Let Us Ban Guns in the United States

The character-driven 2016 presidential campaign has given short shrift to vitally important issues, chief among them, climate change.  But threats to the peaceful transition of power has also pushed gun control toward the top of my list.  Civilians in the United States own more than 300 million guns—over 1,000,000 purchased since President Obama took office—and the most per capital in the world.  Under “normal” circumstances, 33,000 people kill others or themselves each year. With Trump and his Alt Right compatriots threatening to reject election results and, in some cases, to storm the barricades, the threat level may have risen exponentially.

In the short run, guns will remain on the street, in individual hands, and in the hands of self-appointed militias, who believe themselves to be fighting for their liberty in the tradition of Revolutionary War heroes.  Should a succession crisis arise, the United States government would have to deal with treasonous threats—and, of course, treasonous actions—by meeting power with far greater power.  In the long run, we need to deal with the economic and social discontent that fuels the threats.  In the intermediate run, we need to get the guns off the street and out of the mountains.

You would think that the case for gun control is both known and broadly shared..  Some is but some isn’t.  Advocates of gun control cite the violence in the streets, the danger of accidental shooting, and suicides in our homes.  They point out  that criminals and mentally ill people should not be allowed to own guns. Duh. They frequently make allowances for hunters.  And they accept what they have come to see as the Constitutional right to gun ownership guaranteed by the Second Amendment to the Constitution.

During the second debate, Hillary Clinton assured us that she believes in the Second Amendment and that she only seeks sensible safeguards to gun ownership.  This fearful, compromised bowing down to a false interpretation of the Amendment has become second nature for virtually all American politicians.  In spite of the fact that both Clinton and the majority of Americans want gun control, the prevailing belief among politicians is that you can’t propose banning buns or even severely limit their purchase.  It would be fatal to their careers.  In effect, they have acquiesced to a powerful political minority, led by the National Rifle Association’s Congressional lobbying and public intimidation campaign—allied to a general right wing agenda, and supported by millions inflamed, largely male voters who believed they are being sacrificed to the interests of corporations, minorities, and immigrants.

The gun lobby is hardly satisfied with the acquiescence in this line of thinking.  They maintain that Clinton and all those like her are pretenders.  Once in power, the Clintons of the world would seize the guns of patriotic Americans.  Two-faced politicians would deprive true Americans of their ability to protect their liberty.  This, the protection of individual liberty, has become the true north star of the Alt Right.  The gun lobby and its protectors bellow that regulation is simply the start of a slippery slope toward the banning of all guns.  Banning guns robs loyal citizens of their fundamental, Constitutionally sanctioned rights and leads ineluctably towards an oppressive federal government.  It’s a simple, cause and effect formula.

On this one point, I hope that the Alt Right is correct.  I hope that we can ban guns from civilian use, with the possible exception of hunting.  The case for banning guns doesn’t seem hard to make.  There isn’t enough time and space to document the argument in this essay, but I can summarize it.

To state the obvious,, guns enable violence.  Second, do not help us defend ourselves.  There is almost no evidence—amid much research—that guns deter violence.  .  Third, the apparent truism that the Second Amendment was written to protect the individual’s right to bear arms, is false, or at best a tenuous, modern reinterpretation of the Amendment.

Until the 1970’s, the NRA had been an association of hunters, dedicated mostly to gun safety.  As Jeffrey Toobin has written, during that decade,  “The NRA and conservative lawmakers engineered a coup d’état at the group’s annual convention in 1977 brought a group of committed political conservatives to power—as part of the leading edge of the new, more rightward-leaning Republican Party…The new group pushed for a novel interpretation of the Second Amendment, one that gave individuals, not just militias, the right to bear arms…At first, their views were widely scorned. Chief Justice Warren E. Burger,” a Republican, “who was no liberal, mocked the individual-rights theory of the amendment as ‘a fraud.’”

That coup d’etat, with sturdy support from an obedient Congress, established the norms that persist today and overwhelm majority opposition.  The Second Amendment reads as follows: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”  Until the 1970s, the interpretive emphasis was on militias, not individuals.  The United States had been a loose confederation of states, each jealously guarding its own interests.  Having come together to fight the British monarchy, they were wary of federal power—the establishment of a new monarchy.  To guard against the powers of a central government, they argued for states’ rights.  And to protect the integrity of states, the Bill of Rights, written by the nation’s founders, empowered state militias.  Individuals could own guns in the service of these militias, which could be mobilized when states rights were encroached upon.  This is the key:  Individuals could own guns in the service of militias.  And, of course, to hunt.  This was the 18th century, after all, and people hunted for their food.

