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Adam Gopnik Is ‘Shocked’ at Canada’s New Conservatism

The New Yorker writer on defining liberalism, the dirty tactic of demonizing the press, his Montreal roots and more. A Tyee interview.

Steve Burgess 21 Mar 2024The Tyee

Steve Burgess writes about politics and culture for The Tyee. Read his previous articles.

Among other roles, Adam Gopnik is a staff writer at the New Yorker. It’s a position that requires not only writing talent but the topical range of a polymath. Gopnik, who lives in Manhattan but retains the Habs loyalty of his Montreal youth, seems capable of offering critical analysis of whatever grab bag of recently published volumes crosses his desk, all while authoring numerous acclaimed books himself. Yet Gopnik insists that all his writing revolves around a single theme.

“Whether you’re looking at French cooking or American democracy,” he says, “the question is: How do you sustain humane traditions in a world that no longer welcomes them?”

His latest book, A Thousand Small Sanities, examines the future of liberal democracy. On Friday, Gopnik will deliver the Babcock Lecture, titled “On Liberal Institutions, Protecting Pluralism and Free Debate,” at SFU's Djavad Mowafaghian Cinema, located in the Woodward’s Building.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The Tyee: Let’s just start off by talking about the lecture.

Adam Gopnik: I’m going to start by talking about how liberalism is the love that dare not speak its name. When I’m here in the States and I start talking about liberalism, the host says, “Don’t talk about liberalism. That means Hillary Clinton. Talk about liberal democracy, because that could include Ronald Reagan.” And if I’m in Canada, everyone says, “Don’t talk about liberals because that means Justin and the government, the Liberal Party of Canada.” When I’m in the U.K. they say, “Don’t talk about liberals because that’s the old dead Liberal party.” And in France, liberals are the bad guys because they are free marketeers. If you’re called a liberal in France, it means a Thatcherite.

So you can’t use the word anywhere you go. But what I mean by it is, of course, the tradition of liberal democracy as it’s been passed on to us through the last 300 or 400 years.

What I’m going to try and point out is that liberal democracy, liberalism, rests on two pillars. One is familiar to us — it’s free and fair elections. God knows they’re vital and important, but it’s possible to have elections of varying degrees of freedom, as in Russia, Iran and Hungary, where you don’t have recognizable liberal democracy.

The other pillar is what we call liberal institutions, open institutions — universities, libraries, parks, podcasts, all the places where free conversations can go on, where we can talk to each other without fear.

We don’t think of coffee houses as being the beating heart of our constitutional democracy. But historically, the idea of the coffeehouse in 18th century France or in 21st century Iran is an incredibly potent one, because it means it’s a place where people can come together to talk, share experience. Freethinkers could mix with deists and Freemasons in Paris in the 18th century.

That’s where social capital is created, conditions of trust where we get used to talking to people, as you and I are talking right now. We don’t know each other, but we understand certain rules of conversation. And we can talk openly even though we’re not of the same club or the same clan or the same caste or the same creed, necessarily.

Those kinds of liberal institutions are just as important for the creation of free societies as the practice of free and fair elections.

It also seems, based on recent events, that aside from liberal institutions, a strong framework of law is equally important.

It’s important but as we’ve been seeing in the United States over the last few weeks, that turns out to be more fragile than we want it to be. A lot of Americans trusted in the law to enforce justice on Donald Trump and the law is clearly not going to be able to play that role, because law is in itself a political arena.

Yes, the rule of law is a crucial part of the larger picture. But what I want to emphasize particularly is the part that may be invisible to us, exactly for the reason that water is invisible to fish. Fish don’t have an opinion on water, they only have an opinion when they’re suddenly out of water.

And when it comes to free institutions we’re very much like that. Not to sound like a cranky old man, because I hope I’m not one. But I know that in talking to my own kids who are in their 20s, they can have a lack of clarity, as fish to water, about how much their lives and livelihoods depend on the perpetuation of liberal institutions that are extremely fragile.

Hong Kong was imperfect, colonial, but it was essentially an open city, a city where bookstores were on the corner. One by one, the bookstores of Hong Kong, English and Chinese, are being shut down by the Chinese government. And in time there will be no bookstores and no space for dissent. You won’t be able to publish a book criticizing the Chinese Communist Party except in fear of your life. We’ve seen that process happen. We can’t let it happen.

Those who are paying attention are appalled by those who aren’t paying attention. It seems like the idea of American politics as being a choice between Coke and Pepsi is so engrained in the American psyche that people haven’t noticed Coke has been replaced by carbonated cyanide. People are still saying, "Yeah, but I’m tired of Pepsi."

I may steal that line from you. But that’s exactly right. And what’s really frightening is that you see it not just on the uneducated extremes, but you see it in the centre. The New York Times regularly equates one side with the other — much more aggressive in criticizing Biden’s age, which is an issue, but makes much more of that than Donald Trump promising that there’ll be a bloodbath if he’s not elected.

I have a long piece in the New Yorker this week about how Hitler came to power. The parallels are never going to be exact — history never repeats, it only rhymes. But one of the ways in which it rhymes is that authoritarian demagogues have an enormous advantage over centrists or conservatives or liberals or social democrats, because they can say anything, and then immediately deny it and then say it again and then deny it again.

