Communion Of Dreams

Season of persuasion.

Over the last week or so, I’ve tried to write this piece about a dozen times, only to give up and delete what I had come up with. I’m not sure whether this one will work or not.

What’s the problem? Well, it’s easy for whatever I say to only be seen as bitterness. And while I am a bit bitter, that’s not the reason for my writing.

* * * * * * *

Timing is everything.

The best ice cream in the world won’t sell worth a damn in the middle of a blizzard.

And so it is with writing.

I’ve been very frustrated with our inability to sell Her Final Year. I don’t think we’ve broken 30 sales yet. It’s depressing enough that I don’t even bother to check the sales figures these days. And it seems that nothing we do makes the slightest difference.

I thought that the timing for the book would be perfect. There’s been a slew of studies and warnings about the impending crunch of an aging population, and how that will require more care-givers. Organizations such as the Alzheimer’s Association have been working hard to build awareness, create support mechanisms for care-providers and their charges.

But people don’t want to think about such things. The news of the day is depressing enough as it is, with little prospect for getting better anytime soon.

* * * * * * *

And it isn’t just that. I’ve noticed that increasingly, people are not in a mood for conversation. They’re in a mood for argument. Or just shouting at one another.

I was relieved a couple of years ago when Brent decided to shut down Unscrewing the Inscrutable. Because I had gotten tired of having the same old arguments time and again, frequently with the same people. No one was willing to change their mind, they just wanted to rehash the same words, endlessly.

The same was true of making a pro-2nd Amendment argument on the political blog Daily Kos. For years, I had been engaged, and it seemed to make a real difference – people would change their minds when presented with a cogent position, supported by facts and logic. But then earlier this year, the mood changed. And even trying to hold those conversations became pointless – no one would ever change their mind, no matter what.

I’ve seen the same thing happen in other venues, as well. My writing for is generally well received, but anything which is even the slightest challenge to the conventional wisdom or political alignment of the bulk of the readers tends to get less attention and support. If I write something which is ‘preaching to the choir’, people go nuts and love it.

* * * * * * *

And it isn’t just me, either. Others have noticed the same thing, though I’m not sure anyone has phrased it in quite the same terms.

I don’t think people want to be challenged at all. They want to hear familiar, soothing tones. They want to be told that they are right, and that the “other side” is wrong. They want to be certain that only they are being reasonable and open minded.

Now, this is usually the case to a greater or lesser extent. People always want to have their prejudices and biases affirmed. That is a human trait – one we all share, whether or not we like it or are willing to admit it.

But it has become even more strident of late. Politics in this country has been polarized for a while, and the rhetoric from all sides has been dire building to extreme. I get the sense that a kind of madness is developing, a mindless tribalism that shunts off all contrary data in favor of those things which serve the tribal identity.

Things change. I think the time to rend is coming.

Certainly, the season of persuasion is ending.

Jim Downey

Finding the essence.
January 17, 2011, 1:09 pm
Filed under: Alzheimer's, Daily Kos, Politics, Science Fiction, Writing stuff

A long drive is good for thinking, sorting. This past weekend I drove north, to join friends who had decided to start on a new project: experimenting with home distillation.

* * * * * * *

Distillation. I’ve known the theory since at least grade school, and had read up a bit on the applications used in alchemy and then later to produce various alcoholic spirits. It can be very simple or exceedingly elaborate, from a basic alembic to industrial production. Here’s an image of the set up my friends used:

What you see there is an all copper still. On the left is the reaction vessel where all the stuff to be distilled goes. Vapor rises from this as it is heated, passes through the copper tube to the vessel on the right. That’s actually a coil of copper tubing inside a bucket, which you fill with cold water and ice. The light colored globby bits are a simple paste made from rye flour and water and used to seal the joints to minimize leakage. The still is resting on bricks over a woodfire in a friend’s kiln.

* * * * * * *

Years back, after I closed the gallery and started caring for Martha Sr at home, I started spending more time participating in political forums. It was an outlet for me as I tried to find some balance in life – a way to keep my mind active and alert, but without the same level of demands as trying to work on conservation projects or creative writing.

As the care-giving became more demanding, I found myself even more involved on one forum in particular – it gave me a kind of community, a form of support. Eventually I began sharing my blogging about being a care provider for someone with Alzheimer’s there, and that led to meeting GreyHawk and eventually to writing Her Final Year.