We are now a nation — no longer a loose confederation of states.  There would be no contest between the federal armed forces and local militias, no matter how many assault rifles they could mobilize.  What’s more, the thousand or so militias currently active no longer correspond to state boundaries.  With the obvious exception of the Civil War, the democratic process established in the 18th century has allowed us to resolve our differences through debate and voting.  Throughout this period, political majorities win and minorities fume but, eventually the minorities become the majorities.  The cycles of liberal and conservative victories represent our triumph, not our failure.

According to the standards proposed by both the Constitutional Originalists, like Antonin Scalia, and those who see the Constitution as a living document that must adapt with the times, there is no logical, legal argument that favors individual gun ownership, and certainly none that favors assault rifles and other military weapons.  The Founders wanted to arm militias.

We, the people of the United States, have a right and, I believe, a duty to ban the civilian use of weapons.  It will save lives and it will thwart violent revolution. With the possible exception of our own American Revolution, revolutions have not solved anyone’s problems.  In the French, Russian, and Chinese revolutions, to name a few, violence begat violence; and violence, in turn begat tyranny.

It will be difficult, but not impossible, to ban guns.  It will require a sustained grass roots effort throughout the country.  It will require our belief that it is the right thing to do.  It will require stamina and courage for a long struggle. I invite all of you to think with me about how to build much greater momentum so. In the fight against guns.

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

Exhaustion: the Power of Narratives on the Experience of Health and Illness

This is the second installment in my weekly series, An Ordinary Journey Through Health, Illness, and Aging.

Those of you who read the introduction to my health and aging series already know that about three years ago, I began to feel weary.  My legs weighed two hundred pounds each.  My daily walks were more a struggle than a pleasure.  By the end, I felt stooped and out of breath.  Exercise felt more like tearing down than building muscles, and it left me exhausted.

I found myself skipping days and replacing my walk with a nap.  I had never been a napper.  In my family, napping was scandalous, almost sinful.  It represented laziness, nothing good to do, not caring, not trying, not anything.  It was bad.  And I was enjoying the naps all too much.  At heart, it felt like a withdrawal from myself, a betrayal of values as much as a physical experience.

I had always prided myself on my energy.  I could work and take care of my children, work out, run and play tennis, and take on building projects around the house.  Nothing thrilled me much more than the two summers and 100 weekends that I spent building a house in New Hampshire.  For vacations, I went backpacking in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, hiking mile after beautiful mile above tree line, with fifty pounds on my back and a feeling of freedom and serenity to keep me company.  I built organizations, wrote books, and took care of patients.  If I got five or six hours of sleep during the first fifty years of my adult life, that was plenty.  There was always much to do.  And I loved being the kind of guy to do it.

For most of my life, I was also healthy.  I felt almost invulnerable long after I should have, believing in some magical way that my immune system was a great friend and wouldn’t let diseases lay me low.  As a child, I had a couple of warts that embarrassed me no end. So I decided that I could get rid of them.  All I had to do was focus mental energy against the warts’ assault on my vanity—a bit of magic that came from some odd recess of my brain.  But the warts went away.  It was only as an adult, when I did a great deal of reading in mind-body interactions, that I learned that warts were particularly susceptible to the influence of the mind.  As a result of this proud or arrogant attitude, I didn’t wash my hands as much as I should have, I didn’t wear coats in winter.  Cold was a matter of mind, I told friends.  I ate and drank whatever I pleased and in gargantuan quantities.

It’s true that having cancer at fifty eight put a dent into the belief in my invulnerability.  And, to be honest, when my father had died at fifty, I imagined the same fate awaited me. I was really of two minds.  Certain that I would die young, probably of cancer, like my father, and equally certain that I was healthy as a horse who could fight off disease like swatting flies on a hot day.  These two belief systems didn’t seem to mingle very much.  They had pretty independent lives.  But I was hale and healthy most of the time, and that became the dominant story that I told myself.

