In Defense of Liberalism

By David Frum

A review of:

The Moral Adventure of Liberalism
By Adam Gopnik
The New York Times

Witty, humane, learned, “A Thousand Small Sanities” is a book that some of its author’s many fans may be tempted to read too fast. Adam Gopnik wants to smite the authoritarian populists. He wants to assimilate and domesticate the illiberal left, to the maximum extent he can. But diverted by the book’s charm and erudition, readers may overlook its more challenging purposes.

With the authoritarian populists, Gopnik deals bluntly and brusquely: “This is not a special feature of one era or another. Strongman politics and boss-man rule, in simplest form, is the story of mankind.” In our time, he writes, boss-man rule looks simply squalid. “How paltry its avatars can seem and how ridiculous and trivial their guiding ideas so often are. It’s all half-witted tweets and Berlusconi-style clowning.”

No, what commands Gopnik’s attention is a challenge to his convictions more formidable and more intimate: the resurgence of the illiberal left from the post-Communist wreckage.

It’s an intimate challenge because Gopnik to some degree accepts the premises of the illiberal left, even as he mordantly doubts the outcome of its radical politics: “The basic American situation in which the right wing wants cultural victories and gets nothing but political ones; while the left wing wants political victories and gets only cultural ones. … The left manages to get sombreros banned from college parties while every federal court in the country is assigned a far-right-wing activist judge.”

Adam GopnikCreditBrigitte Lacombe

“A Thousand Small Sanities” is a product of the period that some wit has dubbed “the Great Awokening.” The Awokening is defined less by what it believes and more by what it dislikes — and those dislikes tend to converge upon that vituperated category, dead white men. The founders and heroes of the liberal tradition are indubitably very male, very white and, for the most part, very dead.

Gopnik does not write in their defense. To a great extent, he is almost as uncomfortable with these dead white giants as any intersectional critic. “I’ve tried not to write too much about the famous 17th- and 18th-century English philosophers who helped found the liberal credo, concentrating instead on liberal lives that offer a better guide to living liberal practice.”

You’ll find more here about Harriet Taylor and Frederick Douglass; Emma Goldman and Bayard Rustin; George Eliot and E. D. Morel (a journalist who helped bring to light the horrors of the Belgian Congo) than about Locke, Jefferson, Smith and Bentham — or even John Maynard Keynes and Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

This despite the fact that few of Gopnik’s featured characters would have been described in their time as “liberals.” Taylor, Douglass and the others are valuable to Gopnik precisely because they advanced causes that discomfited most of their contemporaries who did call themselves “liberals.” By assimilating what was once radical to his variety of liberalism, Gopnik hopes to prove to contemporary progressives that they can champion the woke causes of the 21st century without surrendering the liberal heritage of free speech, rule of law, scientific inquiry and individual conscience.


Like the Great Awakenings before it, the Great Awokening is a spiritual movement more than a political one. It offers redemption, not reform. It reckons not with adversaries, but with heretics. It rejects tolerance for precisely the reasons Gopnik himself offers in his description of dogmatic religion: If you think you have unique access to the truth, why wouldn’t you be intolerant of those who reject that truth?

Gopnik is alive to the intellectual deficiencies of wokeness. Wokeness knows arguments only from authority, because evidence is always subordinate to identity. In a striking formulation, Gopnik writes that “the idea that one should trace the source of an argument backward, to its origins, rather than play it forward to the evidence for its claims is the root doctrine of reaction.”

He is irritated by the moral pretensions of the illiberal left as well. “The romantic utopian visions, put in place, always fail and usually end in a horrific car crash. … The left treats the obvious and inarguable lessons of the 20th century about radical revolutions … as though they had never been learned and learned in the hardest of hard ways.”

And yet in the end, he can’t quite quit those visions either. “Reform is an ongoing process, rarely begun or completed by liberalism alone,” he concedes. He won’t say Yes, but he cannot quite say No.

In a short, elegant discussion of the conservative counterpoint to the liberal tradition, Gopnik invokes the thought of his fellow Montrealer, the philosopher Charles Taylor. “Taylor’s point is that to know who I really am is to know where I am — how I’m placed within a social context that I didn’t make and can’t control.”

