Last night, I watched “The Words That Built America” on HBO. It’s a documentary that features politicians and celebrities reading the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. The cameras are zoomed in tight, each reader taking up most of the frame. One by one, they read their assigned sentence or two.
All five living former presidents and President Trump each took a turn. Hillary Clinton reads a section. Supreme Court Justices, the Speaker of the House, Vice Presidents, Secretaries of State, United States Senators and state governors each got a few seconds.
Prominent actors and journalists got a chance, too. Morgan Freeman, Robert DeNiro, Neil Patrick Harris, Meryl Streep, Sean Hannity, Fareed Zakaria, and Megan Kelly were featured, just to name a few.
Imperfect people, with a desire to “form a more perfect union”, founded our nation 241 years ago. In their wisdom, they tethered to one another the diverging, competing interests of parties, people, states and branches of government. They built a system that would result in persistent micro-frustration, while producing constant macro-progress toward the highest ideals of freedom and self-determination.
Last night, there was something reassuring about seeing the equal passion in the deliveries from people on opposite positions of the ideological spectrum.
We spend most of our time watching our own team’s PR, viewing the other team as an immoral band of marauders hell-bent on destroying the Republic. We prefer to read writers who support our notions. We choose to watch programs that confirm our biases. We tweet and retweet memes that agree with what we think, and we find them because we follow people who say things we like to hear.
But last night, I watched conservative news commentators and GOP leaders read our nation’s founding documents with patriotic pride and deference. I saw liberal Hollywood actors and Democratic politicians read the same sacred texts just as fervently and proudly.
Sean Hannity and Meryl Streep both deeply value the ideals of government of the people, by the people, and for the people.
Nancy Pelosi and Paul Ryan each consider themselves ridiculously lucky to have been born in the United States, and each claims as their birthright the blessings of American liberty.
The Framers weren’t perfect, nor are any of the people we’ve elected to lead our country. Chuck Schumer doesn’t have a lock on the American way, and neither does Mitch McConnell. Fox News isn’t 100% right, and neither is MSNBC. Your crazy racist uncle has a good idea or two baked into his nonsense, and your freshman radical cousin at Berkeley has a little wisdom woven into her monologues.
Because we don’t want a king to hand down the answers from on high, we chose 241 years ago to risk everything on the premise that we, a motley bunch of commoners, could govern ourselves.
And because we don’t want a king to just give us our answers, we chose to create a country where “right” and “wrong” are the purview of the majority. Our heritage is self-determination; our albatross is an endless sparring match.
And like sparring, we’re sharpening the abilities of our opponent with each swing or dodge. And their blows and parries make us better, too. Some of our partners are scientists, plotting each strike with clinical accuracy as part of a larger strategy. Some just swing wildly and push us into the ropes over and over. Both challengers devote all of their energy to getting their way in the ring. Both challengers demand all of our focus and strength to keep that from happening.
The sweat in our eyes and blood in our mouths make us forget that these sparring partners are not our real enemies.
Last night, I watched people who punch each other in the face for a living read through the rules of the game with deep reverence and devotion in their voices.
After the bell, when the fighters and spectators snap out of the moment, they remember that we’re all here because we love the game. We’re all here to honor the endeavor itself. We’re all just pushing back to claim our spot on the canvas.
We all just want to be the ones to represent OUR colors when the real enemies come.