Monday, January 19, 2015


The murders at Charlie Hebdo continue to generate fears both in Europe and in America, so here’s a suggestion. I think the FM (f*cking morons–see previous blog) should inundate their newspapers and websites with insulting caricatures of the Pope,  the Dalai Lama, any important Jewish religious figure and, of course, Jesus Christ himself. This might make the FM feel better and less likely to rely on firepower to avenge the alleged blasphemy washed upon their deity. A sort of tit-for-tat, if you will.
But here’s the thing I don’t fully understand. According to Fareed Zakaria, perhaps the best-known Muslim in the States, “the word blasphemy appears nowhere in the Koran. Nor, incidentally, does the Koran anywhere forbid creating images of Muhammad.” Zakaria quotes Islamic scholar Maulana Wahiduddin Khan who states that, “In Islam, blasphemy is a subject of intellectual discussion rather than a subject of physical punishment.”
Personally, I think even the FM would be better off trading their semi-automatics for a set of Primacolor colored pencils and a good quality sketch pad. There are untold numbers of offensive caricatures available to them. The Pope on the potty might be a likely subject. Or perhaps the Dalai Lama butchering a steer? And there are jokes. My favorite horrible Christian joke was told to me by a hardcore born-again Catholic friend: Christ, on the cross, turns to one of the two thieves crucified with him and says, “Hey! I can see your house from here!” (F*cking Morons: You can use this with attribution.)
This is probably as close to blasphemy as one can get within Christianity, a humorless faith when it comes to punishing the sacrilegious. According to Leviticus 20:14, “Anyone who blasphemes the name of the Lord is to be put to death.”  Yikes. In spite of this, to the best of my knowledge, no one in recent times has been executed for tasteless Christian humor. Which I am sure is not the case for the radical Islamist with a penchant for decapitation, which is not funny at all.
Since I live in the Washington, D.C., area, I have followed with minor interest the saga of our hapless pro football team, the Redskins. Their name has come under mounting criticism since the word “Redskin” is pejorative, say a growing number of Native Americans. There have been peaceful protests, petitions, legal proceedings, and an untold number of newspaper editorials, and it does look as if in the near future the team owner will cave. It won’t be because he has qualms about using a racial slur, but because the continued use of the word will cost him money.
What has not happened is a bunch of pissed off Native Americans with automatic weapons invading the office of the team owner and assassinating the staff. I’d be willing to bet that the Reskins name is as offensive to them as anything Charlie Hebdo has printed.
One of the things that must happen to stem the atrocities committed by various BFMs is community policing.  It’s hard to believe that in Cherif and Said Kouachi’s Muslim neighborhoods near Paris, not a single person knew what the brothers were doing. Their parents and family claimed the two men had no radical ties and showed no signs of extremism. Yet the Kouachis had traveled to Yemen and Syria and trained in the open. They even named their cell after a nearby public park. 
If indeed others knew of the assassination plans and failed to report them, then they too are guilty of murder.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Charlie Hebdo and the BFMs

