I was finishing college and working full time at the mall when the world was shaken by the September 11th terrorist attacks. I did not love my country. In fact, I was almost a year out of a relationship with a stereotypical racist, homophobic flag-waver, disillusioned by the election Bush appeared to have stolen and about as far away from being a patriot as one could get without crossing borders and renouncing citizenship.
Still, I watched the news with wide eyes, and I marched myself off to the craft store, where I bought up all the red, white and blue ribbon I could find, several days in a row. I spent hours making small lapel pins to give away to my customers at work. I called it a demonstration of solidarity for the families who lost loved ones in the attacks, and I wore a ribbon pinned to my button down work shirt for months. My co-workers, friends and family members did the same. It wasn't knee-jerk patriotism but a deep sense of violation and sorrow that drove my actions.
As time went on, my political and personal beliefs made me an even more outspoken critic of America. I had children who wore t-shirts that said, "I already know more than the President," instead of red, white and blue flag-wear for Independence Day. I sighed with relief when my kindergartener told me she didn't want to repeat the Pledge of Allegiance in school. I plastered my car with bumper stickers that condemned the wars, the government and our failed democracy. I did not think of myself as a dissenter. I was anti-American.
Then November of 2008 came around, and I watched as my country elected the first black President, a man who looked nothing like me but who ran on a platform that spoke to many of my core values. As those results rolled in on election night, I began to feel my faith in the citizens of the United States restored. I could rationalize that there were depressing, bigoted factions, but the majority - the electoral majority - were reasonably good people. I wasn't ready to hang the flag in my front yard, but I was feeling some twinges of pride.
During election season, I had promised to take my daughter to Washington if "we" won. I made good on that, twice, with one visit for the inauguration and a second to sight-see in the warmer weather.
There's something about DC. I've gone back several times since that ecstatic, inaugural trip, and that city never fails to lure me in with its rich history, somber monuments and the overwhelming feeling that big things happen here. I can be disappointed in my President, raging at the stupidity of my fellow Americans, certain that things are going to get worse long before they get better, but when I'm in Washington, I have hope. I believe that things will get better. I believe that the founding fathers had the right idea, and I believe that I am fortunate to be a citizen of the United States of America.
Now that election season is fast approaching, I know the Michele Bachmanns and Rick Santorums and Sarah Palins of the world are going to do everything they can to drive away my fledgling feelings of patriotism. Their ilk are the ones, after all, who are quick to slap the anti-American label on anyone who fails to meet their rigid definition of morality.
This time, I'm not going to give them what they want. I'm still a dissatisfied dissenter, and consuming the news with daily ferocity, I am oft reminded of why I originally lost faith in my fellow citizens. Nonetheless, I am an American, and I am happy to be one. I can simultaneously celebrate the principles of freedom and justice on which my country was founded and criticize the politicians who seek to strip me of my rights. I can love America - and I do - not for what it is but for what it could be.