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Leonard Steinhorn Headshot

Tired of Chest-Thumping Patriotism

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From the July 4th season through the fall election, the American people will be hearing nothing but uber-patriotic rhetoric coming from their politicians and national leaders.

They will be telling us how America is a great nation and how Americans are a good people, and they will be lathering praise on us as hard-working, self-sacrificing, charitable, fair and just.

I don't know about you, but all of this cheerleading and backslapping rhetoric strikes me as a bit ingratiating and self-serving. Flattery is not patriotism.

America has accomplished remarkable things in our history. We helped defeat the worst tyranny known to humankind during World War II. We are a more inclusive culture than any in history and we are committed in law and ideal to perfecting that inclusion. We have a Constitution that is a model for nations worldwide because of the freedoms it encodes and the powers it checks.

We are indeed an exceptional country, and we should celebrate that.

But patriotism also means calling our nation out for its problems and troubles. Politicians spend a lot of time blaming each other for what's wrong when in fact the fault, dear America, is too often in ourselves. It does us little good as a nation to project all of our problems onto Washington and let the American people off with a free pass.

So an honest politician would give a rousing patriotic speech that would include not only the usual encomia to our virtues but would challenge us to better ourselves and right our wrongs.

Here are my top four patriotic criticisms of Americans that I wish a politician would articulate:

1. We are an obese nation and we are costing ourselves billions because we eat terribly and exercise little. Symbolic to me was a woman at a restaurant whose arms were bigger than my thighs gorging on an oversized plate of nachos as if they were her last supper.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, nearly two in five adult Americans and one in six children are obese. Eighty percent of Americans over 25 are overweight. Most Americans don't come close to the recommended level of daily physical activity, and up to a third of us are completely sedentary, meaning they are inactive on the job, at home, and in their leisure time.

We talk about the cost of health care, but perhaps we should look in the mirror: In 2008, health insurers paid out almost $1,500 more for every obese American than for those of normal weight.

2. Americans have a lot of opinions, but we often don't have the knowledge and facts to back them up. Ours is a nation of stunning historical and political ignorance.

Last year Newsweek gave 1,000 Americans the citizenship test that immigrants take before they become citizens. Only 62 percent passed. Twenty-nine percent could not name the vice president, six in ten had no clue there are nine Supreme Court justices, three quarters couldn't say why we fought the Cold War, nearly half were unable to define the Bill of Rights, and one in four did not know that Martin Luther King, Jr., was involved in civil rights.

In 2006, during the thick of the Iraq War, only 37 percent of young Americans 18 to 24 could find Iraq on a map. That mirrors our ignorance during another controversial war, Vietnam, when large numbers of Americans could not identify which side, the north or the south, we were fighting for. Even at home Americans don't know their own country: a Roper poll found that half of 18 to 24 year olds could not identify New York State on a map.

Nor are these isolated results. Recent surveys show a near complete lack of knowledge about two of the key issues in the forthcoming election, the budget and health care. Americans think that foreign aid consumes 27 percent of our federal budget and see that as a primary place to cut when in fact the real number is one percent. On health care, a 2010 Kaiser Family Foundation survey found that only 13 percent of Americans who favor repealing the Affordable Care Act could correctly answer seven out of ten basic questions about it.

As Washington Post Fact Checker Glenn Kessler wrote, "how can Washington have a serious debate when most Americans are ignorant of what is in the budget?" Likewise, how can we have a serious election when most Americans have opinions without knowledge? Wouldn't it be nice if we stopped opining and started learning?

3. Ours is the richest nation in human history, and we like to think we are a good and generous people. Yet we turn a blind eye to the suffering of our fellow Americans.

Through no fault of their own, millions of children are growing up in dire poverty and thereby maturing into lives of desperation. To them, the American ideal of equal opportunity is a cruel illusion.

Nearly 16 million American children -- about one in four -- grow up in families below the poverty line, which for a household of four means an annual income below $23,050 (the average cost of a new car in America is about $30,000).

Somehow large numbers of Americans seem to rationalize our national inaction on poverty by suggesting that the poor themselves are to blame. Our American Dream tells us that if we work hard we succeed. But the flip side suggests that the only reason people don't succeed is if they haven't worked hard enough. In other words, they are poor because they are lazy.

That of course may be true for some but not for most, who are hamstrung by history or family or discrimination or circumstance or just bad luck. And it's certainly not true for the children. But it's a fine excuse for those Americans who feel no obligation - moral or political - to the greater good.

Some even propose cutting the social safety net further, as if the $20 per day that a family of four gets in food stamps is too generous. House Budget Committee chair Paul Ryan worries that we are in danger of turning the "social safety net into a hammock." Instead he wants to dole out more tax cuts to the wealthiest Americans who are somehow, according to Ryan's dogma, suffering and besieged.

How can we take such views seriously? Are we really as generous a nation as we believe?

4. Let's be honest here: Americans are energy gluttons.

Nearly 40 years since the first energy crisis and oil shocks, American households continue to use as much energy as we did then. Lots of us leave on lights, complain about compact fluorescent bulbs, and think it's our basic right to drive an SUV and to keep the house chilly in the summer and toasty in the winter.

When asked about the little things they could do to save energy, only 11 percent say they turn off the lights when leaving the room, 5 percent keep their air conditioning at 78 degrees in the summer, and 10 percent turn the heat down to 68 degrees during the day and 65 at night in the winter, according to a 2012 survey conducted by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.

These aren't hard to do. They aren't great sacrifices. We talk a green game, but we don't act it.

Americans constitute five percent of the world's population yet consume 25 percent of the world's energy. On a per capita basis we emit twice the amount of carbon as Germany and three times that of China.

Not only do our habits contribute to environmental destabilization, but our energy hunger keeps prices high and oil rich countries happy.

Yet we complain about high gas prices and pollution and demand action from Washington.

Perhaps our politicians and national leaders don't ask more of us because they fear the 30-second ad accusing them of blaming Americans. Whatever the reason, it is we -- not Washington -- that bear a large responsibility for our nation's problems.

Will anyone in public life have the courage to challenge Americans to change their ways? Doesn't anyone see the patriotism in asking an already great nation to be better? Or will we continue to hear only the chest-thumping patriotism that flatters Americans without asking a single thing of us?

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