Unillusioned as he is, Gopnik is placed within a social context in which events and circumstances have taught his kind of liberal to look right for threats and left for possibilities. If the time could ever arrive when it becomes necessary to overcome and reverse those ancient reflexes — that is an adventure of liberalism that may have to wait for the next installment of the serial.

Bill Barr’s Biggest Lie

What do you think was Barr’s biggest lie? 

As I see it, most reporting, commentary, and legislators have missed the mark on that question. And many news reports, such as Judy Woodruff on the Newshour, have reported his most important lie as if it were fact. 

During this week’s hearing, for example, Barr said:

“But the question just been asking raises a point I wanted to say when Senator Hirono was talking, which is, how did we get to the point here where the evidence is now that the President was falsely accused of colluding with the Russians, and accused of being treasonous, and accused of being a Russian agent, and the evidence now is that was without a basis, and two years of his administration have been dominated by the allegations that have now been proven false? And, you know, to listen to some of the rhetoric, you would think that the Mueller report had found the opposite.”

However, AP FACT CHECK, “Trump, Barr distort Mueller report findings,” reports:

The Mueller report said the investigation did not find a criminal conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russia, saying it had not collected sufficient evidence “to establish” or sustain criminal charges….

The special counsel wrote that he “cannot rule out the possibility” that unavailable information could have cast a different light on the investigation’s findings….

The report also makes clear the investigation did not assess whether “collusion” occurred because it is not a legal term. The investigation found multiple contacts between the Trump campaign and Russia,…

Failing to prove that X was true does not mean that X was proven false. To make that mistake must have been intentional.

Crime, Scapegoating, and Daily Life

By Wade Lee Hudson

     In a New Yorker essay, “Who Belongs in Prison?”, Adam Gopnik comments on several recent books that address key criminal justice issues, including scapegoating and the desire for revenge. Those concerns apply throughout society.

     Locked In by John Pfaff argues that prosecutors have been given freedom to imprison whomever they wish for as long as they like without going to trial. Prosecutors resolve ninety-five percent of criminal cases with plea bargains. They threaten severe punishment and get defendants to accept less severe terms. This pressure persuades innocent people to plead guilty, and results in the incarceration of people who would never be found guilty in a trial.

     Gopnik reports that Charged by Emily Bazelon “puts flesh and faces to Pfaff’s statistical and largely abstract proposition.” Based on “a study of two cases in which prosecutorial misconduct or overreach put two people through hell,” her book “is meant to, and does, provoke pity and terror in us at the sheer inhumanity of all imprisonment.”

     Revenge is an issue Gopnik examines in some detail. In one instance, “the prosecutor, in the  standard way that prosecutors exact revenge on a suspect for refusing to plead guilty, obtained at trial a sentence of ninety-one years.” These cases lead Gopnik to conclude that “our sense of justice here demands not less but more prosecutorial discretion—more power to charge or not to charge.”

     Moreover, the current system “adds bureaucratic labyrinth to unjust arrest” with attempts “to move [offenses] out of the normal criminal courts and into a special ‘diversion’ program.” Punishment Without Crime by Alexandra Natapoff calls this process “net widening.”

     Anti-incarceration efforts aim to move past

the question of “guilt,” making us see that the categories of guilty and innocent…miss harder social truths, and replace empathy with bureaucratized vengeance. “The crime is what you did, it’s not who you are” is an aphorism of anti-incarceration activists, and this perspective enlivens almost all the reformist literature.

     Gopnik writes that “most of the current crop of books on crime and incarceration” argue that most incarcerated people “are as much victims of society as they are wicked perpetrators of crime. Born into disadvantage, they arrived, in a sense, imprisoned already.” The Limits of Blame by Erin Kelly, Prisoners of Politics by Rachel Elise Barkow, and Until We Reckon by Danielle Sered also adopt this perspective.

     It’s easy to be indignant when innocent people are incarcerated, Gopnik argues, but guilty people present more difficult questions. Gopnik asks, what if the defendant had murdered her mother? “Would a night of crazy rage justify the years—it might well have been a lifetime—of despair and misery enforced by the state? …Would it have been what her mother wanted?”

