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With each ‘improvement,’ we’re losing family and community

by David McElroy

Children playing in street

One of my neighbors died two weeks ago today, but I didn’t know about it until a few hours after he was buried — four days later.

I’d lived across the street from William for many years. He’s cut my grass several times. I’ve given him rides to the store. I’ve chatted with his wife, Anna, and him when I’ve bumped into them at the grocery store. Every now and then, he would come over as I was getting home, just because he wanted someone to talk with.

So why did it take me so long to find out that William had died? And what does this imply about modern communities?

Every indication I see or read says that communities haven’t been as strong for the past couple of generations as they once were. Those same decades have been filled with incredible advancements in our living standards and options about life. Could it be that the choices we’ve been making are filled with tradeoffs that we’re not entirely sure we’re making? I suspect so.

At one time, the people in communities and neighborhoods had to know one another, because they were all they mutually had. They didn’t have cars to drive to places across a city or state. They spent most of their time within a short distance of home.

They stayed outside more, because it wasn’t that long ago when normal people didn’t have air conditioning. (And it wasn’t too many years before that when air conditioning didn’t exist. I don’t know how people lived in the South at the time.) Children played outside. Adults worked outside and they sat around on porches and talked when they weren’t working.

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We can’t control when death comes, just what we do while we’re waiting

by David McElroy

Death waiting

Three stories caught my eye in rapid succession Saturday night. They were all three about deaths of people I didn’t know, but they left me with an uneasy feeling that I’m not really living my life. Maybe I’m just sitting around waiting to die.

The first was about a victim of the serial killer Jack the Ripper. Although she’s been dead for 126 years, I saw a picture of a man with the blue and brown shawl she was supposedly wearing when she died.

The next story was about a theatrical actress in Chicago who was killed Saturday when a falling tree struck her as she rode her bike. I don’t know anything about the woman, but her piercing eyes stared at me from the picture.

The last of the three stories was about a 34-year-old mother of two in Chicago who was killed this week when a stone gargoyle fell off an old church and hit her as she walked by. She was on her way to have lunch with her fiancé, who was the mother of her children.

None of these women realized she was about to die. One was unexpectedly murdered. The other two were victims of what could only be considered freak accidents. Seeing their stories in rapid succession like that made me think about the rest of us, including myself.

I have no idea when I’m going to die. I honestly believe I’ll be here for many years to come. Maybe it’s simple denial, but I’ve always thought I’d be one of those freaks who lives until 120 or something. But I have no way of knowing.

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Loving a depressed person means holding tightly on trips through hell

by David McElroy

Depressed woman-window

When I was a small child, there were times when my mother didn’t get out of bed in the mornings. I didn’t know why at the time. I understand now.

My mother was diagnosed with manic depression, which we call bi-polar today. I don’t know when I learned those words. I can vaguely remember thinking about them at some point and trying to figure out what they meant. I can remember the vague sense of something being wrong. It was a vague sense of being abandoned and alone.

I suppose I was about 4 or 5 years old in the images I recall. I had two younger sisters, about 3 and about 1. My father would be gone to work and we were at home with Mother. And I felt all alone. In a lot of ways, I’ve never gotten over that feeling of being all alone and abandoned. In a way, I’ve been replaying that script over and over and over.

All of the discussion about depression in the past two days — in the wake of Robin Williams’ suicide — has been really emotional for me, because it’s brought up disturbing experiences that I’ve gone through with people who I’ve loved.

My mother was diagnosed when I was about 5. That was about the time when she started trying to leave my father. It’s also the time when she went into a mental hospital for awhile. (I seem to recall it as about six weeks, but I might be wrong.) I saw her struggle for years to be stable and to be the smart, artistic and happy person she was at her best. I wrote more about her last year.

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Rhetoric about freedom means nothing without right to secede

by David McElroy


The Declaration of Independence is evidence of the ability of powerful men to use beautiful rhetoric of freedom to justify their secession from a political power they didn’t wish to be part of.

The War Between the States less than a hundred years later is evidence that the resulting regime didn’t believe its own rhetoric about secession and self-determination.

Subsequent actions by the federal government are further evidence that following the principles of the Declaration of Independence will get you imprisoned, not freed.

The Declaration of Independence is filled with beautiful, soaring words, but the men who wrote those words couldn’t conceive of letting individuals have real freedom. They could only conceive of groups of powerful white men controlling some specific territory and ruling over those who lived there.

The Constitution is proof that the men of the day imposed their rule on the territory which they seized from Great Britain rather than allowing individuals to rule themselves. It was an experiment in “limited government,” which they believed would somehow be different from all previous attempts at coercion.

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One year later, late-night phone call and suicide threat still echo in me

by David McElroy

Hiding Behind a Mask

She went to the bridge that night to kill herself. That’s what she said, anyway. All I know is that I believed her.

