Leonard Pitts: If ignorance were bliss, Tennessee would be the happiest place on earth

Political pressure to shut off the truth about vaccines will cost people their lives.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Hadley Brown, 13, of Magna accompanied by his father James, keeps his eyes away from the needle as EMT Sean Murphy administers the Pfizer vaccine, as 12-15 year olds get their vaccinations against COVID-19 at the Mountain America Expo Center in Sandy on Tuesday, May 18, 2021.

We live in ignorant times.

By now, surely this is obvious beyond argument to anyone who’s been paying attention. From the Capitol insurrectionist who thought he was storming the White House to Sen. Tim Scott’s claim that “woke supremacy is as bad as white supremacy” to whatever thing Tucker Carlson last said, ignorance is ascendant.

Yet, even by that dubious standard, what happened recently in Tennessee bears note. According to a story by Brett Kelman of the Tennessean newspaper in Nashville, the state, under pressure from Republican lawmakers, fired its top immunization official, Dr. Michelle Fiscus, and shut down all vaccine outreach to young people. Fiscus’ sin? Doing her job, working to increase access to the COVID-19 shot among kids.

Specifically, she sent a letter to health care providers reminding them that under the state’s “Mature Minor Doctrine,” they are legally allowed to vaccinate children 14 years or older without parental consent. According to Fiscus, the letter, written in response to requests for guidance made by those administering the shots, utilized language drafted by an attorney for the department of health and was vetted by the governor’s office.

All that notwithstanding, it infuriated some state lawmakers. They used words like “extreme disappointment” and “reprehensible” and talked of closing the health department. Some anonymous person even sent Fiscus a dog muzzle. Then she was fired, and the state shut down all vaccine publicity efforts targeting young people.

This means no postcards sent out to remind kids to get their shots, no nudges on social media, no flyers or advertisements, no events at schools, no outreach whatsoever. And not just for COVID, mind you, but for everything — measles, mumps, tetanus, diphtheria, hepatitis, polio.

In a pandemic.

In a state with a less-than-stellar COVID vaccination rate.

At a time when experts are tracking the rise of a deadlier new COVID variant.

It is hard to imagine behavior dumber, more dangerous, more short-sighted and more downright bass-ackward than that exhibited by Tennessee and its lawmakers.

Which is, unfortunately, right on brand for this country in this era. It was in the 2000s that Stephen Colbert coined the term “truthiness” to describe the right wing’s secession from objective fact, and some of us began to speak of them as living in an “alternate reality.” How, we wondered in newspaper columns and speeches, can we have meaningful discourse if we cannot agree on basic facts?

Years later, that concern feels too abstract. The threat turns out to be more visceral and urgent than any of us could have imagined. Yes, some people live in alternate realities. What’s worse, though, is when they have power to impose those realities on the rest of us. That’s what we’re seeing in Tennessee and elsewhere, and the results will be as tragic as they are predictable and preventable.

Ignorance is bliss, they say. But it isn’t.

Ignorance is fever.

Ignorance is chills.

Ignorance is trouble breathing.

Ignorance is an empty seat at the table, a bedroom come suddenly available.

Because ignorance is death.

And while the aphorism isn’t true, can you imagine if it were, if ignorance really were bliss? Disney theme parks would have to find a new slogan.

Right now, Tennessee would be the happiest place on Earth.

Leonard Pitts Jr.

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