     Gopnik believes these books avoid the question of what to do with serious evil.

It’s often said that white-collar criminals should not be treated better than no-collar ones, and yet the taste for punishing the white-collar miscreant is no less vindictive—indeed, there’s depressing social-science research showing that, once people are made aware of the inequities of the American criminal-justice system, they want even harsher penalties for white-collar offenders….

The pressing issue is not whether white-collar criminals should be punished more or less than others; it is whether the practice of locking anyone up in a closed penitentiary for long periods is an effective way of punishing or preventing criminal behavior.

     What we really need, he insists, is “to humanize the treatment of the guilty…. The moral question remains whether anyone deserves to be put in a bathroom-size cell for the rest of his or her life.”

     Sered’s book examines an extralegal process called “restorative justice,” which

brings perpetrators of violent crimes face to face with their victims in an effort to make both sides see each other not merely as captives of categories—bad person, good person—but as human beings caught in often painful and resistant circumstances. How far such reconciliations can go, and how violent an act the victim is prepared to forgive, or at least understand, is not always clearly defined, but the attempt to move past indictment and incarceration to some social process that holds out hope for transformation rather than just punishment is obviously possessed of moral energy.

     No other liberal democracy, for example, uses plea bargaining.

Ours remains a singularly punitive society, a society obsessed, right and left alike, with inflicting punishment on our preferred villains…. The right-wing desire to appease white fear by locking up black offenders…is mirrored by the urge that the left feels to annihilate its own sanctioned offenders. The quality of mercy has never been more highly strained than it is in America today…. We have to ask whether the incarceration of offenders we deplore makes sense.

     One alternative Gopnik considers is to cap all sentences at no more than a certain number of years, such as twenty, as Norway does. Another is to release everyone at the age of forty. Most older people are not prone to violence.

     Gopnik concludes his essay:

We have to want to humanize the treatment of those we think “belong” in prison with the same energy with which we agitate for those we don’t. Deincarcerating our society may, in the end, involve making harder, and more foundational, moral choices than we quite care to know.

     However, other than questioning the length of confinement and the use of bathroom-size cells, Gopnik does not address what humane imprisonment might look like.

     One possibility, it seems to me, is that punishment should only involve the denial of liberty, including the freedom to travel wherever you want and socialize with whomever you want. There should be no punishment beyond that restriction.

     Another principle is the right to be left alone. High-quality rehabilitation services should be offered, but if prisoners prefer to simply do their time, that should be accepted.

     These concerns raised by Gopnik are relevant to society at large. Harsh personal judgments, the failure to distinguish behavior from an individual’s essence, and scapegoating that ignores other factors are widespread throughout society.

     The criminal justice system is a microcosm of the larger society. It is interwoven with our social system. To transform one, we must transform the other.

Originally posted here.
“Who Belongs in Prison?” has been added to RESOURCES/ARTICLES

Leveling the Playing Field for America’s Family Farmers

By Team (Elizabeth) Warren

For generations, America’s family farmers have passed down a tradition of hard work and independence. Today’s family farmers share those same core values, but the economics are more and more tenuous. Last year, farmers got less than 15 cents of every dollar that Americans spent on food — the lowest amount since the Department of Agriculture began tracking that figure in 1993.

Today a farmer can work hard, do everything right — even get great weather — and still not make it. It’s not because farmers today are any less resilient, enterprising, or committed than their parents and grandparents were. It’s because bad decisions in Washington have consistently favored the interests of multinational corporations and big business lobbyists over the interests of family farmers.

Farmers are caught in a vise, but the squeeze on family farms isn’t inevitable. We can make better policy choices — and we can begin by leveling the playing field for America’s family farmers.

Status Anxiety

“Populist movements, Bell believed, are a response to the anxieties of what Hofstadter had called “status politics,” or the uncertainty generated by the fact that in America, you can never be sure where you really stand in the social hierarchy. In this sense, the curse of populism is intimately connected to the blessings of social mobility. It is because we lack firm status positions that status becomes so important in our politics.”

From The Politics of Petulance: America in an Age of Immaturity, by Alan Wolfe. p. 48