Latest entries

How would we see the gang war in Texas if the faces had been black?

by David McElroy

Biker gang suspects

This is more of a thought experiment than anything else.

These are the mug shots of a few of the 170 people arrested related to the gang war this past Sunday that left nine people dead in Waco, Texas. How would we be seeing this story differently if this had been the same confrontation between two black gangs in an inner city?

I suspect the reactions would have been different all around. I’d like to consider it briefly.

In the wake of the Baltimore riots — almost exclusively by blacks — I heard condescending things from friends. I’m not talking about nasty Archie Bunker-type racists. I’m talking about middle-class white Americans who simply don’t have a lot of connection to black people.

“That’s just the way those people are,” I remember one woman saying. Another friend said he wasn’t surprised at criminal activity from blacks, because about 80 percent of black men were in prison. (The real figure is closer to 4 percent, if I remember correctly.)

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John Lennon had ‘wrong ambitions,’ but became cultural icon anyway

by David McElroy

John Lennon's 15-year-old report cardWhen John Lennon was 15 years old, the smart people in authority at his school didn’t see him as a world-changing artist.

The headmaster wrote this on Lennon’s report card that year: “He has too many of the wrong ambitions and his energy is too often misplaced.” (Click the graphic above to see a larger version.)

Although he was seen as intelligent, a science teacher wrote, “His work always lacks effort. He is content to ‘drift’ instead of using his abilities.”

In math, he missed the final exam and the teacher wrote, “He is certainly on the road to failure if this goes on.”

His teachers clearly didn’t think much of him. By the accepted standards of the world, he was heading toward failure. Surely he would become a nobody — because he refused to fit into the box that the world was trying to push him into.

Because of his work with the Beatles, though, Lennon turned out to be a pivotal cultural figure of the 1960s. He will be remembered long after everyone has forgotten those experts who judged him.

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Police threaten to seize my camera for crime of public photography

by David McElroy

Canon T3i

It’s one thing to read articles over and over about police harassing innocent people for taking photos in public. It’s quite another to experience it yourself and have an angry cop threaten to seize my camera, but that happened to me Saturday.

It’s all for the children, you know.

I was at the Buck Creek Festival in Helena, Ala., taking photos on a freelance assignment from a newspaper. The managing editor of the paper had asked me to get “candid shots, photos of kids enjoying the event’s attractions, etc.” In other words, it was very typical photography for a public event. It wasn’t a big deal.

After I’d been shooting a little more than an hour, a police lieutenant from the Helena Police Department approached me. He said that he had received reports that I was taking pictures, including pictures of children. Considering the fact that I’d been walking around with my Canon T3i for the past hour — openly taking pictures and talking to random people — it’s clear that this wasn’t exactly something I was trying to hide.

I acknowledged it and asked what the problem was.

(In recounting the narrative from here, I am reconstructing it to the best of my memory’s ability, but since I didn’t take notes or record it, the details might be jumbled or out of order, mostly because I was rattled by the incident. The essence of the narrative is correct, though.)

The cop said he had gotten four reports that I had been taking pictures — including pictures of kids. He said he hadn’t done anything about it the first three times it was reported, but he had a duty now to find out what I was doing and “send you on your way.”

I asked why that was and what law I was supposed to have broken. He couldn’t answer that, but he didn’t like me asking. I told him that I was shooting pictures for a newspaper and I told him which one. That shouldn’t have mattered, because public photography is perfectly legal whether you’re a newspaper employee or just shooting pictures for yourself.

It was about this point that he threatened to seize my camera.

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Becoming conscious of life choices means start of whole new struggle

by David McElroy


If you drop a leaf into a moving creek, the leaf will be carried from place to place downstream by the water. The leaf has no will of its own and no input about where it goes or what happens to it.

It’s pure chance about which leaves will be crushed or destroyed quickly and which might make it for hundreds of miles before breaking apart.

Life is the same way for most people.

They’re dropped into the stream of life and have no real thoughts of their own about where they’re going or what they’re doing. They simply act as others around them act, waiting for fate to carry them to a destiny and then to death.

