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Cruelty & Perversity: Postprandial Reflections on the PEN Protesters

The grim satire of the ‘Charlie Hebdo’ controversy, in context

Paul Berman
May 26, 2015
(Tablet Magazine)
(Tablet Magazine)


The great peculiarity of the PEN-and-Charlie Hebdo controversy earlier this month was a combination of ostensible agreement on values (freedom of speech, sympathy for the victims of the January attentat in Paris, anti-racism, sympathy for the immigrant masses, and condemnation of terror: staples of PEN orthodoxy), and spectacular disagreement on facts. The protesters, most of them, wanted the world to know that, in regard to press freedoms, their commitments were absolute. Willingly they would defend the right even of Nazis to say whatever terrible things Nazis might say, as the ACLU once did in Illinois. But they honestly believed that Charlie Hebdo is a reactionary magazine, racist against blacks and bigoted against Muslims, obsessively anti-Islamic, intent on bullying the immigrant masses in France. A dreadful magazine. Nazi-like, even—therefore, a magazine not even remotely worthy of an award from PEN. On these points the protesters were adamant. Only, why?

A modest heap of useful information about racism in France and the distinctly non-Nazi political nature of Charlie Hebdo and its cartoons did accumulate during the course of the affair, and the modest heap ought normally to have changed a few minds. Nobody’s mind seemed to change, however. Would an additional sprinkling of facts and authoritative endorsements have helped? I attended the PEN Gala and listened to the speeches and found myself wishing that my friends among the protesters, having boasted to the entire universe of their boycott, had sneaked in, anyway. They would have watched the leaders of PEN bestow the award on Charlie Hebdo’s surviving staffers, and this would have of course been galling, given what they believed about the magazine. They would have heard Charlie Hebdo’s editor utter his incisive mot, “Being shocked is part of democratic debate. Being shot is not,” which was impressive and true and maybe immortal, yet would have left them unmoved because it did not speak to their objection. But what would they have made of the speech by Dominique Sopo, who is the president of an organization called SOS Racisme? SOS Racisme is the liveliest and most prominent civil-rights organization in France, and its president’s speech was the liveliest moment of the controversy. The moment of maximum lucidity. At the Gala, Sopo did get a cheer.

I hope that my protesting friends will allow me to recall the historical background to Sopo’s New York speech. Well into the 1980s (and beyond), the North African and black African immigrants in France found themselves without powerful institutions of their own and without powerful friends working full-time on their behalf, therefore without much reason to suppose that, in the future, the doors of French society were going to open any wider. But those circumstances began to change, and it was because of their own agitations. In 1983, young Arabs in Lyon put together a political demonstration to denounce the racism in France and to call for economic equality, and their demonstration swelled into a massive march to Paris, which swelled into rallies of the sort that used to be called “monster.” From which emerged, after a while, SOS Racisme, Sopo’s organization. The idea was to offer, at last, a reliable voice for the victims of discrimination. And to look for practical remedies. This was a complicated matter.

In France the immigrants have had to face two sets of enemies and obstacles, and not just one. They face the everyday racism of French life, which in the 1980s was becoming exceptionally ominous, owing to a few early hints of the coming prosperity of the National Front and the extreme right. The whole purpose of the National Front was and is to prevent immigrants from pushing their way any further into French life. And the immigrants have had to face an obstacle within their own neighborhoods. Until those same 1980s, the Muslim Brotherhood and the wider Islamist movement had never counted for much in Algeria and the Maghreb. But Islamism advanced. New mosques and preachers and religious institutions promulgated the militant word in the immigrant districts of France, and the militant word amounted to the claim that Islamists, and Islamists alone, speak for the masses of Muslims, and everyone else should step aside. And this movement, too, set out to block the immigrants from pushing their way into French life.

The Islamists in France wanted to carve out new zones under their own control where they could promote their medieval ideas, segregate the sexes, restrict girls’ education, rail against the Jews, and pine for the 7th century. The zones, medievalisms, segregations, restrictions, railings, and pinings got under way. And the challenge to SOS Racisme was, from the start, to work up a style of politics and agitation that could take on both of those enemies at once, the National Front and the Islamists, the extreme right and the still more extreme right—even while nursing the tender flame of egalitarian idealism that had generated the French Arab street protests in 1983.

