I was sitting in a sandwich shop having lunch with a British woman when she hit me with this question:
“Do you consider yourself patriotic?”
At that moment, it was kind of a loaded question. We were in Washington DC, about two blocks from the White House. As a matter of fact, you could actually see the presidential residence if you stepped outside the front door of the restaurant. It was March of 2003, and the US was just a few hours away from invading Iraq.
About an hour earlier, my friend and I were sitting in a room of aspiring journalists who were arguing about the legitimacy of the inevitable invasion. Things got pretty heated, and those of us who opposed the invasion were asked by others if we really loved America.
So away from the shouting, the lone Brit in our fellowship group asked me if I thought I was patriotic. I paused for a long time and tried to stammer out an answer. It went a little something like this:
“Well, it depends on what you consider patriotic. Right now patriotism seems to mean unthinking acceptance of anything the government does. People who call themselves patriotic are using chants of ‘U-S-A, U-S-A’ as code for ‘shut up.’ So if that’s patriotism, then I guess I’m not patriotic.
“But if questioning your country when it’s doing something you think is wrong is patriotic, then I guess I qualify. If I didn’t care anything about this country, then I wouldn’t care if it invades Iraq. But I do…”
And on and on it went. It was a complex, long winded reply and I never really answered the question. But it was hard back then. Hard to be proud of what our nation was doing.
On Tuesday, the answer was clear, I’m a patriot. I sat watching the crowds on the National Mall and on the parade route and I was moved. I listened to Obama’s inaugural address and heard a vision of an America I want to live in. I saw Obama and his wife walk down Pennsylvania Avenue and was struck by how excited people were to be starting a new era.
So today I’m proud to be an American. I’m not naive, though. I know that we have the same problems we did yesterday. I know that Obama is not going to be a perfect president and he’ll likely say and do things that disappoint me. I know he can’t solve all of our problems with the stroke of a pen. I know the economy is probably going to get worse in the coming months.
And yet, despite all that, I’m left with a (sorry to use the word again) hope that we’re going to start heading in the right direction. It’s nice to smile again when thinking about my country. I hope it lasts.