Just before I began to weary, I was in the hearty frame of mind.  Cancer was now more than ten years in the rear view mirror.  I was in the midst of building the Institute for Nonprofit Management and Leadership, which trained young, active nonprofit leaders and emphasized both diversity and social justice.  My heart sang to its mission and to the great young people I worked with.  I got to know literally thousands of people in the Boston area and, finally, began to feel at home here, and not the transplanted New Yorker or isolated psychotherapist I had been .  I was feeling good, feeling at one with myself, feeling almost giddy with success.

Then, suddenly I tired.  What the hell was going on?  My first hypothesis was depression.  I lean that way.  I hadn’t been feeling depressed but, with a setback at work that coincided with the weariness, my disappointment married the weariness to form a story: I was tired because I was depressed.  Once this narrative settled in, I made up supporting stories about why I might be depressed.  For instance, maybe some of those skeptics were right: an old white guy like me couldn’t—shouldn’t?—try to build training programs for young people or people of color. That’s what one foundation president had screamed at me.  Maybe I’d reached my limits and needed to turn the organization over to others.  Maybe I was done.

There was another, reinforcing story that was available, as well: my children, then 42 and 34, had grown so damn independent.  They didn’t need me.  They loved me and we had formed wonderful adult friendships, but they didn’t depend on me.  That was rewarding but also sad. Then, too, a friend had died and another was hospitalized with dementia.  I might become a lonely old man.

You get the drift.  When you receive a blow, a shock, you often latch onto one of several stories that drift in and out of your mind just waiting for a catalyst to make them real.  It’s almost like a pathogen in the blood stream looking for red cells to carry it to vulnerable places.  If you think about it, there are only so many narratives—and themes—that define how you think about yourself.  Sometimes they combine and build power.  Sometimes they don’t and the power of the narrative to define your experience dissipates.  In this case, most of my life felt really good and the depression narrative didn’t stick.

The next and most compelling hypothesis readily leaped out of the dark: I must be weary because that’s what people feel as they get old.  I hadn’t even felt old before but there’s always a first time.  Each person probably tires at different paces but weariness is as inevitable as death.  There was a part of me that welcomed this narrative.  I had worked hard through my life.  I had striven.  I had tried to please and succeed.  Maybe it wouldn’t be bad to rest more, especially if it wasn’t me giving up but a natural condition that was limiting me.  Age sanctioned rest.  Amen.

Others noticed that I looked tired, that I wasn’t exercising, that I was missing a certain fire.  My children seemed to be growing a little solicitous.  “Dad, sit down.  I’ll do that.”  That felt wonderful and terrible.  I appreciated their concern and their help; but I’m a pretty independent guy.  I haven’t liked asking for help, or even being helped.  Still, I thought, I better get used to it.  I had better begin to adapt to being old.  I shouldn’t fight reality.  I should make the best of exactly who I am at any given time.  Isn’t that the mature thing to do?  I supposed that there were a whole lot of things I’d have to adapt to, including a different image of myself.

This narrative of age, maturity, and realism was very seductive, very hard to cast off.

Stepping back, I believe it is almost impossible to avoid conflating aging and illness.  There are so many moments when we are down or ill, moments that, at an earlier age, we would ride through—because we would tell ourselves a different story.  “I’m working too hard” or “I’ve had a rough go lately.”  But weariness fits my imagery about old age.  So does a degree of infirmity, waning memory, and increasing degrees of illness.  Certainly in our parents generation, seventy or so would be old.  AARP tells us we’re old or aging at 50 and lauds us for still being able to walk and talk reasonably.   At seventy one, I’d have to concede that old is old.

It is true that old age comes with limitations, but the stories by which we give meaning to the limitations are formed by a combination of our own and our culture’s narratives.  Sometimes, those narratives distort and limit our experience.

Some part of me fought to free myself of these limiting interpretations.  I searched for other ways to explain the weariness.  As often as not, we discover that the problem isn’t aging—or aging alone—but a specific, treatable problem.  In my case, it was iron deficiency anemia, which could be treated with intravenous infusions of iron, which added tremendous zest to my life.  More about that in our next discussion.

I Can’t Wait for this Campaign to End

I am dying for the presidential campaign to end so that I can relax; and I’m sure that many of you feel the same.

Most of all, I want to know the outcome.  It needs to be Hillary Clinton. The anticipation is hard, like waiting for your baby to be born.  You can’t wait.  It’s beyond exciting, but you also carry that little bit of dread until you count her fingers, hear her cry, hold her in your arms.

