV Guide. But I really was.
The way, in those days, S. I. Newhouse, bless his memory, would get up and have breakfast at 4:00 a.m., so all of the editors would try to pile in, and there was a competition to see how early you could have breakfast with your staff. In any case, it left me with a permanent allergy to early breakfasts, but I am overjoyed to be here with you today.
Everyone who's lucky enough to have a book and then have a chance to talk about the book on radio and television, podcasts, and meetings like this one, will tell you that it's a bit like the Passover ceremony: you have different versions that you try for different people. Some of you may have seen the 45-second version of the book I did for Mika Brzezinski about a week ago. Your eyes are wide open, and you're sitting there, and in 45 seconds you try to explain everything. Then there's the five-minute version of the book you do on CNN, the 15-minute version of the book you do on CBC. This morning I wanted to do the 30-minute version of the book for you, and I particularly wanted to try to talk a little more in-depth, if you like, and give you the bastardized, highbrow version of the book as opposed to the eager, popular version of the book.
When I'm talking about the book—and it's absolutely true—I talk about how this book began, and it did, on the night of the 2016 election when my daughter Olivia, who was 17 at the time, was so shaken and traumatized by the result, not because of the oscillation of parties in power, which she was too sophisticated to be shocked by and which I would not have sympathized with in any case, but by this sudden specter which I think hit everyone, left, right, and center, of a renewed and revived authoritarianism, and particularly from her point of view a kind of predatory authoritarianism. Old specters, old ghosts that seemed to have been in the historical closet were coming out again, like Hamlet's father walking the parapets of Elsinore.
So we went outside, and I took her for a long walk and tried to imbue her with a sense of why I thought that the liberal values, the liberal humanist values that she had been raised in, were not just our family eccentricity but were real, enduring, and important values. That's very much the scaffolding of the book and very much the actual impetus which produced it.
But in another way the book represents 30 years of my reading about the great liberal actors, interpreting the great liberal philosophers, thinking about the great liberal artists in the pages of The New Yorker magazine. That has been one of my preoccupations. One of the nice things about writing for The New Yorker is that you can do a small, surreptitious series that no one quite notices until you finally retool them in a book, and that's very much what I wanted to do.
The burden of the book is both explicatory—I'm trying to explain these values to my daughter and the people who embodied them, represented them, but it was also my attempt to try to help redefine what the liberal tradition is in another and slightly more ambitious, philosophical, and historical way.
The two things I believe intersect, and the intersection is the entire point of the book. That is to say that the idea of looking at liberalism as a humanist adventure centered on living people and loving couples rather than as a series of abstract interventions in the world or as a series of analyses of changing social contracts, that for me was both the only way to teach the liberal tradition to Olivia, but it also is to me a much richer and much more precise way of looking at what liberalism is.
You all are aware—and it's the way we're all taught the beginnings of liberalism in college, in political science and political philosophy, is to see liberalism as being essentially an individualistic enterprise, a movement in European and American politics that emphasizes above all the role of the individual, that thinks about individuals entering into contracts real or historically fictive, contracts with their neighbors or with the state in order to secure certain rights and in order to pursue certain interests. It hardly needs me to say that that is a rich and significant tradition—Locke, Montesquieu, and many others.
I was more interested in the ways in which liberalism has not been individualism. There's a good book by a philosopher named Colin Bird called The Myth of Liberal Individualism, and it was one of the texts that under-lit this book very much.
Because it seemed to me if you looked at the actual inheritance of the great liberal thinkers what you would find was not an ideology in any familiar sense, not a set of axioms from which social action could be deduced, but the emergence of an entire temperament, and that the temperament was what we really meant by liberalism when we were talking to our kids or when we were living in the world, when we have that incredibly difficult question "What is liberalism?" and we have a broad range of answers that run from the French use of the term to really mean something much more like what we call libertarianism, meaning a wholehearted embrace of the free market, to the American use of it, which runs exactly in the opposite direction, it means to be a liberal is to be someone who is in the Democratic Party and is critical of the free market.
"Liberal" is usually something of a swear term, an ugly term in American political discourse now. We use it to mean at best the policies of the center of the Democratic Party. For depressives, it means Michael Dukakis, for real depressives, it means Michael Dukakis in a tank. That's the way we think about liberalism, we see it as somehow weak or secondary or unable.
So I wanted to remind readers that the liberal tradition was a tradition in fact of radical activism, huge ambition, but always pursued through humane measures and with a confidence in the possibility of genuine pluralism, that pluralist societies were likely to be able to change more rapidly and adjust to new circumstances better.
