Book reviews / Non fiction

Book review: How to be a Liberal

This isn’t so much a book review, as things I liked about a book, given that I read it while Zwifting in January. I definitely find kindle + stationary biking a good combo.

How to be a Liberal chronicles how liberal thought developed, and how liberal thinkers responded to challenges in the past right up to today.

There were two particular chapters that I really enjoyed, and those were the ones that featured Germaine de Staël and Harriet Taylor Mill who were both such extraordinary women. I loved that he added context to their relationships with famous liberals and philosophers (Benjamin Constant and John Stuart Mill respectively), even taking shots at previous biographers who downplayed their contribution to liberal thought. I now need a good biography of each of them to add to my to-read list.

In general, I enjoyed all the historical context to the early liberal thinkers. Especially in the first half, with the more historical development, Dunt would chronicle the thinkers who were faced with particular challenge to liberal thought. However, liberalism would emerge stronger and more inclusive every time it faced a crisis, with something in the world challenging some of its weaker concepts. This included right up to today, with the both the right and left using identify politics in illiberal ways. I think what was really disquieting was how autocrats use the language of identity politics to essentially be xenophobic. There was a whole section contextualising the recent rise of nationalism in Europe, the UK and the US which fit into the narrative well. But I enjoyed the historical context more, maybe just because I still feel anxious about the world as it is now.

I also loved seeing how all the historical context matched with some of the people in my PhD, who were all 19th/20th century liberals, fighting for women’s rights (both voting and birth control), as well as arguing against the death penalty, or just the ability to think for oneself. I could really see how they all fit into this liberal chronology, which was an extra bonus for me.

I think what I would have liked more was a bit more call to action. Or a bit more hope for the future. I think I would have appreciated that a bit more, rather than the recent history. But I suppose that’s part of the point, showing that this is happening now, across various democracies and that we already have the tools to combat it. Still scary though.

Anyway, like I said, I read this while cycling around a virtual world, so it’s more of an impression than a detailed review. It was an excellent read though, and definitely helped me through those miles when I didn’t quite feel like pedalling.

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