Here’s a new acronym, BFM, which you may feel free to use anytime people with guns attack others who are armed only with pens and pencils. BFM stands for Bunch of F*cking Morons, though you can substitute Fearful, Foul, Filthy, or any number of F words if you’re a sensitive soul or small children are around.
There are a lot of BFMs around so it somehow made perfect sense that when he was in Yemen, Said Kouachi, one of the FMs and perpetrator of the Charlie Hebdo murders, was roommate with another FM, a Nigerian named Umar Farouk Abdumutallab. You don’t remember Umar? The underwear bomber? In 2009 Umar boarded a Detroit-bound airplane with an explosive device in is BVDs. The thing didn’t explode and neither did Umar who is now spending a long, long time in a maximum security prison.
The Charlie Hebdo massacre quickly became a handy political football. Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu, in Paris for the million-strong march there, suggested all French Jews move to Israel for their safety because, as we all know, Israel is so much safer and less prone to terrorism than is Paris.  Really, Benjamin?
Marine Le Pen, head of France’s anti-immigrant Front National party, showed up at the demonstration as well to show the worthiness of her cause, and in Germany, a wave of anti-Islamic rhetoric surged through the country. Throughout Europe, the fear is that other BFMs will take it upon themselves to demonstrate their lack of courage by attacking easy targets. It takes neither intelligence nor bravery to assassinate intellectuals and/or reporters (the terms are not synonymous) and it’s an unfortunate certainty that in the very near future some other FMs, seeing the international commotion created by the January Hebdo attack, will seek to add his or her name to the FM pantheon. No one, of course, remembers the names of the FMs, so there’s not much of a legacy there, but to a FM, that will not be a deterrent.
Some four millions people in France showed their solidarity with Charlie Hebdo. Heads of state came too, as did artists and writers and musicians. Another few hundreds of thousands across the world showed up as well, and all, each and every one, claimed “Je suis Charlie.” They’re not, of course.
The problem with massive outpouring of emotions such as the ones demonstrated over the weekend is that feelings aren’t facts. Once the outrage passes, then what?
In France, anti-Semitism is on the rise again. Nothing surprising there; France bears a sad history of such behavior dating back to the Middle Ages. With five million Muslims in the country, there’s also been an anti-Islamic backlash that has manifested itself in truly dubious fashion—banning scarves from public schools and prohibiting Islamic women wearing a chador or hijab from operating motor vehicles. Thousands upon thousands of French–born Muslims and more recent immigrants live in what can only be described as ghettos that offer little education, high unemployment, and a completely limited future. This has to change. Massive public demonstrations are good but useless if not followed by action to better the fates of the minorities.
Feelings aren’t facts, and that’s a fact.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Charlie Hebdo, Part 2

There’s nothing like Charlie Hebdo in the United States. The totally irreverent Parisian weekly that was attacked by terrorists and lost 10 of its editors, writers and cartoonists, has no peer on this side of the Atlantic.
The Onion? Marginal, overly obvious and trying too hard. Jon Stewart’s Daily Show? Current event comedy that at its best never wavers too far from the politically correct; there are, after all, advertisers one must cater to, and it would be unseemly–and costly—to alienate too many of them. National Lampoon? (one of my prized possessions is the Lampoon’s Unwanted Foreigners issue.) Out of business. The hundreds of websites that claim to be edgy, ahead of the curve and irreverent are peripheral as well, vague shadows of the brazenness that suffered such a loss in Paris.  In the US, impertinence is never mainstream.
Charlie Hebdo is mainstream. People buy it at newspaper kiosks and tabacs across the width and length of France. They read it in cafés over anisette and espresso. They discuss it at lunch and dinner with their spouses and friends. They take issue. They are offended, amused, outraged, occasionally disgusted– Charlie Hebdo has its truly tasteless moments—and, if it is their minority that’s the butt of that week’s bayonetting, they fume and occasionally take to the streets fronting the paper’s offices. Charlie’s reporters and cartoonists, meanwhile, are household names, sought after and well-informed celebrities often seen on television, whose opinions are quoted and respected.
It’s odd to think that France, a smallish country, could have not only Charlie Hebdo but Le Canard Enchainé as well, another brilliant satirical newspaper that will be celebrating its 100th birthday this year.  A canard in French is a duck, of course, but it’s also the slang term for a newspaper. Le Canard Enchainé is anything but chained, and it too ridicules France’s shortcomings, politicians, bicycle racing, governmental decisions, sex—particularly among its elected officials–racism, sports leagues, and societal movements. It breaks important news stories and has sources in the highest venues, but, compared to Charlie Hebdo, it behaves with relative elegance and evinces better grammar and less graphic cartoons.
I’ve often wondered what happened here in the US. Have we been co-opted by cable, or lulled into complacency by the droning of the mainstream media? How in the last few decades did we lose our sense of humor and become so politically correct that no publication of any importance would ever dream of taking on the vagaries of any faith, including Islam. Why is there no nationwide publication ready to brochette the ridiculous and unethical behaviors of our politicians, and, just for once, call a spade a spade?  
How did we get so smug, so uninvolved, so uninterested, that we have neither a chained duck nor a Charlie Hebdo.    