I began the book with my favorite liberal thinkers, John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor. It's one of the great love stories and one of the great adventures in intellect to look at their life together. As all of you know, John Stuart Mill is, I think without question, the greatest liberal philosopher who ever lived. He is—and directly contemporary—to liberalism what Marx is to radicalism. He is our founder, and he is our begetter. But what's fascinating about Mill, among a hundred things, is that he always said and he always insisted that his greatest teacher and the smartest person he ever met and the wisest influence on everything he wrote was his eventual wife, Harriet Taylor, and it was their back-and-forth that had created all of his ideas.
For a hundred years scholars, most of them male, including the great Friedrich Hayek, who edited their letters, "Yoko-ed" Harriet Taylor—if I can invent a verb. They insisted that John Stuart Mill was so besotted with her and so desperately in love with her that he exaggerated her role in the evolution of his ideas. The more you actually get to read Harriet Taylor and the more contemporary scholarship continues on her—it's one of those classic cases of suppressed history—the more you realize that John Stuart Mill, who was right about almost everything, was right about that as well, that she had that kind of mind and that she played that kind of role.
What's beautiful about their personal story and what humanizes it for me is their circumstances were the circumstances in which we are likely to find ourselves: She was married to a man named John Taylor, a very unprepossessing man. Mill himself wasn't married. They fell desperately in love instantaneously at a London dinner party, and then they had to think what to do about it. How could they take that passionate intellectual and erotic love that they felt for each other and make it productive in the world and make it a humane act?
They struggled, and they would meet at the London Zoo in front of the rhinoceros cage—they called him "Our old friend Rhino," and I think they had a doubly quick-witted understanding that if you're sitting on a bench in front of the rhinoceros cage, everyone is looking at the rhinoceros, not at the couple canoodling on the bench.
It was there that they began arguing, discussing, sharing—within a year Mill published a piece on Byron, and someone wrote and said to Harriet Taylor, "Who really wrote that? Was that you or Mill who wrote it?" They were that closely collaborative already.
It was there sitting on that bench that they began to come up with, brood on the ideas that would eventually become those two in some ways greatest foundational liberal books, John Stuart Mill's On Liberty, which comes out in 1859, exactly in the same year, same season, same list as Darwin's On the Origin of Species, thereby creating the two real foundations of modern liberal thought. I've always thought, "That's a good list for a publisher to put out, Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species, John Stuart Mill, On Liberty. That's a good season."
But they also—and everyone here knows Mill's On Liberty. It remains the greatest and most eloquent and emphatic case for close to absolute individual liberty, our right to speak and be heard on any subject we choose and to say anything we believe without fear of censorship or suppression.
We subscribe to that view more or less passionately, but you have to think about in the 1830s when this idea is being brought forward it's as radical as any idea could be because it's specifically directed at religious authority. It says there's no criticism of religion that is blasphemous because religion is only grown—he's thinking Christianity—through internal criticism. There's nothing you can say that can do harm to the truth. That's central to Mill's belief, and everything you say, only through saying back and forth, only through the processes of public debate, can you arrive at the truth. That's the great foundational statement of the individual's right to liberty of expression.
But at the same time Mill and Taylor are percolating in front of the rhino's cage the ideas that lead to their other great book The Subjection of Women, which comes out later but begins then, which is very much Harriet's project, because she's the one who's experiencing what she calls "the pettifogging tyranny of a man at the table" and is filled with indignation that her mediocre husband can force his name on her, can take over all of her financial interests, and that she is in effect an indentured servant of someone who is clearly her intellectual inferior.
Out of that indignation begins this great book, and if you haven't read The Subjection of Women recently, read it again, because again it's one of those extraordinary works that makes the case not for wishy-washy, middle-ground centrism. Anyone who tells you that Mill and Taylor were centrists or compromisers—well, they were centrists—hasn't read Mill and Taylor. It makes the case for the absolute equality of women in every function and sphere of social and political life. It's a wonderfully well-argued book.
It makes the case, for instance—one of my favorite little pieces of argument—that we know women are every bit as gifted as men at doing anything because if you look at anything where women are actually allowed to compete on even terms with men, they always do as well if they don't surpass them, and they use the perfect example of the theater. The theater, stage acting, was one place where women were free to pursue careers literally adjacent to men, and Mill and Taylor say, and are our great actresses such as Mrs. Siddons any less gifted than the men who share the stage with her, any less accomplished? It's just a wonderfully real and extreme piece of reasoning.
Two things interest me about that, and it's why I made it kind of the primal cause, the first push of the book. First, those ideas that these two great liberal—always called "liberal," always self-described as "liberal"—thinkers came up with were not middle-of-the-road, centrist, cautious, incrementalist ideas in that sense, they were as extreme toward the edges of human liberation as any ideas could be.
But they both understood that they could only be realized within a context of the conciliation of contradictions, just as their own love had to be played out as the reconciliation of contradictions—and they did evolve a very complicated way in which John Stuart Mill lived with Harriet Taylor, Mr. Taylor lived with Harriet Taylor, Mill paid for the wine, John Taylor paid for the food, and so on. They came up with a classic modus vivendi to enable no one to be crushed or hurt in this transaction. That in itself, I think, is hugely instructive about the nature of liberal reasoning and the nature of the liberal personal project.