The campaign has held me captive.  Like an addict needing his next fix, I have watched TV news much more than ever before.  I have read the newspapers and online journals like a starving man in search of food.  Often, there’s nothing healthy to eat but I’ll eat anything.  With each passing week, the need grows.  Even as Hillary Clinton’s lead grows, I search everywhere for reassurance that this cruel, narcissistic, unstable man will not assume our nation’s mantle.

Do you recognize me in yourself?  I’ve not only grown addicted and anxious, I feel dirty, fouled by his words, fouled even by looking at him.  He is disgusting.  I can’t stand to see his face.  I can’t stand to hear his voice.  I can’t bear reading his words.  Yet I do.  I read and I watch and I listen until I feel slightly nauseated.  Sometimes, I feel like I can’t catch my breath and my heart starts to pump too quickly.  I want to bring my pulse down.

Is this neurotic?  Maybe.  But the campaign has invaded our consciousness and polluted our minds.  People tell me that they dream about it.  It’s not just how dishonest and nasty he is, how much he speaks in word salad—has he ever spoken a coherent paragraph?—how mocking and preening he is, how dismissive he is of others.  It’s that we are compelled—no, impelled—to watch.  We choose even when it doesn’t entirely feel like it.

We are pulled into a world of misbehaving children.  He responds to criticism as a child does.  If you criticize him, he comes back at you: you do it too; you’re worse than I am.  You are Putin’s puppet, Clinton says.  No, you are, you are, you are, he responds in that whiny, accusing voice of his, trying to obliterate her message.  No matter what you say in criticism, he’s right back at you and he’ll say anything.  We are pulled into a playground with a big, big boy who lacks impulse control.  We are ready to laugh at him or run from him or confront him—all at the same time.  At the very least, he should have a “time out.”  What a relief that would be.

We watch him the way we’d slow to watch a terrible car accident.  It’s awful but we seem compelled to see the wreckage.  There’s also a serious reason: he might win.  The thought of him in the White House parrying childishly with foreign leaders, Democratic politicians, “advisors,”—all potential ‘enemies—is chilling.  But that’s what would happen if he were not the center of attention, when he couldn’t have his way, if people don’t like him.  Treaties and policy would be decided on a simple basis: you like me or you don’t. Hillary Clinton says we can’t trust him with nuclear arms.  True.  But, day by day, we cant trust him to deal decently or intelligently with the business of leadership.

Against our better judgment, we keep watching, as though the very act might stop him.  Unconsciously we feel compelled to watch because we might be the last barrier to his destructive ends.  We are afraid to turn away.  He might say something to offend or endanger people we care about or encourage those who might endanger us.  On the lighter side, he might miss him saying something so awful or stupid that we would miss our opportunity tell our friends.  Gallows humor fills our conversation.

We can’t stop because he says that he won’t abide the peaceful transfer of power, the cornerstone of democratic leadership.  He talks about the end of civilization and rallies his troops to revolt.  He is preaching insurrection.  We are too close to the era of Mussolini and Hitler, who rose precipitously to power by refusing to recognize the legitimacy of constitutional rules and processes, not to take his threats at least a little seriously. We know that insurrection, even in this great nation, is possible.  We can’t stop watching because, however slim the chance of mass insurrection, it is possible. We need to be prepared.  Crazy and paranoid as it may sound, we watch so we can sound the alarm.

He is so frightened of losing and being seen as a loser, that he won’t concede the election even after Clinton wins it fair and square.  He calls on his followers to lift their arms to fight this outcome.  He calls for “watchers” to intimidate voters.  Much of these messages are barely coded are crystal clear to those who heed his call.  The call to arms, the evocation of a Second Amendment army, is treasonous.  It is dangerous.  And I have to admit that I have occasionally wondered whether President Obama has a plan to put down the rebellion, to arrest those who violently oppose the legitimacy of a new president.

Some, maybe most people, believe he’ll calm down after the election.  Or back off because he doesn’t like to work so hard.  But I think he’s bitten Eden’s apple, that his craving for attention has been jacked up exponentially and that he’ll need it as badly as ever. Imagine what he’ll have to say and do to keep the attention focused on him as much as it now is.

