Thumbnail:  With a life or death opportunity to show real leadership, two local legislators instead fuel anger and victimhood for their own political purposes.


So, Tennessee Senator Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown) and Rep. Mark White (R-Memphis) aren’t pro-life after all.

Apparently, all those talking points about respecting life were merely political pandering.  After all, if they were really pro-life, they wouldn’t be fanning the flames of the anti-mask, anti-vaxxer minority. 

Real leadership is a vanishing commodity for them and their supermajority colleagues in the Tennessee Legislature.  Rather than explain the importance of science and public health like a real, effective leader, they play instead to the lowest – and loudest – common denominator. 

Once upon a time, a Republican president made the case for environmental protections and proposed a guaranteed minimum income.  A Republican senator was instrumental to  passage of the 1964 civil rights act.  Another Republican senator protected the Affordable Care Act from being destroyed.

There are other examples from history of other leaders from Mr. Kelsey and Mr. White’s political party who were willing to shape public opinion rather than simply ride it for their own political benefit.  Sadly, they become more and more examples from long ago history, but they were leaders willing to confront the radical minority with facts and to use their political equity to calm discord rather than to enflame emotions and fuel outrage.

Missing: Real Leadership

People of a certain age can remember when political leaders complained about the power of fax machines to overly influence public decisions through organized programs to flood offices with faxes.  It all seems so quaint now, but Congressional staff members back then said that because of their volume and their tone, they carried disproportionate weight in setting priorities.

Today, that disproportionate influence of a loud group driven by anger and their own victimhood is magnified by social media and organized extremism but leaders like Mr. Kelsey and Mr. White have lost their nerve (not that they have ever been known for rising above their own partisan interests).  Rather than act as a moderating force, they are content to amplify the voices of the outraged and play to their most hardliner backers.

What has vanished in this political trend is not just courageous, influential examples of real leadership but consistency and logic of thought.  Now, it’s all about kneejerk positions designed to mollify the loudest voices and Mr. White, Mr. Kelsey, and their fellow travelers seem too intent on their own political interests to recognize the contradictions in what they say.

They manage to say without any sense of irony that people should have the power to make their own decisions about their own bodies and health.  That is, except for women when it comes to their own bodies and reproductive health.

They extoll their overriding concern about children but have done nothing to help the 26% of children in Shelby County living in poverty – not to mention the 35% in Memphis. Then again, only 5.7% of these children living in poverty in Shelby County white, which likely factors into it. 

They talk about their commitment to children while reducing safety net programs, blocking Medicaid expansion for tens of thousands of families, and opposing the increase in benefits and payments under the Biden Administration.   

Attacking Public Health And Students

Ever the opportunists, in mining support from the anti-mask fanatics, they leveraged the issue for one of their favorite issues – vouchers for students. 

In other words, in the midst of a COVID pandemic attacking children to a degree not seen previously and filling up hospitals’ pediatric beds, their first thought was to pursue yet again a policy that inevitably attacks public schools by providing vouchers that would pay private schooling for parents who don’t want their children protected by masks.

To that end, Sen. Kelsey and Rep. White support a special legislative session over what agencies have authority to require masks in schools.   That said, their latest salvo at local decision-making may be complicated by the fact that all the private schools it wants so badly to support are also requiring masks at this time.  

Never hesitant to lay lie to the old Republican axiom that the best government is the one closest to the people, they and their supermajority regularly interfere in local decisions of all kinds.  That’s the case with this special session whose only purpose is to do whatever they can to take the power to manage public health programs from public health departments.

Hypocrisy Wins

It’s emblematic of the winning at any cost attitude of the legislature shaped by the rural sensibilities of its members and egged on my urban legislators like Mr. Kelsey and Mr. White who should know better.

Tennessee Rep. Antonio Parkinson (D-Memphis) pointed out their logical gaps and political maneuvering well.  “Around 2010, Republican leadership passed and touted virtual schools in Tennessee.  When the pandemic hit and people wanted virtual, they said it was bad and the children needed to be in a classroom.  When children returned to the classroom and masks were required so children could be safe, Republican leadership wanted to take the masks away.” 

Mr. White and Mr. Kelsey are laboring under the idea that parents should be able to veto public health policies so we’re assuming that they also believe parents should refuse for their children to take all the inoculations required to enter school in the first place. 

We’ve all become accustomed to Republican legislators believing that they are the center of the universe, knowing more about public health than public health officers, knowing more about science than medical researchers, knowing more about law enforcement than local police officials, knowing more about education than academicians and educators, and knowing more about Black history than professors.

Pretending to care so deeply about children after spending more than a year victimizing and vilifying transsexual children isn’t just disingenuous.  It’s the height of hypocrisy, even for a pair well-versed in it.

Put simply, they have no equity now to pretend like they are most concerned about children and to act once again on a fiction used as the excuse to pursue another political golden ring.  Just like the mythical seven-year-old white girl who felt uncomfortable about American’s roots of racism gave birth to the manufactured debate about critical race theory, this time around it’s about the delicate, fragile white kids in their districts.

The Death Cult

But here’s the thing: no one is more resilient than children, that is, if they are taught resilience by resilient parents.  The kids I know wear a mask without reservation, without comment, and without thinking it’s a burden.  (They also know about the nation’s history of racial exploitation and bigotry despite the Legislature’s gaslighting.) 

It’s all about parenting, and parents who don’t raise their children to resent policies designed to protect their health – and their lives – are actually the ones living up to their responsibilities. 

Somewhere in the Trump transformation of the once Grand Old Party, it has taken on the vestiges of a death cult, and because of its political posturing, research shows that hundreds of thousands of people unnecessarily died. 

Rather than promote the science-based program to increase our national resistance to the delta variant of the COVID virus by emphasizing a commitment to community and society, it has turned an opportunity for all of us to demonstrate that we learned the lessons of generations that were actually called on to make real sacrifices.

For example, an anti-masker recently compared his position to World War II.  It was laughable.  After all, our parents and grandparents made sacrifices that were personal contributions to the war effort, and they did it by doing without things they had come to take for granted – food, fuel, and other rationed materials.

And they did it because of an underlying belief that they were in something bigger than themselves, and the knowledge that pulling together, we could win

That’s the sort of shared dedication that real leaders should want to be part of.  It also demonstrates clearly why Sen. Kelsey and Rep. White don’t fall into that category.


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