But also because if you think about it, those two books, each one radical to the point of being Quixotic, ask for very different things. On Liberty asks us to grant complete freedom of speech, expression, and interpretation to each individual. In that sense it's a manifesto for a radical kind of liberalism and is therefore to this day embraced by the Libertarian strain in contemporary politics.
But On the Subjection of Women, written and percolated at the same time, asks us to take social action for greater social equality. It says the way we have to enfranchise a full half of humanity is through organized social action that will give to women the vote, that will give to women social equality, all of the things that we still struggle for in government all the time.
So, instead of having one foundational program, grant greater liberty or seek greater social equality, both have to exist at the same time. It's as though, as I say in the book, it's often treated as though that's a contradiction, but it's no more a contraction than it is a contradiction for a tightrope walker to simultaneously be moving forward on the tightrope while balancing on the tightrope. That's the point of being a tightrope walker.
The point of the liberal project, the point of the liberal temperament as Mill and Taylor enshrine it for us, begin it for us, is exactly that those two goals, those two dreams of ever-greater individual liberty and of ever-greater social equality aren't contradictory, they're part of the same project, they depend on each other. That's why Mill is such a fervent abolitionist, and he was the leading abolitionist in England throughout the Civil War to the point of being instrumental in keeping the North of England mill workers from working Southern cotton throughout the Civil War, which had a great effect.
So you have both the ambition to increase individual liberty and the ambition to increase greater social equality, and the two things, as I say, have to go hand-in-hand. If black slaves are being held as slaves, then it's not possible for us to be fully free; if women are subjected, then all of us who are not women are in some sense subjected, too, in our capacity to act freely.
That's the central insight of the liberal tradition that I'm advocating for in this book. It's neither the tradition of individual liberty alone, vital though that is, nor the tradition of pressing us toward ever-greater social equality, significant through that is. It's the almost magical, original, enticing, and illuminating idea that those two projects, those two tasks, those two dreams, can and must persist together.
I wrote a sentence trying to sum up what I saw as the liberal program in the central chapter of the book called "The Rhinoceros Manifesto" in honor of John and Harriet because I wanted to recognize and I wanted to address for readers, including my daughter Olivia, the reality that one of the things that that kind of liberalism, the liberalism that I'm advocating for, the liberalism whose tradition I've tried to sketch in this book and can only sketch given its scale, that one of the things that liberalism has is a huge rhetorical deficit. Exactly because it's trying to pursue two deeply linked but separate social programs at once it always sounds weak and confused. It never has the shining ideological clarity of either left or right extremes.
So I went about writing the worst single sentence that I ever have written in my life as a writer to try to define what I thought the liberal goal was, and I wrote: "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 conversation, demonstration, and debate." The sentence is, I am aware, anti-climactic and possibly uninspiring to the point of fatuity, not to mention rage. It's an infuriating sentence.
The Marxist says, "I am for freeing man from his chains;" the Christian warrior proclaims, "I am for an ongoing belief. I am for faith and family;" and all the liberal can say is, "I am for an ongoing belief in the need for nonviolent, incremental solutions and alterations of existing institutions and an all-around effort to be nicer to everyone." It doesn't have the same power, it doesn't have the same ring, and liberalism throughout its history has suffered from this rhetorical disadvantage, suffers from it today. Its project, its purposes cannot be neatly summed up in a simple credo or one ideological table.
Therefore—and that's very much the point of this book—it can be studied best and understood most profoundly if we look at the lives of the great liberals, if we look at the lives and relationships of the great liberal thinkers, because two things will come clear to us. One is the notion that liberalism exists detached from or indifferent to the life of community is always false. Liberalism begins in an appreciation of the powerful role of social sympathy in making social institutions work.
That, as I'm sure everyone in this room knows, is where Adam Smith begins, not with praise of the free market but with a belief in the power of the social sentiments that enable us to engage in free markets, the power of social sympathy.
It's an extraordinary thing. The other night I was speaking at The Brattle Theatre in Harvard. A man in the front row—probably not the first man in the front row who has ever listened to me speak—had a stroke right there. Everyone in the front row rose up and gathered—it was like a Renaissance painting—all strangers, helping a stranger, to pick him up and get him to an ambulance. We stopped as they did.
I was able to use it—Olivia was there, and she teased me about it after. She said, "Dad, you found a teaching moment." But it was a teaching moment because it was all about how it's a genuine human instinct, certainly in modern societies, to come to the aid of a stranger who is not a blood relation or a clan relation out of what we can only call "human sympathy." That was what Adam Smith understood to be the most powerful cement of society. If you don't have broadly articulated human sympathy before then, the institutions of the free market will not work. That was what he believed.
