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Aspen Ideas Festival: Adam Gopnik on 'A Thousand Small Sanities'

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Adam Gopnik at the Aspen Ideas Festival.
Adam Gopnik at the Aspen Ideas Festival.
Riccardo Savi | The Aspen Institute

New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik is out with a new book titled, "A Thousand Small Sanities." The book is both history and philosophy. Gopnik says there are lessons to learn from reformers going back to the 19th century. We can turn away from tribalism, and make the normal human practice of coexistence into a permanent principle of pluralism. And Gopnik emphasizes that this vision is not a province of one political party.

With the election of a new president in 2016 Gopnik said we need to remember “the oscillation of parties in power is as natural in a democracy as rain, as changing weather, and it’s something we have to learn to internalize as always a positive and powerfully educational event… Transfer of power is a beautiful rather than an alarming thing.”

“Political conviction comes from the ground up, “ Gopnik said. “It doesn’t pass from power on down. If we have communal conviction and great social capital, then no one politician, no leader—bad or good—can fundamentally alter it.”

He shared several history lessons from the 19th and 20th centuries, instances “which imbue our current situation with meaning.” 

In his book, and in this talk, Gopnik explores why “the ideas at the core of a liberal democracy are indispensable, deeply essential. And above all, how they rose not from abstract ideas about the conduct of government, but from actual living and passionate stories about people seeking to make sense of their world and seeking to make a better world.”

Among others, Gopnik writes about John Stuart Mill and his wife Harriet Taylor Mill. “What they realized,” Gopnik said, “it’s in the nature of human existence to demand a beautiful compromise. We cannot live fully unless we’re prepared to conciliate our own passions and desires to those of other people. They understood that a compromise is not a weak retreat away from principle. A compromise is more often a knot tied tight between competing decencies.” 

Other historical figures he talks about include David Hume and Adam Smith, George H. Lewes and Mary Ann Evans, Bayard Rustin, and Frederick Douglass, who Gopnik says was “the greatest of all Americans,” because he recognized the tug and pull between radical action and the coalition building needed to achieve victory in the struggle against slavery.

Adam Gopnik gave this talk June 24, 2019 at the Aspen Ideas Festival in Aspen, Colorado.