Nonfiction: In Defense of Liberalism

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They can — but they don’t, as Gopnik glumly acknowledges. “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.” It “can sometimes seem” that way because it often is that way.

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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.

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