Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Born in the USA

I recently attended a naturalization ceremony. The last time anyone in my family became a naturalized American citizen was four generations ago, back at the turn of the nineteenth century, so this was a unique experience for me. It took place in a government building, in a large room filled with prospective citizens and their guests. A little boy, whose mother was becoming an American citizen, sat next to me in the guest section. Two television monitors were positioned on either side of the stage at the front of the room. A Statue of Liberty replica stared out at us from its perch on the table beside the monitor closest to me, surrounded by dozens of miniature American flags. I smiled at the little boy. “I think you’ll get to bring one of those home with you.” Sure enough, a woman came by, passing out flags to the children.

Music played through the speakers, as we waited for the ceremony to begin. A black man sung an odd rendition of America the Beautiful, off-key and adding his own improvisations. But the strangest song on the playlist was Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA, perhaps both the most unlikely and inappropriate tune for the occasion. The video monitors displayed an articulate welcoming message from President Barack Obama, followed by an inspiring message from former UN Ambassador and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. She described how she had fled her native Czechoslovakia as a child to escape the Nazis, and returned to her homeland later, only to have to flee again as a teenager when the communists took over. She became an American citizen, earned a PhD, and rose to be one of our country’s most distinguished diplomats.

Her visage was replaced on the monitors by a slideshow while the Star-Spangled Banner played in the background. It was a song filled with great meaning, but as with many songs, people often repeat the words without truly appreciating what they mean. As the crowd around me blindly mouthed the words, I looked down at the little boy next to me. I wanted to explain to him what it was we were hearing. I wanted to tell him how Francis Scott Key wrote the lyrics to the Star-Spangled Banner, inspired as he sat aboard a ship in the harbor watching the bombs bursting in the air. It was during the War of 1812. He was aboard the British warship HMS Tonnant to negotiate the release of American prisoners. While they were on board, the British attacked Baltimore, bombarding Fort McHenry. When dawn came, Key saw the resilient American flag waving above the fort. He wrote a poem later set to music that became the Star-Spangled Banner, America’s national anthem.

O say can you see by the dawn’s early light,
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming,
Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight,
O’er the ramparts we watched, were so gallantly streaming?
And the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there;
O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave,
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

It means something. It’s not just a bunch of words or a catchy tune. Our young nation was at war, invaded by the mightiest army in the world. A month earlier, in August 1814, the British had set fire to the White House, forcing President James Madison and his wife Dolley to flee the presidential residence, never to return. The capitol had also been set afire, and for the first time since the American Revolution, a foreign power had captured and occupied Washington, DC, the American capital. The Battle of Baltimore could have signaled the end of the American Experience… But “by the dawn's early light” the “broad stripes and bright stars” of an oversized American flag were “gallantly streaming” over Fort McHenry, having replaced the smaller, tattered storm flag that had waved defiantly through the 25-hour “perilous fight”. I wanted the little boy next to me to know that.

The slideshow sped past an image of the plaque on the Statue of Liberty. The neoclassical sculpture on Liberty Island in New York Harbor representing the Roman goddess of freedom was a gift from France. It was a magnificent gift, but it was quite large and needed a pedestal on which to be placed. A fundraising effort was started to procure money to construct a pedestal. Jewish poet Emma Lazarus donated a sonnet entitled “The New Colossus” to be auctioned off. In 1903, her poem was inscribed on a bronze plaque on the pedestal’s inner wall. This child of immigrants described the statue: “A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame is the imprisoned lightning, and her name Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand glows world-wide welcome…”

The most famous words of Lazarus’ sonnet are: “"Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me…” Could any words be more meaningful and significant to a room full of immigrants moments away from being granted full citizenship? I wanted to pause the slideshow on that image of the plaque and read the entire sonnet so the little boy next to me, and everyone else, could appreciate the enormity of the sentiment expressed so eloquently by Emma Lazarus.