SOS Racisme’s slogan was “Touche pas à mon pote,” or, “Don’t touch my buddy,” which charmingly expressed and still expresses the anti-racist ideal. With this slogan the organization enjoyed a major success. “Touche pas à mon pote” has entered the French language. SOS Racisme succeeded for a while in getting young Arabs and North African Jews in some of the immigrant districts to work together in neighborhood committees, and these activities inspired admiration in still other neighborhoods. The people who attended the PEN Gala heard a few echoes of those achievements in Sopo’s speech, in the easy way he condemned several different kinds of bigotry at once—bigotry against Arabs, Muslims, blacks, Jews, and Roma, quite as if a prejudice against one were a prejudice against all. You think it is easy to express an across-the-board liberalism of that sort in our day and age? And sound other than wimpy? I have always admired the oratory of the French left.

Dominique Sopo at the PEN American Center Literary Gala at the American Museum of Natural History, May 5, 2015 in New York City. (Photo by Jemal Countess/Getty Images)
Dominique Sopo at the PEN American Center Literary Gala at the American Museum of Natural History, May 5, 2015 in New York City. (Photo by Jemal Countess/Getty Images)

It is true that, over the years, SOS Racisme has sometimes ended up looking like an operation of the Socialist Party, fishing for votes in the immigrant streets, which is not an enviable image to have. And true that, in regard to stopping the rise of the National Front, SOS Racisme has evidently failed to figure out the formula. Nor has SOS Racisme gotten very far in fending off the Islamists. By now the Islamist movement has managed to attract the street-corner tough guys and the surly rappers and a good many other people in certain of the immigrant suburbs, not to mention the inmates in the prisons, who are precisely the people who committed the massacres at Charlie Hebdo and the kosher grocery store in January.

SOS Racisme nonetheless counts for something in France. It is the single loudest voice of anti-racism. It is a glory of the democratic left. And it was a dramatic thing to see SOS Racisme’s president speak up for Charlie Hebdo at the PEN Gala—for the Charlie staffers who, as he took pains to explain, have always been his comrades, allies in one campaign after another, always, always. Anybody who gives a little thought to Sopo’s analysis ought to be able to understand something about Charlie Hebdo’s world-view, too, which amounts to something more than equal-opportunity mockery. To satirize the National Front, as Charlie Hebdo has done relentlessly—this has been more than a good idea, politically speaking. To satirize the Islamists—likewise. Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons have more than once drawn a distinction between the political Islamists, with their frightful ideas, and a French Islam that is perfectly consistent with the most progressive of principles and the well-being of the immigrant neighborhoods—and the drawing of this distinction, too, reflects a sound political instinct. To satirize everybody else, according to deserts—an entirely good idea. Over the years, the principal target at Charlie Hebdo turns out to have been (according to a couple of sociologists who counted the cover cartoons and reported on their findings in Le Monde) Nicolas Sarkozy, France’s leading conservative—and this, too, is appropriate, given the magazine’s political orientation.

Yes, what would the protesting writers at PEN have made of any of this, if only their own boycott had not prevented them from hearing Sopo make his argument? Or if they had conducted a bit more research into Charlie Hebdo and its politics? They would not have enjoyed hearing Sopo deliver one remark in particular. “It is very important that we do not kill those who died a second time,” said the president of SOS Racisme. This meant: “You Americans who know nothing about the struggles of us immigrants and children of immigrants in France, you Americans who consider Charlie Hebdo to be unworthy of an award from PEN—you Americans should stop slandering our murdered comrades.” In sum, “Touche pas à mon pote.” I suppose the protesters would have shrugged this off, as they shrugged off the remarks of everyone else who tried to reason with them.