In other countries, maybe even at other times in the United States, his treasonous stance would have led to arrest.  It is ironic and it is fortunate that President Obama—and Democrats in general—won’t play the third world game of jailing their opponent.  They won’t fall so low.  They also don’t want to spook the election process which is finally going well.  I would do the same.  But even this kind of restraint is tiring.

Just being mature can be wearing.  Any parent knows that sustaining a quiet, calm, and loving presence in the face of a child’s tantrums can be trying and tiring.  It takes discipline, which we lovingly exercise with children we love.  It takes even more discipline with other people’s children.  And it takes a great deal of effort when the tantrum comes from a child we don’t particularly like.  Like the presidential candidate.  It takes work to remain calm, to remember that we love our country and its democratic values more than we dislike the candidate.  So the discipline is extremely important.

Our vigil is exhausting.  It is exhausting in the way that wears down battered children and wives.  They know to be vigilant, to keep their guard up.  They need to be focused and awake to the potential for danger. There is no rest.

Throughout my life, I have been spared this kind of experience.  I have been spared the experience of sexual assault.  I have not feared deportation and imprisonment.  I have not been afraid.  But I think I can identify just a little better with all of his victims and potential victims.  And I want to be free of this exhausting vigilance.

Last night’s third debate feels like it may be decisive, and I already feel a little relieved.  I find my body a little calmer.  I am obsessing a little less about the campaign and its aftermath.  I hope I’m not premature.  Anything can happen.  And, to show my true colors, I hope I’m not jinxing the campaign.  It needs to conclude well.  I need to be freed from its captivity.  How about you?

Introduction to an Ordinary Journey Through Health, Illness, and Age

This is the first of a series of essays on health, illness, and age that will be posted weekly.

I’d like to talk with you about the intermingling of health, illness, and aging.  They have become inseparable for me and, I imagine, for many of you.  I spend more time than I’d like or ever thought possible going to doctor’s appointments, trying to decipher what they are telling me, and making decisions that sometimes feel like shots in the dark.  My moods swing with the visits, the reports, and the outcomes.  Family and friends are almost always compassionate but they also have their own needs, fears, and schedules, and it is only right to attend to them, too.

For the last few years, I’ve been dealing with a hiatal hernia—my stomach moving through my diaphragm and up into my chest—and the hullabaloo that it has created in my life.  It has required tests and surgery and recoveries, speculation about how the treatment will go, sometimes obsessive observation of the outcomes, and trying to make meaning of those outcomes.  Will I be more limited?  Will pain become chronic?  Is my aging accelerating?  What and who can I depend on?  I don’t like all this attention to bodily functions but I don’t know what the alternative is.

Let me offer an example.  A few years ago, I began to feel tired, not sometimes but most of the time.  My legs felt like they were weighted down.  Walking felt effortful instead of easy and joyous as it had for most of my life.  It certainly didn’t feel like it was toning my muscles or any other part of my body.  It left me exhausted, and I began to nap instead.  The weariness was not so dramatic that I thought I was ill.  So I turned to the most obvious explanation: I had passed my seventieth birthday and I must be getting old.  “I guess this is what it’s like,” I thought, “and I had better begin to adjust to this reality.”

As it turned out, I had iron deficiency anemia.  Not good but, treatable through infusions of iron.  Within a few weeks of beginning the infusions, I felt like my old—or my prior—self.  What an unbelievable relief.  Not just that I hadn’t marched too far into old age but that I could do something to effect my health.  At least in this case, I could have some say in the matter.  I was not a passive victim but an active contributor to my well being.  I had conflated aging with ill health, which is easy to do, especially as we grow old.  We really don’t know how to interpret changes in our bodies, but we can surely learn to do it better.

For the last three years, I have been writing in my journal in an effort to make sense of the hernia, anemia, and aging processes.  I have needed the privacy and perspective that my journal offers.  But now I feel a little more comfortable with myself, and have begun a series of brief essays that trace my journey with illness, doctors, hospitals, family, and my own psyche in order to raise a number of themes that I believe we share.