I spent a lot of time writing for the site – many of the items here tagged “Daily Kos” actually started as things I wrote for that site and then decided to cross post here. It helped me keep my sanity, and gave me a forum for exploring ideas which I knew would get a decent amount of feedback. A writer likes to have readers.

* * * * * * *

They started with two five-liter boxes of wine. The idea is that you have to make a conditioning run to clean off all the copper surfaces. It also gives you a chance to see how the whole thing operates, and to learn from a small batch.

The biggest problem was with controlling the heat on the still. The initial plan had been to use a propane burner, but the one purchased to go with the still was European, and it was discovered that there weren’t the necessary adapters readily available to hook it up to American propane tanks. This was a shame, because it meant that it would be difficult to achieve the correct level of heat over a wood fire in an impromptu oven. But my friends have experience in doing such things, and pretty soon they sorted out the right combination of brick configuration, draw, and amount of firewood to get the necessary control.

The other downside was that the use of the kiln meant we needed to be outside. In January. In Iowa. For hours and hours. The woodfire did give off heat, of course, but it also gave off smoke, so you wanted to keep your distance a bit. And we were working with water and ice, as it was necessary to change the water in the condensation vessel regularly.

* * * * * * *

I mentioned getting back to work on the prequel to Communion of Dreams the other day. There’s still a ton of research I have to do, but in the process of the drive I was able to sort out some basic ideas – to narrow down the essential metaphor of the book, as it were. This establishes a framework for building the rest of the book, gives it form and definition.

* * * * * * *

After the conditioning run, it was time for the first real batch. After dumping out the previous residual mess (which stunk to high heaven) and a quick rinsing, the reaction vessel was filled with about 20 liters of red wine, placed back on the heat. The rest of the still apparatus was put in place, and sealed. Water was added to the condensation vessel.

It takes a while to get that much liquid up to temperature. But after a while you start to hear a low rumble, a sort of gurgling. The first vapors to be condensed are called the “heads” – these are volatiles that you don’t actually want to save, since it contains things like methyl alcohol (“wood alcohol”, the stuff that’ll make you blind). But you can tell that the distillate contains these impurities because of the color and cloudiness. Once the stream starts to run clear, you can save it. This is traditionally called the “hearts” of distillation. Towards the end, you get more bitter flavors and an almost oily taste – these are called the “tails” and once they start to show up you stop that batch. Altogether you get about 10% yield of alcohol – say about two liters.

* * * * * * *

In recent months, I’ve noticed that I’ve put less time into writing items for Daily Kos. Looking at the things which I have cross posted here, I see that increasingly I’ve written them for this site, and then decided to post them over there (only I would know this, it’s almost impossible to tell from reading the pieces).

This is neither good nor bad. I think partly it is a simple matter of my being more busy with my own actual work – getting CoD ready for publication, getting HFY ready for submission. And partly it has been because as I’ve continued the long recovery from being a care provider, I have found myself more outgoing, less reliant on the support that I found in that political forum.

And to a certain extent I think I have become . . . bored. So many of the discussions have become repetitive, almost redundant.

Now I have a new book brewing. Other projects I am considering. It’s time to concentrate interests a bit – to find what is essential.

* * * * * * *

Five batches, all told. Total of about 8 hours from start to finish. Went through about 120 liters of box wine, distilled down to about two gallons of alcohol.

That two gallons was poured into a small barrel, bunged close.

We tested the batches as they poured out of the still, but only in very small amounts – a few drops on a finger. The alcohol bite was there, sharp and raw. But there was also a taste of the grape, some of the flavor of the wine.

Now that product will age in the barrel, becoming mellower, interacting with the charred wood. Because of the relative surface area, a small barrel like that accelerates the aging process by a factor of ten – meaning that in six months it’ll be like the liquor tastes 5 years old. It’ll be interesting to see how it changes.

* * * * * * *

A long drive is good for thinking, sorting. This past weekend I drove north, to join friends who had decided to start on a new project: experimenting with home distillation.

And that gave me a metaphor I had been searching for, in more ways than one.

Jim Downey

(Thanks to Wendy for the image, and to all my friends for welcoming me into their project at a late date.)

Yes, it is art.
October 16, 2010, 1:44 pm
Filed under: Art, Daily Kos, Health, Politics

Perhaps it is because I am tired and in pain, thanks to the slowly worsening pleurisy I have been dealing with for the last two months. Perhaps it is because I am sick and tired of inane political commentary and commercials as we head into the mid-term elections. And perhaps it is because I fought the good fight in owning an art gallery for 8 years, and tried to promote sometimes non-traditional artwork.

