One of the attributes that I value most in people, and strive for myself, is a strong sense of self-awareness. I'll admit that I don't have it to the extent that I would like, and I've been disappointed to find people that I admired lack it in serious ways. I value it because it is essential to forming a better person, able to recognize the gaps in one's knowledge or ability, which makes it possible to improve and empower others who can compensate for your own shortcomings. It is an attribute that is closely related to humility.
Self-awareness could go a long way toward improving the United States. It seems like it would be at odds with pride, something that Americans value a great deal, but I would argue that you can be proud of your self-awareness and the willingness to change the things that are not ideal. We can absolutely be proud of a relentless effort to fix what's broken.
Being a patriotic American means acknowledging that there have always been two Americas, where "we the people" never meant all the people, and its history is rooted in contradiction between stated values and the actions and outcomes that have defined us.
America is a story of extraordinary success. In relatively short time, it went from a colony to the richest independent nation in the world. It has created entire industries, leading the industrial revolution, pioneering fields like medicine and computer technology. It has built gigantic buildings, landed humans on the moon, sent vehicles to explore Mars, traversed a continent with transportation systems and invented a communication system we all take for granted today. It used its wealth to help militarily destroy a fascist government that killed millions on the basis of religion and ethnicity.
America is a story of extraordinary failure. It was founded for the purpose of exercising self-governance and freedom from a tyrannical government, but the freedom was never intended for all people. It treated people as property and systematically killed and contained the indigenous people who already lived on the land the nation claimed as its own. After a massive civil war that ended slavery, a caste system quickly evolved that segregated people by race and continues to negatively affect people of color in every way. America has a healthcare system that spends twice as much per capita on care compared to the average of comparable nations, but doesn't lead in quality of outcomes in any category at all, and in fact has the worst chronic disease burden. The US spends more on military than the next 10 nations combined, of which 7 we consider close allies. One in 10 Americans live below the poverty line despite having the largest economy in the world.
We have much to celebrate, but we have much to correct. The lack of true civic equality is a specter that we can't keep ignoring. As long as there are two Americas, we can't realistically find a path forward together. We are not all endowed with "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness," because there are systems in place that make that impossible. It touches every part of our society, including education, economic opportunity, criminal justice and electoral engagement.
The idea that we can go back to a "greater" America is not real. It's a dog whistle of the worst kind: There is no time to go back to when things were more equal, only less. The nation once did great things, but it maintained a habit of doing terrible things at the same time. I believe that to be patriotic, to truly love our country, we must acknowledge this, and strive to correct it. That's what being American is to me, and I hope you'll come along for the ride.