It was a year ago tonight when I got a text message. She told me that she was on a bridge and was ready to die. She had threatened repeatedly to kill herself during the two years prior to this, and there had been several times when I’d been truly afraid. There were times I talked with her most of the way through the night — on the phone from almost a thousand miles away — just trying to keep her alive until morning would arrive and the suicidal demons of depression would slip away from her. At least until it was dark again.

I loved her. We had a long and complicated history. That part doesn’t matter anymore. But I loved her more than life itself — and I do love my life very dearly. I loved her even more.

She told me in her text message that as she stood there thinking about what she was about to do, I was the only one she wondered about. She was worried about how I would take it. She worried about whether it would affect a film I was working on at the time. She said it surprised her that I was the only one she thought about. She had no reason to lie, so I believed her.

After texting for a few minutes, I asked her if she would talk on the phone. She didn’t reply for a minute, but then my phone rang.

There had been nights when she had been hysterical with emotional pain. Tonight, she was numb and calm. She just wanted to die. She hated life and the pain that came with it.

We hadn’t talked in months. Despite the odd and painful circumstances, I was happy to hear her voice. It made me feel as though I could almost touch her. I wanted to hold her hand. I wanted to tell her that everything would be all right if she would just believe me and let me help her.

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After previous ObamaCare decision, Hobby Lobby case just a sideshow

by David McElroy

Great American Sideshow

After a divided Supreme Court ruled today that Hobby Lobby can’t be forced to buy birth control for its employees, the reactions have been predictable.

Social conservatives are hailing it as a great blow for freedom. Progressive leftists are screaming that this is about bosses controlling access to birth control for their employees. At any moment, I expect to see the chant start somewhere that the five justices on the winning side hate women.

I have trouble working up any enthusiasm about this case. Yes, it’s a good decision in a narrow way for religious freedom, but it’s pretty hollow when seen in context of everything else.

The Supreme Court has already ruled that Americans can be forced to buy things they don’t want to buy for themselves. Think about that. If the government believes you should buy hamburgers from McDonald’s or a subscription to National Geographic or a specified array of sex toys, the court has said it’s fine for government to require that of you and punish you if you don’t comply.

The court has already said that it’s perfectly fine to force employers to buy health care for their employees — plans that the government must approve. Whatever government deems to be necessary, companies can be forced to buy for you, whether you want it or not.

The Hobby Lobby decision only says that if a company’s owners object to birth control on moral grounds, they can’t be forced to purchase that particular coverage.

That’s all this decision does. While it’s right in the very narrow sense, it’s so utterly inconsequential compared to everything else that’s already been mandated that it’s hard to believe it matters.

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Slow culture changes might mean skin color matters less in future

by David McElroy

Diverse kids

When I stepped outside my front door Sunday afternoon, I saw four young children running around playing together. On the porch next door, there was a father keeping an eye on the kids. He smiled and waved as he said he hoped they weren’t being too loud.

There was absolutely nothing unusual about this scene, but it wouldn’t have taken place this way even 20 years ago. And it would have been illegal and maybe caused riots 50 years ago.


One of the children was a little blonde girl. One was a black boy. Another girl was a black/white mix. The fourth was an Asian boy. The father was Asian, too.

The nice thing is that it was perfectly normal in a middle class southern suburb today. The tragedy is that it would have ever been a big deal and that it remains a big deal to some people even now.

When I moved to Trussville 20 years ago, it was still a sleepy little town that hadn’t quite come to grips with being a bedroom suburb of Birmingham. Not too many years before that, it had been a tiny Mayberry out in the country. And some of the thinking of some of the people still reflected a dying past.

I remember a young guy who had grown up in the town talking to me about racial changes in the area. He lived on my street and I was speculating about when we would see black neighbors there.

“Oh, they’ll never let that happen,” he said confidently, without specifying who “they” might be. “All the niggers live up on ‘Nigger Hill.’ They won’t ever let ’em move down here.”

This was around 1992, so I was shocked to hear someone still hold those sorts of views, much less openly stating them. I didn’t try to argue with him or explain the offensiveness of what he was saying. I just marked him in my mind as an ignorant redneck.

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This burning question divides us: Why can’t you people be like me?

by David McElroy

Be just like me

I’m right about everything — at least in my own mind.

If you agree with me about certain things, I’ll give you credit for intelligence, good judgment and more. If you disagree with me about other things, I’ll silently judge you and maybe even feel disdain for your lack of taste and manners. But about a whole range of other things, I’ve magnanimously decided that I won’t judge you whatever you believe. I’ve either decided it’s of no consequence if we disagree or maybe I just don’t care enough about the subject to praise you or judge you about it.