For whatever reason, I found this comment to be *really* grating:

This is art??? I sure hope the Federal Government didn’t for this through the NEA budget, but it sure has the feel of Obama “stimulus” about it.

Fuck me to tears.

Yes, it is art.

And no, the Federal Government didn’t pay for this. Because the goddam installation was created by a Chinese artist, and is on display at the Tate Modern – you know, the one in London. Which isn’t in the US, you idiot.

Now, I realize that the NPR article about Ai Weiwei’s Sunflower Seeds where I came across this comment doesn’t give the location of the Tate Modern. But both of the links in the article are to UK newspapers, one of which says the exhibit is in London in the opening paragraph. And I would fully expect anyone reading the NPR site (or hearing the news on NPR this morning) concerning such an exhibition would know this, as the Tate Modern is famous world-wide.

And yet we get this:

This is art??? I sure hope the Federal Government didn’t for this through the NEA budget, but it sure has the feel of Obama “stimulus” about it.

That’s not just ignorance. It’s proud ignorance. With a side dish of blind partisanship. It is the mindset that says that anything the writer doesn’t understand must obviously be not worth knowing, and besides, the fault of the damned liberals to boot.

Like the exhibit or not, that’s fine. Think that art is only pretty pictures on a wall, and that’s OK too. But pull your head out of your ass and be at least marginally informed about the matter before you decide to expound on it. Ignorance is nothing to be proud of.

Good lord.

Jim Downey

(Cross posted to Daily Kos.)

Put yourself in his braces.
February 16, 2010, 12:46 pm
Filed under: BoingBoing, Civil Rights, Daily Kos, Government, Politics, Privacy, Society, Travel

Go ahead: what if this were you, or your four-year old kid?

Did you hear about the Camden cop whose disabled son wasn’t allowed to pass through airport security unless he took off his leg braces?

* * *

Mid-morning on March 19, his parents wheeled his stroller to the TSA security point, a couple of hours before their Southwest Airlines flight was to depart.

The boy’s father broke down the stroller and put it on the conveyor belt as Leona Thomas walked Ryan through the metal detector.

The alarm went off.

The screener told them to take off the boy’s braces.

The Thomases were dumbfounded. “I told them he can’t walk without them on his own,” Bob Thomas said.

“He said, ‘He’ll need to take them off.’ “

You know the rest of the story, no doubt. The screener insisted that the boy’s braces come off (in violation of the TSA’s own guidelines), and the kid walk through the metal detector. Debate ensues, and eventually the boy hobbles through the detector. Parents are ticked off, make a bit of a scene. A supervisor was called, who just walked away when told that the boy’s parents wanted to file a complaint. There’s a bit more of a scene. The local police (this was at the Philadelphia airport) show up, and here’s where things change from the usual story line in these cases. The local police find out the father was a cop, and things get smoothed over enough that the family was allowed to go on with their flight.

But put yourself in that picture, instead. What would have happened to you? What would have happened had things deteriorated to the point where the local cops were called?

Yeah, maybe you shouldn’t have gotten annoyed and insisted that the TSA screeners and then the supervisor treat your child with a little bit of consideration and in accord with their own regulations. And maybe you shouldn’t have threatened to file a complaint. But according to everything else that everyone saw, you did nothing more than this.

Again: what would have happened to you?

If you were *very* lucky, and if you were *very* chagrined when the local police showed up, you would only have been taken to a small room somewhere nearby and hassled, probably missing your flight. Unlucky, or stand your ground, and you likely would wind up being held in jail for at least a few hours to ‘teach you a lesson’, perhaps with some actual charges filed against you. It happens all the time.

Policeman Bob Thomas got cut a little slack. He’s a cop, and I don’t really begrudge him that. And he called a local columnist, who has done a couple of stories on the Philadelphia airport’s TSA nightmares. This prompted the local TSA spokesperson to confirm that the whole incident was poorly handled, TSA rules were not followed, and she said that Thomas had received an apology last week from TSA’s security director at the airport, Bob Ellis. She said that Ellis provided Thomas with the name of the agency’s customer service representative, should he have a problem in the future.

Good. I’m glad that this got the attention of the press.

But imagine if it were you.

Jim Downey

(Via BB. Cross posted to dKos.)

