Opinion

Want to make Kansas a better place? As opinion editor, that means raising voices for change

August 23, 2021 3:33 am

While Kansas faces destructive forces, writes opinion editor Clay Wirestone, we have the right to demand better from our institutions. (Derek Slagle/Getty Images)

Kansas is for all of us.

This singular place, where so many Kansas Reflector readers and contributors live, is our home. We have every right to raise our voices and ask for a better, more tolerant, more just state. For many of us, doing so isn’t just a right. It’s an obligation.

We’re often told the opposite, to shut up and sit down. But we shouldn’t silence ourselves to make others comfortable. More than a half-century ago, a columnist named Sydney J. Harris summarized the challenge in a piece headlined “The ‘love it or leave it’ nonsense.”

You should read the whole thing, but the column can be summed up in a paragraph.

“Most people who want to change conditions do like it here: they love it here,” Harris wrote. “They love it so much they cannot stand to see it suffer from its imperfections, and want it to live up to its ideals. It is the people who placidly accept the corruptions and perversions and inequities in our society who do not love America; they love their status, security and special privilege. … Nobody should be faced with the mean choice of accepting conditions as they are or abandoning the place he has grown up in.”

Harris was writing about American society in 1969. What’s astonishing is how applicable it is for those in Kansas trying to make things better today. Folks point out problems, and too many politicians and members of the public react by attacking those doing the pointing out.

Kansans face destructive forces aplenty. Hard-right ideological interests, backed with corporate cash, dominate our politics. Laws are written behind closed doors and jammed into shells during late-night sessions. Public input is avoided at nearly all costs. A state that was once known for its moderation and temperance has become, too often, a wannabe member of the confederacy.

“Most people who want to change conditions do like it here: they love it here. They love it so much they cannot stand to see it suffer from its imperfections, and want it to live up to its ideals. It is the people who placidly accept the corruptions and perversions and inequities in our society who do not love America; they love their status, security and special privilege.”

– Sydney J. Harris

Many of my classmates and friends fled from a state they saw as small-minded and hateful. When I decided to return after 14 years away, I heard one word from them all.

“Why?”

That’s a tough word to hear, and a tough question to answer. But I always said the same thing. This is my home, and I care about it. Every single state — no matter its hue on presidential election night — has dedicated residents working to increase equality, care for the less fortunate, and increase civic participation.

Yes, those with the desire and resources might move away from Kansas. But where does that leave everyone else? Where does that leave those Kansans who are transgender? What about those who are immigrants? What about communities of color and women seeking to protect their right to choose? What about the uninsured forced to declare bankruptcy after an illness or hospital stay?

I don’t just hear a call to action in Harris’ words but an example to follow.

You see, I spent more than a decade in the news business, working in Florida and New Hampshire. I followed that trail back to Kansas and The Topeka Capital-Journal, but I eventually moved into the nonprofit sector. I thought I’d done all I could in the journalism world.

But then Sherman Smith, editor of the Kansas Reflector, came calling. And I remembered this column, written well before I was born. Harris’ words, like the best opinion writing, transcend their time and circumstance. Sure, they were inspired by the social ferment of the 1960s. But he was writing about something more — the enduring value of civic participation, the importance of speaking up for those less privileged than yourself, the worthy cause of “good trouble.”

Shortly afterward, I read another column by Harris.

This one is titled “Why men should march for women’s rights,” and once again it captured my feelings exactly.

“Women should march for women’s rights, but men belong there even more, if rights mean anything as a principle,” Harris wrote. “Gays should march against the orange-heads (bigots) of the world, but straights like me belong shoulder to shoulder with them, and there should be more of us than them because there are more of us in the population. … The best way to be authentically for yourself is to ally with all those others who face the same problem on a different front.”

I come to this position from a place of privilege. I’m a cisgender white male, which opens doors and allows for conversations that not everyone can have. No one looks at me twice if I walk into the Statehouse and take a seat in a hearing. (I am married to a man, but that’s another column.)

My hope, in the weeks and months and years ahead, is to use that privilege for the greater good. I’m here to lift up the voices and experiences of Kansans too often overlooked. Because as Harris wrote, we all benefit when taking care of one another.

I came back, both to Kansas and to journalism. Thanks to Sherman for asking. Thanks to the incomparable C.J. Janovy, who created this position. And thanks to all of you, in advance.

Let’s make our state better.

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Clay Wirestone
Clay Wirestone

Clay Wirestone has written columns and edited reporting for newsrooms in Kansas, New Hampshire, Florida and Pennsylvania. He has also fact checked politicians, researched for Larry the Cable Guy, and appeared in PolitiFact, Mental Floss, cnn.com and a host of other publications. Most recently, Clay spent nearly four years at the nonprofit Kansas Action for Children as communications director. Beyond the written word, he has drawn cartoons, hosted podcasts, designed graphics, and moderated debates. Clay graduated from the University of Kansas and lives in Lawrence with his husband and son.

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