☛ I admire Charlie Hebdo’s courage. But it does not deserve a PEN award by Francine Prose, Guardian, April 28, 2015
☛ Unmournable Bodies by Teju Cole, The New Yorker, January 9, 2015
☛ Charlie, encore une fois… by Elliot Weinberger, London Review of Books, April 28, 2015
☛ Letters and Comments of PEN Writers Protesting the Charlie Hebdo Award, The Intercept, April 27, 2015
☛ 204 PEN Writers Have Objected to the Charlie Hebdo Award, The Intercept, April 30, 2015

Only, why? Is it really true that, in the ranks of PEN, one person after another is blinded by a provincial ignorance of everything not American, beginning with France’s language and ending with its cartoons? At the gala, the cartoon editor of The New Yorker, Bob Mankoff, lamented into the microphone that, when it comes to cartoons, not everybody gets the joke; and it may be that, in regard to Charlie Hebdo, an American education does make it hard to get the joke. The Charlie cartoonists have worked up a double-entendre ironic style that amounts to a politically incorrect anti-racism. This is inconceivable, from a certain American standpoint; and what is inconceivable must not exist. In the Charlie cartoons, Arabs sometimes have hooked noses and big lips, not to mention the Jews, not to mention the blacks! This does not mean that Charlie Hebdo is Der Stürmer. The protesters at PEN believed otherwise. They were aghast. Nazi comparisons became a trope of their protest. The Charlie cartoonists sometimes cultivate a raucous style aimed at 16-year-olds. This makes the cartoons look even worse to Americans whose beau ideal is The New Yorker. We sophisticates adore the elegance of Jules Feiffer (and yet, in reality, the Charlie cartoonists command more than one style, and Luz, in his brand-new cartoon memoir, has drawn some dancing terrorists in a visibly Feifferian mode, and it is a mistake to underestimate the French arts).

But I don’t take the argument about American parochialism too seriously. PEN American Center may be full of odd ducks, as befits a literary institution, and there is always someone who enjoys waving a demagogic fist, but the odd ducks and fist-wavers (as I remember keenly from my years on the PEN board) tend to be well- and even polyglotically educated. Even today, if you spend enough time at one of the café tables lining the Boulevard Saint-Germain, a goodly percentage of PEN’s American membership will eventually give you the pleasure of strolling by, on their way to the American literary tradition that is the Brasserie Lipp. And everyone among the more prominent writers has French friends and publishers and translators and friends of friends—which means that, among the protesters at PEN during these last few weeks, something more than Uncle Sam know-nothing-ism must account for the peculiarly American upset over Charlie Hebdo.


I think that panic has set in. The panic was of course provoked by the Islamists, beginning 10 years ago with the campaign against the Jyllands-Posten caricatures of Muhammad (and against Charlie Hebdo, too, after Charlie had loyally reprinted the Danish cartoons). And the panic has been unwittingly compounded, modified, and disseminated by the principal English-language news organizations, beginning in that same 2005 with their decision, poorly thought-out, to refrain from reprinting or broadcasting the Danish cartoons—this early decision that set the precedent for this year’s decision not to reproduce Charlie Hebdo’s post-massacre cartoon of the prophet. And the PEN controversy shows the consequences.

The terrorists launched their campaign against cartoonists because of the fundamentalist injunction against icon worship, combined with the grand supernatural conspiracy theory that dominates Islamist political doctrine. The campaign was slow in getting under way because, back in 2005, no one had heard of a Danish newspaper called Jyllands-Posten. But once a number of militant imams had decided to pounce on the cartoons, and a number of Islamic governments saw an opportunity in lending support to the imams, a mad hysteria gripped the Islamist movement and its penumbra of unaffiliated and even illiterate followers all over the world. The hysteria was akin to the witchcraft crazes of the 17th century—a mass hysteria aroused by superstitious fears: In this case, the fear that, in the Danish infraction of the fundamentalist ban on portraying Muhammad, the diabolical conspiracy had revealed itself, and the anti-Islam annihilatory attack had begun.

The major English-language news organizations compounded the hysteria by deciding to regard it as other than hysterical. Everyone knows that, in the cases of the Jyllands-Posten and Charlie Hebdo alike, and perhaps in a few other cases, too, the journalistic logic for reprinting or broadcasting the cartoons was and is overwhelming. The cartoon crisis has been a significant event in world affairs for 10 years now, and it is impossible to understand the crisis without seeing the cartoons. The news organizations, in justifying their decision not to reproduce the images, have not seriously argued otherwise. The news organizations have taken the position, instead, that, if they were to publish or broadcast the images, they would inflict a tremendous emotional wound on their Muslim readers and viewers—a wound so grievous as to counterbalance the public’s need to examine the cartoons, including everyone among the public who might be Muslim.