It’s a very easy and peaceful way to live, but it’s meaningless and random. Becoming self-aware enough to know that you don’t have to be a passive leaf in the stream of life is a struggle, but even getting to that point makes your life far more difficult, because it’s the beginning of something much harder.

If you become aware that you don’t have to gently float to whatever fate random chance has in store for you, you’re forced to either panic from that realization or else start fighting to change your course.

The simple realization that you have choices doesn’t necessarily give you understanding of what the choices are or what your life means. You’ve just awakened enough to know how desperate your situation is and then you have to start figuring out how the entire ecosystem of the stream works at the same time you also try to teach yourself to think and to act.

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Party of ‘limited government’ fails when given chance to shrink state

by David McElroy

Liquor bottles in store

Republicans are the party of small government. They’re happy to tell you that each time there’s an election. They hate Big Government. If you’ll just vote them into power, they’ll shrink government and lower your taxes.

If you believe that, you’re a sucker.

Most people who dislike the GOP and who oppose it do so because they oppose its rhetoric. They’re either Democrats who have partisan reasons for cheering “their team” or they’re progressive left ideologues who favor a bigger, more activist role for government — for one reason or another.

But even though I’m a former Republican — and spent years trying to elect Republican candidates professionally — I find the GOP terribly hypocritical and unworthy of support. Even if I still believed in the concept of majoritarian rule — and I don’t — Republicans have proven over and over again that they’re not going to deliver on their promises to cut the size of government.

When Republicans took over the state Legislature in Alabama a few years back, they came roaring to power promising to cut government, roll back taxes and generally live up to all those glib promises we wrote for GOP candidates for years.

Guess what? They didn’t really mean all that stuff they said. They just wanted to get elected.

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I don’t know how to fix race issues, but anger at race-baiters won’t help

by David McElroy

Racial attitudes

I just saw a politician engaging in ridiculous race-baiting and my first reaction was to angrily denounce her.

My anger was hot and my self-righteousness ran strong. I wanted to condemn her in strong language and make it clear that she’s the sort of person who continues to make race a serious issue in the country. (I’m not going to mention which extreme she was representing, because it doesn’t matter.)

But in the space of 60 seconds, I went from anger at her to frustration with myself. I’ve now stifled my instinct to angrily point out how wrong she is and how she’s using race in a divisive way — not because that would be inaccurate, but because paying so much attention to such divisive people is what gives them so much power.

Race is one of the ugliest problems we have in this country today, and I understand the frustrations and grievances of certain people on both sides of the black/white divide. (Adding Hispanics and the interests of smaller ethnic groups complicates the question even further.)

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If Christians have to sell church like soap, we’re doing something wrong

by David McElroy

Easter advertising graphic

When I was about 24, I got a contract to produce a marketing campaign for a large church in Tuscaloosa, Ala. I wasn’t really qualified for the work — especially the television and radio portions — but one of the deacons involved in the selection process was the father of a friend of mine. He asked if I was interested and then set up a meeting with the pastor. I somehow talked my way into the contract.

At the time, I was convinced that churches needed to be using clever and impressive modern advertising to grab the attention of people who didn’t normally attend church. That’s what every modern organization did, so it seemed to make sense to me. I wanted churches to dump their staid old images and be creative in their graphics and copywriting. That approach sold Coke, Tide, Rolaids, Pepto Bismol, Dial soap and Chevrolets. Surely we ought to be doing the same thing.

My advertising campaign was a failure. The TV commercials were generic and boring. (I still have them on old U-matic tapes somewhere.) The radio spots were adequate but forgettable. The flyers for posting on college campuses were actually pretty decent, but I’m not sure anything was ever done with them. And the half page ad in the newspaper was a disaster because the local newspaper flipped my sunrise picture — what a cliche — and the picture and the copy didn’t match.

