"What makes me so mad", a friend once said to me during an instant message conversation, "is that people accuse us of being anti-American because we protest the war."
To which I replied, "that's because they're stupid. Protesting wars is one of the things that makes us Americans. We shoot each other over sneakers. Of course we're going to argue about war. Besides, you still love the country, right?"
After a long, thoughtful pause, the words came up, "well, that's a complex issue. We'll have to talk it over some time."
An artful dodge, but one I actually understood. How could any educated person actually "love" this country? How could we, when we knew this country had oppressed so many peoples in its making, sucked up environmental resources in gargantuan quantities and spewed them out the tops of smoke stacks to ruinous end, coddled the rich and buried the poor, and destabilized entire regions settling old family scores? Who could love such a thing?
I love America because it's got an insanely complex government. Tens of thousands of people at all levels get to decide almost everything about the country, from the position of garbage cans outside my house to the position of a space station orbiting the earth. The only thing special about these people is they simply wanted to do it. Even better, we regularly get a chance to replace all of them, sometimes simply because we don't like their beady little stare. Every bit of regulation and law, right up to the founding documents of the country itself, can be changed or discarded if enough of us feel like it.
I love America because large numbers of its citizens are so naive they actually expect this government to function. They rally, they chant, they write, they march, they call, they vote, they care, all in the sincere belief that if the right combination of politicians ended up in office, we could actually get this government to work for us. For this they are, of course, doomed to eternal disappointment, but their Charlie-Brown-like ability to get up, dust themselves off, and grumble down the field for another kick at congress's football makes us all better in the long run.
I love America because far larger numbers of its citizens want to work for themselves and keep the government out of their way. They know that people who gain power through public office need to be carefully watched, and that crusaders are usually only leading their followers into the sea. They strongly believe as long as the playing field is level and the rules are followed, anyone... anyone can succeed. For this they too are doomed to disappointment, not just because the field can be mined and the rules hidden, but because too many players think they're "owed" a starting position.
I love America because it's as much an idea as a nation, one that lets anyone participate. It may not be easy, it's usually not fair, but it's too often far more than 85% of the world gets on their first birthday. Today we are not the only place in the world that provides this opportunity, but we were the first, and we stand with a depressingly small group of equals.
I love America because as a nation we're always thinking up something new. People are smarter than their governments, a lot smarter, and by enabling more people than anywhere else on the planet, America has become a gyser of ideas, a fountainhead of innovation unequaled in time or place. Not all of them are good ideas, and some work only badly, but for every Zima, Chia Pet, and Clinton Administration there are a dozen TiVOs, Saturn Vs, and Wright Brothers. More importantly, we get to decided what succeeds and fails, not some dusty bureaucrat or son of a dictator.
I love America most of all because we never stop trying. We screw it up just as much as anyone else, sometimes with horrible, tragic results. When we see that happen, we work to fix it, nearly always faster than anyone else would or could. We refuse to be the whipping boy of the rest of the world, refuse to be an excuse distracting from bankrupt economies, crumbling infrastructures, and ruptured ideas. This means we get blamed for screwing up a lot more than we've ever been responsible for. But when we accept a screwup, we do what we can to fix it, from giving a farmer cash for a stray bomb to crushing an entire administration for blowing up a country and then lying about it.
We're not perfect. We're not even close. If you were to hack this country out and put it under a dome on Mars, we'd still be robbing liquor stores and trying to elect Hillary Clinton. We probably wouldn't even notice the sky'd gone a funny color and the French had finally shut up. But to the great disappointment of Noam Chomsky, Ted Rall, Jacques Chirac, Saddam Hussein, Osama Bin Laden (aka "next"), and many others, we're not going anywhere. Instead we're going to stand out here, holding our torch as high as we can. Because no matter how rusted it may be, no matter how many times we're ungainly in its holding, we know the gold of it will always shine bright.
And for that, my friends, I am a patriot.