Archive for June, 2013

Throwaway culture can leave us looking for something that lasts

by David McElroy

Hagia Sophia

I had to drive through a part of Birmingham Wednesday where I hardly ever go anymore. Years ago, I spent a good bit of time in that area. As a drove down a major road, my mind catalogued changes that have taken place in the 15 years or so since I regularly spent time there.

The O’Charley’s that was the popular brand-new mid-priced restaurant in the area about 15 years ago was closed and the building was in disrepair. What had once been a Pizza Hut where my ex-wife and I used to spend a lot of time was now a run-down title pawn store. A home supply store where I bought live Christmas trees for a number of years was closed and the building was crumbling from lack of use. There was example after example of this along the highway.

I was surprised to find myself feeling a little disoriented from seeing it all.

My rational brain understands that retail buildings are thrown up as cheaply as possible to serve the purposes they’re intended for. If a building needs to project an air of solidity and permanence, the building’s facade might be stone or be made of something else designed to look like something that will last. But underneath, today’s commercial buildings are cheap and intended to be thrown away in just a few years, after they’ve served their brief commercial purposes.

As I looked at those decaying and abandoned buildings, it occurred to me why I’m so strongly attracted to old buildings that are still in good repair and still in use. I find them charming and oddly alluring, wherever I find them. For instance, Hagia Sophia, pictured above, was built as a church in 537 AD. It spent most of its history as a church and then became a mosque. Today, it’s a museum. I’d like to visit it someday.

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Can a free society tolerate intrusions into details of ‘The Lives of Others’?

by David McElroy


Ever since we found out the extent of the NSA snooping in our lives, I haven’t been able to get a 2006 German movie off my mind. “The Lives of Others” follows an agent of the communist East German secret police as he carries out surveillance on a playwright.

The playwright was actually a good communist, so the state started out having nothing to fear from him. But someone in power wanted something the playwright had, so he used the “security service” for his own personal needs — and the state managed to turn the good communist playwright against itself. The details of the story are complicated, and various lives are changed over the course of the film.

I’m not going to tell more of the plot, because I don’t want to ruin it for anyone who hasn’t seen it. If you’d like to know more, though, you can read the detailed plot summary here. And I’m posting the film’s trailer below.

It’s not the specific plot of “The Lives of Others” that the NSA snooping brings to mind. It’s more the creeping feeling that some politicians and bureaucrats here are working hard to build a modern version of the police state that the communist East used to be. For those of us who lived through those days and understood that the difference between the East and West was that we were free and they were not, it’s a chilling thought.

Are we slowly becoming more like our former communist adversaries?

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Voting Rights Act oversight rules should reflect today, not the past

by David McElroy

Jim Crow is deadIf you listen to most of the mainstream media, you’ll believe that a decision Tuesday by the U.S. Supreme Court has just destroyed the voting rights of black Americans. MSNBC’s headline says, “Supreme Court guts landmark civil rights law.” Reuters headlined its story by saying, “Supreme Court guts key part of landmark Voting Rights Act.” Salon’s headline said, “SCOTUS guts Voting Rights Act.”

It’s almost as though some members of the media got together with black politicians and others on the progressive left to decide that “gut” was the most emotional verb possible to express their disapproval of the Supreme Court ruling.

If you don’t know much about the law or the history involved, you might think the court said it was now legal for states to discriminate against minorities and take away their right to vote.

Nothing of the sort happened. The spin against the ruling is dishonest. The truth is that the decision is a win for fairness. Let’s look at the reason why.

Let’s assume that the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was a proper remedy for the problems that existed when the law was passed. Up until then, blacks and other minorities had been seriously cheated for many decades by racist white governments in more than a dozen states, most of them in the South.

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Goodbye, Sonny

by David McElroy

Sonny watches out window

I was heartbroken to discover Tuesday morning that Sonny, my favorite cat, had died during the night. I have no idea what killed him, but I found him spread out in one of his favorite sleeping spots, so I assume he died in his sleep.

I’ve only had Sonny for a couple of years, but he had become my favorite of my current group of cats. He was the most friendly and loving of all the ones I have now — and one of the most loving and trusting I’ve ever known. He was constantly at my elbow and in my lap — always wanting my attention.

