Leonard Pitts Jr.: Facts ought to matter

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I got an email the other day that depressed me.

It concerned a piece I recently did that mentioned Henry Johnson, who was awarded the French Croix de Guerre in World War I for singlehandedly fighting off a company of Germans who threatened to overrun his post. Mr. Johnson managed this despite the fact that he was only 5'4'' and 130 pounds, despite the fact that his gun jammed, despite the fact that he was wounded 21 times.

My mention of Mr. Johnson's heroics drew a rebuke from a Ken Thompson, which I quote verbatim and in its entirety:

"Hate to tell you that blacks were not allowed into combat intell 1947, that fact. World War II ended in 1945. So all that feel good, one black man killing two dozen Nazi, is just that, PC bull."

My assistant, Judi Smith, sent Mr. Thompson proof of Mr. Johnson's heroics: a link to the website of Arlington National Cemetery. She thought this settled the matter.

Mr. Thompson's reply? "There is no race on headstones and they didn't come up with the story in tell 2002."

Ms. Smith forwarded me their correspondence, along with a despairing note. She is probably somewhere drinking right now.

Like me, she can remember a time when facts settled arguments. This is back before everything became a partisan shouting match, back before it was permissible to ignore or deride as "biased" anything that didn't support your worldview.

If you and I had an argument and I produced facts from an authoritative source to back me up, you might try to undermine my facts, might counter with facts of your own, but you couldn't just pretend my facts had no weight or meaning.

But that's the intellectual state of the union these days, as evidenced by all the people who still don't believe the president was born in Hawaii or that the planet is warming. And by Mr. Thompson, who doesn't believe Henry Johnson did what he did.

I could send him more proof, I suppose. Mr. Johnson is lauded in history books and contemporaneous accounts. I could point out that blacks have fought in every U.S. war, though before Harry Truman desegregated the military in 1948, they did so in Jim Crow units. Also, there were no Nazis in World War I.

But those are facts, and facts no longer mean what they once did.

I suppose I could also ignore him. But Ken Thompson is not just some isolated eccentric. No, he is the Zeitgeist personified.

To listen to talk radio, to watch TV pundits, to read newspaper online message boards is to realize that, increasingly, we are a people estranged from critical thinking, divorced from logic, alienated from even objective truth. We admit no ideas that do not confirm us, hear no voices that do not echo us, sift out all information that does not validate what we believe.

Any people thus handicapped sow the seeds of their own decline; they respond to the world as they wish it were rather to the world as it is.

But the fact that you refuse to acknowledge a wall does not change the fact that it's a wall. And you shouldn't have to hit it to find that out.


Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald ( lpitts@miamiherald.com ).


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