So, in thinking about the history of liberalism I tried to think exactly about the ways in which community has always been the real foundation of the liberal project. In a very simple and straightforward way that one of the things that historians of the Enlightenment have pointed out again and again is the Enlightenment was really made not in salons or on paper by the great philosophers, it was made in the coffeehouses of Paris. That's where the essential conversations, that's where even more important, the habit of conversation, the idea of sitting down in a room with people with whom you shared no genes, no blood relation, very often not even a religious affiliation, and beginning the process of conversation. That's the atom, that's the germ of the Enlightenment project.
This was something that one of my greatest liberal heroes, Frederick Law Olmsted, the inventor and designer of Central Park, emphasized. Olmsted is another one of those extraordinary liberal figures who not enough people know enough about.
We know him as the designer of Central Park, but what people tend to forget is the underpinning, just as we forget the underpinning of Smith's free market and his apprehension of the power of social sympathy. We forget that before Olmsted designed a square inch of park in the middle of the city, he was one of the first reporters for The New York Times, and he went South, to the slave states, and he wrote a book about them. He asked himself a very profound question. He said: "Why is it that culture in the South, though they think of themselves as having a leisure culture that the North does not have, why is it so stultified? Why is it so stereotyped? Why is it so limited?"
He said it's because the existence of the institution of slavery prevents what we would now call "intermediate institutions," social capital, from developing. Olmsted had a much more beautiful name for it. He called it "commonplace civilization."
He said in a plantation slave society it's very hard to generate commonplace civilization where people come together in unaffiliated ways to do specific things, and he has a beautiful hymn to the power in the North of fireworks associations, volunteer firemen groups, glee clubs, baseball teams, all of the ways in which people become accustomed to dealing with people who are fundamentally unlike themselves and the ways in which that commonplace civilization becomes the basis for democracy.
That, as we do not teach our children sufficiently, is the ideology, is the philosophy that underlies Central Park, the idea of making a park for the people which does not have a predetermined set of activities in it, but leaves itself open to be reinvented generation after generation in terms of the commonplace civilization of each time and of each new people.
Just in case you think this sounds like well-meaning BOMFOG coming from me, I'm sure all of you in this room knows that's an insight that was original to Olmsted. It was later made historical by the great German sociologist Jürgen Habermas. It has been validated again and again in the works particularly of Robert Putnam, the great Harvard sociologist. When Putnam went off to find out what made democracy work in Italy—where did democracy work well, where did it work poorly—the answer was always if preexisting commonplace civilization was in place, if people had the habit of talking, of working with, belonging to organizations that did not simply include fellow clan members, then local democracy would work.
If you didn't have that preexisting habit in civil means for whatever cause, for nothing more than putting on an amateur production of Rigoletto, if you didn't have those intermediate institutions, if you didn't have that social capital of commonplace civilization, then democracy would not take. I hardly need to say in this room how much that insight explains much of what has happened since the end of the Cold War and the difficulties and possibilities of importing democracy and watching democracy grow elsewhere.
The first core thing I wanted to do was to emphasize the origins of liberalism, not in a narrow, Robinson Crusoe-style individualism, but instead in ideas about community and ideas about connection. I say in the book, "The social context always precedes the social contract." Olivia said, "That's a good sound bite, Dad." I will repeat it again, and I think it's true.
The other theme of the book is about the heroism of compromise, about how it is that the words that we think of as being weak or secondary words—"compromise," "conciliation"—are in fact fighting words because they don't represent our surrender of our passions and our principles unnecessarily, they simply represent our capacity to recognize that we are not the only ones with passions and principles, that we live in a pluralistic society in which the limits of my passions are the limits of my own skin and eyes, and that if we are to make change happen, we can only make it happen through a recognition that other people have passions and principles as great as our own. Compromise and conciliation, far from seeming secondary or weak words, should be seen always as fighting and inspiring words.
I am a Canadian. Canada is built on a series of inspired compromises amongst very, very different peoples, and yet continues to act as what is in many ways a model liberal nation.
So, those two principles, the principle of community and the principle of compromise, seen as essential to the liberal project and seen as essential to our ongoing existence, are the core of my book.
I'd love to take some questions, if I may.
QUESTION: Hello. My name is Larry Bridwell, and I teach International Business at Pace University.
I was struck by what you said about compromise because as you were speaking I was aware that you've lived in France, and I kept thinking, what do you think of the "yellow vests" movement, because I'm not sure that would happen in Canada, but it obviously has happened in France.
