JASON M. WESTER: Do we really want to ‘conserve’ Mississippi’s status?

By Jason M. Wester

I enjoy going to the dentist. No, I’m not a glutton for punishment; I don’t particularly enjoy having my teeth x-rayed, scraped, and buffed, but I think it is important to take care of myself, and I especially enjoy the company of my hygienist. She’s a talker and I think she takes a special joy in having a captive audience. Every now and then she removes the little vacuum tube and allows me to answer her questions.
Usually those questions involve the usual topics about family, about work, about the weather, but during last November’s election cycle, while she did her work, one of Governor Bryant’s commercials ran. In that ad, he must have used the word conservative five times. My hygienist asked, “I’m sick and tired of all these political ads, aren’t you?” She removed the steel scraping implement long enough for me to answer.
“They can’t seem to say conservative enough,” I said. “What about Mississippi is worth conserving?”
Then she did something that she almost never does. She stopped talking. Maybe she expected me to launch into a tirade about so-called Obamacare, or repeat some tea party boilerplate, which would have been more in character for most white, male Mississippians. I had stumped her. Then she said, “I can’t think of anything.”
My point exactly. Most Mississippians are well aware that by most measures our state ranks either first or fiftieth. First in teen pregnancy, fiftieth in education outcomes. First in infant mortality, fiftieth in wages. First in obesity, fiftieth in health. On and on it goes. You name the measure, and Mississippi likely comes out either first or last. Given that, logic dictates that Mississippi needs progress, real and beneficial change.
If you travel much and talk to folks, inevitably you’ll tell someone where you’re from and receive a look of deep pity. There’s a reason why “Thank God for Mississippi” is a saying in all of the states surrounding us, and it isn’t a genuine expression of earnest thanks for the existence of the Magnolia State. It means, things might be bad here, but at least I don’t live in Mississippi, where things are much worse. Mississippi’s reputation is one of backwardness, and as much as it pains to me give credence to that sentiment, it is hard to deny.
Nothing could demonstrate that backwardness better than Governor Bryant’s recent flap in which he noted that the problems Mississippians face can be blamed on working women. You read that right. When asked about poor education outcomes, the first thing that popped into the governor’s head was women in the workplace, an idea that would be right at home in 1952.
Rather than blame a perennial lack of funding for our education woes, Gov. Bryant blamed working women, seemingly oblivious to the fact that scores of women in Mississippi must work since Mississippi, you guessed it, has a greater percentage of children living in single-parent homes than any other state. Not only do I question if Bryant lives in the state of Mississippi. I wonder if he lives on Mars.
To be fair, I can’t blame everything on Mississippi’s politicians. After all, the people of Mississippi put those people in office, saw Governor Bryant’s commercials and must have thought to themselves, more conservatism is all right by me.
Mississippi’s legislators find themselves with an opportunity to do real good for the citizens of this state. They have the opportunity to expand Medicaid to cover more people who desperately need it. Expanding Medicaid is no-brainer that would have an immediate concrete impact on the people of this state. What, after all, is more important than health?
Again, I pose the question: What about the current state of affairs in Mississippi is worth conserving? When will we, as citizens, reject the broken conservative approach to governance that has routinely failed to yield even the slightest improvement? When will we embrace progress? Mississippi needs politicians with fresh ideas and a drive to make our state a better place to live, to work, and to raise children.
Can legislators put their petty political squabbles aside and do the right thing for Mississippi’s people? We need to get more of our fellow men and women to the doctor’s office, into the dentist’s chair. And on that note, can you guess which state has the poorest access to dental care? If we can improve that situation, I can recommend one heck of a good hygienist.
JASON M. WESTER is a Tupelo resident who teaches at Northwest Mississippi Community College. Contact him at jason@jasonwester.com.