Patrick L. Sullivan
The Lakeville Journal
FALLS VILLAGE — Adam Gopnik, a self-described “reluctant pundit” for The New Yorker magazine, got into the punditry business in a rather oblique manner.
Gopnik spoke at Housatonic Valley Regional High School Friday, Dec. 2, as part of the Salisbury Forum series of talks. Video
Gopnik and his wife were living a hand-to-mouth existence in New York City in the mid-1980s.
They had upgraded their living quarters — from a small room on the Upper East Side that featured insects, to a small loft downtown that was infested with mice.
Gopnik got a phone call from “John” one evening.
John, from the Pluralism and Individualism Conference, was calling to remind Gopnik that he was the keynote speaker at the conference the next morning.
Gopnik had no memory of this.
“So I did what I always do — played for time.”
He figured out he was expected to speak for about 30 minutes.
Gopnik said he figured that “pluralism and individualism” were sufficiently large concepts that he could work in something about modern art — which he actually knew about.
The next morning he slid quietly from the apartment so as not to wake his wife, put on a suit and made his way to the Doral Hotel — which he described as “a little piece of Cincinnati” in mid-town Manhattan.
To his surprise, the ballroom was filled — at 8 a.m. — with well-dressed people congregating under a large banner that read “Pluralism and Individuality ’85.”
“So I just started talking.”
Afterward, John approached him and said, “Thank you. That was very healing.”
“To this day I have no idea who those people were,” said Gopnik. “But they were healed by my words.”
Another surprise was the check John handed him — for $1,000.
“That was a lot of money for us.”
Gopnik went back to the mice-ridden loft, where his wife, Martha, was still asleep.
He told her, “You will not believe what happened while you were asleep.”
Being young, the couple decided to splurge on a fancy meal that cost $500 — half the speaking fee.
After this wonderful experience, they returned home — to find the mice had taken over.
“There is nothing as sobering as seeing your loft overrun with rodents. It was the tipping point.”
Gopnik had an insight. “It seemed that our relationship to New York City was similar to that of the mice to the loft. We inhabited it, but never really owned it.”
The couple stayed at a friend’s house that evening, and never looked back.
“That was my first experience with punditry,” Gopnik said.
“And tonight is the second.”
Defining ‘echo chambers’
In 1986 Gopnik got a job with The New Yorker. One of his assignments was the “comment” part of the “Notes and Comment” section of the magazine.
The New Yorker was not very political at the time, he said. “We had one position: We were against nuclear holocaust.”
Gopnik, by his own admission, was not very good at “comment.”
“It ought to take a direct route. I was still in the Pluralism and Individualism phase.”
He was eventually relieved of those duties and found his niche at the magazine.
But the advent of the online edition changed the situation. There were more contributors, more pieces and the material was posted online on a daily and even hourly basis.
Gopnik had one issue he felt strongly about: gun control.
A Canadian by birth, and cosmopolitan by experience and temperament, “I learned there were lots of options” for how societies structured themselves.
His father, who lives on a farm in Ontario, “is a raccoon shooter.”
But he follows the law, which means licensing and qualification requirements, similar to those involved with driving a car.
So he found the American attitude toward firearms — a Constitutional right — “bizarre.”
So he began writing about gun control.
In the process he discovered something about punditry.
“You never convince anyone of anything.”
He acknowledged that a great deal of punditry consists of “preaching to the choir” and said he believed that the phenomenon of “echo chambers,” in which people tend to read only material they agree with, is a problem.
Nonetheless, Gopnik said he thinks punditry is still a worthwhile activity.
“How many times have we changed a strong conviction?” he asked . “Once, twice in a lifetime?”
But people do change their minds about seemingly intractable issues, such as gay marriage.
“It happens through osmosis, from the ground up.”
To effect that sort of change requires breaking taboos. Merely broaching the topic is enough to get the ball rolling.
The effective pundit, working against taboo or tradition, must use facts and evidence and avoid appeals to emotion, Gopnik said.
He pointed to Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln as masters of rhetoric, who calmly and methodically built their respective cases from facts.
This could be fascinating in and of itself. Gopnik said a contemporary publisher looked at Darwin’s manuscript for “On the Origin of Species,” which begins with a lengthy examination of the breeding of dogs and pigeons.
The publisher asked if Darwin was willing to publish just the dog and pigeon parts, and skip the long part about evolution.
Lincoln’s Cooper Union address begins with “a detailed analysis of which signers of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution had ever voted on slavery issues.
“It’s about as exciting as reading a report from an insurance adjuster,” Gopnik said. “It would be tedious even for public radio.”
But Lincoln was preparing the ground for his primary point: that slavery had always been a national issue, and was not a regional matter.
Gopnik said both Darwin and Lincoln were relying on empirical facts that were available to anyone.
“It was a new kind of eloquence.”
Gopnik said he tries to apply this to his opinion writing.
As he looks forward to the incoming administration of Donald Trump, he said he will try to emulate his hero, Albert Camus, who was writing editorial comment in post-war Paris.
Camus’ work took “what is human without abstract passion.”
“Camus was saying, don’t discard your inner critic — embrace it.”
And Camus was particularly wary of “the abstraction of ideology — the deadly habit of abstraction.
“And that speaks to the moment we’re in now: with speech not intended to persuade, but speech that recognizes we are beautifully plural … and entirely individual.”