ADAM GOPNIK: Lots to say about the yellow vests. I actually wrote a piece about the gilets jaunes not too long ago. The greatest of all my heroes, A. J. Liebling, a New Yorker writer, once said that "a reporter is this guy who tells you what he has seen; an interpretive reporter tells you the meaning of what he has seen; and an expert tells you the meaning of what he hasn't seen." I come up to you today as a bit of an expert on the gilets jaunes because I have not been on the ground in Paris watching it specifically.
Two things that I think are terribly important: One is a lesson about the difficulties of reform. Right now—and I am totally sympathetic to the project of the Green New Deal, of trying to make climate change the center of our agenda, and so on. But that's what Macron was doing, and it was a relatively small hike in gas taxes that set off this essentially rural revolt. It's a good reminder that there will always be people who suffer from any reform, and then an attempt to act as though the only people who will suffer will be the big extractive industries misunderstands the nature of a modern society.
You have to expect opposition, and you have to anticipate how you're going to cope and placate opposition. Macron clearly did not do that, partly because as all my French friends say, that he is very much in the classic French manner a man of immense goodwill and intelligence surrounded by other people just like him, other people who have had a similar education, and he lacked the Tip O'Neills of France, people who had a better feeling for what was actually going on in the French countryside or on the French street. That's one side of it.
The other side of it is that while it's part of the inheritance of de Gaulle's Fifth Republic—there's a very interesting book about this by an NYU scholar, whose name I will now forget—but the point is that so much power is concentrated in the presidency under the Fifth Republic's constitution that pretty much the only way you can get the government's attention is to go on strike, is to go in the streets.
That's why you've had street movements again and again throughout the Fifth Republic—1968 the most memorable—but I was in France for the 1995 demonstrations when Chirac and Juppé, then the prime minister, brought in what were by any normal standards quite modest reforms in retirement pensions, and the whole country walked out. Everything stopped. Every piece of public transportation in Paris stopped for a month, and Chirac and Juppé backed down. A lot of people still argue about what would have happened if they had not backed down in 1995. But in any case, that's the model.
One last thing. Unhappily, at a moment when the gilets jaunes were being celebrated by leftists and by progressive people as an authentic social movement you could just sense that it was essentially an extreme right movement and that its access to anti-Semitism was only inches away, and tragically that has turned out to be exactly the case. There is a hardcore of what some call L'Idéologie française, hardcore right-wing French nationalism.
There was a disgraceful video that some of you may have seen of the great philosopher Alain Finkielkraut—not someone who I agree with about 99 percent of everything, but nonetheless a hugely distinguished figure—being chased from the street by an anti-Semitic mob. That's not a "good look," as we say, and unfortunately it's part of the ideology of that social movement. It's both a lesson in thinking ahead as you pursue green politics, and it's also a reminder that that kind of populism almost always tends to run into the gutter.
QUESTION: James Starkman.
To what extent do you think that the great social thinkers and liberal thinkers built upon the original thoughts of Karl Marx, or did it really inherently represent a rejection of many sides of the Marxian thought?
ADAM GOPNIK: That's a very complicated question and one I looked into a lot and then didn't write about in the book because it seemed too specific, in a way.
But briefly, one of the big questions was to what degree was Mill aware of Marx when he was writing, and it's a kind of mixed record. He was certainly aware that there was a group called the International Workingmen's Association that had its first meeting in 1864 in London under Marx's direction. Mill was aware of that group, though he doesn't seem to have been specifically aware of Marx at that moment.
It's certainly true that Mill in general and the great liberal thinkers of that time were acutely conscious of the radical alternative because that had been something that was part of the inheritance of the French Revolution, the Year Zero, the Jacobin alternative.
My daughter just finished her freshman honors paper on Mill and Marx, and I was full of trepidation about which way she would fall in that, but she came down on the side of Mill without my modeling it for a second or threatening to withdraw her tuition or anything else. But I think it's one of the great questions and one of the great dialogues.
It seems to me—and obviously that's why I wrote this book and it's why I think it has extreme urgency—that in every reasonable way and by any empirical or moral standard, Mill was right and Marx was wrong. Mill understood that liberal institutions—parliaments, free speech, the protection of free speech, oscillation of parties in power, the freedom of intermediate institutions to act alone—were going to be essential for the growth of human freedom, and the Marxist tradition says, to this day, that those institutions are simply a cover for the bourgeoisie and for the exploitation of the workers, that those liberal institutions are a mask rather than a necessity.
I believe that all of history shows us that just the opposite turned out to be true, that the liberal institutions that Mill godfathered and believed in have turned out to be absolutely essential for the purposes of humane reform.
QUESTION: Anthony Faillace.
A counterpoint to what you're arguing was offered by Patrick Deneen in his book Why Liberalism Failed, and the essential argument there is that the liberty inherent in liberalism, the individualism inherent in liberalism, leads to an erosion of the community and thus some of the problems we've seen recently.
