Adam Gopnik’s talk, he told the crowd, concerned something that kept him awake at night: nothing less than “the fragility of liberal civilization.”
“I know that sounds quite grand,” he said, “but I really mean it.”
Hundreds of students, faculty members and community guests packed Loyola University Maryland’s McGuire Hall on Thursday night to hear the longtime New Yorker staff writer deliver the 31st annual Jerome S. Cardin Lecture. The room was so full, in fact, that students were asked to give up their seats to the elderly, an appeal to their civic virtue that dovetailed nicely with the subject of Gopnik’s lecture, titled “Believing Without Belief, Spirituality Without Team Spirit: Thinking about Tolerance in the 21st Century.”
Before Gopnik began, English professor Mark Osteen spoke to the crowd about philanthropist Shoshana Cardin, wife of Jerome Cardin, who died earlier this year. He also talked about the guiding principle of the lecture series, which calls for speakers to discuss topics that “concern Jewish-Christian relations,” he said. Past speakers have ranged from Jewish historian Jonathan Sarna to philosopher Cornel West. Then he led a moment of silent prayer for the Jews murdered in Pittsburgh.
Then, Gopnik began.
For the next hour or so, Gopnik took stock of the state of liberalism in America — not in a partisan sense, he noted, but in the way that a political science department would use the term, as a catch-all for the major intellectual developments since the Enlightenment: the development of reason, religious tolerance, the development of a tangible public discourse and representative democracy. He said we no longer live in a time when we can look at questions of toleration — “religious toleration, political tolerance, the whole question of pluralism” in a “relaxed, mediative way, as we could even 10, 15 years ago.”
“No,” he continued, “this is a very different time that we find ourselves in.”
Connecting the Pittsburgh shooting to the greater cultural and political revolt against liberalism, Gopnik wondered: “Where are the wellsprings of that kind of hatred? Where can that kind of intolerance rise from?”
Taking into account his Jesuit crowd (Loyola is a Jesuit university), Gopnik engaged with the critiques of liberalism offered by the Catholic tradition, citing his love for the English writer G.K. Chesterton to the audience’s delight. Where Chesterton and others found vacuity in liberalism, Gopnik said, he found inspiration.
He pondered Catholic critiques of liberalism which posit that it offers no higher calling to its adherents, but only, as he recently read, an “enslavement to the market and to material comforts.” He did his best to work through the issue of intolerance, and of education that focused on “what I want” rather than on “where I am.”
“You can make a better case for religious intolerance than you can for religious tolerance,” he said at one point, insisting that though he of course believes in the latter, it wasn’t hard to see what was so seductive about the former. Tolerance, he said, is a fairly recent development. It was only the acceptance of reason that began to erode the popularity of intolerance, he claimed.
Throughout the lecture, Gopnik rarely consulted his notes, though as he confessed, he typically abstains from looking at a finished text at all. “I hope you’ll forgive me if my head occasionally falls downward,” he joked.
Gopnik, who described himself as a “steam bath and smoked fish Jew,” spoke in full paragraphs, jumping centuries and nations from moment to moment. He cited the work of Locke, Camus and Mullah Nasruddin as easily as he did Willie Nelson. Nelson, he said, gave him a great pearl of wisdom: “99 percent of the world’s lovers are not with their first choice, and that’s what makes the jukebox play,” Gopnik recalled him saying.
Gopnik’s point, he stressed, was that for all the trenchant critiques of liberalism that are out there, the erosion of liberalism will bring an erosion of tolerance and reason, the bedrock of the developed world.
“Liberals,” he said, “may rightly refuse to claim parentage of the monsters of unreason, but we still have to take responsibility for them.”
Following his remarks, which were received with raucous applause, Gopnik took questions from the audience for nearly a half-hour, and ended to more applause. A kosher reception followed.
“I thought he was stupendous,” said Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin, daughter of Jerome Cardin. “His use of the English language is just sterling.”
“The only problem I had,” said Marlene Barone, who has attended a handful of the Cardin Lectures, “was he talked so quickly and had so many ideas that if you tried to reflect on one, he was on to another!”
Barone’s friend, Peggy O’Rourke Trott, agreed. “It seemed like the words just poured out of him.”