And yet, the cartoons are offensive or injurious only if you assume the fundamentalist injunction and the demonic conspiracy theory. Otherwise, nothing in them is illegitimate or especially offensive. The most famous of the Danish cartoons shows Muhammad as a suicide bomber with a lunatic look in his eyes and a bomb tucked into his turban, which is obviously a reasonable commentary on the deplorable uses to the which the prophet has been put. The Danish cartoon is even somewhat witty, given that, in Western art and poetry during the last few hundred years, Muhammad has been conventionally portrayed in the way you can see on the frieze of the Supreme Court building in Washington, D.C., as a lofty and law-giving hero of world civilization. And here was the Danish cartoon to point out that, in the hands of the terrorists, Muhammad has lately been assigned an opposite role. The famous January Charlie Hebdo cover by Luz, entirely different, offers, of course, a defense of Prophet Muhammad against the terrorists themselves—in fine display of Charlie Hebdo’s nuanced instincts and sympathy for ordinary Muslims.

But the big English-language news organizations, by declining to reproduce the images, ended up endorsing a secularized version of the Islamist interpretation: the cartoons not as a demonic attack on Islam itself, but as a cruel attack on the sensibilities and emotions of the world’s Muslims. And the big news organizations ended up insinuating, by logical extension, a severe judgment of any publication that did reproduce the cartoons. For if the cartoons really did inflict massive injuries on Muslim emotions around the world, what kind of person would choose to go ahead and reproduce the images, anyway?

The word “racism” is imprecise, given that Muslims are not a race; but if you take “racism” loosely to mean an irrational hatred for masses of people who share some quality that is inherited at birth, then “racism” would be, from this standpoint, an appropriate word for anyone who, like the Jyllands-Posten and Charlie Hebdo, shows an eager desire to inflict the injuries. Seen from this standpoint, the Jyllands-Posten and Charlie Hebdo might, in fact, merit a comparison to Der Stürmer. The comparison is, of course, preposterous, and doubly so if you stop to reflect that, in the Charlie Hebdo affair, the actual racism that came into play was the ancient desire to slaughter the Jews—this Islamist desire that does owe something to Nazi inspirations. Still, if you make the mistake of accepting as reality the premise of the major English-language news organizations, the insinuated accusation about Charlie Hebdo being a racist magazine follows logically. And if you combine the insinuated accusation with the atmosphere of hysteria that always follows terrorist massacres, you can understand how one of the anti-Charlie protesters at PEN—perhaps the most prominent protester of all, a former president of PEN American Center (whose novels, by the way, are well-regarded in France)—could have ended up composing one of the most-quoted sentences about the Paris attentats: “The narrative of the Charlie Hebdo murders—white Europeans killed in their offices by Muslim extremists—is one that feeds neatly into the cultural prejudices that have allowed our government to make so many disastrous mistakes in the Middle East.” This, from the author of The Blue Angel!

In reality there has been no such “narrative” about white Europeans. Back in January, everybody knew at once that, in the combined terror attacks, at least eight of the 17 murder victims were people with other than European origins: a policewoman from Martinique, a policeman and a copy-editor from Algeria, and five people (a cartoonist, a columnist, two grocery shoppers and a grocery clerk) with roots of some kind in Jewish Tunisia. Those are merely facts, though. In the United States there were people who, having come to believe that Charlie Hebdo was Der Stürmer, were eager to fill out the picture of white European racism run amok; and, being novelists, they filled it out with gusto.

Someone might reply by saying: “Still, isn’t it true that the Muslim community feels outraged and injured by the cartoons and by Charlie Hebdo itself? Even if the excellent people at SOS Racisme wish it were otherwise, mightn’t this be the case?” To which I respond with the commonsense observation that, in the immigrant neighborhoods of France, a battle has been going on for many years, pitting the Islamists against the democrats and secularists, and the Islamists have used their victories to proclaim themselves the voice of a community that does not exist, and to denounce everyone else as racist traitors to Islam. But why should we line up on the Islamists’ side? From the standpoint of a literary organization in the United States, there ought to be, in any case, an obvious way to see what is actually going on among the North African Muslims of France right now, and this is to turn away from the radical imams and their rappers and demagogues and the kids in the streets, and to open, instead, the pages of the novelists who know something about these topics.

