A Fourth of July celebration, St. Helena Island, S.C.  (LOC)

As I start out this Fourth of July weekend as a real life federal employee for the first time, working to make a government that runs a little smoother and serves its people a little better, I’ve been thinking about patriotism.

When you truly care about justice at home and abroad, patriotism is tricky. Is it right to love a country that has the highest incarceration rate in the world? A country rife with racial, gender and economic inequality? A country that committed genocide against the continent’s native people? And what does it mean when these horrors aren’t actually contrary to American values but are in fact—as Ta-Nehisi Coates says of the abuses of our criminal justice system—”byproducts of democratic will”?

Is there a way to relate to America that moves other than cynism in the face of all these flaws, or the Bush-era flag-waving that turns a blind eye, or that new breed of ironic “America, Fucky Yeah” enthusiasm?

I think so. And I think it’s by embracing the idea of America as a work in progress. As the President said in his stirring remarks on the 50th anniverary of Selma:

“You are America. Unconstrained by habit and convention. Unencumbered by what is, because you’re ready to seize what ought to be.”

Loving a country for what it can and ought to be instead of what it is is a radical, and wholly American, idea. And it’s something I think I can get behind. For all of its flaws, our history is full of examples of men and women working together to make things better for more people. And not just that, but to expand access to the levers of power and the tools of self-governance itself. This is an amazing tradition and something to be celebrated.

Yes, the progress is irregular and inconsistent. We’re always taking some steps forward and some steps back. And so we can celebrate the victory of marriage equality as we mourn the victims of the Charleston massacre and black churches across the south burn to the ground. And states like Oregon can expand access to the ballot at the same time as states across the country try to limit it.

Maybe it’s the optimistic designer in me that gives me faith in our ability to dream up and build the solutions to our shared problems. Or maybe it’s that as a straight white guy I could have lived in 1915 or 1815 and enjoyed the same rights and freedoms as I do in 2015. Whatever the reason, the simple fact that we as a people get to ask “what ought to be” and work to make it happen makes me feel good today.

So happy Fourth of July, everyone.