I never like to lose any of them, but to lose this one really, really hurts. Even though I only had him for about two years, it feels as though he’s been here forever, just because he had quickly played such a central role in my everyday life.

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Radical Muslim effort to stop speech points to risks of multiculturalism

by David McElroy

Attack on Lars Vilks

Are free societies laying the foundation for their own destruction? I fear they are. In the name of tolerance, free societies are accepting behavior that will eventually make tolerance and freedom impossible if the trend continues.

I’m a strong advocate of tolerance for people in our society who don’t look like us. Many people today are eager to reject people with the wrong skin color or wrong religion. I wrote recently about why you’re simply a bigot if you hate Muslims in general — or if you hate members of any group just because of their color or religion.

Most Muslims I know are very much like me, but they simply have strongly different religious beliefs and cultural practices. Many others, though, have habits that are very similar to those of other westerners, maybe for good and maybe for bad. But there are some with beliefs and actions that make them unfit for free societies. Those are the ones I’m worried about — not because they’re Muslims, but because they reject the freedom of the rest of us to live with our own cultural and legal standards.

I don’t want anyone imposing his religious or moral codes on me, whether it’s radical Muslims or the members of the Westboro Baptist Church. I’m perfectly content to tolerate those people believing what they want to believe. I’m even content to tolerate them hating those of us who disagree with them.

What I’m not willing to tolerate — and what I don’t think any free society can tolerate — are those who take actions to prevent the rest of us from being free, simply because they’re offended by our beliefs or practices.

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Doing the right thing frequently requires breaking immoral laws

by David McElroy

Edward Snowden

There’s serious disagreement over what Edward Snowden is. We can all agree on the basic facts of what he did, but we disagree about what to call him. He worked for the U.S. National Security Agency and contractors for the NSA. He saw things that he thought were wrong, so he turned over a lot of U.S. government secrets to a couple of newspapers, exposing details and making allegations about the government spying on its own people.

But is Snowden a hero or a villain? For many of us, he’s a hero. He’s exposed spying that we assumed was secretly going on. For those of us who believe this, he’s a hero for risking his life and his future to expose something that he believed was morally wrong.

The people who call Snowden a traitor fall into two camps. One is the group of politicians and bureaucrats who already knew what was going on and didn’t see anything wrong with snooping on the rest of us. Although I find that position legally and morally repugnant, it’s to be expected. It’s the other group of people who are more problematic. That’s the people who want Snowden arrested and put into prison because he broke the law.

I observed this conversation Saturday between a friend of mine and one of his friends. He started by posting a statement in support of Snowden, and the woman responded.

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In Northern Ireland, Obama attacks church schools as source of division

by David McElroy


If you send your children to private religious schools, you might be part of something that “encourages division,” according to Barack Obama.

Speaking to a couple thousand people in Northern Ireland earlier this week, Obama said that children going to schools in line with their parents’ faith — Catholic and Protestant, in this case — is a bad thing that “discourages cooperation.” Although the connections between certain things in his speech seem tortured and unclear to me, it sounds as though he’s comparing religious schools to segregation.

“Because issues like segregated schools and housing, lack of jobs and opportunity — symbols of history that are a source of pride for some and pain for others — these are not tangential to peace; they’re essential to it,” Obama said. “If towns remain divided — if Catholics have their schools and buildings, and Protestants have theirs — if we can’t see ourselves in one another, if fear or resentment are allowed to harden, that encourages division.  It discourages cooperation.”

So according to Obama, letting people make the choice about how to educate their children is tantamount to “segregated schools and housing” and “lack of jobs and opportunity”? Really? In which alternate reality does he find this to be true? Freedom of association is a good thing — and people have the freedom to make choices that you don’t approve of.

To me, the attitude embodied in this speech betrays a couple of things.

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We won’t be free until governments lose the power to control Internet

by David McElroy

Government snooping

In 1996, John Perry Barlow wrote “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace.” At the time, it was exciting and liberating for those of us who were paying attention. In retrospect, it was naive and premature.

