Prohibition: The Left and the Right Collaborate, Produce a Fiasco

One is tempted to think of Prohibition as the last stand of a Puritanical, moralistic 19th century ethic imposing its rigid behavioral standards on the whole country. And surely there were lots of folks of that sort pushing the issue. The Anti-Saloon League, a key influencer in both enacting and trying to enforce Prohibition, was built up through Protestant church communities.  But the story of Prohibition is more complicated than that. The issue spurred a division in American society similar in intensity to what we are experiencing today. It was urban vs. rural, Protestant vs. Catholic and Jew, black vs. white, woman vs. man. native born vs. foreign born. But it was not simply left vs. right.  Consider the fact that the women’s suffrage movement and the Ku Klux Klan were allies in this fight.

 Lisa McGirr, author of The War on Alcohol, describes the coalition that led the fight against drinking as “a mighty alliance of moralists, progressives, suffragists and xenophobes.” Preachers of what today we would call the religious right railed about how just a drop of alcohol would lead the drinker down the road to destruction. And the pseudo-scientific community chimed in with such gems as the claim that drinking made the body susceptible to spontaneous combustion.

To be fair, late 19th and early 20th century Americans drank. A lot. And apparently they have since the first Europeans hit these shores. In his book Prohibition , Edward Samuel Behr, traces the roots of American drunkenness to the very beginning. He adds “Eighteenth century Americans, whether rich or poor, slaves or free men and women, appear to have gone through life in a semiperpetual alcoholic haze.”

suffragettesMany of those who supported Prohibition were the progressives and reformers of their day.  One such group was the Women’s Christian Temperance Society, a key influencer in the “dry” movement. Their agenda was not just about turning off the taps. They also campaigned for women’s suffrage, prison reform, child welfare, free kindergarten, an 8-hour work week and an end to prostitution. For the most part they were upper and middle class white women who genuinely thought of themselves as working to improve the lot of their less advantaged countrymen (and women).

KKKTheir allies on the right had some very different reasons for supporting the cause. Today we think of the KKK mainly in terms of their despicable racism. But these spooks hated everybody. They hated the Irish and Italian immigrants because they were Catholic, they hated the Mexicans because they were Mexicans and they of course hated blacks. Since alcohol and the saloons where it was consumed were so much a part of the lives of these minority groups, racists and xenophobes were strong advocates of Prohibition even though many probably had no intention of giving up alcohol themselves.

What is especially curious is the link between women’s suffrage and Prohibition. The KKK wasn’t backing women’s suffrage based on their passion for equal rights. Instead they assumed that giving women the right to vote would swing the scales to electing pro-dry officials. Conversely, the brewing and distilling interests campaigned hard against women’s suffrage for the same reason.

Frances Willard

Frances Willard

Considering that from our perspective Prohibition was pretty misguided, it is astounding to read the list of names of prominent early 20th century Americans who supported it. That list includes Thomas Edison, John D. Rockefeller, Henry Ford, muckraking authors Upton Sinclair and George Kibbe Turner, women’s rights activists Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucy Stone and Amelia Bloomer, social welfare pioneers Jane Addams and Lillian Wald, suffragist Frances Williard, civil rights leader A. Philip Randolph, former heavyweight champion boxer and drinker John L. Sullivan, Orville Wright, Coca-Cola founder Asa Chandler, Broadway theater owner Lee Shubert, education reformer Horace Mann and novelists Jack London and Booth Tarkington.

There were many reasons behind their support of Prohibition. Ford thought it would increase productivity in his plants. Chandler figured he could sell more soda with beer off the market. Shubert envisioned the guys who spent all their time in saloons heading for the theater instead. But one issue above all else carried the day. Hatred of immigrants. And specifically, those immigrants who taught us most of what we know about beer, the Germans. In next week’s post I’ll look at how xenophobia led to this 13-year long fiasco.



The War on Alcohol, Prohibition and the Rise of the American State, Lisa McGirr, 2017.

Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition, Daniel Okrent, 2010

Prohibition: Thirteen Years That Changed America, Edward Samuel Behr, 1996.

(Photos from New York Public Library Public Domain Digital Collection.)

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Tess McIntyre Foundation: Abandoned, Mistreated Dogs Get a Second Chance

They came from Korea and from Turkey. From South Carolina and Southern California. One lost an eye. One lost a leg. Another lost most of his coat.

What all these dogs have in common is they have all become happy, healthy animals living in safe, loving homes. And they have one more thing in common. Each benefitted from the donations made to the Tess McIntyre Foundation (TMF) as we used those funds to support their medical needs and recovery.

Working with our partners Home for Good Dog Rescue in Berkeley Heights, N.J., and Southern California Golden Retriever Rescue (SCGRR) in Los Angeles, here are a few of the dogs we have assisted:


Adami was saved from the meat market. Literally. He was rescued from a cage in the back of a butcher shop by a South Korean animal rights activist who got in touch with SCGRR and arranged to get him transported to Los Angeles. Adami had a severe case of heartworm and his treatment lasted for several months. TMF’s donation helped offset some of the cost of Adami’s extensive medical bills. During this time, he stayed with one of SCGRR’s foster families. It’s safe to say he graced their home with his presence, because with his health recovered he was put up for adoption and it was the foster family who decided to take him in permanently.



None had a tougher start in life than Aiden. A mixed breed who was found alone in the woods in southern Georgia, Aiden was starving, suffering from heartworm and mange, and had wounds that suggested physical abuse. TMF made a donation to Home for Good to sponsor Aiden as he was taken to their Aiken. S.C., facility, nursed back to health and socialized with other dogs. A volunteer pilot brought Aiden with a group of other dogs to New Jersey where he was adopted. A short while later his new owners reported that this guy, who had to struggle to survive on his own in Georgia, was the hit of his new neighborhood and that their teenage children’s friends were coming over to play with him regularly.


We don’t know how Carolina ended up as a stray. But at 12-weeks old she was found in Edgefield, S.C., malnourished, with severe mange and with a leg damaged from being hit by a car. Home for Good moved her to the care facility in Aiken, S.C., where she recovered from her mange but her leg had to be amputated. TMF pledged to match $1,000 in donations in order to cover the $2,000 in medical bills for this dog. By the time Home for Good brought her up north, Carolina was an energetic, playful and happy puppy. She was adopted by a New Jersey man as a 1-year anniversary present for his wife.


Darius was four years old when he was found abandoned in Turkey. Blind in both eyes, his right eye was painfully swollen when he was flown to Southern California and turned over to SCGRR. TMF also set up a matching fund to help pay for the surgery to remove Darius’ right eye and relieve the pressure. Following the surgery, he was lovingly cared for by one of SCGRR’s foster families and when fully recovered adopted by a Southern California couple that had previously owned a blind dog and knew what to expect and how to take care of him.

In getting to know these brave dogs we have been amazed at their resilience. Some were abandoned by people they trusted, others were subjected to outright cruelty. But that never stopped them from welcoming their caregivers, their foster families and their new owners into their hearts. Nor did they hesitate to offer companionship and warmth to people who took them in.

In addition to working with these dogs, TMF pitched in to help during hurricane season. We purchased a generator for HFG’s medical care facility in South Carolina and donated to the Red Cross in Houston after the hurricane there.

About 1.4 million dogs are adopted in the U.S. each year. Another 1.2 million are euthanized in shelters. The number that we are able to reach is less than a drop in a bucket. But each one represents a happy, and in some cases an inspiring story, and with the help of our donors, we hope to be able to be a part of more and more stories like these in the future.

The Tess McIntyre Foundation is a 501(c)3 charity located in La Quinta, Calif. The foundation has no employees and we cover all administrative costs ourselves. One hundred percent of the donations we receive go toward helping these animals. Donations can be made at the foundation web site.