Charlie Hebdo

When I was a kid I used to read Hara-Kiri, a French magazine as irreverent as its name implied. Hara Kiri became Charlie Hebdo, a French newspaper slyly named after Charles de Gaulle, the French president whom it lambasted mercilessly.
Over several decades, the newspaper kept the French either laughing, or complaining bitterly against the publication’s blatant tastelessness, but it kept them reading.
By now, most everyone knows that the Paris offices of Charlie Hebdo were attacked yesterday by terrorists who killed 12 people, mostly reporters and cartoonists.
The staff of Charlie Hebdo made it their business to lampoon everyone–politicians, religious leaders of any stripe, capitalists, the military, the bourgeoisie, movie stars and TV idols, but their editorial knives were especially sharp when it came to the politics and
behaviors of radical Islamic leaders. There’s little sense of humor to be found among terrorists and fanatics, so the attack wasn’t all that surprising. Morons with guns are a sad staple of society, and whether these espouse white supremacy or Islamic fundamentalism, morons are morons and, sadly, guns allow morons to do horrible things.
It’s paradoxical; France has long been the land that welcomed refugees and exiled leaders.  Ayatollah Khomeini lived in France for decades. Ho Chi Min was a waiter in Paris. White Russians came by the thousands when tsarism ended. Armenians and Kurds share neighborhoods in major French cities.  There are five million Muslims in France right now and most will decry the outrage committed against a satirical newspaper by three deluded would-be soldiers.  
The killers will be caught—they are, after all, morons, and Charlie Hebdo will keep publishing and skewering and lampooning because this is what it does. And once again, it
will be proven that the pen is mightier than the moron and the sword or gun he might be wielding.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Writing, 2014

Greeting a new year and closing out the preceding one is always bittersweet.
There was never enough written or read; there are still too many ideas that haven’t had time to get developed–worthy, Great American Novel ideas that given half a chance would set the publishing world on fire, or maybe not. There was too much time perusing other peoples’ works and not enough time spent on my own. There are a dozen story and novel titles crowding my computer screen, and others still are queued up in small notebooks spread throughout the house.
I got a new agent who at the time of signing was enthused enough about my work that he wanted to represent three of my books. Sales were imminent, he said, in fact a couple of important editors had already shown interest…Unfortunately, I haven’t heard from this agent since July in spite of repeated and varied attempts to contact him (are you there, Barry Zucker? Is McGinniss Associates literary agency still alive? You never call; you never write! I’m feeling abandoned here!) and so part of the coming year probably will be spent looking for another agent, a frustrating and thankless task I do not look forward to. Agents, it seems, are overwhelmed by demands made upon them by hordes of ink-stained wretches and so, more often than not, don’t bother replying to authors’ queries. No news, when it comes to dealing with agents, is not good news.
I wrote a play, an absurdist thing on existentialism, and a producer friend arranged to have it read. That was an eye-opener. I learned that writing for the stage implies totally different skills than writing fictional dialog. The pacing and rhythms are different; the choice of vocabulary requires skills I may or may not have. The spoken word, I came to understand, has little relation to the written one, and I gave up whatever control I had over the characters I created as soon as the actors read their lines.
I didn’t get in print as much as I would have liked. I still have a rough time accepting the worthiness of online publications. To me, writing is ink on paper, not variations of ones and zeros spread across a digital page. There’s a permanence to paper that doesn’t seem to exist on screen; in fact, I find the majority of stuff printed on-line falls sadly short of acceptable. Brevity and accuracy have fallen prey to immediacy, and that’s unfortunate. I think we’re finding more and more ways to communicate less and less, and increasingly poorly at that.
On the positive side, I’m nearing completion of a book that more than two years ago I was commissioned to write about the International Voluntary Services, the precursor of the Peace Corps. That’s been fascinating if sometimes frustrating, but the sense of contributing to something important, of actually writing about the experiences of people whose involvements in things bigger than themselves meant something, that has been priceless.
And it’s going to be a real book…