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Editorial: 11 ways to be a better American

As Americans, we hear a lot of talk about our "rights," not unreasonably, considering the nation was founded on the "Bill of Rights."

But as citizens we also bear civic responsibilities. In these troubled times, when the nation is at war, economic times are tough and the country is politically divided, a new book, The Handbook for Americans, offers 11 ways to be a better American:

Vote. By participating in elections at the local, state and national level, you make your opinions heard. Understand the issues. Learn as much as you can about the candidates. Vote responsibly.

Stay informed. Read newspapers, magazines, blogs. Talk to your friends, co-workers, neighbors. Go online and read current bills before Congress. An educated American is an empowered citizen.

Exercise your right to free speech. When we articulately and intelligently state our opinions, popular or not, we truly live up to the hopes and dreams of the Founding Fathers. Freedom of speech is an extraordinary right.

Support American businesses. When we buy products labeled "Made in USA," we are supporting our economy and creating jobs for our fellow citizens.

Support Americans in need. The Gulf oil disaster. Tornadoes. Flash floods. Our neighbors need us. Help your fellow Americans. Donate your time, services or money to those less fortunate than you.

Use your time meaningfully and wisely. Volunteer for local charities. Help out at the local school or nursing home. Organize a neighborhood clean-up. Let's all do what we can to support each other.

Reread our founding documents. The principles laid out in the Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and the Bill of Rights are timeless and essential. This country's founders envisioned a future we are living out today - and we can turn to these documents whenever our democratic institutions and expectations are challenged and need to be reinvigorated.

Look to the past for perspective. The nation's history is rich with moments when strength and resilience transcended hardship and adversity. Look to the lives of our great leaders, presidents, and citizens for inspiration.

Teach the next generation. Like anything else, enlightened patriotism comes from education, not ignorance. Teach the children about the special rights and responsibilities we share as Americans, and how they can exercise those rights. Set the example by being a good citizen.

Enjoy and protect America's natural resources. Conserve. Recycle. Help clean up a river or plant a tree. Our democracy deserves a home as beautiful as its ideals.

Above all else: Bet on Good. Believe in America. Believe that together we can forge a better future and better ways of doing things. Believe it, then do it. The ultimate success of our democracy rests upon the individual citizens who make up this great nation.