This is an open-ended blog ranging from news about my latest gigs and publications
to ruminations about politics, world affairs, culture and whatever piques my interest—or ire.

Thursday, January 29, 2015


After Netanyahu is finished trashing Obama from the lectern of the U.S. House of Representatives, maybe Speaker Boehner (aka Agent Orange) should line up another distinguished orator: Kim Jong-un, who could speak out against Obama's freedom of the Internet initiatives and lobby for the North Korean cheese industry. Boehner's international outreach proves once and for all that Republicans are not the benighted provincials liberals take them for!

Wednesday, January 14, 2015


Robert Stone, 1937-2015
I was saddened by the news of author Robert Stone's death last Saturday at the age of 77. I have long been a fan of his writing, particularly the New Orleans-based novel Hall of Mirrors and the Vietnam novel Dog Soldiers. I just heard a wonderful interview with Bob on NPR, recorded in 2007. Full of humor, anecdotes, memories, wisdom. It was great to hear his voice again. It will be missed.
     I cherish the memory of a weekend in March 2008, when I invited Stone to speak at Tulane as part of the Mellon Lecture Series. You can see an online video of Bob Stone's interview, in which he answers questions about his writing and does a reading from Hall of Mirrors. What you can't see online is the drama that took place after a ghost stole his meds at the Columns Hotel.
     Here's what happened. As Tulane's visiting Mellon Professor in 2007-2008, I was responsible for inviting speakers and organizing their events. Bob Stone was one of my first choices. I contacted him by phone and he was eager to come to New Orleans, where he had spent some happy times in his younger years. I asked if he wanted to stay in a French Quarter hotel, perhaps near the St. Louis Street apartment where he had lived in the 60s. No, he said, he'd rather stay in some "interesting" place outside the noisy quarter. I immediately thought of the Columns Hotel, a stately and picturesque old mansion on St. Charles Avenue. That seemed fine with him.
     What he didn't tell me was that he had an advanced case of emphysema. He also didn't say that he  depended on a regular intake of Valium to calm his nerves. When we arrived at the Columns, we found that his room was on the third floor. The hotel had no elevator, so we trudged up the ornate wooden staircase, step by wheezing step, with me carrying his bag and Bob pulling himself up by the railing. He was tired from his trip and decided to turn in for the night.
     When I arrived at the hotel to have breakfast with him the next morning, he was in a terrible state. While he was taking a shower in his room, he said, someone had stolen his shaving kit along with his meds. The prospect of spending two days without Valium was causing him to panic. He was furious and sputtered vague threats at the hotel desk clerk if they didn't "cough up" his shaving kit. The clerk assured him that no one had been in his room that morning, but that wasn't good enough. Bob immediately checked out of the hotel and demanded that a porter bring his bag down.
     A veteran waiter at the Columns, meanwhile, pulled me aside and said, "It's the ghosts." What ghosts? "Don't you know the Columns is famous for its ghosts? They're children." How did he know, had he seen them himself? "No, no one sees them. But they play childish pranks, they hide stuff, and sometimes they push people down the stairs. When they touch you, you can feel that they have small hands. Children's hands." Had he been touched by them? "Many times."
     I decided not to tell Bob about the ghosts. In his agitated state, the story wouldn't sit well. Instead, I focused on practical matters: moving him across the street to the Best Western, and procuring some Valium so he could function during the rest of his visit.
     I don't take Valium so I called my cousin's husband for suggestions. Ray doesn't take Valium either but he knows a lot of people and, sure enough, one of his best buddies from college had a stash. It also happened that Ray and his pal Charlie were huge Robert Stone fans. Ray told me to bring Stone over to Charlie's house near the Fairgrounds and they'd fix him up.
     Stone was somewhat heartened by the news that help was in the offing, but still in a sour mood when I pulled up in Charlie's driveway. When Ray and Charlie answered the door, giddy at the prospect of meeting their hero, I whispered to them, "Just play it cool. I don't think he's in a real chatty mood." Bob pulled up behind me, breathing hard. As soon as I made the introductions, Ray and Charlie started quoting their favorite bits of dialogue from Hall of Mirrors. Bob did not seem amused, but perked up when Charlie produced a handful of blue pills. He immediately downed one (or more?) with a glass of water and, after a moment, relaxed enough to carry on a brief but civil conversation.
Robert Stone speaking at Tulane's Rogers Memorial Chapel
     Next stop was Walgreen's for toothpaste and toilet articles, then on to Tulane, where Bob was a guest speaker at Joel Dinerstein's seminar on "The Birth of the Cool." He was in great shape by that time and enthralled the students with stories about his adventures with Neal Cassady and the other passengers on Ken Kesey's psychedelic bus tour. That afternoon, I hosted a public interview and reading, which was well attended (Ray and Charlie were on the front row) and well received. That night, Bob was guest of honor at a dinner with members of the Tulane English department, held in a private room at Ralph's on the Park.
     When I drove him to the airport the next morning, he was an a good mood. He told me about a false sexual harassment accusation made against him, and later retracted, by a hysterical student at Yale, an incident that he would use as the basis for his last novel, Death of the Black-Haired Girl. He said he'd had a great time in New Orleans and would be glad to return.
     He did: in December 2013, my former Tulane colleague Tom Beller brought him back for a lecture and reading. I did not see him on that occasion, but I presume he kept a close watch on his shaving kit and avoided any ghostly encounters.