That’s nice.
February 11, 2010, 1:50 pm
Filed under: Daily Kos, Feedback

Feeling a bit down today – I think I am just getting a bit tired of all the ‘neighborhood’ stuff I have been doing lately. But did just get a nice note that I thought I would share:


Just finished your book, and I must say I really enjoyed it. As I typically do I devoured it in less than 2 days and will now go back and read it at a more leisurely pace.

I found your link to the book in a comment you left at DailyKos. Though I don’t necessarily agree with alot of what is written there, I enjoy reading all intelligent points of view, and you never know where you will find a gem such as your book.

Do try to get it published, and please continue to write. I look forward to your next book, as certainly I hope there is another one to come.


John O.

I wrote him back, thanking him. Now if only it was feedback from Trapdoor . . .

Jim Downey

RKBA – the education of a liberal
November 17, 2009, 10:27 am
Filed under: 2nd Amendment, Daily Kos, Guns, Politics, RKBA

(Cross posted to dKos, but thought some here may find it interesting. JD)

One of the guiding principles of my life, and my politics, is that education makes a difference.  Not just to give people the tools they need to succeed in life, but to also help improve our society through the reduction of fear.  Because all too often, fear springs from ignorance.  It can be ignorance of science.  Or ignorance of other cultures.  Or ignorance of sexuality.  Or ignorance of firearms, which is my topic for today.

For years I have tried to tell other gun owners and 2nd Amendment supporters that the single most effective thing they could do to insure continued support for the 2nd Amendment is to take new people shooting.  And preferably, to take someone who is liberal/progressive.  Don’t talk politics.  Don’t argue over this or that candidate.  Just take people out to the range, and give them a safe and relaxed introduction to shooting.

It’s easier for me, because my liberal and progressive friends know that I am on their side.  I don’t have a macho attitude, I’m intelligent and well educated, I understand quite well that things are complex and simple solutions are suspect.  In other words, I’m about like every Kossack who isn’t a troll.

When introducing someone new to shooting, I will first go over the safety issues.  Explain the four rules of firearm handling (this without even opening the gun cases yet.) Take out and hand around eye protection (unless they are already wearing glasses with safety lenses.  Take out and hand around hearing protection (I prefer the newer electronic type which allows for full normal hearing, but shuts off with loud noises.  I keep a couple extra pairs of these in my range bag so they can always hear me talking to them.)  Then we will discuss the particular range where we’re shooting, and any additional safety issues which pertain to it (actually, I’m lucky in that I have private land where I can go which has an ideal set-up for short-range shooting).

Only then will I take out the first gun, carefully explain how the “four rules” apply specifically to it.  Then I will set it aside, locked open, no ammo in sight.  I will do the same thing with each of the usually 6-8 guns I bring along, explaining what they are and how they function, how the “rules” apply specifically to handling them.

Then we’ll start.  I always prefer to start with just a .22 rifle.  If someone has done shooting at camp or in school, chances are that they were using a .22 rifle of some sort.  I go over once again how the “four rules” apply.  How the gun operates.  How to hold it.  How to aim (though accuracy isn’t important at this stage – just gaining a safe familiarity with guns is all I want to accomplish.)  Only after we’ve been over all of this do I break out the ammunition – and then just one round.  I’ll go over how to load the gun, once again how to operate it, and how to hold it.  After answering any questions, and checking that everyone has their eye and hearing protection in place, then I will fire the gun, demonstrating the recoil and report from it.  With a .22, neither is really noticeable, and it provides a good introduction to the whole idea of shooting.

If anyone has any questions at this point, I’ll answer them.  Then I’ll make safe the rifle, hand it to the first student (I prefer to only teach one or two people a trip – three max.)  Make sure they understand how to hold it, how it operates.  Then I will get out one more round of ammunition, and either help them load the gun, or load it for them.  When they are ready, and comfortable, I walk them through the process of aiming and firing the gun, just gently squeezing the trigger.  When it goes off, there is almost invariably a bit of a squeal of joy or laughter from the shooter.  And that is one of the best sounds in the whole world.

Sounds tedious?  It isn’t really.  I just do it in a very thorough and slow manner, taking my time.  Because to the person who has never handled or shot a gun before, it can be very scary.  Showing that guns can be safely handled, and even fun, is worth a bit of time.

We’ll shoot the .22 rifle a few more times.  I’ll let the student gain some level of comfort in loading and shooting the gun on their own, even allowing them to load two or three rounds into the magazine, so that they can shoot it multiple times without stopping to reload.