Barlow has been an important figure in the development of the online world — both as a coder and as a founding member of the Electronic Frontier Foundation — but some people know him best as a lyricist for the Grateful Dead. (You might also remember a story I wrote last year about his “love at first sight” relationship with a psychiatrist.)

Barlow’s declaration of independence for the online world is pretty libertarian in nature. (He’s frequently described as a “cyberlibertarian.”) It’s about the efforts of governments to control people and about how they’ve failed, so those in cyberspace were moving on to a world without elected governments. It’s about how those of us in the online world are building a new world beyond the control of governments.

The problem is that it’s turned out to be far easier for governments to control cyberspace than Barlow and Co. imagined 17 years ago. In fact, governments are encroaching more and more on what used to be a wide open frontier — and they’re imposing the rules and control of their world on cyberspace.

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Why did we set the world up so that 70 percent of people hate their jobs?

by David McElroy

Bored at work

For most of human history, the notion of job satisfaction would have seemed like a puzzling concept. Life was short and difficult. Just finding a way to survive and produce a family was a big deal. You grew your own food or hunted what you ate. The idea of a job — doing work for someone else in exchange for pay — would have seemed alien.

Today, though, survival is a given. Some of us might struggle financially — especially in an economic downturn such as this one — but we’re not worrying about starving to death. We have such a standard of living in this country that even someone who’s poor today would have been wealthy by historical standards. Our middle class families have things beyond comprehension to those in most of human history.

We’ve created a complicated economy that’s capable of delivering all this, and it’s a marvel. But there’s a dark side — and I’m wondering whether it has to be this way or if it’s an indication that most people are settling for being cogs in machines instead of making positive choices about what to do with their lives.

A new Gallup survey says that 70 percent of Americans are basically bored with or hate their jobs. The study says most people are “checked out” at their jobs or are “actively disengaged” from what they’re supposed to be doing. If this is true — and it fits my anecdotal observations — how did we manage to get here? And how can it change?

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Sex and outrage trump free speech, according to Birmingham politicians

by David McElroy

Sugar Daddy billboard-Birmingham

The test of free speech is whether you can say what you want to say when other people — including politicians — disagree with what you’re saying. When government bodies start voting to demand that you shut up, something has gone dreadfully wrong.

There’s apparently a matchmaking service called Arrangement Finders, but it’s a bit different from most online dating services. This outfit specializes in matching an “Established Man” with a “Perfect Princess,” in the words of the site. Is it dating or is it glorified prostitution? I can’t tell for sure, but it looks to me as though it’s really a legitimate service for men and women who are looking for others to fill a specific role.

An ABC News story says that men pay a monthly fee to the service and women join for free. It’s apparently been controversial in other cities, such as Chicago and Los Angeles. The site’s FAQs say your profile will be deleted if you advertise any kind of escort services.

I’d never heard of the service, but the company did something smart. It placed one billboard in Birmingham, about a mile from the airport, in a rundown part of town where billboards are probably cheap. And then outraged local people — and pandering politicians — gave them all the free publicity they could possibly want.

Last week, the Jefferson County Commission voted to ask the company to remove the billboard. Commission president David Carrington played the “it’s for the children” card when he told the Birmingham News why the billboard should come down.

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Start over here

When this site launched in 2011, it was intended as a way to find others who were sick of partisan politics and wanted to connect with like-minded people who were ready to go beyond politics and find ways of escaping. It has shifted focus in ways that reflect my own shifting thinking. I’m less interested in politics and more interested in looking at the things that make life worth living, such as love, creation, self-understanding and connecting with others. Every article I have posted since 2011 is still in my archives, but everything I write is a reflection of my current thinking. Sometimes I’m wrong — and that’s fine with me — and I don’t always end up agreeing with what I wrote five years ago. For now, you can still read what I wrote about the site’s purpose in 2011, but I should rewrite this. Read more.

Contact David

David likes email, but can’t reply to every message. I get a surprisingly large number of requests for relationship advice — seriously — but I rarely have the time to respond. (Sorry.) Besides, with my own romantic track record, maybe my advice isn’t worth taking. I’d like to find a wife one of these days, so maybe I should add an “application.”

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