“What are you watching, Ima? Why is it interesting?”
My 7-year-old son leaned over my shoulder. “It’s something that’s happening right now in America and it’s important because…” my voice trailed off, as Former FBI Director Comey answered a new question, and I leaned closer to the screen to hear his words.
“Why are you watching it?” my son repeated as my 4-year-old daughter joined the fray, climbing onto my lap. Her new baby brother didn’t appreciate this interruption to his dinner, and stopped nursing with an indignant little wail.
My 7-year-old raised his voice to be heard over the commotion. “It’s just people talking.”
“Well…” I tried again, and then laughed when Comey compared giving information to the media to feeding seagulls. “It’s…because…” The baby resumed nursing and my daughter scrambled off my lap and into the space between me and my laptop, blocking the view. I leaned as far to the side as I could without dislodging my infant, but could only see half of the screen. “Well, I don’t really know how to explain it right now. Darling, can you please move out of the way?”
My daughter sighed.
“But it’s boring. Can we watch Anna and Elsa instead?”
“No, this is important. Because…”
My voice trailed off again, and my children gave up. “Let’s go cut things,” my daughter told my son. My distraction was so complete that I didn’t even wonder what she had in mind.
Later, when the open session of the Senate’s Intelligence Committee adjourned and my children were finally in bed, leaving piles of cut paper in their wake, I thought back to my son’s question. How can I explain to him why this particular testimony was so important, important enough to watch instead of giving my kids my full attention? How can I convey to him that the hour and a half of people talking, an hour and a half completely lacking in songs a-la-Disney or any other special effects, was nevertheless one of the most interesting events I ever watched?
What drew me to the screen had very little to do with Donald Trump, his actions, and their appropriateness or lack thereof. I didn’t even watch Comey’s testimony simply to see what he had to say. Had gleaning information been my goal, I would have watched a recording later, or read a transcript after my children went to bed.
I watched the testimony live because I didn’t want to miss this opportunity to watch democracy at work.
Democracy binds together many ideas I value: freedom, self determination, civil responsibility, and the ability to affect one’s own fate. I can’t imagine my life–I can’t imagine myself–without the space, and the commitment, that this sanction of human choice creates. But democracy doesn’t liberate us by stating these values or celebrating these ideas: It liberates us by through a complex, flawed, and often tedious system.
The word “freedom” may be the shiny slogan we parrot, but actual freedom–actual democracy–is very much in the detail.
And yesterday’s testimony was all about these details. I watched Comey speaking about his job in the executive branch of the American government and the complex connections between its different parts. I watched the senators asking probing (and less probing) questions, sifting through details and touching upon core questions like the appropriate relationship between different parts of the government and the limits of the President’s authority.
These questions may seem pedantic and boring. But they, more than any grand declarations and flashy slogans, are the bedrock of freedom.
Comey spoke, at one point, about the Shining City Upon a Hill and referred to American democracy as “our great experiment.” What could have been mere platitudes in almost any other context rang true when the mechanism of this experiment–the details that give it life–were on display for all to see.
But while platitudes and slogans are easy enough to pass to our children, the intricacies of governing, and their significance, are not.
So I’m not sure yet how I’ll answer my son’s questions in the days to come. I don’t have five Tips For Explaining Democracy To Toddlers or a brilliant suggestion on How To Make Kids Value What Makes Democracy Work. But as I watched Comey’s testimony with my children roaming around (and on) me, I realized that parenting, and democracy, are oddly alike.
Both can be described in glowing terms and platitudes. And in both cases, the slogans have little to do with what parenting and democracy actually entail. Parenting happens when we nurse and fold laundry and say “don’t go there” and “let’s do your homework” and “you can’t have candy until you finish the soup.” And let’s admit it: These mundane and lackluster experiences grow tiresome rather quickly.
But Comey’s testimony, a celebration of grand ideas through the nitty gritty details that actually make them work, inspired me to look on my daily parenting experiences with new eyes, and see the glory in the slog through details and procedures.