No mushy middle: Adam Gopnik defends liberalism in this 'dangerous historic moment'

Author Adam Gopnik says liberalism is not the mushy middle ground between right and left. It’s a vital set of egalitarian beliefs and institutions with deep, global roots that The New Yorker writer and author is arguing we all must defend.

Core values of liberal democracy are under assault just as it was in the 1930s, argues writer

Author Adam Gopnik delivered the 17th LaFontaine-Baldwin Lecture 'Mind Over Matter: The Planetary Possibilities of Liberal Institutions,' at Koerner Hall in Toronto, on Sept. 24, 2019. (Institute for Canadian Citizenship / Alyssa K Faoro)

It "isn't sexy. It isn't necessarily glamorous." It's also criticized by both conservatives and leftists.

But writer Adam Gopnik still passionately believes in the values and institutions of liberal democracy and humanism, as he explained during the 2019 LaFontaine-Baldwin lecture

Known for his erudite essays and profiles for The New Yorker magazine, Adam Gopnik has been reflecting on liberalism both personally and professionally for a recent book, A Thousand Small Sanities: The Moral Adventure of Liberalism.

In 'A Thousand Small Sanities,' Adam Gopnik argues liberalism is the search for radical change through human measures. (Basic Books, 2019)

Despite what the term suggests in Canada, "liberalism" is not tied to any one political party. Gopnik explains that it is a robust — if embattled — set of values and institutions that honours both individual freedom and social inclusion. 

He describes both the large and small practices that are under attack in a world tilting increasingly toward authoritarian regimes. Liberalism supports "free elections, fair procedures, (and) the rule of law — meaning an idea of justice that is not simply responsive to the whims of a tyrant."

Liberalism means "open universities...where people can speak and write dissenting ideas without fear of being censored or squelched."

Gopnik warns that "we are witnessing how incredibly fragile those practices and institutions are" through the rapid rise of ethnic nationalism, and disdain for democratic systems worldwide.

But in examples as disparate as the recent Hong Kong street protests and the coffeehouses of Tehran, Adam Gopnik sees people standing up for their collective right to speak and act freely. 

He told IDEAS host Nahlah Ayed how living in these times of political crises have affected his own life. He's had ongoing discussions about liberalism with his daughter, as she grapples with living in America during a Trump presidency, and attending college in an era of heated — often acrimonious — debates around free speech. 

Adam Gopnik's own work has changed, too. He says he's turned away from writing mostly about "the manners of middle class life, to writing about politics and political philosophy," since he feels "our citizenship has to take precedence even over our artistry."

The LaFontaine-Baldwin Lecture was held as part of 6 Degrees Toronto, the global forum for inclusion. The annual event is a project of the Institute for Canadian Citizenship.

* This episode was produced by Lisa Godfrey.