But the image passed in a fleeting moment, having appeared on the screen before us for only the briefest of instances, in keeping with modern America’s impatient, fast food, finger-on-the-remote-control, limited attention span culture. Each year, Americans celebrate their freedom on the Fourth of July with fireworks and barbecues, seldom pausing to reflect on the origins and meaning of the iconic symbols representing the holiday. Perhaps this year, all Americans, new or as Bruce put it, “Born in the USA”, might ruminate on their significance.

Monday, July 4, 2016

An Independence Day excerpt from My Book

And now, on this Fourth of July, an appropriate excerpt from my new book, Collected Essays of a Reluctant Blogger:



On this day commemorating the founding of our republic, it is appropriate to take a moment from our barbecues and fireworks displays and reflect on the state of our country and our society. Recently, the Supreme Court, in the Citizens United case, which allowed corporations to spend unlimited amounts backing political campaigns and spurred the development of superPACs, effectively ruled money equivalent to speech. But speech can take many forms, and depending on the nature of that speech, past courts have found it necessary and indeed advisable to place certain limits on it. There is a distinction between information and political propaganda (misinformation and lies). When massive amounts of money are spent to distribute misinformation to an uneducated, and frankly, ignorant populace, the result is not democracy but aristocracy. Our society had devolved into a citizenry so poorly educated that when surveyed, 40 percent thought the Civil War preceded the Revolutionary War. Americans knows more about the Kardashians than the Kennedys. American society is composed of "low information voters" who make decisions based on snippets and soundbites instead of researching and learning about the important issues of the day. The plutocrats are now spending untold millions on such snippets and soundbites to misinform and misguide poorly informed voters.

There has been an enormous transfer of wealth in American society, from the middle and upper-middle classes to the highest stratum of the upper class, on a scale not seen since the Gilded Age. But what the plutocratic billionaires have yet to realize is, once they have filled their coffers to the brim by draining the financial blood from the rest of society, there will be no one left to afford to purchase their goods and services, and their financial empires will crumble. They seek a return to 19th century economics, when the plutocracy grew rich through a cheap labor supply and a growing nation of consumers to purchase the goods they manufactured. But long before America outsourced its jobs, it had outsourced its manufacturing base to Japan,  Korea, and China. America is no longer a manufacturing nation; it is a consumer-based nation, and the consumers - whose jobs have been shipped overseas or made obsolete by technology we embraced too rapidly without regard to consequence, whose wages have fallen, whose benefits have been cut, and whose incomes have failed to keep pace with greed-driven inflation - can no longer afford to consume.

The plutocrats distract the masses with high tech toys, reality TV shows, and political kabuki theater. The Romans had a name for that: bread and circuses. Give the peons enough food and entertainment and they will shift their attention from what goes on behind the curtain by those who govern them.

Did you know that the gulf state of Qatar provides each of its 250,000 citizens with free cradle-to-grave healthcare and public education? All without taxing its citizens. Of course, they can afford to do this because they are an oil-rich nation and they have made trillions of dollars selling that oil to America. We Americans are subsidizing free healthcare and education, not for ourselves, but for the Arabs. Why? Because we continue to cling to an outmoded mode of transportation - the automobile powered by the internal combustion engine, devised in 1806. We could put a man on the moon, but not devise a better transportation system (for example, like the high-speed rail systems of Europe and Japan)? Of course we could. But there are plutocrats whose fortunes are maintained through the oil and automotive industries, providing them a strong disincentive to change the status quo. We need to replace the automobile industry, which is based on a centuries-old technology, pollutes, has created massive sprawl, and ties us to oil, a commodity controlled by our enemies. The only ones benefiting from it are the oil companies and the car manufacturers.

The same is true of pharmaceutical companies, who have the same strong disincentive to devote their research and development budgets to curing diseases, when it is far more lucrative for them to create pills that merely treat diseases. Better to have a perpetual market for their product than to harness their collective scientific brainpower to eradicate disease and eliminate the need for their wares.

