Mark Lilla is Professor of Humanities at Columbia. His new book, The Shipwrecked Mind: On Political Reaction, will be published in September. (March 2016)

How the French Face Terror

A demonstrator with an issue of Charlie Hebdo at the march against terrorism, Paris, January 11, 2015. The cartoon on the cover shows a Jew, a Catholic, and a Muslim demanding that ‘“Charlie Hebdo” must be veiled!’
Intellectuals, no less than politicians, respond to crises based on what they think they learned from earlier ones. It is difficult to see what is genuinely new in an emergency, harder still to admit ignorance in the face of it. Our instinct is to assume that the unforeseen confirms our picture of the world rather than the necessity of altering it.

France: Is There a Way Out?

Actors from the Globe Theatre performing Hamlet for refugees and migrants in the Jungle refugee camp, Calais, France, February 2016
Economic stagnation, political stalemate, rising right-wing populism—this has been France’s condition for a decade or more. So has nothing changed since the Charlie Hebdo killings? Yes it has, and not simply because of the Bataclan massacre.

The Strangely Conservative French

André Malraux, France’s first minister of culture, Paris, 1968; photograph by Henri Cartier-Bresson
Two and a half weeks after the Swedish Academy announced that the French novelist Patrick Modiano would receive the 2014 Nobel Prize for Literature, the French minister of culture, Fleur Pellerin, appeared on a popular television show to talk about herself and her work. She expressed pride that “France is …

Slouching Toward Mecca

It will take a long time for the French to read and appreciate Soumission for the strange and surprising thing that it is. Michel Houellebecq has created a new genre—the dystopian conversion tale.

France: A Strange Defeat

Éric Zemmour arriving at court for his trial on charges of inciting racial hatred, Paris, January 2011
For three days the sirens never stopped in Paris. They began on the morning of January 7 right after two French Muslim terrorists infiltrated the offices of Charlie Hebdo in the Marais and killed twelve people. A police dragnet spread out as the killers veered through the city before they escaped in the direction of Reims. The next morning a young policewoman was shot dead on a street near a Jewish school just outside the freeway ringing the city and again the police spread out. On January 9 television stations reported that another terrorist had taken hostages at a kosher grocery store near the Porte de Vincennes, and through the window of my office, which gives onto the Seine, I heard a steady stream of police and military vehicles rushing to the scene throughout the day. And then ambulances, which meant the news was not good.

France on Fire

French President François Hollande, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, President of the European Council and former Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Jordan’s Queen Rania and King Abdullah, and Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi marching to protest terrorism following the attacks on Charlie Hebdo, Paris, January 11, 2015
For the past quarter-century a political and intellectual culture war over the place of Islam in French society has been bubbling along, and every few years some event—a student wears a burka to school, riots erupt in a poor neighborhood, a mosque is attacked, the National Front wins a local election—renews hostilities. Now, though, nearly one thousand French citizens are believed to have traveled to Syria to join other Islamist militants there, and heavily armed jihadists pledging allegiance to ISIS and al-Qaeda in Yemen have massacred seventeen people in Paris. Given the enormity of the crimes, it is hard to escape the feeling that a major battle is beginning and that it will overshadow economic and other issues here for months and years to come.

France: The Ground Shifts

Demonstrators on the Triumph of the Republic statue at Place de la Nation, during the march in support of Charlie Hebdo, Paris, January 11, 2015

No one had predicted or even expected the Charlie Hebdo attacks. But already one reads and hears that “all the signs were there” and that “they”—the government, the police, multicultural journalists—refused to recognize them. It is not a hard story to sell.

The Defense of a Jewish Collaborator

Claude Lanzmann and Benjamin Murmelstein, Rome, 1975; from Lanzmann’s film The Last of the Unjust
If Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah can be viewed as a cinematic response to Hannah Arendt’s “banality of evil” thesis, his new film is a retort to her unflattering portrait of the Jewish leaders. Now, it seems, Lanzmann wants very much for us to understand the Holocaust, through the story of Benjamin Murmelstein, the controversial head of the Judenrat (council of Jewish elders) who dealt with Nazi officials in the Theresienstadt concentration camp.

Tyrant of the Commune

The artist Otto Mühl, dancing with a member of his Friedrichshof commune, June 1, 1989

Paul-Julien Robert is an angry young man. And he has every right to be. Robert was born in 1979 to a young Swiss woman living in Friedrichshof, a famous, and later infamous, Austrian commune that was once the largest in Europe. Like so many utopian communities founded over the past two centuries on the principle of participatory democracy, this one was the brainchild of an individual visionary. He was Otto Mühl, a former Wehrmacht soldier who in the Sixties helped found the Actionist art movement in Vienna. Over the years Mühl became increasingly dictatorial and in the Eighties it came to light that he was sexually abusing some of the children. The commune was dissolved, and in 1991 he was convicted of pedophilia and spent seven years in prison. He died this past May at the age of eighty-seven.

Isaiah Berlin Against the Current

Isaiah Berlin (center) with his friends Stuart Hampshire and Nicolas Nabokov, 
Oxford, England, 1969
To one who thinks philosophically, no story is a matter of indifference, even if it were the natural history of the apes. —H. M. G. Koster It was an anecdote he liked to tell. In 1944, while working at the British Embassy in Washington, D.C., Isaiah Berlin was called back …

Republicans for Revolution

Republican presidential candidates Ron Paul, Rick Perry, Mitt Romney, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, and Michele Bachmann during the National Anthem before a debate, Washington, D.C., November 22, 2011
The current public dissatisfaction with our parties is not just about partisanship. It also reflects a sense that the labels we use to distinguish factions, principles, and programs have lost their value. What does it mean to call oneself a liberal or conservative today? Does it make sense to distinguish “progressives” and “reactionaries,” or are those just terms of abuse and self-flattery? It’s hard to know how to talk about the new classes of rich and poor created by the global economy, and their strangely overlapping political commitments. Or where on the linguistic map to put the new populisms spawning around the world, some anti-global, some anti-immigrant, some libertarian, some authoritarian. Words are failing us.