Then we’ll move on.  We’ll go from the .22 rifle to a .22 revolver, then a .22 semi-automatic, each time going over all the steps outlined above, always ALWAYS stressing the four rules of gun safety and how they apply to each firearm.  It depends on how much time we have (I usually like to allot about three hours – that’s long enough to tire out most people new to shooting), and what guns I’ve brought, but we’ll progress from smaller caliber guns to larger ones, as the student wants.  I usually have up to a .44 magnum – a large frame gun that is actually quite comfortable to shoot with “special” loads in it.  But it hasn’t always been so – you can go with whatever you have.  After we’ve gone through all the guns once, I give my friend a chance to go back and shoot anything that they want, once again going over the handling of that specific gun for safety.

When we’re done, I will pack up everything securely, as I answer questions.  It isn’t often that anyone “gets hooked” on shooting sports – it does happen, and I always tell them that if they want to go shooting again, I will be happy to provide everything.  But that wasn’t my goal.  My goal was to show that guns, while potentially dangerous, can be handled safely and sanely.  To de-mystify them, turn them from an object to be feared to a tool which is understood.  Once that happens, my liberal friends may or may not change their mind about the 2nd Amendment – but at least they will now be more informed of the issues involved.  And over time, I have found that most of the people I have taught have become much more willing to see the matter from my perspective.

Jim Downey

“You think about those famous truths…”
October 16, 2009, 8:28 am
Filed under: Daily Kos, General Musings, movies, Society, Survival, Violence

It’s always dangerous to quote yourself. But I think this is worthwhile:

“You think about those famous truths in our culture-about a son’s coming to adulthood and seeking to avenge his father’s death. It’s been a recurring theme in Western culture for centuries. Look at Shakespeare. The first ‘Star Wars’ movie was largely that.

“One of my favorite movies is ‘The Princess Bride.’ There you have one of the main characters, Inigo Montoya, say, ‘You killed my father. Prepare to die.’ And that refrain plays out through the entire movie. It is interesting because one of the things that same character says in the movie is: ‘There’s not a lot of money in vengeance.’ That’s a very insightful thing. I could not have allowed that to twist my life, to give me that sort of single-minded determination, to seek revenge in one way or another.”

At the mid-century point of his life, the pain is still there.

“Talented authors can explore these themes, but I was actually faced with dealing with it. My father was murdered and the man who did it was sentenced to death for that crime. But his sentence was commuted to a life sentence without parole by the court in the mid-1970s,” reflects Downey.

“If I dwelled on who he was and what he had done, there would have been a lot of rage that would have been given personification. I really wanted to avoid dwelling on the negative things. This man is presumably still in prison. I have tried my absolute best to ignore him. By distancing myself that way, I don’t feel like I have to seek vengeance personally. But the thought still crosses my mind every time I watch a movie that has that theme, every time I read a book or watch a movie, or an officer dies,” he adds.

That’s from page three of an article in this month’s POLICE magazine, titled “What Happens to the Children of Fallen Officers”.

Trust me, that was not an easy interview to give.

I’ve written about this subject before, and mentioned it in passing. It’s obviously, and appropriately, been a major factor in my life – one which has never been far from my awareness.

It’s almost trite to say “we are defined by the choices we make rather than the experiences we have,” as if life were just simply a game of cards where you sought to win some small pot of money. I know hard choices. Choices that have to be made again, and again, and again, in the face of ongoing societal pressures pushing you to make different choices. And because I have had to face this, I am much less inclined to pass judgment on those who have chosen poorly. I know full well – as lucky as I have been to have a loving wife, a loving family, and friends who care deeply – I know full well how close I have come to making poor choices myself.

Rage and vengeance are part of our heritage, part of what makes us human, part of what has enabled us to survive. That cannot be denied. But they are less important than love and community – which have allowed us to start to build a civilization.

Jim Downey

(Cross posted to Daily Kos.)

RKBA – a progressive’s journey.
September 29, 2009, 8:53 am
Filed under: 2nd Amendment, Civil Rights, Daily Kos, Government, Guns

RKBA? Commonly used, the Right to Keep and Bear Arms.*

This is a personal story of my journey from being raised with guns, experiencing the personal effects of gun violence, and coming around to the belief that a ‘personal right’ interpretation of the 2nd Amendment is a good liberal/progressive value.

I offer it to my fellow progressives for perspective, and apologize for the length.

OK, first thing. I was born and raised in the Midwest. My dad was a cop, and a hunter, so I grew up with guns. I knew how to safely handle and shoot guns before I could ride a bicycle, and I owned my own guns by the time I was 8. So part of my familiarity with guns is just cultural – everyone I knew had guns in their homes, and it was just no big deal.