It's hard not to see some grain of truth to that when you see the explosion of liberalism in the social sphere starting in the 1960s and then in the economic sphere starting in the 1980s. The ideology of the ruling class in this country is clearly bent toward liberalism in both spheres, yet we've never seen more inequality.
So, is inequality inherent in liberalism, at least in the way we practice it, and what modifications might be offered to change that?
ADAM GOPNIK: Interestingly enough, I have a whole chapter called "Why the Right Hates Liberalism" in which I investigate Deneen's book specifically at some length.
There's absolutely no denying, and one of the things I worked hardest at in this book was to make sure that the right-wing critique of liberalism and the left-wing critique of liberalism were not just cogent but presented with as much sympathy and passion as I possibly could before I attempted to refute them.
I certainly think that that's true. I certainly think that the notion that not just growing social inequality but the deracination of large parts of this country and of the North of France—I was in Akron not very long ago, and of course anyone who has visited Akron sees what everyone is talking about. This was a thriving middle-class city with a rich social infrastructure dependent on one big employer in Firestone.
Firestone closes because of globalization and other things, and the whole city is eradicated. If you want to read a very good account of this process, don't read a sociologist, read Chrissie Hynde, the great rock and roll singer from The Pretenders. Her memoir of her life in rock and roll includes an account of her girlhood in Akron, how incredibly rich it was culturally, and how desperately impoverished it is when she—not just physically but culturally—goes back now. Rock and roll biographies are very good sources for such things.
Who can deny the truth of that, and we can replicate it in the North of France, in the North of England, and elsewhere.
The problem is, it seems to me, two things I think are true: One is that it's a social problem that's going to have to have a social solution, and the idea that we can find ways within a social democratic framework of alleviating those inequalities, of improving those circumstances, hardly seems utopian. It seems like something we have a history of.
I don't know if you've read—James Fallows and his wife wrote a very good book about small cities in America and the renaissance of small cities, and basically they say here's how you de-Akronize Akron. There are a thousand instances—that's where I get my title from, "A Thousand Small Sanities"—of how it happens, of how it actually works and happens on the ground.
In a larger case, Deneen's argument is that liberalism robs us of metaphysical certainty, it takes away our place in the world, it makes us captive to a merely meritocratic view of life, and on and on and on, but what he proposes is exactly what religious critics of his kind have proposed since the beginning of modernity, which is a return to religious faith.
That is as a proposal both useless in lots of ways, and second, he has to, because of the experience of humankind, say, "But we would keep all of those liberal features as well in my ideal society. You would have freedom of speech and absolute equality of women, and you would have democratic institutions, but they would just all be under a benevolent theocratic umbrella." What that seems to me to say is to recognize that those liberal institutions, which were made in opposition to the theocratic umbrella, can't be neatly annexed to that.
Essentially, Deneen and other thinkers like him—and I take them very seriously—believe that liberalism doesn't have values because they don't think that pluralism is a value, and they think that liberalism is nihilistic because they don't think that toleration is a good thing, toleration of all things.
So I think we can vibrate with, sympathize with that critique and no liberal with a mind won't recognize its urgency, but when we actually ask what it proposes as another world, I think it turns out to be much more unsatisfactory than the project of amending the liberal order.
QUESTION: John Gage. I'm a trustee at the Carnegie Council.
You began by contrasting the context of liberalism or the sense of liberalism and the term "liberal" in France and probably most places in the world and in the United States. How do you see liberalism as it is expressed in American politics today in the context of Trump and in the context of what's happening in the political environment with what's happening in Europe, what's happening around the world with liberal philosophy and liberal politics?
ADAM GOPNIK: Whenever I go out with this book, which I've been doing now for a week, my family says to me, "Be urgent, Dad, be urgent."
I deliberately made this book largely empty of contemporary politics, and I did that for two reasons: One is because I write a lot about contemporary politics in The New Yorker. If you want to find out what I think about Trump, open the magazine on a Monday morning, and you can find out, or read it online through the week. What I wanted to offer in this book was not another polemic but an attempt to try to reaffirm what seem to me to be enduring values that we could turn to as a way out of the emergency that we find ourselves in.
You have a remarkable dialogue/quarrel going on right now among liberal-minded people between the familiar radical strain that has been part of that tradition or allied with to the left of that tradition from its beginning against what you might think of as in my sense—I hesitate to use the word "classical" liberal because that usually means purely free market liberal—against the tradition of liberal reform that I'm advocating in this book, and you have both of those tendencies.
I tend to think that the tradition of liberal reformism is stronger within the Democratic Party and amongst Democratic voters than the radical tradition is, though the radical tradition is much stronger on Twitter and gets more attention.