(The author, Ken Dowell, is a trustee of the Tess McIntyre Foundation.)



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Work in America: Why is Full Employment So Unfulfilling?

Steel mill

Photo by Jean Beaufort

Economists in the U.S. describe full employment as an unemployment rate that is between 4 and 6.4%. In October the unemployment rate was 4.1%. It had hovered around 5% throughout 2016. Depending on which economist’s definition of full employment you subscribe to, we have been at full employment for 2 or 3 years. In fact the unemployment rate has dropped every year since 2010 when it was nearly 10%.

And yet there is an underlying feeling amongst many Americans that the economy isn’t working for them and that the job outlook is something other than what these stats suggest. We are just a year removed from a presidential election that was in large part decided on economic pessimism. That was fueled by Trump’s demonizing of immigrants as taking American jobs, raging about American companies (like his daughter’s) that outsource manufacturing oversees and refuting the very idea of climate change so as to remove all restrictions on polluting and contaminating business operations.. And enough voters bought into this to elect Trump even if he was on the short end of the popular vote.


Photo by veeterzy

Why is full employment so unfulfilling?  There are some real reasons that go beyond campaign rhetoric. Here are six of them.

1.       The gig economy. The U.S. Government Accountability Office estimates that a whopping 40% of American workers are contingent workers. That means they are temps, freelancers, independent contractors, part-timers or consultants. What they don’t have is the safety net of benefits and regulations that was built up around the concept of full-time employment. They likely have to buy their own healthcare insurance and set up their own retirement plan and for most there’s no guarantee their job will be around this time next year.

2.       All the folks who don’t count. The unemployment rate is based on individuals who have worked or who have looked for work in the past 12 months. There are 95 million Americans who are not considered to be part of the labor force. Ten years ago that number was 79 million, so more than 15 million Americans have dropped out of the work force over that time period.  Most of these people are retired, disabled or are students of some type. But an estimated 5% of them have given up looking for a job because they can’t find one that matches their skills or they just don’t have employable skills. We have also flooded our jails with non-violent offenders. A large portion have not been convicted of any crime but can’t come up with the bail money. Others are sitting in jail for crimes like possessing marijuana for recreational use. What all of them can’t do is get a job.

Wall Street
Photo by Alex Van

3.      Wall Street’s narrowvision. Wall Street analysts are, with few exceptions, evaluating companies based on their short-term profitability. That means public companies are being managed for short-term profitability not growth. One of the fastest ways to achieve greater profitability is to cut staff. That not only means outright layoffs but also the replacement of older more experienced workers for younger inexperienced ones who will work for less. It also means that technology will be viewed in terms of automation that can reduce staffing costs rather than as a way to enhance businesses. Venture capital companies often do a similar thing. Some are looking to flip companies much the way real estate investors flip houses. Buy a firm, cut its operating expenses to improve profitability and turn it around on the market. Another common tactic of VC firms is to put together compatible or competitive businesses and take advantage of “synergies.” Those synergies are usually people, the goal being to run the two concerns with the staff of one, thus boosting profitability, and unemployment.

4.       Working for next to nothing. According to the Pew Research Center there are 20.6 million people who are “near-minimum wage” workers. The federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour  No cause for optimism there. In addition, a survey by found that 46% of Americans consider themselves to be underemployed. That would equate to 22 million workers. Underemployment may mean doing a job that doesn’t reflect a worker’s skills and abilities, working part-time instead of full-time and/or being underpaid.

5.       The retail sector is failing. Credit Suisse has put out a report predicting that one in four or five malls will be closing down in the next five years. This year alone they expect 8,600 stores to close. Nearly a half million retail jobs have been lost in the last 15 years. And the online retail sector that is largely responsible for the disruption of physical stores only adds about one job for each four lost in brick and mortar stores. And even those jobs, such as the warehouse order pickers at Amazon, are threatened by the biggest employment issue of all, automation and technology.