But I’ll be honest here: I don’t much remember my childhood. Because when I was 11, my dad was killed. And the shock of that (and my mother’s accidental death 18 months later) just sorta wiped away my memories of childhood.

My adolescence was predictably rocky, but thanks to the love of family and good friends, I got through it. My younger sister and I went to live with relatives, who did what they could to give us stability. But when you have lost one parent to violence, and another to accident, before your teen years, it leaves a hole in your life. And to this day, middle-aged man that I am, I am sickened at the thought of violence as it is so casually represented in popular culture, and as it exists in reality far too often.

Still, I went away to college at the usual time, reasonably well adjusted. While at college – Grinnell College, a proud bastion of liberalism – I continued my intellectual and political growth. I learned to let go of the last vestiges of homophobia and racism I had grown up with. I came to better understand the roots of crime, and of violence, and see that many of the policies of the Reagan era were at best counter-productive. My inclinations towards progressivism solidified, bolstered not just by education but also by life experience. I came to loathe the rhetoric coming from the Right, and to look upon all they said and did with deep suspicion.

This included the rhetoric coming from the NRA, which had turned strongly into being allies with the GOP. Through graduate school and work in the 1980s I didn’t have much time for hunting, though I still did do so occasionally, out of the belief that if I was going to be a carnivore I should confront the reality that another living being had died so that I could eat meat. But I just couldn’t understand why the NRA, which was just a safety organization while I was growing up, had gone so far off the deep end politically. Then – insanity of insanities – the push to legalize concealed-carry laws at the state level started.

I thought it was nuts. Particularly with my personal experience of losing my father to gun violence, I did not see why these people wanted to push more guns into more hands as a matter of public policy. Who on earth wanted that? Why, the streets would run with blood. Sure, I owned firearms, and knew how to use them safely, and so did most everyone else I knew – but this was just asking for trouble.

A year or so after Florida had implemented concealed-carry I had to attend a meeting in Fort Myers. I had been in close contact with a number of the attendees, all people I respected for their intelligence and thoughtfulness. After the meeting was over, we were sitting around talking, and the discussion somehow turned to guns and Florida’s experience with adopting “shall issue” concealed carry.

To my surprise, a number of the locals said that they thought the law was great. Several had obtained their permits. Further, since we were in a private residence, they were comfortable in showing how they carried their firearms. I, and a couple of the other people from out of state who were there, were rather stunned by the whole thing. I mean, it was just weird that I had been in meetings all day with people who were carrying guns.

This made a huge impression on me. And I started thinking through the matter, discussing it over time with others. And I watched to see how things played out over time in Florida, waiting for an upsurge in violence because of these people carrying weapons. But that didn’t happen. And I slowly came to the conclusion that I had made a classic mistake of considering myself to be “unusual” in my respect for safely handling firearms – when I knew to the contrary that most everyone I knew who owned firearms treated them with the same consideration that I did.

And I continued to think this matter through, to the point where I wrote an essay on the matter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 1993, a companion piece to another essay of mine they had published. Here’s the beginning:

Recently, I had a column here concerning the radical NRA leadership, and the danger that their attitude of ‘anything goes’ with weapons and ammunition poses to police, federal agents, and the average American. So it may come as a bit of a surprise that I favor legislative efforts to allow most people to carry a concealed firearm.

I do not see a contradiction here. What the NRA leadership is doing to demonize and discredit law enforcement makes us all less safe. Having more law-abiding citizens trained in the safe handling of firearms, and duly licensed to carry those firearm for self defense, would make us more safe. Sure, the ideal solution would be to rid society of all firearms, or at least all handguns. But that isn’t likely to happen anytime soon, with a huge number of firearms already in private hands. Certainly, the criminals aren’t going to give up their weapons. And a crime-fearing public doesn’t want to relinquish their guns, though they rarely carry them in violation of current law.

A concealed-carry law would change the calculus of crime in a very fundamental way.

You can see the whole thing here.

OK, so that was 16 years ago. Since then, Missouri (where I live) and another 36 states have implemented “shall issue” concealed-carry legislation, meaning that if someone meets the criteria set out in law (some mixture of training and background-investigation), then the state has a duty to grant them a license to carry a concealed weapon. Another ten states have some form of “may issue” legislation. Millions of Americans have gotten these permits, and the wave of shootings I initially expected still hasn’t happened.