By happy coincidence, on the very day that PEN American Center in New York bestowed its award on Charlie Hebdo, the Goncourt Prize committee in Paris bestowed its own 2015 Prize for a First Novel on the French-language Algerian writer Kamel Daoud, whose novel is Meursault, contre-enquête—a superb novel, which will shortly be published in English translation. Daoud has composed his novel in reply to the greatest of the Algerian writers, who was Albert Camus, and the reply begins by pointing out that in The Stranger Camus’ narrator would not say who it was that Meursault murdered on the beach. The victim is described as an Arab, but remains nameless. Daoud gives this man a name. He introduces us to the family. His own narrator is the victim’s brother, who does not wish to be rendered anonymous any longer by other people. The brother wishes no longer to be a victim—no longer to be invisible. He demands his say. So, Daoud allows the man to vent. And what does the aggressively visible prize-winning Algerian novelist say about the present controversy, the one involving Charlie Hebdo? The Nation in New York translated into English his commentary in the Algerian press: “I am Charlie, deeply so, and I say so and accept the consequences: I prefer a man who draws to a man who kills. Everywhere. There is nothing to discuss, no nuanced view, no other choice. I love freedom too much and would rather defend a freedom than split hairs; I haven’t got the time.” Daoud was threatened with death by a crazy Islamist’s fatwa or maybe pseudo-fatwa in December of last year, and one can appreciate his impatience with hair-splitting.

Still, what if, out of a genuine concern for the immigrants, we agreed to look a little further? I recommend to my protesting friends the writings of a second French-language Algerian writer, Boualem Sansal, whose own prizes include the French Academy’s Prix de la Francophonie, together with the Arab Novel Prize (except that, in the latter case, the Palestinian Hamas objected to Sansal, and he never did receive the prize money). Sansal has produced a series of books recounting Islamism’s progress among Algerians on both sides of the Mediterranean, and in those books he addresses the fantasy that some people do seem to indulge of a uniform and pious community of Muslims—the kind of community in which nearly everyone endures in silence the humiliations that are wreaked upon them by Nazi cartoonists, except for the occasional person who cannot take it anymore and enlists in al-Qaida. Sansal goes about disabusing his readers of this fantastical idea. He wants everyone to understand that Islamism is a new and repellent force, at odds with older and more traditional and more humane customs and culture, not to mention at odds with liberal ideas.

In his novel The German Mujahid he tells a story that illustrates the Islamist connection to the Nazis, which is a taboo theme in some quarters—and he shows how the Islamists fish for recruits in the French housing projects. In Rue Darwin he escorts his readers around some of the same streets that figure in Daoud’s novel, and he does so in order to express a sharp anger at the Islamist progress in Algeria (and yet, in order to show that he is not prejudiced against religion as such, he draws a portrait of an admirable rabbi—from which you may deduce his problems with Hamas). The most recent of his books, the non-fiction Gouverner au Nom d’Allah, offers a survey of the Islamist movement and its origins and strengths, which some American publisher ought to bring out in English in contrition for the anti-Charlie protests—a useful book that, in passing, applauds the various European newspapers that did reprint the Danish cartoons. The Charlie massacre took place well after Gouverner au Nom d’Allah came out, but in Le Figaro Sansal applauded Charlie, too—Charlie, which “has never hesitated to speak truly and freely, even in the face of Islamist barbarism.”

I picture my protesting friends at PEN turning the pages of these books by Algerian novelists and saying to themselves: “My God, it’s dreadful! Salman Rushdie appears not to be an isolated figure, after all. Here are novelists who make fun of religion. And of Islam, which, as we know, only a racist would do. They are worse than the cartoonists. They think terrorism is a problem not only for governments but for novelists. These novelists are the sons of Albert Camus. How ghastly! Boualem Sansal thinks Islamism is barbarism! Kemal Daoud says, ‘I am Charlie!’ Why, these people, who happen to be the leading writers of modern Algeria, must be dangerous reactionaries of the worst sort! They are challenging the terrorists, instead of appeasing them, as any decent person would do! If these novelists ever dare come to New York, we will picket them.”