Among the congressional elections last fall in New York City the one that got the most attention was Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC), and probably every here has heard her, and she is a remarkably eloquent and impressive person. But there was I thought an even more significant one, which was in Staten Island. I think of the significant part because my son worked on the campaign, but it is in itself significant, where you had a 40-point deficit going in. It was the one truly red Republican area of New York City. They had a remarkable candidate, a war veteran named Max Rose, and they had to go in and sell him to the Tony Soprano voter. basically. as an alternative.
It was insanely instructive for a generation of kids—my son included, just out of college trying to take part in the campaign—to learn about how you spoke a credible language of patriotism, and Max Rose rejected Nancy Pelosi, he said he wouldn't vote for her for speaker. That was one of the things that had to be part of it.
They had to learn to talk a language of progressive patriotism that was persuasive to people who were not inclined to agree with them to begin with. It's very easy to win in the deep-blue district, it was an insanely difficult enterprise winning there, and they did. They turned a 40-point deficit into a five-point advantage at the end.
That for me is the model of what will have to happen if we're to renew liberal politics. You have to find a way to talk on Staten Island.
The great liberal politicians traditionally—FDR, Bill Clinton—have all been good at that kind of talk, have all been good at finding that kind of rhetoric and that kind of persuasion, and that's where I think the future of the Democratic Party of liberalism is.
QUESTION: John Hirsch at the International Peace Institute (IPI).
Could you say a little bit more, though, about the Central United States, which is very much on the conservative side? There are very, very few overt Trump supporters in New York City. How does one bridge this gap given this geographic difference?
ADAM GOPNIK: I'd say two things. One of them would be belligerent to the point of being obnoxious. One is one of the things we don't want to do is apologize for being New Yorkers, apologize for living in cities, apologize for being industrious, prosperous, tolerant, pluralistic people. We have no reason or obligation to do that, and I think it's a huge mistake. It's one of the ways in which I think liberalism has to make itself more passionate, by being unapologetic about its values and about its homes and about its places. How we go about making that change is exactly why we have politics. That's the business of politics and politicians.
The one thing I will say—and I am not a politician, I am not a pundit, so I'm hesitant to make specific recommendations—is just simple wisdom, and it's one of the wisdoms of the liberal tradition: you don't have to win over everybody to get a sufficient social consensus.
I'll give you an example that's right at hand: gay marriage. We can't focus adequately on what a revolutionary change, not just in the United States but in the history of humankind, institutionalized, legalized gay marriage is. It's simply not something that you can find. You can search in the ancient world for male contracts and you can play, but as an actual institutionalized, this-law-says-that-two-men-can-get-married-and-have-the-same-rights-as-a-man-and-a-woman, that's a mind-blowing thing.
Olivia and I were watching the Kennedy-Nixon debates not long ago on YouTube, and Olivia said to me, "Can you imagine either of these guys being asked, 'And where do you stand, Mr. Nixon, on marriage for homosexuals?'" It wasn't just not on the agenda, it was unimaginable in the context.
Now, except for very small fundamentalist extremes, it has become a social acquisition. Almost no one, including Donald Trump, really questions the existence or persistence of gay marriage.
Does that mean that "folks" to use an Obamaism that you're describing, are enthusiastic about it or would have pushed for it? No. But enough of them have come to see it as something that does not threaten their identity, that it has become a commonplace social acquisition.
That I think is the model, not pretending that you have a magic formula that enables you to alter the ideologies of people who don't agree with you, but recognizing that social change, if you do it properly, can be shown to be unthreatening to the central identity of people, even people who don't support it. That's the liberal task.
QUESTION: I'm Helena Finn, former U.S. diplomat. I will ask a foreign affairs question.
Given the rise of this populism, extreme nationalism very much on the right wing as you spoke about the yellow jackets, but it's in France; it's in England with Nigel Farage; it's all across Italy, Europe, India, everywhere. Can liberalism survive this?
We saw people out demonstrating in favor of the European Union against Alternative für Deutschland, but is this a strong enough movement, and can a movement or a sentiment that is inherently tolerant, open-minded, and pluralistic triumph over this kind of an extreme?
ADAM GOPNIK: That's a great question. I'd say two things about it. One, it will make you allergic in some ways, people who deal with decade-by-decade, year-by-year specificities of the international world and social world, and that is I think we make a mistake if we make what's going on in the world right now too narrowly causal. We turn to the despoiling of Akron or we turn to the crisis of Lille.
All of these things are real, obviously, but it's also the case that at any moment in modern history you see a conflict between the growth of liberal values and the open society and the deep, deep urge to shut them down and create some kind of authoritarian alternative of the left or the right.
I put the Statue of Liberty on the cover of my book to sell books but also because people tend to forget the circumstances in which the Statue of Liberty is made. It's right after the end of the American Civil War, which everyone had assumed in Europe the South would win up until 1864, that you'd have a slave nation.
It's made by French folks, by French designers, who are convinced that the renewal of their republic—they're under the Second Empire at that point—is a remote distant possibility, and they say, "Look, that republic has survived. Maybe ours could, too. We should wave at them and show a sign of solidarity."