So what? Why does a lack of violence support the RKBA? There also isn’t solid data to support that it has stopped crime – just anecdotal stories. Why should a self-proclaimed “progressive” support people carrying guns?

Well, I take a pragmatic approach, combined with a philosophical one. On the one hand, concealed-carry does not seem to have caused any problems, so there is no major reason to impinge on the Constitutional Right to Keep and Bear Arms. And, in keeping with how I see the other rights outlined in the Bill of Rights, I see the 2nd Amendment to be a personal right, not a “state’s right”. It has always struck me as odd that the conservatives see all the Rights to be “state’s rights” except the 2nd, and liberals have approached this the other way around.

Good, pragmatic progressive that I am, I want to see government serve the needs of people, while not limiting our freedoms unless there is a clear case to be made that it can do so in a productive fashion which outweighs the loss. My dad was a cop, and I have known cops all my life. And almost every cop I have ever known will tell you that their job is to protect *society*, and the unfortunate truth is that all too often that means catching a crook after they have done something – not before. Meaning after someone has been robbed, or assaulted, or killed.

The RKBA – or a gun – will not protect you from being a victim of crime. At best it may give you a chance to defend yourself or a loved one. Anyone who thinks otherwise needs more education and training on the matter. But I would rather have some chance – and the choice to take it – than no chance at all.

Jim Downey

(Written for and posted to Daily Kos, where I’m sure there will be an interesting discussion.)

That well is poisoned – don’t drink from it.

This is what I was afraid would happen.

And it makes me, well, worried.  Very worried.

Prompted by 9/11, we watched the fairly rapid curtailment of civil liberties during the Bush administration (though supported & enabled entirely too much by Democrats in Congress).  The Patriot Act.  The expansion of FISAWarrantless wiretapping by the NSA.  Legal opinions which effectively gave the president dictatorial powers, and which allowed for torture of terrorism suspects.

Coupled with this was a dramatic rise in rhetoric on the right, to the effect that failure to get in line -completely- with the Bush administration’s “War on Terror” was called nothing short of treason.  Anyone who objected to the “temporary curtailment of civil liberties” was likely to be painted as a traitor, or worse.  It was not a good time to be a civil libertarian, or a liberal, and for eight long years many felt that we were under seige.  I half expected more violence or even some excuse to suspend normal civil law and elections.  And I was hardly alone.

But the elections were held, and changes were made.  A new president, with a very different concept of the rule of law, was elected and has taken office.  Granted, it was during the worst economic crisis we’ve faced in 70 years, but a lot of us had hope for the future.  Hope that we could indeed start to work together as a nation.

Of course, the losers didn’t see it that way.  Oh, some did, and there has actually been a substantial increase in the popularity and public support of Obama since the election and since he took office.  But the core of the right has just gotten wound tighter and tighter, to the point where the rhetoric has taken on violent overtones.  It started back during the election, with Gov. Palin’s characterization of Sen. Obama as “hanging around with terrorists” and the sentiments that engendered among her audience.  Since then, it has only gotten worse.

Former UN Ambassador Alan Keyes (who has run for a variety of offices under the GOP banner) via YouTube:

“Obama is a radical communist, and I think it is becoming clear. That is what I told people in Illinois and now everybody realizes it’s true. He is going to destroy this country, and we are either going to stop him or the United States of America is going to cease to exist.”


“I’m not sure he’s even president of the United States, neither are many of our military people now who are now going to court to ask the question, ‘Do we have to obey a man who is not qualified under the constitution?’ We are in the midst of the greatest crisis this nation has ever seen, and if we don’t stop laughing about it and deal with it, we’re going to find ourselves in the midst of chaos, confusion and civil war.”

The ‘civil war’ theme has been picked and run with elsewhere on the right.  There were the Glenn BeckWar Games” scenarios recently, which played out the idea of widespread civil unrest leading to civil war.  You’ve got Chuck Norris writing an insane column for a major right-wing website promoting the idea of secession.  Here’s a bit of that:

For those losing hope, and others wanting to rekindle the patriotic fires of early America, I encourage you to join Fox News’ Glenn Beck, me and millions of people across the country in the live telecast, “We Surround Them,” on Friday afternoon (March 13 at 5 p.m. ET, 4 p.m. CT and 2 p.m. PST). Thousands of cell groups will be united around the country in solidarity over the concerns for our nation. You can host or attend a viewing party by going to Glenn’s website. My wife Gena and I will be hosting one from our Texas ranch, in which we’ve invited many family members, friends and law enforcement to join us. It’s our way of saying “We’re united, we’re tired of the corruption, and we’re not going to take it anymore!”