At the time, I blamed the relative lack of success of the campaign on my inexperience and poor execution. But as I’ve observed church marketing over the years — and thought a lot about why churches do the things they do and what they’re supposed to become — I’ve completely changed what I believe. I’ve decided that all of my beliefs about church “marketing” were wrong.

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Pride can drive stupid behaviors, even when subject is just car lights

by David McElroy

Volkswagen squareback

I don’t know why I remember this so clearly, because it wasn’t a big deal. It was an argument with a girlfriend in college. Why does it stand out this many years later? Probably because I knew I was wrong, but I was too prideful to admit it.

For most of my college years, I drove a red Volkswagen Squareback just like the one above. I can feel nostalgic about it now, but it seemed like nothing other than a 10-year-old underpowered economy car with no air conditioning at the time. (In an odd coincidence, a history professor I had at the University of Alabama who happened to be named Dr. David McElroy also drove an identical car.)

I happened to be dating a woman whose father had driven this car as a company car when it had been new 10 years before. Fairly early during our relationship, we were in that Volkswagen one day on some holiday when she asked me to turn my lights on, even though it was broad daylight.

She explained that her father had always told her it was a good idea to turn lights on for holidays, because more people were likely to be driving drunk or otherwise impaired. Anything you could do to aid visibility was a good idea, he had told her.

I refused.

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Going through old relics tells me I’m still the same person I used to be

by David McElroy

Bits of the past

Packing a house where you’ve lived for more than 20 years is a bit like an archeological dig into your own life. It can stir up a lot of buried thoughts and feelings.

Looking at the past version of yourself can sometimes tell you something about the present.

I moved last week, so I’ve spent a lot of time lately going through drawers and boxes, trying to figure out what to save and what to throw away. Each layer of things from the past seemed to represent something different.

When it comes to paper, I’m a bit of a packrat. I keep my notes, records, random ideas, cards, letters and dozens of other types of things too difficult to categorize. And with each bit of paper or file or box, there’s a story that comes with it.

I dug up many relics of the days when I was in business for myself, back when I owned a couple of small publications and a typesetting company. There were also plenty of things related to my community newspaper days working for other companies in a series of small cities. There were detailed profit-and-loss statements from newspapers 25 years ago, along with lists of story ideas and design concepts for some of the newspapers. There were faded awards and paste-up sheets and even a pica stick. (Hardly anybody even knows what a pica stick is anymore.)

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Goodbye, Emily (2009-2015)

by David McElroy


When four kittens were born to a feral mother cat nearly six years ago, one of them was different from her sisters.

There were four kittens born to this small feral cat named Molly. (You can read her story here.) Three of the kittens survived and two of them inherited at least some of their mother’s fear and lack of interest in humans. (Click here to see the four kittens at about 6 weeks, just before the fourth died.)

Then there was Emily.

Almost from the beginning, this tiny little girl — about 4.5 pounds, very much like her mother and sisters — wanted attention and affection. She quickly decided that her favorite place in the world was on top of me. Every night for almost six years, she slept on my back. When she was a tiny baby, she slept next to my head, as in this next picture, but after a few months she switched to climbing onto my back instead.

Emily-on David's shoulderShe was so light that I could sometimes wake up and not be certain whether she was there or not. Even if I turned over, she would adjust her position and climb back on top. She claimed me as her own.

Late last fall, Emily started losing a little bit of weight. She had always weighed slightly less than her surviving sisters, Charlotte and Anne, but she slowly lost down to 2.5 pounds. In mid-December, the vet tested her for various things — feline leukemia, parasites and other possibilities that I don’t even remember — but none of the tests revealed anything. She was still eating well. Her body just didn’t seem to be absorbing enough nutrients anymore and she had persistent diarrhea.

If something didn’t change, she was going to die.

The vet put her on a daily steroid pill to help her put on some weight and increase her appetite. She hated her daily pills and drew blood from my hands and arms many times with her claws and teeth over the past few months, but we got the medicine into her every day. Her weight got back up to 3.2 pounds and her stool solidified quite a bit. She continued to eat well, but then she plateaued and remained about 3 pounds.

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