If I told you I was a patriot, what would that mean to you? Would it mean that I consider my country to be superior to all others? Would it mean that I support President Bush, and the war on Iraq? Would it mean that I've boycotted French's mustard and snobbishly ordered freedom fries at the local McDonald's? Or perhaps it means that I support the sacrifice of the New York firefighters -- that, in translation, I proclaim their bravery to have been an American value, not a human one.
But those who know me would surely not describe me as the stereotypical patriot. I don't support President Bush, and I don't support the war on Iraq. I would never dream of boycotting French's mustard, and I'm frankly embarrassed that we managed to turn french fries into an international symbol of protest. Though I was awed and humbled by the courage of the heroes of Sept. 11, I don't believe they did what they did because they were Americans, and I resent that their sacrifice was turned into a rush for pre-emptive war.
Patriotism does not have to blindly wave the flag. In my mind, all that is required of a good citizen is a respect for the democratic process, and, most important, a healthy dose of constructive dissent.
A friend of mine flies the American flag on a pole outside his front door. But he, along with 40 percent of the nation's eligible voters, will not vote in the election Nov. 2 -- if the trend from the 2000 election holds. While thousands of people are dying in Iraq, my friend chooses not to form an opinion on anything outside his realm of reality. He fails to realize that his opinions, or lack thereof, wield enormous power, and that the consequences of a choice not to vote are just as big as the consequences of a choice to vote. He can't see that his apathy is another man's nightmare, and that he is taking for grnted a right that many before him have died to secure.
If someone you know will be able to vote this November, but isn't going to, tell them to vote on my behalf, because I can't. Or, better yet, tell them to vote on behalf of all the other people who won't get a voice in this election. Tell them to cast their vote for their child, or for the homeless woman on Shattuck Avenue, or for the citizens of Iraq. Tell them to vote on behalf of the trees being forested, and the children being left behind. Tell them to cast their vote for the hundreds if not thousands of voters of color in Florida, who were wrongly blocked from voting in the 2000 elections because they were supposedly "convicted felons." Tell them that if they don't want to vote themselves, they can vote for you. Because our country is too powerful to be in the hands of only 60 percent of the voters.
I don't pretend to think my country is flawless. And I am not "proud" to be an American. I am fortunate to be an American. My patriotism does not wave the flag and bury its head in the sand. Rather, it stems from the belief that it is possible to regret parts of your country's past, but love the opportunity you have to shape its future.
I once heard someone say that conservatives look at America the way a 3- year-old looks at its parents, and that liberals look at America the way an adult looks at its parents. I'm not sure that either situation is ideal, or even true. After all, ours is a country of the people, by the people, for the people, and if we want to keep it that way, we can't look at America as an authority figure -- we have to look at it as a child we are raising.
Right now, we are raising a nation caught in its "terrible twos." But as we know, all children have the potential for greatness -- all they need is a little direction.
Bethany Woolman is a senior at Marin Academy in San Rafael.
2004 San Francisco Chronicle