Leonard Pitts Jr

At the very least, celebrate an America that can change


“Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead.”

Martin Luther King, Jr., April 3, 1968

“But what we know — what we have seen — is that America can change.”

Barack Obama, March 18, 2008

Some of you may recognize the epigraph above from my novel, Grant Park. Apologies for recycling, but what seemed apropos for that fiction seems doubly so for this fact: On the occasion of its 241st birthday, the “United" States is anything but.

Indeed, I often find myself brooding about secession these days. Having once chastised people like then-Texas Gov. Rick Perry for casually bruiting that possibility about, I admit that I’m surprised to catch myself wondering what it might look like. In my head, I divide up states like a divorced couple splitting up their furniture and DVDs.

Mississippi can be theirs, but Colorado should be ours. Let us keep New York and give them Idaho.

“Theirs” and “ours.” “Us” and “them.” To utter the words is to realize how far down the rabbit hole we have fallen.

Worse, the argument is not truly political. At some point, this ceased to be about ideology and governing philosophy. At some point, it became a question of character.

That’s what I was getting at in a column shortly after the November election that seemed to take some readers aback. “I have no interest in seeing this country heal,” I wrote. “And I refuse to come together.”

My problem wasn’t just that the president is a lying, petty, hateful, and incompetent man. It was also that millions of Americans see that — they see it — and do not care. To the contrary, his ascension seems to have unleashed in them something rotten and foul, the worst of what human beings can be.

I’m thinking of the people at last year’s rallies who cursed Islam, “beaners,” “fags,” “that nigger” Barack Obama, and “that bitch” Hillary Clinton, the ones who raised a Nazi salute and cried, “Sieg heil!”

And I’m thinking of a woman I wrote about a few days ago. She responded on Twitter to a mother who asked what the GOP healthcare bill would mean for son, a preemie with a heart defect. “Sorry about your son,” the woman sniffed, “but what would he have done 200 years ago? … Nothing is promised to anyone.”

Who says something like that? I don’t know these people. I don’t want to. There is nothing in them that makes me want to “come together” and “heal.” No, I just want to rebuke and defeat. So perhaps, in some sense, secession has already occurred.

What, then, is the case for America on its birthday? What is the argument for our country in this crossroads moment when it has abandoned world leadership, international obligations, founding principles, and human compassion?

I suppose that question explains why I find such meaning in the juxtaposed words of King and Obama. The preacher speaks to the ominous uncertainty I feel: “We’ve got some difficult days ahead.”

But the senator who would become president speaks to the one virtue that still inspires: “America can change.”

So it can. And relatively easily at that. For Russia, Cuba, North Korea or China to change would require a coup, blood running in the streets. We, on the other hand, can transfigure a nation through the simple expedient of a ballot. America is a state of constant reinvention.

Which is reason to hope this secession is not the end of the story, reason to hope we can return this country to some semblance of itself. Reason to hope, but no guarantee. All we have is a fighting chance.

But America has never needed more than that.