The American writers’ protest against Charlie Hebdo has been remarkable on one additional count, and that is its dosage of personal cruelty. It was no small thing to observe a couple of survivors of the Charlie massacre make their way to New York, a mere four months after the slaughter, and be greeted with jeers and a boycott. A supremely chilly heart is needed to mount such a protest. And yet, a couple of hundred warm-hearted American writers lent their names to the chilly protest. The spectacle of their doing so was, of course, a humiliation for New York—for the New York that once upon a time underwent its own Islamist attack and received an outpouring of warmth and sympathy from French people, whose motto of the day, “Nous sommes tous américains,” was the progenitor of “Je suis Charlie.” Still, the protesters never meant to humiliate New York. Nor did they mean to display solidarity for the immigrants of France. Less than two weeks before the Charlie staffers were boycotted at the PEN Gala, Marine le Pen, the leader of the National Front in France, attended a gala of her own in New York, the Time Magazine “100 Gala,” and here would have been the moment to show a little solidarity, if anybody were inclined to do so. But it was the Charlie staffers, and not Marine le Pen, whose arrival in New York stirred a protest.

Or, if solidarity were the intention, why didn’t the protesters organize a PEN event of their own, in keeping with their own vocation? They could have celebrated and discussed their own counterparts from among the French-language Algerian novelists, who… but, all right, I can see why the protesting writers at PEN American Center might want to steer clear of Algerian novelists. Or, how about a commemorative celebration of the brilliant French-Tunisian man of letters and champion of liberal Islam, Abdelwahab Meddeb, who died a few months ago? OK, same problem. Still, the protesters could have found someone else to promote—theological writers, perhaps, the Salafi reformists and moderate Islamists, for which there is a precedent at PEN: theologians who would never dream of contravening the traditions of Hassan al-Banna. A PEN event of that sort, sympathetic to Islamist interpretations, would have required not even the tiniest of personal attacks on the victims of terrorism. But the protesters insisted on their attacks. The attacks were their intention.

And this, too, has a precedent. A few years ago I wrote a book called The Flight of the Intellectuals about Islamism and its reception in the highbrow English-language press, and, in the course of the book, I had occasion to describe the predicament of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who in those days was still living in Holland, though she was already being hounded out. You will recall that, in Holland, Hirsi Ali and the filmmaker Theo van Gogh produced a short and punchy film intended to protest against Islamically condoned violence against women—and, after the movie was shown, van Gogh was murdered. Hirsi Ali was obliged to flee from pillar to post. And, under these circumstances, a number of Western intellectuals with the finest of liberal credentials, not content with merely criticizing her, launched something of a campaign of insults against her in one journal after another. I recorded the campaign, though really I did not know what to make of it.

A couple of years later Rushdie came out with a memoir called Joseph Anton, recounting his own experience of coming under Islamist attack, and I was interested to see that, in his case, too, once he had fled into a police-protected underground life, he was greeted by a wave of jeers and insults, coming at him from the British press, which he renamed The Daily Insult. You will perhaps recall some of those insults. They are the same insults that came Hirsi Ali’s way, to wit, no one ought to be murdered merely for expressing opinions, but—the but—these troublemakers lack respect for religion, they are blasphemers, they foment bigotry against Islam, they have invited their own difficulties, they are egomaniacs who do not care about the fate of other people, they are commercially motivated, they are tools of imperialism, and so forth. A similar campaign has been gotten up against the Dutch journalist and legal scholar from Iran, Afshin Ellian. And now the same phenomenon, with a few variations, has recurred in the case of the tragic and witty and gifted leftists of Charlie Hebdo.

I could go through the list of famous names among the American protesters, recording the insults they have tossed at the murdered French cartoonists and their colleagues, but I do not have the heart for it. I make a prediction, though. I predict that, next year, or in five years, some other novelist or memoirist or artist somewhere in the world will have the good luck to escape an Islamist assassination attempt or massacre. And when the terrified survivor comes limping afterward into Manhattan, in search of solace and friends, that person, too, will discover that, in some of the finest of circles of literary New York, everybody hates a loser, and the protesters have gathered on the sidewalk outside the hotel, and the vilification has begun.


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Paul Berman is Tablet’s critic-at-large. He is the author of A Tale of Two Utopias, Terror and Liberalism, Power and the Idealists, and The Flight of the Intellectuals.

Paul Berman is Tablet’s critic-at-large. He is the author of A Tale of Two Utopias, Terror and Liberalism, Power and the Idealists, and The Flight of the Intellectuals.