by Sam Bertholf
NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – A near-capacity crowd filled Bethel’s larger public space, Joliffe Auditorium in Memorial Hall, to hear Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Leonard Pitts Jr. speak Sept. 12.
Pitts was on campus to give the first presentation in the Kansas Institute for Peace and Conflict Resolution’s (KIPCOR) 2017-18 Peace Lecture Series and also to help celebrate KIPCOR’s 30th anniversary.
Mark McCormick, director of The Kansas African American Museum in Wichita, introduced Pitts as “renowned throughout the nation for being a passionate individual capable of elegantly expressing his opinion through the careful articulation of language.”
Not mincing words in a speech he had titled “What Now? America in an Age of Trump,” Pitts began by saying, “America: it is bat-crap crazy.”
He followed with two quotes from pre-Civil War America that he referenced throughout the night.
The first was from Henry Adams: “There are grave doubts at the hugeness of the land and whether one government can comprehend the whole of it.”
The second was from Abraham Lincoln who, after declaring that the United States need not fear any external enemies, concluded: “At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected? … If it ever reach us, it must spring up amongst us; it cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher.”
Pitts’ chief point was that it appears the nation is “trying to commit suicide now,” as it did back in the 1850s with the growing conflict over slavery. Pitts pointed out that America is becoming a nation of extremes, content to continue moving further away from common ground.
Quoting lines from the poet William Butler Yeats (“Things fall apart, the center cannot hold. Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world”), Pitts said, “We are in a mess,” embodied, in his opinion, in Donald Trump as the current president of the United States.
Pitts gave three major sources for “the mess”: gerrymandering; the American news media; and the Republican Party.
Gerrymandering – “a blatant theft of democracy” – has made it next to impossible to dislodge an incumbent, Republican or Democrat, from office, Pitts said. “How [else] can a Congress only slightly more popular than acid reflux have such sky-high reelection rates?”
His proposal for addressing the gerrymandering problem is for “we the people take the power to draw the districts out of the state lawmakers’ hands and put it in the power of the judiciary or some other nonpartisan body.”
As for the news media, Pitts said, “The political state we are in is the end result of Fox News’, and other conservative media outlets’, blatant attempts to undermine the mainstream media’s credibility.”
He didn’t lay all the blame on Fox News and its ilk, however. “Conservatives accuse the mainstream media of bias, and the mainstream media curls up in ball, failing to report world as they see it,” Pitts said.
Finally, Pitts expressed his belief that the Republicans are exploiting people’s stress in order to hold onto political power.
Republicans often use rhetoric such as “Vote Republican or the Democrats will take your guns and force you to live under sharia law,” and obsessively follow incidents like the 2012 Benghazi, Libya, embassy attacks (opening eight probes into what happened there and failing to find wrongdoing).
Pitts also claimed Republicans “have a blazing contempt for the fact that facts matter,” citing the case of former Republican Senator John Kyl of Arizona.
Kyl insisted that “abortion services represent well over 90 percent of what Planned Parenthood does.” When the organization pointed out that it was actually closer to 3 percent, Kyl said his comment was “not intended to be factual.”
When combined, gerrymandering, the news media and the Republican Party have led us to, as Pitts put it, “a moment of shrill insanity in our country.”
He used the violent white supremacist marches in Charlottesville, Virginia, in mid-August, the nuclear standoff with North Korea, and the Russia probe as evidence of such “insanity.”
President Trump, whom Pitts called “a pathological liar,” has the ability to “on his sole command, send nuclear weapons flying out of their silos to anywhere on earth within 10 minutes of his saying so.”
Pitts called this “a frightening thought,” but quickly added, “Which does not mean we surrender – it means that we fight. It is not an ideological fight. It is a fight to determine if facts still matter, if decency is still important, if democracy still matters.”
Pitts then circled back to the Adams and Lincoln quotes. “Now, as then, we face stark options, suicide or freedom.”
He called for action, stating, “America’s ideals need to be reclaimed now or they may well be lost for good,” and referenced the nationwide women’s marches a day after the Jan. 20 inauguration as a sign of hope. “There is an urgency for change in us that has not been here in a long time.”
Pitts called for supporting candidates from both parties who are “grownups and understand compromise”; for demanding changes from gerrymandering; for calling out the news media; and for holding the entire Republican Party accountable for the actions of some of its members.
“We must reinvest in educating our young people about what being an American is supposed to mean,” Pitts said as he wrapped up his speech. “Generations of Americans do not know what it means to be an American because they have never been taught.”
An uneducated populace inevitably leads to the “loudest voice in the room captivating the uneducated” – which surfaced in 2016, Pitts said, with the election of Trump.
That election highlights the need for schools to teach “what is supposed to bind us together: freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of press, freedom to assemble, and freedom to petition.”
We should “never let down our guard,” Pitts said, because the need for change will never end.
After Barack Obama was elected president in 2008, many people said it was now a “post-racial America.” Pitts said, “There will never be a post-racial America, because change has no finish line.”
He then circled back one final time to Lincoln and Adams, saying, “Shortly after those questions were asked, they took the battlefield [in the Civil War]. They found their answers. We need to find our answer now.”
A 30-minute question-and-answer period followed Pitts’ presentation.
One person asked whether his rhetoric verged on being “too cynical.” Pitts’ response: “Trump is a new and existential threat like nothing that we have ever seen before. This requires muscular and visceral language.”
He pointed out that his speech was not one of a cynical nature, but rather a call to “Get up and make a change.”
The final questioner wondered “how Democrats get a narrative going around the country.” Pitts said it’s impossible to influence an entire country in “a single fell swoop,” then ended the night by telling the man who asked the question to “do what you can, where you are, now.”
Throughout the evening, Pitts kept the audience captivated, often having to pause what he was saying to wait on the loud applause to die down.
Bethel College ranks at No. 1 in College Consensus’ ranking of Kansas colleges and universities, and is the only Kansas private college listed in the Forbes.com analysis of top colleges and universities, for 2017-18. The four-year liberal arts college is affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. For more information, see www.bethelks.edu.
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