Photo by Alex Knight

6.       The invasion of the robots. None of the candidates in either of the dominant political parties in the U.S. address what is likely the most impactful issue on the future of work in America.  Technology. Robots replacing humans. AI replacing HI (human intelligence). Likely they have no clue what to say. This is nothing new. For years now we’ve been talking to voice recognition auto-attendants whenever we call the banks, utilities, insurance companies and just about any other sort of business of scale. Most experts expect the future of manufacturing to be done almost exclusively by robots. So we might well be bringing manufacturing back within our shores, but not the jobs that left with it. There’s a company making robots that replace room service staff in hotels. Driverless cars may well make one of the biggest employment opportunities of the gig economy obsolete. And there are self-driving trucks in development that will eliminate those jobs.

While the numbers continue to tell us we are at full employment, add the numbers of the labor pool dropouts, the underemployed, the people in dying industries and the folks who are looking over their shoulders at robots and it’s not hard to understand why we are so insecure about our future of work.

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On the 50th Anniversary of a Summer of Urban Warfare in America

Fifty years ago, 1967, urban warfare broke out in cities throughout America. It happened in Milwaukee and Chicago and Buffalo. It happened in Cincinnati and Atlanta and Boston. And most notably, it happened in Detroit and Newark. Depending on your perspective these were either riots or rebellions. Either way it was street warfare between black inner city residents and white police and troops. Invariably it was over-aggressive policing that set the fire and usually it was over-aggressive policing that ended it.

Harlem stores damagedI was a teenager at the time growing up in an all-white middle-class town not too far from Newark, living with my blatantly racist father.  He and people like him processed this as blacks looting stores and burning buildings until the National Guard came in and restored peace. That narrative conveniently leaves out the cause, both the short-term cause and the long-term cause. To acknowledge either would have skewed his oversimplified vision of the world.

Movie poster for DetroitOn this 50th anniversary I saw two movies about the urban chaos of that summer. One, Detroit, is a fictional account of an individual act of police brutality, although police brutality may be an understatement. It was really murder, two unarmed black men killed by police for no crime other than being black in Detroit in the neighborhood where the disturbances were taking place. And, oh yeah, for being with white women.

The other, Revolution ’67, is about Newark before, during and after the riot/rebellion. Made by lifelong Newark residents this movie is 10 years old and has been shown on public TV, but was screened locally on this anniversary year. It covers police brutality as well but focuses on much broader issues like poverty, housing, education and jobs.

I think of the urban chaos of 1967 as a turning point. It represents the end of the civil rights movement and the beginning of the an angrier, more militant and more demanding era of black activism: Black Power, Black Muslims and Black Panthers. It wasn’t going to be enough to be able to sit in any seat on the bus, not if you didn’t have any money to get on the bus or any job to take the bus to.

The question these movies raise is are we really better off now than we were 50 years ago? In Detroit, the movie ends with an all-white jury finding the sadistic cop not guilty in a courtroom half-filled with other cops, showing their support though surely some of them know what happened. That of course is the same verdict delivered in the case of the Baltimore cops who killed Freddie Grey in the back of a police van. It is the same verdict delivered in the case of the Cleveland cop who shot 12-year-old Tamir Rice whose crime was to play with a toy gun in a public park. And it is the same verdict delivered to the cop who strangled Eric Garner to death in Staten Island after he was caught selling loose cigarettes. One of the many disconcerting scenes in Detroit is when a Michigan state trooper comes upon the scene where the Detroit cops are holding and terrorizing a group of black men. He sees that something very wrong is going on and tells his men to get the hell out of there so they have no part in it

Many attribute Newark’s continuing problems to the events of 1967. But the city was suffering from a loss of people and jobs even before that. Some 400,000+ lived in Newark in 1960. The population was down to 277,000 in 2010. The migration to the suburbs started after World War II. The unrest of 1967 exacerbated an already existing trend. Those who could afford to and who were not restricted by discriminatory lending policies headed out. The city became progressively poorer and blacker. We didn’t have legal segregation in New Jersey, but when it comes to housing we have been and continue to be a substantially segregated state.