Again, Sam Houston put it well when he gave the marching orders, “We view ourselves on the eve of battle. We are nerved for the contest, and must conquer or perish. It is vain to look for present aid: None is at hand. We must now act or abandon all hope! Rally to the standard, and be no longer the scoff of mercenary tongues! Be men, be free men, that your children may bless their father’s name.”

“Cell groups”?  Really?


But that isn’t what worries me.  Well, it does, but I’ve got bigger fish to fry here.  What really worries me is that this kind of rhetoric has prompted a backlash on the left that was entirely too predictable: a desire to use the powers of government already put into play by the Bush administration to quash this perceived threat.  Not everyone agrees, but just look at comments in any of these different discussions and you’ll see what I mean.  There are a lot of people who are fed up with the nonsense from the right, who say “shit, man, we put up with Bush for 8 years and you’re whining after only 8 weeks of Obama???  Fine, let’s take care of this now, using the tools you gave us.”

It’s a completely understandable reaction.  But it is also extremely dangerous.  It is, in fact, a poisoned well, and we drink from it at grave risk to ourselves and our Republic.

Because if we use those tools – if we employ the power of the government to suppress the freedoms of our enemies – then we legitimize all that the Bush administration did.  And if that happens, I’m not sure there is any turning back. And down that path lies madness: violence, martial law, suspension of the Constitution, the whole crazy nightmare.  Maybe not immediately, but eventually.

Jim Downey

(Cross posted to UTI.)

This is hopeful.
February 26, 2009, 10:45 am
Filed under: Alzheimer's, Daily Kos, Health, NPR, Science

From NPR, word that there may have been a breakthrough in Alzheimer’s Disease research:

Mad Cow And Alzheimer’s Have Surprising Link

Scientists have discovered a surprising link between Alzheimer’s disease and mad cow disease. It turns out both diseases involve something called a prion protein.

The finding, which appears in the journal Nature, could explain one of the great mysteries in Alzheimer’s disease: How components of the plaques that form in patient’s brains are able to damage brain cells. It also could point the way to new treatments for the disease.

“It’s very exciting,” says Lennart Mucke, director of the Gladstone Institute of Neurological Disease and a professor of neurology and neuroscience at the University of California, San Francisco. “The study shines the light on a very unexpected component.”

OK, first off, I think the title of the NPR piece is somewhat misleading.  Here’s what Nature has:

‘Harmless’ prion protein linked to Alzheimer’s disease

Non-infectious prion proteins found in the brain may contribute to Alzheimer’s disease, researchers have found.

The surprising new results, reported this week in Nature1, show that normal prion proteins produced naturally in the brain interact with the amyloid-β peptides that are hallmarks of Alzheimer’s disease. Blocking this interaction in preparations made from mouse brains halted some neurological defects caused by the accumulation of amyloid-β peptide. It was previously thought that only infectious prion proteins, rather than their normal, non-infectious counterparts, played a role in brain degeneration.

The results have yet to be confirmed in humans, but suggest that targeting the non-infectious prion protein (PrPc) could provide an alternative route to treating Alzheimer’s disease. “The need is huge,” says Paul Aisen, an Alzheimer’s researcher based at the neurosciences department of the University of California, San Diego. “And it’s great news for the field when a new idea is brought forth with strong evidence that can lead to new therapeutic strategies.”

Why did NPR choose to tie it to Mad Cow? Probably because that’s the only real handle most people, even NPR’s relatively well-informed listeners, have on any kind of prion disease.  So they decided to use this link.  Which may be unfortunate, if it contributes to speculation and fear that somehow Mad Cow disease leads to Alzheimer’s.

But the research is quite interesting, and a significant breakthrough.  For a while, amyloid plaque has been understood to play a role in Alzheimer’s, but no one could quite figure out what exactly that role was.  Tying it to prions gives a mechanism that explains how the plaque damages the brain and leads to the symptoms of Alzheimer’s.  Furthermore, as noted in the stories cited, it offers a very promising strategy for countering the disease.  And because of all the work which has been done on Mad Cow disease (and prion disease generally), these proteins are fairly well understood, meaning that it is likely that researchers will be able to come up with specific treatment regimens.

This is hopeful.  Very hopeful.

Jim Downey

(Cross posted to dKos.)