Americans are far more likely to gnash their teeth over what is wrong with their country than to take pride in its greatness.
A few months ago the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies produced an extensive report that concluded that Americans, by and large, are a sickly lot. Compared to their peers in other advanced industrial nations, Americans do not live as long or as well or as healthy.
In the report’s words:
For many years, Americans have been dying at younger ages than people in almost all other high income countries. This disadvantage has been getting worse for three decades, especially among women. Not only are their lives shorter, but Americans also have a longstanding pattern of poorer health that is strikingly consistent and pervasive over the life course—at birth, during childhood and adolescence, for young and middle-aged adults, and for older adults.
The study measured several different categories:
When compared with the average of peer countries, Americans as a group fare worse in at least nine health areas:
1. infant mortality and low birth weight
2. injuries and homicides
3. adolescent pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections
4. HIV and AIDS
5. drug-related deaths
6. obesity and diabetes
7. heart disease
8. chronic lung disease
Naturally, one would want to parse these results to learn whether they apply to all communities equally or whether some communities, for example, are more prone to some health problems than others.
In their summary, the authors suggest that when you compare the most privileged Americans with their counterparts in other countries, ours still lag:
Several studies are now suggesting that even advantaged Americans— those who are white, insured, college-educated, or upper income—are in worse health than similar individuals in other countries.
I have not seen the full report, but it does not make very much sense to say that privileged whites, for example, are not far less likely to be victims of gun violence.
What is causing American sickliness? Apparently, the answer is bad habits.
The report observes:
Although Americans are currently less likely to smoke and may drink alcohol less heavily than people in peer countries, they consume the most calories per person, have higher rates of drug abuse, are less likely to use seat belts, are involved in more traffic accidents that involve alcohol, and are more likely to use firearms in acts of violence.
Naturally, some thinkers believe that we are being punished for not following the Swedish model of social democracy. An article from the New Scientist, recently republished on Slate, suggests that Americans are suffering because they refuse to expand the welfare state and introduce more socialist reforms. The author seems to believe that Swedes live longer because they have a softer form of capitalism. She suggests that we are suffering from free enterprise.
Even if you have never heard of causation/correlation arguments, a glance at the chart provided in the report shows that, while Sweden is marginally ahead of America, the nations that do the best are Switzerland and Australia. As it happens, both countries count among the top five freest nations on earth.
Be that as it may, Americans have a lot of bad personal habits. Most of them involve intemperance, sloth and cheap thrills.
We might consider these to be mental health issues, but it is also true that they involve ethics. They involve both personal and group ethics.
Smoking is no longer acceptable in polite American society, but drugs and alcohol certainly are. If, as the report suggests, in item 4, Americans suffer from a higher incidence of HIV/AIDS, and presumably other STDs, it is also true that everyone believes that promiscuous sexual behavior is a right protected by the constitution, and that it is good for your health.
When it comes to emotions, Americans are obliged to demonstrate severe guilt for their nation's manifold sins. National pride and patriotism are disparaged.
Considering the fact that the nation is positively awash in psychoactive medication, you have to wonder why Americans are suffering so much malaise and why they are trying to regulate their psyches by indulging in bad habits.
Americans appear to be using these bad habits to medicate their emotional distress, to numb themselves to the lingering depressive state that seems to have overtaken the country?
If you are feeling numb, you are likely to seek out thrills. The more powerful the thrill the greater the chance that it will break through your inability to feel pleasure. As for overeating and underexercising, people who have self-control and self-discipline, and who respect themselves do not use food as medication and do not avoid the gym.
I would suggest that Americans have been put in a national funk because they are constantly told that they must feel guilty for their nation’s sins. Feeling pride in the nation and expressing patriotism are routinely denounced as a failure to feel sufficiently guilty.
After all, depression is a lack of pride. But it is not merely about individual achievement. Pride, like shame, is shared. You might feel some pride in your personal performance, but if your team loses or if it has cheated its way to victory, you lose your right to enjoy personal pride.
Those who are in charge of school systems have put themselves in the business of producing guilt. All the while, they tell American children that they are entitled to high self esteem. No one needs to work hard to achieve anything. Self-esteem is given, not earned.
This means that far too many children have been turned into raving narcissists. They believe that they are the best, no matter the evidence. They do not understand that pride comes naturally with hard work and achievement.
But then, children are also taught that America is a major sinner nation. They are taught that America’s crimes and flaws overwhelm its successes. Since emotional well-being depends on belonging to a successful group, this teaching sets them up for depression.
Whether it is the schools or the media, we as a people are obsessed with everything we have done wrong: racism, sexism, homophobia, Islamophobia. If that does not suffice, add the crimes called Gitmo, Abu Ghraib and pollution.
We are called upon to feel badly for these sins and to atone for them by purifying our thought and voting for the right political party. In the meantime, we are being stripped of our pride, our confidence and our work ethic.
Our estimable First Lady once said that she did not feel proud of her country until her husband was nominated for president. The new nominee for UN Ambassador believes that America should be apologizing for its many international sins.
Many Americans voted for Barack Obama, a man of meager accomplishments because they wanted to do penance for slavery and racial segregation. Those Americans who believe that elections are about expiating sins are apparently ready to put Hillary Clinton in the White House in 2017. In that way we will apparently expiate our sin of sexism. And we will do so by electing a woman who has been systematically and publicly humiliated by her husband. Surely, her election will make us more respected around the world. If her election doesn’t boost national pride we will still believe that we are atoning for our sins.
One can only wonder why our elite intellectuals and psycho professionals have never considered the emotional consequences of depriving a people of its pride and burdening it with guilt.