One of the commenters in Revolution ’67 points out that in the mid 60’s there were no black faces in city hall, no black police chiefs, you couldn’t even find a black store clerk downtown or a black bank teller. Well now the city has had black mayors since 1970, there is a black police chief and lots of black faces behind the registers in downtown stores. Yet some 30% of Newarkers are living in poverty, a rate that is up from 25% in 2007 when the movie was made.

Newark is seen by some as enjoying something of a renaissance. That is happening downtown where a Whole Foods just opened in an old abandoned retail building. It joins a Starbucks and a Nike Store on Broad Street. Prudential has a new downtown headquarters building and Audible and Panasonic have moved operations there. The city boasts a performing arts center and an NHL hockey arena. New housing is being built downtown and a hotel opened for the first time in decades. It has provided some jobs and it is bringing more people into downtown Newark thus opening up some opportunities for small businesses.  But many residents will point out that all of this downtown development is doing nothing for the neighborhoods. Nothing to address the substandard housing, under-achieving public schools and the crime and drugs associated with poverty.

There is a larger trend in America of cities growing and of younger people who prefer an urban environment to the suburbs. That’s really easy to see if you watch people pouring into cities like Denver and Nashville. It’s maybe not as clear that cities like Detroit and Newark will benefit as well.

Finally there is the issue of our federal government. In 1967 Lyndon Johnson was president. LBJ was a foreign policy disaster and the commander in chief who sent tens of thousands of Americans to their death in southeast Asia, including an overrepresentation of poor, city kids. But on the domestic front, he was a champion of civil rights, of voting rights and a staunch opponent of segregation and discrimination. By all accounts he truly believed in this. Who knows what our current president truly believes in, aside from maybe accumulating wealth. But it has become pretty clear that we have a racist attorney general and that white supremacists have been welcome in the White House. And the ruling Republican party is actively trying, in several states, to restrict voting rights.

So as I think back to 1967 and watch these both fictional and documentary stories of that time, I’d like to think it was a different era and that we’ve moved past that summer of urban warfare. But when you take a long look at the underlying problems that triggered it, it’s hard to make that case.

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Sunday in the (Sculpture) Park

Seward Johnson sculpture

God Bless America, Seward Johnson

Peacock Cafe

Grounds for Sculpture

Hamilton, N.J.

Seward Johnson

Seward Johnson’s sculpted self portrait. Part of the larger work, Were You Invited

Seward Johnson sculpture

Chamber of Internal Dialogue, Seward Johnson

Shewmaker sculpture

Vita, Michael Shewmaker

Rat's Restaurant

Rat’s Restaurant for Sunday brunch

Joyce Scott sculpture

Araminta with Rifle and Veve, Joyce C. Scott

Hatcher sculpture

Time Reversing, Brower Hatcher

Seward Johnson sculpture

King Lear, Seward Johnson

Sculpture garden grounds

Newman sculpture

Skyhook, John Newman

Johnson Sculpture

Mystical Treasure Trip, Seward Johnson


Seward Johnson scupture

My Sixteen Year Old Jazz Dreams, Seward Johnson

Seward Johnson sculpture

Redon’s Fantasy of Venus, Seward Johnson

Seward Johnson sculpture

Double Check: Makeshift Memorial, Seward Johnson



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(Guest Post) History of Halloween: Six Weird Facts

A Guest Post by Sandra Larson

Yes, it is here – one of the most anticipated holidays of the year, Halloween. Thousands of people around the world are happy to celebrate it, but only a few are aware of its roots and why it is even celebrated at all.  Even the most informed  may not know these six weird facts about the history of Halloween.

