The other evening, we had friends over for dinner, in celebration that our friend N had been granted political asylum in the United States. During the course of the conversation, our friend S, an ex-pat from Britain, commented that the original Bill of Rights and Declaration of Independence was one of the most brilliant documents ever written on behalf of a people.
I was quite taken aback by this comment. My political awakening came during the Watergate era of Richard Nixon’s administration. I was in my mid-teens at the time, quite susceptible to cynicism. In recent years, I have wondered if I would have initially become a Republican if Nixon had been a Democrat. As it was, I found it a simple matter to demonize Republicans and exalt Democrats. In the ensuing years, the level of discourse between the two parties has increasingly degenerated into the type of name-calling more often heard on a playground. Hence my surprise at hearing our political system complimented.
And in truth, S was not complimenting our current political system; she was complimenting its roots. The Declaration of Independence. The Bill of Rights. Those were remarkable foundations to lay. These principles were laid down in such a way that with very little tweaking, they can be applied to everybody. And that is the beauty of the system that S was complimenting: the wording is such that no one is automatically excluded by virtue of identity or birth status. That it hasn’t worked out that way to date doesn’t negate the beauty of the system as it could be; it makes it more frustrating that the system has never worked to the degree that it could.
N was granted political asylum because he is a gay man who had been working as an activist in his own country on behalf of people who were HIV-positive or had AIDS. He was granted asylum because his life was in danger in his own country, largely because he was living gay in a country that refused to recognize that gay people existed within its borders. S and I attended his asylum hearing, waiting outside while he presented his case for several hours. He then waited several weeks to hear the decision. He cried with relief and happiness when he learned he would be allowed to remain in the United States.
Why did it surprise me so to hear my country’s original system called brilliant? Why was I surprised that N was so happy to be told he didn’t have to leave? I do have my cynicism about my own country’s system of government. Learning about the American governmental system as a child, I never took in its brilliance; all I saw was its flaws and faults, and it seemed hypocritical to me. “All men are created equal” seemed a hollow phrase given the backdrop of the 1960s civil rights movement, taking place before my youthful white eyes.
The current rancorous discourse has derailed the conversation away from the language of the Bill of Rights and Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Now, seen through the eyes of my friends N and S, I appreciate the distinction: all are created equal. Yes. What we have been striving for since those words were written is that we all live equal.
My friend N is a reminder to me – what is brilliant about our system, as S pointed out, is that we have the legal freedom to undertake the pursuit of living equally for all. A dangerous pursuit? Yes, at times, here or elsewhere. N tried in his home country to make a difference, and had to leave to save his life. To honor him, to honor the personal sacrifice he has made in leaving his family behind, I work within my own system, so all may live equal. I would like our current system to be as brilliant as S stated about our founding. I may not live to see that day, but that does not negate my obligation to work toward it.