In the spirit of Charles Dickens and all those wonderful nineteenth century novelists,  who serialized their work in weekly newspaper columns, I’m going to post these essays over the course of time as an unfolding story.  My hope is that this will permit readers to take some pleasure in their own detective work.   You have all had direct or indirect experience with illness, injury, doctor’s visits, surgery, gratitude, and frustration with the health care system.  When you learn, for instance, that I have been anemic, I imagine that you will bring your own associations to feeling weak or slow or blue.  I would expect you, like the Google-infused medical detectives we have all become, will use your own knowledge and experience to begin building a diagnosis.  What causes anemia?  What impact does it have on the rest of your body and your emotional life?  We will travel this path together.

Woven into the narrative, there will be discussions of general themes.  How easy it is, for example, to conflate illness and aging.  How do we lay people navigate the complexity and, often, the impersonality, of the medical system.  The difference in passive and active approaches, acceptance and fighting, “realism” and hope.  What is the story we tell and the story we are told about a particular problem?  The intersection of personal and medical narratives profoundly affect how we experience illness, health, and aging.

Then there are times when we are caught between the choice of “solving” something once and for all—let’s say, through surgery—or patiently observing the course of a problem in order to build a stronger hypothesis about what’s going on. There are many times when doctors are indirect or disagree among themselves; and we are left to push towards clarity or to make decisions that we are unqualified to make.  What to do in these tense circumstances?  Sometimes family members, because of their own temperament or schedules, want matters resolved quickly or want to hold off to the last possible moment; and you have to decide how ‘self-centered’ you want to be or how decisive you can be in the face of opposition.

Over the last several years, I’ve gotten to know the routes to the Massachusetts General Hospital and the Newton-Wellesley Hospital at least as well as the route to pick up my grandchildren at school.  I know the side routes, the ones that avoid traffic, the ones that feel more relaxing.  I know the best places to park, the best way to reach medical assistants.  I’ve gotten pretty good at reading my medical reports over my internet portal, where I have my own special password.  In short, I’m becoming quite the expert on negotiating the practical side of of the medical system.

I’ve also come to know myself better—probably the main reason I am writing about my experience.  What strengths to call on in myself and in others, or which anxieties I can anticipate and not double down on.  Getting anxious about the prospect of anxiety, for example, can worsen matters immeasurably.  I have learned to let some fears to just flow by, paying them very little mind, and never letting them capture me.    I have learned a good deal about the tendency to conflate illness with aging, which sometimes robs me of the capacity to make firm decisions and to thrive in difficult times.  There is some wisdom to be had by paying attention during this journey.  I want to share it with you and to have you, in turn, share your own wisdom.  Let me know what you have learned.

Suing others does not Lead to Justice

While the huckster and the hurricane have kept us glued to our TV screens, a very important event has passed by with much too little attention:  the passage of a bill that permits Americans to sue Saudi Arabia for the death and destruction of the World Trade Center bombings.  It is called Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA).  What makes this bi-partisan bill so important?  Implicit in the Act is the belief that Americans can take legal action against governments but people from other countries will not or cannot reciprocate.  I’d like to explain how short-sighted, dangerous, and distorted this reasoning is.

First, let’s review the facts.  There was the 9/11 attack, planned and executed by Osama Bin Laden.  There is no proof that the Saudi Arabian government participated in this terrorist operation.  If they did, we might have taken the attack as an act of war; even the bellicose Bush administration didn’t do that.  Second, there is the internationally shared legal doctrine of “sovereign immunity,” which says that “a sovereign or state cannot commit a legal wrong and is immune from civil suit or criminal prosecution.”  To date, the United States has agreed to this doctrine.  Yet the Senate voted 97 to 1 and the House voted 348 to 77 to override President Obama’s veto of the bill.

And let’s remember that the right to sue is not the same as holding people and nations to account by bringing them to world tribunals for war crimes and crimes against humanity.  This we can do.

Imagine what might happen if we really do abandon the doctrine of sovereign immunity.  How, for example, would we respond to Vietnamese families, who grieve their dead as much as we do, if they decided to sue the United States for the millions of people the United States killed and maimed in a useless war?  Would we accept the legitimacy of these legal claims?  What about Iraq, where we began a war on the false premises of weapons of mass destruction, murdering thousands, destroying homes and public buildings, and, in the process, precipitating civil war?  What about the relatives of those murdered—we call it “collateral damage”—during drone attacks.  What about the relish that people around the world would take in seeking reparations—or a big payday—by suing the wealthy American government.  The courts would be brought to a standstill by thousands of law suits and would be hard pressed to rule that the United States is different from other nations.