  1. Halloween Has Nothing to Do with Satanism

The holiday dates back thousands of years to the Samhain festival that ended the crop season. It was believed that during this period, the bond between the living and the dead was becoming thin, and spirits walked on the land to visit their former families. The night of 31 October was connected to the Catholic holiday of All Hallows Eve – the night of honoring the dead. Yes, there are a lot of scary things for Halloween, but they have nothing to do with Satanism.

  1. Halloween Is Even More Irish than St. Patrick’s Day

Though the most massive celebrations take place in the United States, Halloween is originally from Ireland. Yes, Halloween was discovered by Celts, and it was  Irish Celts that invented the Jack-o’-lantern. Then how did it become that popular in North America? Well, it took place in the 19th century when the massive Irish and Scottish immigration started. The immigrants spread the tradition to the masses, and this is how it became that popular.

Halloween pumpkins

(image by Beth Teutschmann)

  1. Jack-o’-Lantern Was Once Made of Turnips

Yes, the first Halloween Jack-o’-lantern was made out of turnips and even beets and potatoes. Where does the tradition of Jack-o’-lantern come from? Well, there is the story about the man named Jack who was unfortunate to play a trick on the devil himself. He was punished by having to walk on the land for eternity. The only thing to guide him was the burning coal in the turnip. The Irish people started carving scary faces in the turnips, beets, and potatoes and placed them on the windowsills to scare Stingy Jack away.

  1. You Might Have Had to Wear Animal Skins as a Costume in the Past

To scare the evil spirits, people in the past  wore animal skins and heads as costumes. You could not visit a website and order the costume that you like, so people had to create costumes with their own hands. The outfit had to look scary so that the ghosts would mistake them for fellow spirits. That is why to avoid being recognized, the people would wear the costumes that would scare even the contemporary person.

  1. Trick-Or-Treating Tradition Has a Celtic Origin

In spite of the fact that trick-or-treating is connected to many different traditions, it, in fact, originates from the Celtic one. It evolved from the custom to put out treats and food to appease the spirits roaming the streets (just like putting out a Jack-o’-lantern to scare them). People used to wear the scary costumes impersonating the spirits and go mumming, namely performing short scenes in exchange for the food and drink. Today, children do not really do anything except ask for the treats, but adults cannot but give some candies to them after all.

  1. Weird Traditions

Halloween witchWe never tried, but there is the belief that if you wear your clothes inside out and walk backwards on Halloween, you will see a witch. Another superstition is that you might be followed by the death itself, and if you turn around to look who is following you, it will be your end. Another tradition which seems to us really weird and kind of dangerous is to hold a candle in one hand and a mirror in the other and walk backwards down the stairs. It will allow you to see your future husband. However, these superstitions were created in the past, and no one really believes in them now. But as all the things for Halloween, they create the required atmosphere.


(Sandra Larson is a freelance writer who recently graduated from the Journalism Department of the University of Memphis. She is currently working for EduBirdie.)

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Did the Environmental Movement Start in the Swamps of Jersey?

Great Swamp

Great Swamp signThe Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge at one time had been designated by the Port Athority of New York and New Jersey as the preferred site for a fourth New York City area airport. The swamp is in Morris County, New Jersey, about 25 miles west of Manhattan. It was the late 50’s when the PA put forward its plan and at the time there wasn’t a great deal of understanding about the importance of this natural oasis to the surrounding ecosystem.

Residents in and around the site fought for nearly a decade to stop the airport plan. They saved the swamp by raising more than $1 million dollars which they used to purchase nearly 3,000 acres of the land. It was then donated to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services which designated it as a national wildlife refuge. The issue was finally put to bed in 1968 when Lyndon Johnson signed a bill designating the Great Swamp National Wildlife Wilderness.

River through Great Swamp

I learned the story of the Great Swamp by watching the documentary Saving the Great Swamp. The film, produced by Scott Morris Productions, has had some screenings at film festivals and is expected to be available on DVD and online soon. The movie interviews some of the descendants of the local residents who successfully fought off the airport plan.

