Commentary

Editor’s Column: Welcome to Absurdistan!

Tennessee, where the cows are vaccinated but our people aren’t

August 7, 2021 5:00 am
Gov. Bill Lee at Ag Day on the Hill, March 12, 2019. (Photo: Theresa Montgomery/State of Tennessee)

Gov. Bill Lee at Ag Day on the Hill, March 12, 2019. (Photo: Theresa Montgomery/State of Tennessee)

Christopher Buckley is known for writing novels of absurdist political fiction, with titles like “No Way to Treat a First Lady,” in which the First Lady is accused of killing her husband, the president, and “Thank You for Smoking,” which was turned into a 2005 film. 

Buckley’s 2007 book “Boomsday,” revolves around a public relations agent who proposes Baby Boomers be given incentives if they agree to kill themselves at age 70 to spare Social Security from being overwhelmed. 

Sound ridiculous? Not if you live in Tennessee. Buckley doesn’t have a patch on the Tennessee government these days. It’s mind boggling trying to keep up with the firehose of information, and if that’s the case for someone like me who’s paid to keep up with the news, I can’t imagine how other readers stay up to date. 

The State of Tennessee spent $11 million on messaging before firing Dr. Michelle Fiscus for spreading the message approved by Gov. Lee's office. (Photo: John Partipilo)
The State of Tennessee spent $11 million on messaging before firing Dr. Michelle Fiscus for spreading the message approved by Gov. Lee’s office. (Photo: John Partipilo)

I’ll recap Tennessee government actions over the last few weeks and beg forgiveness if I omit a piece of the action: 

  • On July 12, the Tennessee Department of Health fired Dr. Michelle Fiscus, medical director for vaccine-preventable diseases and immunization programs after Republican legislators complained about her providing vaccine guidance for adolescents. Department officials bobbled her termination, first giving no reason for it, then floating a letter from her supervisor that said she was a poor manager with unhappy subordinates. Alas, Fiscus provided the media with copies of her evaluations for the last four years — some signed by the same supervisor — that specifically lauded her management skills and even credited her for “making the workplace fun.” Whoopsidoodle. 
  • Hard on the heels of the Fiscus firing came the news that the Department of Health was halting messaging of all vaccines, not just COVID-19. Our Sam Stockard reported the state spent over $11 million on a public service campaign designed to urge mask wearing and getting COVID-19 vaccinations, before firing Fiscus for carrying out that exact message. 
  • By July 23, the Department of Health had decided that maybe resuming messaging about vaccines was a good idea. 
  • On Aug. 3, Gov. Bill Lee issued a proclamation naming August “Vaccine Awareness Month.” 
  • The same day, the Associated Press reported that while Lee has been at best ambivalent about asking Tennessee residents to get vaccines, state government has given about half a million dollars to farmers as incentives to get their cattle vaccinated against respiratory diseases. 

And we have just talked about the Department of Health. 

Tennessee has made national news not only for the firing of Fiscus and our rising COVID counts, but also for a new law making the teaching of critical race theory illegal in our public schools, although there’s zero evidence that’s being done. 

Threatening teachers about critical race theory is a joke: Tennessee ranks 43rd in the nation for spending per students and our teachers barely have the resources and time to teach reading and math, much less some high level academic theory.  

At a Monday press conference, Lee said critical race theory is “un-American” and on Wednesday, the Department of Education released guidance that specified the withholding of funds from schools that do teach it — or whatever may be perceived as critical race theory.  For even the first violation of the guidance, a school will be docked 2% of state funds to which it’s entitled or $1 million. Fines go as high as $5 million. 

This guidance is a joke. Tennessee ranks 43rd in the nation for spending per student and just Monday, Speaker of the House Cameron Sexton was so apoplectic about low student test scores he threatened to force schools to teach in person this year, COVID be damned.

Our teachers barely have the time and resources to teach kids the basics of reading and math, much less some high level academic theory.

This would be laughable if it weren’t so obscene. Giving money to vaccinate cows, not messaging humans about a deadly pandemic, sticks with no carrots for educators: Tennessee government is a rudderless mess and Lee has shown no capacity for leadership. 

To borrow from Gary Shteyngart, another writer of satire, maybe we should petition to change Tennessee’s name to “Absurdistan.” If this journalism thing doesn’t work out, maybe I’ll write the Great American Novel. God knows this state has given me enough material. 

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Holly McCall
Holly McCall

Holly McCall has been a fixture in Tennessee media and politics for decades. She covered city hall for papers in Columbus, Ohio and Joplin, Missouri before returning to Tennessee with the Nashville Business Journal. She has served as political analyst for WZTV Fox 17 and provided communications consulting for political campaigns at all levels, from city council to presidential. Holly brings a deep wealth of knowledge about Tennessee’s political processes and players and likes nothing better than getting into the weeds of how political deals are made.

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