In 1864 the notion that you would have a liberal imperium, so to speak, was very, very remote. Nobody thought those were the most powerful ideas anywhere.
Again and again in the history of modernity that has been true. In the 1930s intellectuals—not all, not exclusively—for the most part turned and said exactly that. They said, "Liberalism is too weak to survive the crises and the storms of modernity," and they went either to the extreme right, like Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot, or they went to the extreme left, like so many countless thinkers, and they said, "Liberalism is wishy-washy and weak, and it can't survive." That turned out to be a total historical misunderstanding, both of the power of the extremes or of the authoritarian models and of the weakness of liberalism.
In the Cold War, which I am old enough to remember, exactly the same thing got said again and again. That was the great Sputnik crisis: "The communists are organized. They're disciplined. They have an inspiring ideology, and we have nothing but all this weak argument and shallow compromise. We have to rearm ourselves morally," and that's when we put "Under God" back in the Pledge of Allegiance and did all those things.
Same story. Again, turned out to be completely fallacious. Liberal democratic institutions, for all of their wild imperfections, turned out to be far more resilient and strong and powerful and seductive, both as soft and hard power.
We went through the same thing with 9/11. I'm certainly old enough to remember that. For the first two or three years after 9/11 we heard exactly the same critique: "All of us in our little liberal cities, we're cosseted, we're pampered, we're spoiled, we have no answer either practically or intellectually to the ideological fervor of the Islamists who are coming to get us." That turned out to be completely without foundation as well.
So at every key moment in modern history when liberalism has been challenged by authoritarianism liberalism always looks weak and has always proved to be resilient.
Will that happen again? No guarantee. I'm no prophet, and I lie awake at 3:00 in the morning thinking that it well might not. But if you're betting, the track record is not that bad.
QUESTION: George Paik.
I wonder if there's a problem with the word "community." I don't mean problem, but of course, most people when they hear "community" think about clans and tribes, and as your examples show the point of liberalism is that if you will, there is one big community, and the principles ought to transcend that. I wonder if the difference is what's playing out in the politics in developed societies right now.
The second part is I wonder if part of that problem is that if you will, if the universalizers, have become their own discrete tribe, and if so, is there a way to fight that?
ADAM GOPNIK: Two things. One is, I don't think that—and I'm sorry if I didn't articulate this well—the liberal idea of community is a universalist idea of community. On the contrary, it seems to me one of its strengths has been that it has been so particularized. That's why New York City has its history. We can't think of a history of American social change, of American liberalism in that sense without thinking about Greenwich Village. That's crucial to it. One of the parts of the liberal vision of community is that communities can be self-constructive. That's why we had gay life in the Village, that's why we had artistic life in SoHo, it's why we had the Harlem Renaissance.
Community doesn't have to be universal to be free of the narrow confines of clan and race and genes. So I don't think the liberal idea of community is necessarily universalist.
QUESTIONER [Mr. Paik]: But it is across communities and across clans.
ADAM GOPNIK: It is against tradition and clans. The conservative idea of community is rooted in an idea of tradition certainly, and the liberal idea of community is rooted in an idea of invention, the invention of community, of making new communities.
That's truly what has happened historically again and again. There's a wonderful book about this that I urge on everyone called The Lunar Men: Five Friends Whose Curiosity Changed the World—I don't know if anyone has read it—by Jenny Uglow, and it's about the making of what amounted to British Darwinian radicalism in the Midlands of Britain in the end of the 18th century.
It's when Darwin's grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, Josiah Wedgwood, the great painter Wright of Derby, all came together in the Midlands and they made the first plausible grouping community of what would later be liberal principles. They were driven out in the great reaction after the French Revolution, but they came together and did it. I think that's a rich liberal model of community.
The other thing, it's a familiar objection to say universalists now, this little elite who stand above and outside other communities—of course, it's a risk. It's a failable project with lots of imperfections. As long as that universalist community is genuinely open—it's open to talents, it's open to social accession—then it seems to me to complain about it is secondary.
The big question it seems to me is if the means of ascent that were open to my parents, for instance, who were the children of immigrants who couldn't speak or read English, and who were able to afford to go to an Ivy League school in the 1950s, go to Penn, and then became professors of 18th-century English private poetry. My dad is a Samuel Richardson scholar, and his father might have known who Samuel Richardson was but couldn't have read a line that he wrote. As long as those means of ascent, essentially educational, are effectively open, then I don't think it's a crisis.
To the degree that they become closed, to the degree that those means become self-replicating, then I think it is. This is a very long-winded way of saying that the first liberal commitment always has to be providing education.
JOANNE MYERS: I thank you for such an exciting morning. I want to remind everyone that Adam's book is available up there. Thank you.