Our country is in trouble and needs leaders. Instead, we are presented with buffoons: Sarah Palin, Michelle Bachman, Herman Cain, Rick Santorum, Rick Perry... the list goes on, ad nauseam. Where are the men of the caliber of Harry Truman, Jack Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy, LBJ, FDR, Hubert Humphrey, let alone men like Lincoln, Jefferson, Adams, Franklin, or John Jay. The current contenders have made a mockery of the presidency, just as jurists like Clarence Thomas sitting on the court where John Marshall, Hugo Black, and William Brennan once sat is farcical. Need I comment on the pathetic state of Congress, with its 9% public approval rating, as it fills its chambers with Tea Party nutcases like Rand Paul and Allen West? When Chris Wallace, of partisan Fox News, asked Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell one simple question: "You insist on repealing Obamacare - if you repeal it, what will you and the Republicans do to insure the 30 million uninsured Americans who will get insurance under Obamacare?" He answered: "That is not the issue." Wrong answer, Senator Bozo. That's precisely the issue. You've shown you and your clown party don't have answers, just partisan lies and attacks.

The only solution is to work to replace these people, who have slipped into leadership positions of our government, with qualified, responsible, progressive reformers. This entails recruiting such individuals and financially backing them so they can be elected. It also requires those of us who are educated to speak out - publicly, loudly, and often - to debunk the misinformation and lies spread by the plutocrats and their lackeys.

JFK summed it up best in his inaugural address (condensed): "The world is very different now. For man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty. And yet the same revolutionary beliefs for which our forebears fought are still at issue around the globe: the belief that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state, but from the hand of God...Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans - born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage — and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this Nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world. ...We shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty...United, there is little we cannot do in a host of cooperative ventures. Divided, there is little we can do, for we dare not meet a powerful challenge at odds and split asunder...If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich... So let us begin anew, remembering on both sides that civility is not a sign of weakness, and sincerity is always subject to proof. Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate. Let both sides explore what problems unite us instead of belaboring those problems which divide us... And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country."

The world is very different from the one into which we were born. We have the means to abolish human poverty, yet instead allow our country's great wealth to sit in the hands of less than 1% of its population. Perhaps the new generation of Americans, born in this 21st century can reverse this trend, provide our country with world class health care, education, and public transportation, and restore the liberties stolen from us by the Bush Administration under the guise of protecting us. Perhaps they will produce leaders who, unlike our current congressmen and candidates, realize civility is not a sign of weakness and cooperation, negotiation, and compromise are far from anathema to the proper functioning of government. Perhaps, but I doubt it. As Lincoln said, "A house divided cannot stand." I have been amazed to see so many of my poorer friends reach out to help others in need, while many of my wealthiest friends are quick to adopt an Ayn Rand attitude of every man for himself. The solution to our nation's ills will only come when the plutocrats and those still reasonably well-off join with their less fortunate brethren and ask, as did JFK, not what their country can do for them, but what they can do for their country and their fellow citizens.

Happy Birthday, America. Enjoy your Fourth of July fireworks and barbecues. They fiddled while Rome burned, too.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

The Best Laid Plans of Mice and Men

I’m sure you’re familiar with the old expression “the best laid plans of mice and men ofttimes go astray.” The quotation comes from Robert Burns’ poem “To a Mouse”, written in 1786. Probably the first known apology by a farmer to a field rodent, it relates his regret at having upturned the mouse’s nest while ploughing a field:

But, Mousie, thou art no thy lane [you aren’t alone]
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best laid schemes o’ mice an' men
Gang aft a-gley, [often go awry]
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
For promised joy.

About that “promised joy”… Last month, with eager anticipation, I announced the impending publication of my updated and expanded short story collection, Shards: The Omnibus Edition. The book had been written, edited, and laid out. At 740 pages, it encompassed the original award-winning Shards short story collection published in 2011 and nearly 200 pages of additional brand new material. It had been sent to the printer to be published on the release date as planned. And then…

Squeak!

The best laid plans of mice and men ofttimes go astray. The printer encountered a problem. The book was delayed. Robert Burns, looking down from the heavens about to dine on a haggis, chuckled. So did the mouse.
  