While I would recommend this documentary, I did have to hold my nose as they interviewed U.S. Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen. While his father Peter Frelinghuysen did work to preserve the swamp, Rodney, who apparently inherited the seat, is a GOP congressman who strictly votes party line. He stands with the climate change deniers and the folks who would like to eliminate all environmental controls, thus opening the land for the frackers, the strip miners and the drillers.


View from inside a blind in the wildlife observation area.

The Great Swamp Committee, which was formed in 1960 to fight off the Port Authority plan and to educate the public on the importance of the swamp, was an organization that was ahead of its time. Most date the start of the modern environmental movement to the late 60’s or early 70’s. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency wasn’t created until 1970, the same year that the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection was founded. By then we were finally starting to notice that it was getting a little harder to breathe in some of our cities and that the byproduct of American industry was being dumped into and despoiling our waterways and the very water we were drinking.

The Great Swamp Committee itself later expanded its focus and became the New Jersey Conservation Foundation. The group has worked to preserve many other natural lands throughout the state, has been an advocate for environmental legislation and has counseled and mentored other local environamental organizations.

River through Great Swamp

Passaic River

Sign on bench


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A Zoo on a Mountain

Giraffe face-to-face

zoo sign

Colorado Springs, Colo.



The Cheyenne Mountain Zoo wallabies are not caged and roam freely about the Australia section of the zoo.

Sleeping tiger

White rhino



Peacock family

These beggars are hanging out by the back door of the restaurant.

Overlooking the zoo

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The Cowboy as Art


Denver Art Museum

Denver is as modern a city as you’ll find in the U.S. Tech companies and start-ups flourish here. It has a young and growing population and an evolving food and art scene. And that’s not to mention the thriving marijuana and microbrew industries.

That all makes it a little hard to remember that this was a cow town founded in the mid-19th century during the short-lived Pikes Peak Gold Rush. An exhibit this summer at the Denver Art Museum paid homage to that legacy. “Westerns” celebrated the West as it has been portrayed in painting, film and sculpture.

The Western

Frederic Remington painting

Ray’s Troop, Frederic Remington

The Great Train Robbery

The Great Train Robbery, Newell Convers Wyeth

The American Indian

The American Indian, Andy Warhol

Stagecoach poster

Western sculpture at Denver Art Museum

Indian Warrior, Alexander Phimister Proctor

Guzman sculpture at Denver Art Museum

El bueno, el malo y el feo, Daniel Guzman

Hanson sculpture at Denver Art Museum

Cowboy, Duane Hanson

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Will the Democratization of Information Destroy the Democracy?

I have always viewed the emergence of digital publishing as enabling the democratization of information. Almost all of us have computers in our pockets, broadband home and away, and anyone who wants to can be a publisher. Yes there are still gatekeepers but the newspaper editor, the TV producer and the book publisher are only controlling a gate to their paper, their TV show or their own published titles.

I can make a video, bypass every TV news producer, and upload it to YouTube. I can write this piece and publish it online irrespective of whether any newspaper editor anywhere thinks it’s worthwhile. Now before you point out that my blog doesn’t exactly have the prestigious masthead of the New York Times, think about how you got here. For most of you is was social media or search. How do you think most mainstream media stories are accessed these days? Home delivery? The distribution of information has also been democratized and make available to all.

Personally, I want to celebrate this democratization of information. Just last week I read an eloquent account of what it was like to be in the Mexico City earthquake written on the blog of a Mexican-American woman from California who was visiting family in Mexico City when the earthquake struck. I found a story on Medium by a tech guy a week before that explained the implications of the Equifax hack and what we should do about it, far more succinctly than anything I read in the mainstream media. I follow bloggers from England and Australia, India and Italy. They write about things that I never had access to when all my news and information came from newspapers, TV and radio.

But in celebrating the ability of all of us to be publishers and the volume and breadth of information that is now available to us, I perhaps overlooked what the scoundrels, conspirators and profiteers might do. One of those things is fake news, a term we are all by now not only familiar with, but sick of. A term that can be used for a few different things, none of which are good.


