Lehigh University students were issued a call to action Tuesday night by none other than 80-year-old veteran journalist Bill Moyers.
“Our rights only come alive when people organize, agitate, resist and fight back for justice,” Moyers said during an impassioned speech at Zoellner Arts Center.
The award-winning journalist was invited to speak at this year’s Tresolini Lecture, an event that is hosted annually in memory of one of Lehigh’s distinguished teachers and scholars, government department chair Rocco Tresolini. Moyers, who still actively participates in media and political commentary, spoke about the breakdown of American democracy to an engaged crowd of students, faculty and community members in Baker Hall.
Moyers spoke about the demise of American democratic values, which he attributed to the uprising of plutocracy, a system in which the government is controlled by the wealthy.
“Just as the citizens of Rome enjoyed their circuses, so do we,” Moyers said, stressing the destructive impact that corruption and plutocracy are having on the nation. He warned of the dangers of political disengagement, especially among young people.
“Our responsibility as the public, as human beings, is to show up and take our place in the Coliseum, even if the only seats available to us are in the bleachers,” he said
Philip Reiss, an Air Force veteran and retired professor from Coopersburg, Pennsylvania, said Moyers’ message was almost radical in a way because he was challenging the American political system.
“I remember the ‘50s,” Reiss said. “(Moyers) would have been dragged before Joe McCarthy’s hearing on un-Americanism for what he said tonight. But Americans are past that fear, labeling people in a negative way just to shut them up.”
Moyers was met with three separate standing ovations throughout the night: upon entering the stage, after finishing his lecture and at the end of his question-and-answer session. Throughout his speech, the crowd murmured in agreement with much of what he said.
“It was a very penetrating, insightful critique of the state of American democracy, but at the same time offering hope to students, to faculty, to anybody in attendance of things they can do,” said Richard Matthews, the chair of the political science department. “Clearly, he thinks the republic is in trouble and it’s the time for action.”
Moyers said he first visited Lehigh University more than 50 years ago, in 1961, when he came to recruit for the Peace Corps, of which he was an organizing founder.
“We targeted your campus as a priority for teaching,” Moyers said, praising Lehigh’s commitment to supplementing practical skills such as engineering and science with the liberal arts.
Moyers recalled his generation’s strong sense of optimism during the 1960s, when he and his peers were inspired by a desire to incite change and a pervasive expectation of a better life.
He said over time he had become discouraged in America’s democratic system as a result of the country’s corrupt politics and increasing polarization.
“In one sense, I come back to Lehigh 60 years later to apologize to this generation, from my generation,” Moyers said, addressing the students in the audience. “We’re sorry for the mess you’re inheriting.”
Moyers uses his platform to encourage young people not to lose hope, but to instead learn from the mistakes made by his generation in order to incite positive change for the future. He called for his audience members to engage in movements that they feel strongly about and that challenge the current system.
“We’re going to need a movement that stands outside both our parties and agitates,” he said. “I don’t recommend violence, but I do recommend civil disobedience.”
Samantha Randall, ’18, a political science major, said Moyers’ lecture inspired her to encourage more members of the Lehigh community to engage in political discourse on campus.
“We don’t have a high political interest at Lehigh,” Randall said. “I want to bring events like this to more students.”
Political science professor Ted Morgan, who introduced Moyers and was instrumental in bringing him to campus, was very pleased with the event and the audience turnout.
“I thought it was a superb talk,” Morgan said. “He had a great session with some students who I think were raptly attentive when he was talking. They asked him great questions. He loved the visit, he loved his time with them. So it was a wonderful, wonderful event.”
Graduate student Cristiano Lima, ’13, was one of the students who participated the session with Moyers prior to the lecture.
“I got to sit next to him during dinner so it was awesome getting to pick his brain,” Lima said. “He had very similar backgrounds with a lot of the students there and he went out of his way to relate his experience to ours.”
Moyers’ lecture was followed by a question-and-answer session with members of the community. He also stayed after the event to sign copies of his books.