Shards: The Omnibus Edition: Available now (really!) at www.amazon.com/Shards-Omnibus-Keith-B-Darrell/dp/1935971239

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Mackenzie Mortimer Takes an Unexpected Detour in Time

An Excerpt from The Tomorrow Paradox (Book Two in The Adventures of Mackenzie Mortimer):


Mackenzie found himself standing beneath a lamppost. It was night, which surprised him because moments before it had been daytime. The streetlight illuminated the curb on which he stood and a portion of the cobblestone paved road running parallel to it. The road curved at a 130-degree angle and there were rows of two and three-story buildings on either side. Even in the dim light, Mackenzie could tell the buildings were far older than any he was used to seeing in Serenity Valley. Wherever he was, he realized, it wasn’t home.

Mackenzie perused the unfamiliar setting. The street was deserted, the shops closed, and the lights turned off in the apartments above the darkened stores. “I don’t understand. This isn’t Serenity Valley. I’ve never seen streets made of stones. But I set the watch exactly as Alex showed me.” Mackenzie ruminated. “The Morse code left behind by Gramps in his diary! What if those numbers were coordinates? When Alex entered them into the watch, they might have been stored in its memory, waiting for the time travel controls to be activated. Since we never deleted the entry, the controls homed in on those coordinates when I activated them, because Gramps’ coordinates had been entered before mine. Whenever I am, Gramps must be here, too. Gramps’ coded instructions must’ve been set to work only when the watch was set to travel through years, not minutes. When I tried to go back to my own time, it took me to whatever time Gramps was in. I’ve got to find him.”

A girl crouched in the shadows by some large wooden packing crates called out softly to Mackenzie. At first, he couldn’t understand what she was saying. Then, the nanoelectronic implant in his head activated its universal translator. Language recognized: Dutch. “Get out of the light, you fool. You must be addled to be standing out in the open under a streetlight after curfew.” Mackenzie’s universal translator had translated the foreign language into English in his mind.

“What do you mean?” Mackenzie asked. His translator automatically verbalized his thoughts in the same foreign language. In his mind, Mackenzie was asking next, “Where am I?” but the sentence came from his lips spoken in Dutch.

“Keep your voice down,” she whispered. “Loud voices travel far at night. Come here, away from the light.”

Mackenzie took a few steps in her direction. “Who are you?”

Before she could reply, two armed soldiers, one driving an Army motorcycle and the other riding in its attached sidecar, barreled down the street, stopping a few yards from them. The soldier in the sidecar shined a mounted spotlight on them. The driver shouted at Mackenzie: “Halt!”

Language recognized: German. Mackenzie frowned. First Dutch, now German? Where am I?

“Run!” the girl called out to him, turning to flee.

The soldier jumped from the sidecar and ran after her. He returned a moment later, having captured the struggling girl. He gestured with his gun for her to stand beside Mackenzie.

“Why are you out after curfew?” the driver asked Mackenzie.

“I didn’t know about the curfew.”

The German soldier snarled. “Everyone in Belgium knows about the curfew. If you are going to lie, at least make it a plausible lie. Show me your papers.”

“What papers? I haven’t got any papers.”

“And you, girl. Do you have a better excuse for being on the street after curfew?”

Her hand trembled as she reached for her identification papers. “I work at the bakery. Our shipment of wheat arrived late.”

“Surely, you were not baking bread in the evening? It would be stale by morning. I do not believe you, either. Your friend cannot tell us who he is and neither of you has an acceptable explanation for being out after curfew. I suspect you are with the Resistance, although you could be spies. No matter. I’m sure you’ll be more talkative at Gestapo headquarters.”

“Hertz,” his companion said, “I can ride behind you on the motorcycle, but the sidecar will only hold one of them.”

“That is not a problem,” the German soldier replied. “The Gestapo has ways of getting all the information it needs from either of them, so we need only bring back one.” He pulled his Luger from its holster and fired a single shot.


Available in paperback or Kindle exclusively on Amazon.com






Time is running out… fortunately, Mackenzie Mortimer has a few more minutes than anyone else!

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