In short, the United States Congress has demonstrated both a clear double standard and an almost total absence of strategic foresight.

Beyond the strategic implications of JASTA, there is the symbolism: what it tells us about our society.

American society is destructively litigious.  When Americans feel wronged, they sue.  Why?  To lash out, to punish, to get even.  This is the biblical doctrine of “an eye for an eye.”  But is there really solace and satisfaction in vengeance?  Does that make up for our losses?  Does it relieve our grief?  Does it bring back our loved ones?  I don’t think so.  When there is injury and costs involved in caring for the injured, I am very much in favor of legal action.  But death is another thing.  Then we must mourn.  We must come to terms with our losses, however terrible and however difficult.  If possible, we mourn with others and, in that strange, awful twist of fate, grow closer through tragedy.  But vengeance tends to divide and embitter.  It leaves a sour taste in our mouths.  It solves nothing.  It makes a mockery of our belief in justice.

How about deterrence, the power of law suits to send a warning to those who would harm us?  I have seen virtually no proof in the sociological literature that punishment deters criminals, no less terrorists.  Let’s just dismiss this idea.  It is a rationalization for our desire for revenge.

Then there is the profit motive.  As the personal injury ads that pollute our TV screens tells us, there’s a potential gold mine out there.  If we’re miserable, maybe we can feel a little better if we’ve got money to spend.  There’s something to be proud of.

While our litigiousness tends to rot our society from within, our belief that America is different from other nations, that we are special and not subject to the same rules as others, does the same to our standing in the world.  We believe with our whole hearts that America is the greatest nation on earth.  And it’s true that our democratic ideals and the structure of our government are exceptional.  But there are two problems with exceptionalism.  First, we are in a period when the practice of democracy is strained.  Wealthy people, supported by decisions like Citizen’s United, wield more power and have more privilege than at almost any time in our history.  Voting rights are wantonly denied in many states. We are on the verge of becoming more a plutocracy than a democracy.  Poverty remains extremely high.  The presidential campaign—the symbolic centerpiece of democratic process—has people round the world horrified and repulsed.

We may still be one of the better places to live.  People still flock to our shores in search of the American dream.  But we are in a period of nativism, rejecting the very people who have made us strong.  And our foreign policy, in the name of great ideals, has never been so pure.  For centuries now, we have undermined regimes around the world when they do not agree with us or threaten our interests.  We believe ourselves to be superior to others, and that superiority gives us the right to tell others what to do—not in the candid language of realistic self-interest but in the language of ‘making the world safe for democracy.’  We do this with a straight face, even as we support some of the world’s worst regimes.  Here are a few: them Abdullah in Saudi Arabia, Marcos in the Philippines, Saddam Hussein, Franco in Spain, Papa Doc Duvalier in Haiti, Trujillo in the Dominican Republic, Batista in Cuba, and Pinochet in Peru.  Apparently, America’s exceptional qualities give us this right. This is the second problem with exceptionalism.

Let’s return to my original premise: We cannot construct an ethical and strategically sound justification to sustain our own “sovereign immunity” while denying it to other peoples and nations.   If we try, we will continue to undermine our own credibility, moral suasion, and international power.

In Praise of the Aging Mind

When I was a child, I would float in the ocean while my mind wandered to far off lands.  I am not so different now.  I often quiet myself in meditation-like trances, in the shower with water soothing sore places, or on slow walks under low skies.  It seems that my mind touches down wherever it chooses, and when it returns, it comes with the solution to a problem that I had posed.  To this day, I am amazed by the magic, which has grown richer with age.

When I am with friends, we talk about our aging brains.  We can’t do math as well, we lament.  We have trouble learning new languages, especially the technical languages that our children and grandchildren absorb with breakfast.  Our memory isn’t as good.  We can’t find words or remember names.  We are absent minded.  How often do we walk into a room to find something only to find that we don’t remember why we had come?

We worry about our decaying and betraying minds with foreboding and fear, as though we are already in a steady and soon-to-be debilitating decline.  In contemporary America, fear of Alzheimer’s disease seems second only to fear of cancer in its reach.  The big C and the big A.  Even when the fear of dementia is out of consciousness, it seems to be lurking nearby.  We’ve watched our parents fall to it.  We’ve seen friends falter.  We wonder when our time will come.