Friday, January 9, 2015


I seem to remember that in 2003, all the war-mongering conservatives and neo-cons were denouncing the French as "weasels" because they wouldn't go along with an Iraq invasion that was based on totally bogus claims of WMD arsenals and Iraqi responsibility for 9/11. The French were bashed as soft-on-terrorism, "cheese-eating surrender monkeys" and worse. How interesting in the wake of today's spectacular anti-terrorist actions in France to see FOX NEWS, leaders of the anti-"Weasel" chorus in 2003, praising the French forces for their "excellent" police operation.

Thursday, January 8, 2015


The Charlie Hebdo affair has similarities to another recent terrorist act: the cyber attack on Sony films over the "Interview" movie that depicts the assassination of North Korean President Kim Jong-un. The issue in both cases is freedom of expression vs the attempts of outside forces to stifle it.
President Obama's comment on the North Korean cyber attack was that we cannot allow anyone to "censor" free speech in America. He criticized Sony for initially pulling the film off the market in the face of North Korean bullying. (In what was basically a business decision, Sony later allowed limited distribution.)
In the case of Charlie Hebdo, the editors and cartoonists have always defied attempts at censorship of any kind. They knew they were taking huge risks but persisted in publishing provocative images to affirm their free-speech right to criticize the excesses of Islamic radicalism (among numerous other targets). If no one has the courage to soldier on in spite of the risks and threats, then the "censors" have won.
   The Charlie Hebdo staff paid a heavy price for their stance. Some will say they brought it on themselves, that they knew what they risked by tweaking the tiger's tail. But if no one dares do that, the tiger wins by default. They were like frontline soldiers staking out and defending territory for the others behind them—in this case, all of us who live in societies based on freedom of thought and expression. We should be grateful to them for their courage, and never give up the fight.


The cancer of Islamic extremism will not be excised by military action. Nor will it be wiped out by political repression. Nor will it be cured by the words of pundits and policymakers in the West. The cure for this cancer must come from within the affected body: the worldwide community of Muslims. In the wake of the tragic attack on Charlie Hebdo, some Muslim leaders have expressed condolences for the victims and denounced the perpetrators, but not one, to my knowledge, has stood up and made the indignant, fiery, and morally persuasive speech that has long since been called for. The world is waiting for words like these from Islamic clerics and scholars:

Brothers and Sisters, a terrible crime has taken place in Paris. We must offer our condolences for the  twelve people murdered in the name of Allah. But the ultimate victims are the hundreds of millions of Muslims all over the world whose religion has been betrayed and besmirched, time and again, by the acts of criminals and terrorists. How many times have we reacted to such attacks with tacit approval? How many times have we protested that we're not responsible for the works of a few extremists? How many times has our main concern been to shield ourselves from Islamophobic reactions to the obscene acts committed in our name? Brothers and sisters, it is time to put the blame where it belongs: in the poisoned hearts and minds of those who have hijacked and violated our most sacred principles. These outrages will continue until we ourselves rise up and drive these criminals from our midst. We must join together and make our voices heard, loud and clear: you who maim and murder in the name of Allah are not our brothers, you are our enemies. You have no place in our community, no place in our mosques, and certainly no place in Paradise. We will ostracize you and renounce you, the true and most dangerous of infidels. 

If such words were repeated in mosques, prayer halls, and schools throughout Muslim society, perhaps one day the extremist cancer would wither and die. Until then, Islam and terrorism will be linked, fairly or unfairly, in the minds of the rest of the world.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015


The Islamist attack on the French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo is an outrageous blow to freedom of expression everywhere. Among the 12 victims were some of the world's most talented satirical cartoonists, Charb, Cabu, and Wolinski, whose work over the years has mocked and pilloried corruption, political hypocrisy, religious extremism, and of course terrorism. They are the latest martyrs, alongside James Foley and Daniel Pearl, to the cause of freedom of the press. Among other things, this mass murder by Islamic fanatics will swell the ranks of Marine LePen's far right, anti-immigrant Front National. Shall we at last hear an upswell of denunciations by the world's Islamic leaders, or will their silence or tepid responses continue to condone the outrages that violate the very principles of their religion and blacken its image?