This is a crucial insight of the great Italian writer, the great philosopher, Umberto Eco. Eco was writing about growing up under fascism in Italy and he said the mistake people make is to think that fascism is an ideology. In other words, it has axioms and principles — you believe this, therefore you do that. The whole point of it is to annihilate orderly ideologies, because everything has to turn on the charismatic leader. The more the charismatic leader is inconsistent, the more you can only depend on him or her.

It’s a mistake I think even good historians make sometimes, because they say, “Well, Hitler had an ideology, he wanted Lebensraum and he hated the Jews,” but the truth is it bounced back and forth throughout his career. And he was a very reactive performer.

I just happen to be reading Robert Harris’s trilogy of historical novels about Cicero, and I’m just reading about the Catiline conspiracy. Cicero defeated the Catiline conspiracy, yet the republic was in its death throes anyway.

I opened one of my last pieces about the crisis of liberalism with Cicero. His oratory, his disbelief that his old Republican friends could never turn on him. The Roman Republic was a very imperfect democracy, as ours is, as was the Weimar Republic. But to some degree, they involve the consent of the governed and they were anti-tyrannical.

And more important even than that, you had standards of debate. People argued about things in the Senate, and in the Roman Republic you did not live in fear of your life if you took one side rather than the other, as you did in the Roman Empire, where you put your life at risk if you argued against the emperor.

It’s as simple as what a liberal institution is — you can curse out the government without being afraid that you will be in prison for it.

Donald Trump has demonized the press — fake news, they’re all liars except for Fox News, and so on. And Pierre Poilievre is taking a page from that book as well, saying he’s going to defund the CBC, attacking the Canadian press, and so on. What role does that play in the demise of liberal institutions when you have leaders who are attacking the press, making them the enemy?

These days I live in New York, so I don’t want to pretend to have false erudition on the subject, but from a distance, Poilievre represents a certain kind of Americanized Canadian conservatism that frankly shocks me.

I grew up when the leadership of the Conservative party was Robert Stanfield, Joe Clark, Brian Mulroney. I did not vote for those people, but they were representative of liberal politicians in the sense we’re talking about it. They were rational people who believed in the Canadian project and had a different point of view than social democrats and liberals, but were engaged in the same kind of argument.

And right now for the first time we’re seeing a kind of Fox News, Americanized conservatism. I find it disturbing, and if I may be allowed to use the word, un-Canadian. It’s certainly outside the mainstream of Canadian experience.

When you say the news is all fake, when you say the judges are all corrupt, when you say elections are rigged, you’re not telling your followers, “I’m right and they’re wrong.” You’re telling them, “Anytime they say I’m wrong, it shows how evil they are.” And once that happens, it’s impossible to get it back.

It's a double whammy, so to speak, because those who see themselves as being rational proceduralists, institutionalists believing in the rule of law and so on, are crippled and handicapped by their inability to shoot back. We’re seeing this in the United States right now.

There are actually judges in the United States, who are Trump appointees who can properly be called corrupt. They act as political ideologues. But we’re extremely reluctant to say that because we recognize it simply seems like you’re engaged in the mimicry of the Trump attack on judges. And we don’t want to engage the same way.

When Trump is saying “fake news,” it makes us reluctant to say, well, Fox News is fake, because you don’t want to engage in that discourse. We recognize how dangerous that is. And as a consequence, you end up being muted.

In any contest between institutionalists and fascists, the fascists will always win. The institutionalists are trying to protect the institutions — fascists don’t give a damn about the institutions. The CBC is a good example of that. No doubt the CBC has its flaws and faults and biases, but it is one of the institutions that has kept Canada together for the past 100 years or more. And once it’s gone, there will be nothing to take its place.

I also wanted to talk about your career. Don’t you ever consider picking a lane? I was looking back on your recent New Yorker topics: the year 2020, the artist Pissarro, Bayard Rustin, Biblical narratives, ultra-processed food, cars, the English Civil War...

Well, if you look behind me [at the bookshelves] if I may say, Steve, without either false modesty or undue narcissism, that’s my life. I’ve loved to read since I was a little kid. I graduated from high school in Montreal when I was too young, and I spent a couple of years in the McLennan library at McGill — I wasn’t a student yet — just reading. I love to read. And you know, there’s no big secret about how you get to know about a variety of subjects. You read the books that have been written about that subject and if you have a responsive mind you say something interesting about that.

I want to thank you, by the way — I was going back over some of the stuff you’ve written in the New Yorker recently, and I found the word “kludgy.” What a great word. We could put together a dictionary of words that need no definition. The definition would always be, “Kludgy — adjective. Like it sounds.”

The other thing you’ll notice, despite the apparent range of my work, is if I can smuggle someone from the Montreal Canadiens into a piece, I will. I did that 2020 piece, wrote about Spanish flu, and brought in Joe Hall, the Montreal Canadien who died of Spanish flu. David Remnick, my editor at the New Yorker, is painfully aware you’ve got to scan the copy to be sure that we’re not getting too many Habs references.

Adam Gopnik speaks at SFU in Vancouver on Friday, March 22 at 7 p.m. Registration is free.  [Tyee]

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