Leonard Pitts Jr.: Believers of Ernst hoax say a lot about who we are

Leonard Pitts Jr.

Leonard Pitts Jr.

“Unbelievably sad.”

That was the subject line of an email a colleague sent me last week. In it, she forwarded a link to a story that had Iowa Republican Sen. Joni Ernst telling a Des Moines radio host that Congress should outlaw vaccines because they “manipulate brains.”

According to the story, the host asked Ernst to clarify, whereupon the conservative freshman explained that when they were children, she had a friend who was vaccinated, while she herself never was because her family couldn’t afford it.

The story quotes Ernst as saying, “Now, we grew up in the same town, went to the same schools, attended the same church, we even served in the military together. We’re practically the same, right? But he’s a liberal Democrat. He voted for Obama both times and he has a Hillary Clinton sticker on his pickup truck. He supports welfare and the gays. I’m not saying the vaccinations made him more liberal, but the vaccinations made him more liberal, do you get what I’m saying?”

I read this and sent my colleague the following reply: “This simply HAS to be a joke.”

And it was. It turned out the story originated on National Report, a website which bills itself as “America’s number one Independent News Source,” which it is not. Actually, National Report specializes in hoaxes. Indeed, as this is written, one of its headlines reads: “Car Owners Baffled as More Tampons Are Found in Mazda 6 Engines.”

A number of observers, including a handful of reporters, fell for the hoax, tweeting it to their followers as fact. As near as I can tell, the senator didn’t even bother issuing a rebuttal.

All of which paints an unflattering picture of who and what we are halfway through the second decade of the 21st century. The idea that vaccines affect ideology — “manipulate brains” — is so staggeringly stupid, you’d like to think no one, no sentient adult, much less a United States senator, could ever say or believe it.

Then you consider the kinds of things people do routinely say and believe in this country and it becomes hard to be sanguine. Didn’t a talk show host say the federal government is gearing up for a war against white people? Didn’t a senatorial candidate say a woman’s body can protect itself from pregnancy in cases of rape? Didn’t bloggers say Chief Justice John Roberts has ordered President Obama’s arrest for treason? Didn’t a PAC accuse the president of a plan to help gay parents buy babies?

It’s a litany of the ridiculous that provides a certain context for the thing Sen. Ernst did not say — and explains why some of us were so ready to believe that she did.

That belief is hardly a leap in a nation where many politicians, particularly on the right, have abandoned the vast middle ground of American political thought, preferring to seek votes with simple and simple-minded appeals to the prejudices and fears of those on the fringes instead. Moreover, it’s hardly a leap in a nation where media often function as their unwitting henchmen, drawn like ants to sugar to the loudest voices and sharpest conflict — and away from that which is nuanced or thoughtful.

Small wonder this country has become home to so much intellectual backwardness and ideological rigidity. And that the line between the real and the ridiculous now blurs to such a degree that it’s sometimes difficult to tell where the one ends and the other begins.

In such a world, the idea that Joni Ernst thinks vaccines give you liberalism becomes, at a minimum, plausible. Which is a sad reflection on us.

“This HAS to be a joke,” I wrote. But you know what?

I sounded a lot more certain than I was.

Email: lpitts@miamiherald.com.

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