F Train, Smith & 9th Street, 6:35pm

A poem for the Brooklyn Book Festival The F train
Is the brain train. iPad lasciate,
Voi ch’intrate,
Eve’s backlit apple,
Gold ‘n delicious,
Tempts us not.
We have spines to break,
Penguins to tame.

Daniel Bell (1919–2011)

Daniel Bell, early 1980s
It is a great advantage in life to have had a god that failed. Nothing human, and certainly nothing modern, will be alien to you. Daniel Bell’s god that failed was Marxian socialism. My god that failed was God. When I first met Dan at Harvard in 1979 I had …

The Hidden Lesson of Montaigne

Blaise Pascal; anonymous portrait, seventeenth century
The art of the introduction is dying. It used to be that when you opened, say, a Penguin or Oxford classic you’d find a short, engaging tour d’horizon, quirky in the English style and focused on essentials. It predisposed you to give the author an even break. Today you bang …

The Historic Election: Four Views

Ronald Dworkin The results of Tuesday’s election are savagely depressing, wholly expected, yet deeply puzzling. Why do so many Americans insist on voting against their own best interests? Why do they shout hatred for a health care plan that gives them better protection against calamity than they have ever had? …

The Beck of Revelation

Glenn Beck on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial at his ‘Restoring Honor’ rally, Washington, D.C., August 28, 2010
Glenn Beck is the most gifted demagogue America has produced since Father Coughlin made his populist broadcasts during the Great Depression. In the course of one radio or television show he can transform himself from conspiracy nut and character assassin into bawling, repentant screw-up, then back to gold-hoarding Jeremiah, and finally to man of God, without ever falling out of character. Which is the real Glenn Beck?

The Nation We Have, Not the Nation We Wish For

Drawing by David Levine

The reaction of the Republicans and Democrats to Tuesday’s historic election was a study in contrasts. John Boehner, surrounded by ecstatic supporters, moved quickly to dampen expectations, reminding the public that the president still “sets the agenda” and therefore can still be held responsible for what comes next, and tried as best he could to appear humbled rather than vindicated. Marco Rubio, the Tea Party favorite who is now Florida’s Senator-elect, put the matter bluntly in a strong acceptance speech that conservative pundits are already swooning over: “We make a grave mistake if we believe that tonight these results are somehow an embrace of the Republican Party.” These two men get it: Tuesday’s massive defeat for Barack Obama was not an embrace of the Republican Party that voters had soundly rejected just two years ago.

French Strikers & the Tea Party: Mark Lilla Responds

Demonstrators walking past a damaged car as they protest against France's government pensions reform, Lyon, October 18, 2010

Those who responded so strongly to my post obviously spent more energy objecting to its title (not mine, by the way) than thinking about the modest comparison I made between the Lyon protests and the Tea Party protests. They are similar in only two, but to me important, respects.

Tea Party à la française

A protester wearing a mask representing French president Nicolas Sarkozy and fanning euro notes during a demonstration, Paris, October 19, 2010

It’s strike season in France. Nearly every year around this time you begin to hear the whistles and drums and the loudspeakers bleating out the chants: “On va gagner, on va gagner! OUAAI!!! OUAAI!!!” In a country obsessed with the loss of national memory and shared experience, the annual strikes are, along with the Tour de France, one remaining public ritual reminding the French that they are French—not “European,” not workers of the world united, but French.

One Set of Shoulders: China’s Hidden Revolution

Chinese parents urging their babies on during a swimming contest, Beijing, September 20, 2009

During a recent month-long stay in China, my wife and I toured the southwestern province of Guangxi with a jovial guide from Guilin. James (his professional name) was very knowledgeable, but a little too eager to give us our money’s worth. For five days he talked non-stop. But one night, in a remote mountain village set atop terraced rice paddies, he fell silent. As we were sitting down to dinner he got a call and asked to be excused; when he returned half an hour later the smile was gone and his eyes wouldn’t meet ours. At first grateful for the silence, we became worried when he remained withdrawn the next day. With a little prodding, he eventually told us what the call was about. It involved his son, his only child.

The Tea Party Jacobins

Glenn Beck of Fox News addressing the Conservative Political Action Conference, Washington, D.C., February 20, 2010
A new strain of populism is metastasizing before our eyes, nourished by the same libertarian impulses that have unsettled American society for half a century now. It appeals to petulant individuals convinced that they can do everything themselves if they are only left alone, and that others are conspiring to keep them from doing just that. This is the one threat that will bring Americans into the streets. Welcome to the politics of the libertarian mob.

A New, Political Saint Paul?

Tertullian called Saint Paul “the apostle of the heretics” and he was right. Ever since Marcion, the second-century theologian who thought Paul taught that the Christian God was a deity wholly distinct from and superior to the Hebrews’ Yahweh, the Pauline corpus has been creatively misread. It is hard to …

Mr. Casaubon in America

Crisis is the mother of history. Beginning with Herodotus the urge to write history has been bound up with the need to explain the seemingly inexplicable reversals of fortune suffered by nations and empires. The best histories satisfy that need while still capturing the openness and unpredictability of human action, …