You’re doing the same thing to me, whether you’re conscious of it or not. We’re all doing it to each other. We just have different things we care about and different things we judge each other about.

We do it about big things and we do it about little things.

In politics and philosophy, we can’t believe that an intelligent, honest and decent person could see things so differently than we do, so it becomes clear to us that other people are either stupid or lying. Maybe they even have bad intentions. Maybe they’re evil, because a good person couldn’t come to their conclusions.

Listen to the way people talk to each other. They get frustrated when people want things they don’t think are worth having. If a person says he wants to live in the Pacific Northwest, someone who hates rain and prefers sun will pipe up to say, “You’ll hate it there. It rains all the time,” with no apparent understanding that some people prefer rain to sunshine.

People recommend things by saying, “You’ll like this movie.” (Or it could be a book or a play or a restaurant.) Why would someone say that? Because he likes it, of course. On some level, most of us have an instinct to feel some version of this idea: “If I didn’t like it, don’t even try it. Your taste couldn’t possible be different and I couldn’t possibly be wrong.” (And, yes, some of us work hard to overcome that instinct because we’ve learned how different others are, but we’re in the minority and it’s still hard for us — in ways that we often overlook.)

Although we might understand in theory that products are a result of a thousand tradeoffs, we think products that don’t make the same choices we prefer are terrible products. The product I prefer is obviously superior. The product you prefer “sucks” — even if it meets your needs better than my choice would.

We don’t consciously believe that everyone should be like us, but when we’re in that moment, we believe on some gut level that our subjective experience must be everyone’s objective experience — and that our subjective preference should be everyone’s objective preference.

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Sane people change systems with ideas, not by murdering people

by David McElroy


Every fringe movement attracts crazy people. Libertarians are no exception. The married couple who murdered two police officers and another person in Las Vegas over the weekend are a perfect example. They’re not people to embrace or defend. They’re nuts whose actions damage the cause of individual freedom.

I’ve written a couple of times before about people I don’t want to be associated with, such as conspiracy cranks with no interest in facts and those who are just plain bigots. There are a lot of very intelligent, sane, interesting and responsible people who have come to libertarian or anarchist positions for moral reasons, but there are also people such as Jerad Miller and Amanda Miller who are mentally unstable people who are looking for an outlet for their anger at the world.

Many of us want to change the world. Many of us see a coercive system of government as immoral and standing in the way of individuals being free to live under the rules they might voluntarily choose. But changing the world in a positive way is about influencing hearts and minds through art, ideas and culture, not about killing people and tearing down institutions. You don’t change the world by adopting the tactics of an oppressor.

In the last couple of days, I’ve seen some libertarians and anarchists defending the Millers’ actions. I’ve seen others who won’t quite defend their murders, but they say the killings weren’t murder and that killing police is justified simply because they are the people who enforce the immoral rules of the state. And I’ve seen a new tack on Tuesday in which some people are trying really hard to say the Millers were government plants or maybe they didn’t really exist. I’ve been really surprised at some of the denial I’ve seen.

Many people are willing to consider what you have to say as long as you’re discussing ideas and making a moral and pragmatic case for freedom. But killing people who aren’t threatening you at the moment is a dividing line between discussion and thuggery. Nobody takes you seriously once you cross this line. Once you cross that line, you also make it very difficult for others to hear anyone with a vaguely similar message. And you no longer have any moral authority once you’ve passed that line.

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Romantic attraction is a trickster, appearing when we least expect it

by David McElroy

Looking for connection

Remember when you were a teen-ager and you felt attracted to someone you barely knew and you were constantly on the lookout for sightings of that person — and seeing the person made you feel nervous and you were afraid you might say something really stupid? Of course, that fear didn’t stop you from inventing ridiculous excuses to talk to the person, leaving you feeling even more ridiculous and nervous afterward. Remember?

I haven’t experienced that in a very, very long time, but someone has been making me feel that way again lately. It’s halfway great and halfway exasperating. It’s the terrible, horrible feeling that comes with having an attraction to a person that you just can’t explain.

I met her about a month ago when she had a reason to drop by my office. Since then, she’s dropped by to chat four or five times. She just left again and I feel happy — giddy, actually — to have had five minutes with her. I barely even know the woman, but she affects me like a drug that I crave. Why?

She’s beautiful. She’s very smart. She’s fascinating. She has interesting things to say and she also actually listens. (I mentioned a book that I think is important, and she expressed an interest in reading it. That rarely happens.) I can list objective things that I find attractive about her — but the truth is that it’s something very different.

There’s something magnetic about her. There’s an air of electricity about her presence. There’s something about her that transcends her looks or personality or anything else that I can put my finger on. There’s something about me that feels oddly connected to her. I’m constantly around beautiful, intelligent and interesting women, but she’s different in a way that I can’t explain.

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