I bought a hat during a stop in New York in late 2001 that says “FDNY” on it, the kind they sold in huge quantities near the World Trade Center site. At the time I bought it, the message it carried was obvious: it meant something like “I want to express solidarity with and sympathy for the city of New York, and especially its rescue workers, who had to handle directly the nightmare of 9/11.” And that was all it meant. A couple of years later, though, I was wearing the hat with a few friends and one of them commented that it was “hilarious,” as though my intention in both wearing and purchasing it had to have been an ironic one. At the time when I bought the cap nobody would ever have assumed that; a couple of years later, it was a natural assumption.

More recently, I bought a red baseball cap that has a picture of an American eagle set against an American flag on it. The message it carries ought to be simple and direct: “I think America is good.” I like my red baseball cap quite a bit, and I wear it quite a bit, and when I do people often react to it the way my friend reacted to the FDNY hat a couple of years after 9/11: as though I’m wearing it ironically, or cynically or sarcastically. Even people who don’t know me well enough to know that I’m generally a liberal guy can tell that I’m a longhair with a crazy-looking beard who looks more like a left-leaner than a right-leaner. And in a lot of people’s minds, being a left-leaner means there’s no way you’d ever wear a patriotic hat sincerely: It must make some kind of derisive, disrespectful, tongue-in-cheek statement about America.

This seems to be true no matter who I’m dealing with: I get grins from people in tie-dye in my hometown of Berkeley, Calif., and glares from people in suits in New Haven, and excuse my reverse wardrobal profiling here, but I can only conclude that the tie-dyes are liberals, the suits are conservatives, and their amusement or aggravation comes from my perceived agreement or disagreement with their positions. And, presumably, if I were a clean-cut guy wearing the same cap the reactions I’d get from the tie-dyes and the suits would be identical but reversed.

In other words, saying “I think America is good” — either sincerely, as I do, or insincerely, as I’m perceived to be doing — has become a partisan political statement; and the manner in which it’s said, or the hearer’s perception of the person saying it, determines which side of the aisle you’re on.

Well, why the fuck is that true?

Or, more accurately: When and how did the meaning of “I think America is good” (or even the popular bumper-sticker statement “I support our troops”) get changed from simple statements that nearly every American would share into statements that many Americans feel inclined to disagree with on principal? At some point after 9/11, our friends the Powers That Be constructed rhetoric such that being pro-Bush Administration and being Pro-American were conflated. Disagreeing with your government became the same as hating your country; the “us” in the statement “You’re either for us or your against us,” meant “Americans” at first but has come to mean “Bush supporters.” Dissent — the most sacred practice in a democracy, that most American of practices — has become un-American.

This isn’t an original point, I realize. At some point, a whole bunch of people wised up to the idea that “War on Terror” is a phrase that makes absolutely no sense, and to the fact that we can no longer use words like “freedom” or “democracy” the way we used to anymore. Hell, every day or two, Keith Olbermann has an aneurysm about this kind of thing and it winds up on YouTube. The part that gets me, though, is realizing that this shift has taken place, or even commenting on it publicly, doesn’t do anything to change it. I don’t really think there’s anything that can be done to change it: language can evolve pretty damn quickly, but I don’t think it can devolve. Just ask George Orwell about that one.

The point I’m trying to make here is that when President Bush tells me that America is under attack, I think he’s right. At the moment, though, I think the most dangerous threat we face isn’t the direct threat of terrorism, it’s the indirect threat of what terrorism is causing us as a country to do to ourselves. The people running our country have talked us into a McCarthyesque corner on this one, constructing a linguistic catch-22 that insidiously forces dissenters — and even reporters — into capitulatory silence. You don’t like it that the Bush Administration admitted to violating federal wiretapping laws in order to find suspected terrorists and has been torturing other suspected terrorists in facilities so secret they don’t even have congressional oversight? What are you, a traitor?

Under the universally agreeable banner of protecting the country and combating terrorism, the crafty bastards have intentionally prevented the two sides of the political spectrum from agreeing on anything, including the things they agree on. They have used 9/11 to divide us instead of uniting us. And idiots on both sides of our political spectrum have failed to think critically, and have fallen for it; they are both the idiots who grin at me and the idiots who glare at me when they see an eagle on my red cap.

The eagle on my cap stands for America. And America’s supposed to stand for equality of opportunity, freedom of expression, open political debate and the common belief that a society that serves the people at large — not a privileged minority of the people — is both possible and worth striving for. Instead, America has come to stand for a reactionary superpower that’s willing to disregard truth, facts, reasoned opinion and majority opinion in trampling whomever it deems is in its way. The meaning of the very name of our country has been corrupted the world over, just like all the other words whose meanings have been corrupted in the last five years. And that’s why, when I put on a cap that stands for America, no matter how much I want it to stand for the America of George Washington it can’t help but stand for the America of Dick Cheney.

I wish that wearing my red cap could mean only “I think America is good.” It can’t, though — not for a while, anyway. I just hope that at some point, the words and the symbols that we use start meaning what they mean again … and that the implied meaning behind my red hat stops being “I don’t think America is good” and starts being “I don’t think America is in good shape, but I think it’s worth fixing.” Until that hypothetical day, I’ll just have to keep wearing my heart on my head.

Sleeve. Wear it on my sleeve.

Fucking words.

David Chernicoff is a patriot who hates the Patriot Act. Go figure.