(Image by Kayla Velasquez)

There is fake news that is just flat out made-up bullshit. Maybe it comes from the Russian government that sees it as a way to destabilize the U.S. and other rival nations. What in fact can be more destabilizing than trying to swing an election toward the great destabilizer himself? The Russians don’t have a monopoly on this. Three years ago I wrote a post about how a U.S. government agency had created a phony Twitter like service in Cuba (Is Uncle Sam a Hacker?).

But it’s not all about government spies and subversives. It also turns out that there is no quicker way for a tech-savvy teenager in say Macedonia to make a buck. Sadly if you make up a preposterous story like “The Pope Endorses Donald Trump” it gets hundreds of thousands of hits more than any legitimate story about a Presidential candidate endorsement or something the Pope might have really said. And that’s where the money comes in. When it comes to placing ads on the Web, there is not a human brain in site. It is all done programmatically and the sites or stories with the most hits get the ads and charge the most for those ads.

Fake news wasn’t invented for the American presidential election. I wrote another blog post in 2014 (Is Fake News a Laughing Matter?)  in which I cited some of the sensationalist and completely false stories about Ebola (such as “17 Texas Kindergarteners Contract Ebola After Exposure to Liberian Foreign Exchange Student”). But it turns out that Americans during an election season were massively gullible and thus a goldmine for the kids in Macedonia. What does that mean for our democracy? Are our electoral choices being swayed by the fictitious creations of some Eastern European teenagers? Or is our direction being steered by a foreign government?

While the media itself wrings its hands and bemoans the proliferation of fake news, they are themselves responsible for another type of fake news. One of the things that digital publishing did was create a way to measure not only how many folks clicked on a story but also how many clicked on the ads that surround those stories. And the answer was, almost nobody. So the now disrupted advertising industry and the struggling news industry got together and invented something called native advertising. The word native is a polite way of saying you make it look like a news story even though it’s really commercial content. Oh yes, everyone says it is clearly marked as what it is, but the concept itself is based on creating a deception that what is not news is news.

45And then there is “fake news” as the term is used by Donald Trump. The Trump definition is anything that he doesn’t agree with. Just about all presidents and other world leaders try to control the narrative about themselves. But few venture further from the truth than Trump. Fact is he’s a chronic liar whose commentary can’t really stand up to the fact checkers. So his response is to just delegitimize them. Outlets like the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post will make mistakes. They sometimes show that they lean left or lean right. But they aren’t fake news. And if the most prestigious and productive news sources in the country are summarily dismissed what information do we have to go on to effectively govern “by the people.”

None of this would matter without the complicity of the news consumer. Perhaps the most outrageous example of a reality-challenged news consumer is the guy who read the phony story about Hillary Clinton trafficking in children from the back room of a Washington pizzeria and not only bought into it, but headed to Washington with his gun to do something about it. What do we do about that? Stupid is stupid. I’ve heard better education suggested as an answer. But we now have a U.S. Secretary of Education who doesn’t believe in or support public education. I’m pretty sure that the guy hauling his shotgun Into the pizzeria didn’t go to any expensive private school. Nor is he likely to turn his kids into preppies.

Aside from such outrageous examples, the American news-consuming public has so many sources to choose from that most have chosen to simply follow the news organization that most closely reflects the beliefs they already hold. Liberals aren’t watching Fox. Conservatives aren’t watching MSNBC. And that’s not even touching upon the issue of Web sites like the one run by that degenerate who claims the Newtown shooting never happened (presumably because he thinks everybody should be walking down the street packing heat). So a national citizenry that is already clearly divided consumes only news and information that will make those divisions even deeper.

The idyllic vision of a democracy involves a citizenry that can consider the issues that face the country, evaluate different ideas of how to deal with those issues and then choose the leaders who pose the best solutions. Wow! How are we ever going to get there?

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