I am a patriot. I love America. From sea to shining sea, mountaintop to Gulf Stream water, I love this place. Though to be honest, I love it like how you love a dog that still runs full speed into the sliding patio door after all these years. My affection for this country is the same affection you have for your granny who was always so sweet and nice when you were a kid, feeding you homemade cookies from that reused tin, but feels fine saying stuff to you about people that was not cool to say when that tin first started getting reused.
Once upon a time I put on a uniform and swore an oath to defend this country, even though at that young age I was already starting to disagree with it, and even now would put it on again for the right reasons if I wasn't too old and fat to defend it. I love my country, even though I have to be honest and say that my country sucks really bad sometimes. OK, most of the time. My country is dumb, bigoted, greedy, unjust, and a bully, but I still love it, and no, I don't see a problem with that.
Somewhere along the way, folks decided that patriotism meant that loving America meant being uncritical of it, thinking that questioning anything its government or leaders did was heretical, and that opposing it was being a traitor. You could probably blame Ronald Reagan for this, not president of the United States Reagan, but president of the Screen Actors Guild Reagan. After World War II, we really went hard on the mindless patriotism shtick in reaction to the so-called commies, with public denouncements such as the Red Scare, which Reagan helped lead in Hollywood. But it really goes back to the days of the Founding Fathers(tm). The Alien and Sedition Acts from 1798 were passed to keep people like Thomas Jefferson from criticizing people like John Adams. You might know them from the Hamilton musical, but they're both Founding Fathers who helped create this country's ethos, which apparently also includes messed-up takes on what patriotism is. This started off our problem of blind loyalty versus criticism.
After that, and I largely blame Nixon for it along with most political historians, we became cynical about government as well. Between watching cops beat the hell out of civil rights activists and the National Guard shooting unarmed college kids protesting the war in Vietnam, Nixon went out and betrayed our democracy by trying to clumsily steal the election and got caught. After that it was a downhill slide into a nihilistic take from many that our country was irredeemably evil, corrupt, and not worth saving. You can see this nowadays with people online saying that anyone who disagrees with this take is a shill or a bootlicker. They've created a trendy cynicism that equates to anyone disagreeing with them morphing into a hater of social justice, equality, or their subscription-based podcast; that there's nothing worth liking about America at all, especially one in which "normies" live. (I honestly cannot believe people above high school age use that term unironically.)
Screw that false dichotomy. Blind patriotism has never served society well, nor has broody cynicism. Blind patriotism, where nothing America has ever done, is doing, or will do can be bad, is not only ahistorical but immoral. Trying to create some colonialist post-hoc justifications like Manifest Destiny or American Exceptionalism is disgusting. The Civil War wasn't about states' rights because we have the receipts and the Confederate leaders straight up said they would fight a war to keep owning people (before they started editing after they lost). Huge parts of our Constitution were written to be nice to slaveowners who didn't want to lose their blood money. We did murder Native Americans and broke almost every single treaty with them. We did create a system of eugenics that not only marginalized nonwhites but poor whites as well. We were sterilizing women against their will up till the 1970s because of it. Our sociopathic take on capitalism does send people to an early grave after making their short lives miserable. Current efforts to enshrine anti-LGBTQ bigotry into law is just another part of that legacy. So much of what we've done around the world since 9/11 has been driven by a history of bigotry and bullying that we refined during the previous 200 years. Our current domestic violence is an effort to wipe out any memory or acceptance of that past violence. Our country has done terrible, horrible shit in its history and is still doing it; but, and I cannot stress this enough, I still love my country.
The problem with recognizing that America is so fundamentally flawed with its past, present, and our worries for what the future may be, is that falling into cynicism and despair is not only easy, it's almost expected. One can develop a hatred of this place; a visceral hatred of everything about it and everyone in it so easily one doesn't realize it until their entire personality is consumed by contempt and loathing for anything beyond the sheltered bubble they create to eke out some joy in life. However, despairing cynicism buoyed by hate is just as blind a belief as those "patriots" who refuse to recognize any flaw, any failure, or accept any fault, which leads itself to hate. This is because probably the hardest thing to do in this life is to accept that we are flawed, imperfect humans, which ultimately causes us to live in a flawed, imperfect world. None of that is a new, brilliant insight. It's a view that is as old as civilization itself, and learning to cope with that has shaped philosophy and religion all over the world since the beginning.
This is because we have created a nonsecular political Puritanism. If you love our country blindly and refuse to accept its past you can remain pure of the stain of the sins. If you hate our country and see nothing redeemable, you can remain pure by saying you're not part of it. Neither is true. You're shaped and molded by this place whether you want to be or not. Packing up and moving to another country will not erase what you've experienced. You are as much a product of being American as you are of the family you were born into. For better and for worse.
So what do we do about it? We do the same things we're taught to deal with our own personal flaws; accept, embrace, and work to improve them. Well, you do that if you actually want to get better and not wallow in misery.
If you go back and re-read the Constitution for context, you'll notice it says, "We the People of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility... promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity," right at the start. Why? Well, if you had a decent high school history teacher and paid attention, you know we tried once with creating a government and completely screwed it up. We wrote the Articles of Confederation to form a government that straight-up sucked. Our first attempt at America didn't even make it six years before we had to start over from scratch. Technically, we're the United States of America 2.0. Our country as we know it today is a do-over. Once you understand that, it all begins to be so clear; our Founding Fathers realized they screwed up, we're going to screw up, and that we need to fix what we screw up. If you read the writings of the people who created America, be it John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, or anyone else, you'll see one constant theme in their writings: "We are so going to keep screwing this up until we get it right."
Our history is a history of constantly screwing up. Everything from civil rights to economic equality to social justice, we have screwed up. Badly. While we spoke of "all men being equal," Americans owned slaves and women weren't allowed to vote. We fought our bloodiest war to end slavery and then quietly surrendered to Jim Crow. As we denounced European colonialism, we wiped Native Americans from the land. When we fought Nazis, we kept Japanese-Americans in camps and our armed forces segregated. We never fully lived up to our hype because we kept screwing up. We screwed up, because we're human and humans are screw-ups and we live in a nation of humans. That doesn't excuse or defend what we did, it just points out a truth.
Yet the thing we have to remember, if we are to be true American patriots, is that we knew we were going to screw this up from the beginning because our ideals were loftier than what we could ever accomplish in a lifetime. Undoing millennia of human flaws was never an overnight prospect. This is why we have always referred to America as an experiment, and as with an experiment, we are constantly tweaking and changing the formula. Sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse, but always hopefully striving for that more perfect union, which won't occur in my lifetime or probably any child born today. That's because we are forever working to get better, whether it's personally or as a nation. I just happen to be the citizen of a country that set out from the beginning to be better despite such flawed beginnings. America has a long history of religious intolerance, racial bigotry, colonialism, misogyny, homophobia, war, violence, and genocide. We are a place where all the problems of humanity with all of the stated hopes for a better world are mixed together. We have all religions, races, genders, and identities here. If we cannot love our country knowing its flaws and failures, along with the interminable drive to achieve equality and justice for humanity, what can we ever love?
I love my broken, stupid, ignorant, often hateful and cruel country for all its flaws because I have to. Because loving it means loving the need to grow as a species and achieve what we have set out since the dawn of time.
Amanda Kerri is an Oklahoma-based writer, comedian, and frequent contributor to The Advocate. Follow her on Twitter @Amanda_Kerri.