Updated Aug. 3
If you’re a subscriber to the New Yorker magazine, writer Adam Gopnik is an old friend. If you’re not a subscriber, Gopnik is a literary virtuoso. He has been a staff writer at the magazine since 1986, a podcast host and lyricist, and is the author of nine books, including his latest, “A Thousand Small Sanities.”
He is as eloquent in his speech as he is in his writing. His talk on Thursday night at the M.V. Hebrew Center was drawn from his new book, which was released in May. Gopnik reviewed hundreds of years of history to draw a timeline of liberalism through the ages.
Gopnik offered an optimistic view of the current polarization of partisan politics. Based on the evolution of liberal philosophy, he said, there is no need to panic in the face of what he calls President Donald Trump’s divisive fanaticism. Essentially, he said, the arc of history will always bend toward progress.
Although Gopnik has written extensively on politics for the New Yorker — so much that many readers have come to expect his byline in the “Talk of the Town” current events commentary section — this is his first book on the subject. But his signature turn of phrase and deep academic curiosity are the same.
In one word, Bruce Eckman, chairman of the M.V. Hebrew Center’s Summer Institute, introduced Gopnik as “erudite.” Eckman is spot-on; the writer takes every subject and dives into it like a scuba diver exploring a deep sea cave. In his lecture, Gopnik began by explaining the inspiration for his book. It was the obvious flashbulb moment in recent history: the evening of Election Day 2016.
“My then 17-year-old daughter Olivia was shaken, shocked, freaked out,” he said. “She thought that this type of predatory authoritarianism had passed into history.” Gopnik took his daughter by the hand and suggested they go for a long walk around the neighborhood to discuss her grieving feelings. It was 1 am.
To comfort her, Gopnik gave a “verbal editorial” on the humanist, liberal values that his father had shared with him. As for the election, he told assured her “a change of parties in power is as natural and inevitable and necessary as a change in the weather,” and that “no one election could fundamentally alter the destiny of a country.”
Although he “failed” to persuade her to optimism then, this was just his first draft. The long letter that he would write to Olivia eventually became “A Thousand Small Sanities.” His goal was to teach her about liberal thought by taking her on a journey through history, and introducing her to the greatest liberal minds.
The book is a collection of mini biographies of these figures. Among them are John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor, David Hume and Adam Smith, George Henry Lewes and Mary Ann Evans (better known under the pseudonym George Eliot). Gopnik demonstrated the ever-evolving ideals of liberal through contrasting Mill’s “liberalism of principle” with Lewes’s “liberalism of process.”
Quoting John Stuart Mill, he made the point that an inquisitive spirit is essential to a healthy democracy, “‘There’s no idea so sacrosanct that it can’t benefit from being inspected.’” Gopnik connected this idea to one familiar to the Jewish people in the audience at the Hebrew Center. An idea promoted by rabbis and scholars: continuous questioning and debate of holy texts.
When his daughter still objected to the “too remote, too ruminative” style of these early liberal thinkers, which seemingly didn’t apply to her generation’s modern-day struggles, he pointed to activist types like Bayard Rustin and Frederick Douglass.
He cited Frederick Douglass — “one of the greatest of all Americans” — and his famous speech “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” as one of the greatest manifestos on liberalism ever written. Gopnik also emphasized the ideas of “emergence” and “pluralism” as central to modern liberal ideology.
The title of his book, Gopnik said, came from the idea that “we cure the greatest problems, not through the power of one simple big idea, but through the thousand small sanities that we pursue.”
His talk was well-suited for the sophisticated intellectual audience; however, his ebbing and flowing comedic interjections helped to keep the crowd engaged.
Ultimately, Gopnik defined liberalism as “the best things we know applied to politics. [It’s] our daily practice of coexistence turned into a principle of pluralism. It’s the spark of sympathy that enables us to sit together turned into a set of laws.”
A brief question and answer session followed the lecture, with many queries from worried voters and disillusioned Democrats. One audience member, Anne Brown, summed up the hopes of the crowd with a common Yiddish phrase, “From your mouth to God’s ears.”
Updated to correct the person who introduced Gropnik.