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A 21st Century Revulsion

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Adam Gopnik
(Adam Gopnik)

19th century Americans lived through plenty of recessions, but they called them "revulsions" back then. New Yorker Magazine writer Adam Gopnik talks with John Moe about our historical amnesia when it comes to capitalism overheating. Gopnik is out with a new book "Angels and Ages: A Short Book about Darwin, Lincoln and Modern Life" that looks at how a president and an evolutionary scientist used clear language to explain the complexities of their own times.


Adam Gopnik: They were both great writers and great stylists, coming not from the center of literature but from the periphery of political speech-making and of scientific argument.

Realizing, which I hadn't done to be perfectly honest until I had already written about both of them, that they share exactly the same birthday, they were both born on February 12, 1809, I thought that there might be something to say about the origins of, to call it, modern consciousness: the way we live now, liberal civilization, in their lifetimes, particularly in the way that they changed our language and our expectations.

So I ended up writing a book, sort of not knowing necessarily where the book was going to go when I began it, that ended up being very much about the birth of a new kind of liberal eloquence and particularly about the beginnings of a kind of eloquence of explanation: an eloquence of argument instead of an eloquence of uplift.

And I hope, though I couldn't have planned it and I didn't see it coming, that that idea, that there's a kind of eloquence of explanation, might be one of the good things that Barack Obama brings to America.

John Moe: He's an eloquent speaker.

Adam: He's an eloquent speaker, of course. Everybody sees that, but for me the most moving speech he made in the campaign was the speech he made about race in Philadelphia because the eloquence there wasn't the eloquence of uplift. It was exactly the eloquence of explanation.

He took a very hard, thorny subject, why it is, despite Jeremiah writes melodrama and exaggeration, he still had a sort of residual respect for him, that you had to separate out a certain kind of anger from its history. You could reject it, but you could still understand it.

And similarly you could understand a similar kind of anger on the part of white working class people and so on. A very complicated, subtle historical argument he was making, yet he made it in terms that were broadly understood and widely available.

And that side of Obama's eloquence is much more appealing and interesting to me than his ability to charge up a stadium full of 80,000 people because a lot of second-rate people have been able to do that.

I think, also, that if there's a kind of American liberal tradition, or people who believe in Democratic civilization, if there is a tradition of that kind of liberal eloquence, it's exactly that tradition.

It's the tradition of Darwin: a tradition of making a very complicated scientific argument, playing in the popular book; the tradition of Lincoln: the tradition of making very complicated arguments about equality, democracy, union, and war compact, eloquent, and available. If we see in 2009 a revival of that kind of eloquence, the eloquence of explanation and argument, it will be a very good year.

John: Well, let's talk about the economic situation because there are shadows of that from the 19th century as well. After immersing yourself in the 19th century to research and write about Darwin and Lincoln, what can you tell us and how has that affected how you look at the situation today?

Adam: Well, as I say we'll have the eloquence of explanation, but oy! The things we're going to have to explain!

John: [laughs]

Adam: You know, in the 19th century they called what we call recessions "revulsions," that there were these sudden kind of revulsions of the market. They are like that. Suddenly everything we believed six months ago was true turns out to be false, and just at the time when you're on the height of the boom, you think it's going to go on forever.

When you get to the bottom of it, you think, "We'll never recover." I think there's a certain kind of consoling wisdom in being able to look back and say, "This has been the pattern of capitalist society as long as we've had it."

It's a fantastic engine of growth, and the engine always burns out: not most of the time, not often. This isn't the first, second, or third time we've been through this cycle. It's more like the tenth, eleventh, or fifteenth time. One of the things that the eloquence of explanation can give you is the possibility of calm, proportion, and perspective.

That was clearly one of the things that Lincoln was very good at during the Civil War: not only leading what was to that point a uniquely murderous war, but also being able to say, "This is what this war is about. We are suffering. We are living in a Republic of suffering, but the goal, the end, the purpose is as clear to us as the panic and the pain is clear to us."

That's what the Gettysburg Address is all about, and my hope would be that exactly that eloquence of explanation would help: if not to solve the problem immediately, at least to ease the panic that we all feel.

John: Do you have any resolutions for the New Year?

Adam: One resolution I have for the New Year, and this is embarrassing but true, is to try and meditate. As a consequence of that, I am also determined to stay off the Internet for days at a time because I do think that the Internet has become an addiction for so many of us.

It was the absurdity of the weeks before the election, which I'm sure you remember, when we were consulting real clear politics every 15 minutes, and there was no useful information that we gained by that act. It was simply a form of a massive national nervous tic.

I think as each of us begins to disengage a little bit from that particular kind of preoccupation, we'll feel like the people in The Matrix when they're pulled out of their wombs. Remember that? The wires are pulled out of the pods. I think that "unplug your neighbor" is a decent resolution for the coming year. Unplug yourself and then unplug your neighbor.

John: I started that like two days ago because it's as if I scraped bottom. My wife and I were sitting with two different laptops in the same room.

Adam: Exactly.

John: And we said, "This can't be right." So we started putting them away at 7:00 at night. We weren't allowed to touch them until morning, and I found that I got tired much earlier in the night and got more sleep.

Adam: That is so funny. We have had exactly the same experience. I said, "I am not going to go online between dinnertime and the next morning." There is nothing to find. There'll be nothing gained. Any email that arrives can easily wait until the next day, and nothing is lost by this.

Exactly as you say, what it is essentially is a little insomnia generator. It's like from Aliens as a joke: "Let's give them those things, and then they'll never sleep."

John: Right. "We'll pump just enough into your brain to keep you awake but not enough to really educate you in any meaningful way."

Adam: Maybe we are the Twinhead of the transformation, but we made exactly the same resolution, and I've been sleeping nights because of it.

  • Music Bridge:
    Make Out Machine
    Artist: Slow Poke
    CD: At Home (Palmetto)


  • Comment | Refresh

  • By Alice Perry

    From Chicago, IL, 01/03/2009

    I really like how Adam talked about the "eloquence of explanation." I look forward to Obama's continued leadership because I think he will use his speeches and addresses to clarify and explain events that occur. I admire Abraham Lincoln's speeches and have even tried memorizing the Gettysburg Address, but I must say that I was disappointed when it was used in the memorial service after the 09/11/2001 terrorist attack. At that time I longed for a strong leader who could give an original speech that offered support and true insight as to what was happening and where we as a nation could go. I am grateful that Obama has chosen to lead us and that we have chosen him. Blessings.

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