But most of every day I don’t feel that way.  I learn every day and I revel in the play of my mind.  I trust my mind.  When faced with a problem or an opportunity, there are so many reservoirs of knowledge and experience to draw upon, so many cognitive and emotional templates that I didn’t have when I was young.  I feel less constrained by conventional ideas.  Why worry about convention at this point in life?  Freedom and creativity are far more alluring.

There is a name that the pioneer of psychometric researcher, Raymond Cattell, has given to the type of intelligence that wanes in old age: “fluid intelligence” is the ability to reason and solve novel problems, independent of accumulated knowledge.  It’s the ability to analyze problems that you’ve never seen before, to identify patterns and relationships that underpin these problems and to extrapolate from these patterns by using logic. This is the stuff of logical problem solving, as well as scientific, mathematical, and technical problem solving.  It is the form of intelligence tested by I.Q. exams and generally peaks in the twenties.

Cattell has also given a name to the type of intelligence that most guides me at seventy four: Crystallized intelligence, which is acquired through experience and education.  It shows up in verbal skills, inductive reasoning, and judgment. While fluid intelligence is often considered largely a product of genetics, crystallized intelligence is much more dependent on “a bouquet of influences, including personality, motivation, opportunity and culture.”

Richard E. Nisbett, a cognitive psychologist at the University of Michigan, has long argued that “when it comes to intelligence, experience can outrun biology… Older people,” he argues, “make more use of higher-order reasoning schemes that emphasize the need for multiple perspectives, allow for compromise, and recognize the limits of knowledge.”  Despite a decline in fluid intelligence, complicated reasoning that relates to people, moral issues or political institutions improves with age.  The brain’s most powerful tool is its “ability to quickly scan a vast storehouse of templates for relevant information and past experience to come up with a novel solution to a problem. In this context, the mature brain is especially well equipped, which is probably why we still associate wisdom with age.”

Modern society has virtually jettisoned the idea of wisdom, preferring knowledge and the rapid advance of technological skills.  But I am entranced by the idea of wisdom and consider it the great gift of healthy aging.  If you strip from wisdom its mystical side, it can be defined as the quality of having experience, knowledge, perspective, confidence, and good judgment.

By perspective, I mean the capacity to see events and ideas from a bird’s eye view.  We see and recognize patterns of action and thought in ourselves and in others.  “Oh,” we might say, “I’ve tried that approach before and it never works” or “It only works when combined with kindness or firmness.”  Or with certain kinds of people.  We might note an idea keeps intruding or dominating our thinking but know from long experience that it is more a habit of mind than real problem solving or creative thinking.  Through experience—and reflection—we know the mental and social territory that we dwell in; we know its travails, its traps, its challenges.  And we know the way through the thickets to open spaces.

By perspective, I also mean calm.  A frequent advantage of age is the quieting that comes with experience.  The anxious, internal chatter that clouds the thinking of so many younger people, tends to dissipate.  The intensity dims, too.  This is both loss and gain.  The gain is that you see even difficult or dangerous situations without panic or impetuousness or competitive urges. The idea is to solve a problem not to be the best.  In old age, the focus is less on you, more on solutions.

Let me illustrate my point by observing its opposite.  Take a look at Donald Trump’s failure of wisdom.  He lacks knowledge, perspective, and judgment.  His intellectual style has bogged down in adolescence. He is self centered.  He needs to ‘win’ at all costs, even if winning leads to failure, which it often does.  Most of us, to our great advantage, grow out of this phase

We build our confidence not out of bravado but experience.  You have traveled many pathways in your life, sometimes with success, sometimes not, but you have come to know the territory.  You know it so well that, even when you diverge from your regular pathways, you are pretty sure you can find your way to safety.  The confidence we feel is more realistic, more solid.  We are clearer and more forthright about both our strengths and our limitations.  We don’t need to hope and pretend as much.

I have the good fortune to have many former students, now leaders of nonprofit organizations, who come for advice.  The pleasure that I take in sharing what I’ve learned over the years is hard to express.  The acuity and confidence I feel when helping to advance their careers and their lives is a gift that I have given to myself as much as to them.  It is the gift of giving and it is the gift of play.  I love thinking with others.

I am hardly unique in having knowledge and experience to share.  There are vast amounts of untapped wisdom among my peers, needing only to be recognized and utilized, if only our culture will grant aging intelligence its imprimatur.