Thursday, July 28, 2005

Liberté Toujours: Sins of Choice and Sins of Chance

It takes a certain type of person to hate smoking with the kind of intense passion that some people hate it with. What kind of person, you ask? I’ll tell you. A hypocrite. And not just any old hypocrite either, but a very serious sort of hypocrite. That is, to be clear: not a serious-minded hypocrite, but a serious hypocrite. A purveyor of only the highest-grade, uncut hypocrisy available. A zealot and, I might go so far as to say, a demon.

I’ll give you two examples.

Recently I was out with my wife and a baker’s dozen of strangers to celebrate the birthday of a friend we all had in common. We sat on the patio of a Portuguese restaurant on College Street making exceptionally awkward conversation and nursing drinks that were only being refreshed, it seemed, every two or three days. We sat, I would like to emphasize, on a patio. Which is to say, we were outside … Eventually, as I felt my nerves beginning to unravel a bit, I got out my packet of cigarettes and, very courteously I thought, asked if it would offend anyone too much if I smoked. My precise words, as a matter of fact.

Foolishly, no doubt, even I took my question to be rhetorical and popped a butt in my mouth and began fiddling with the lighter. But before I was able to actually light the thing issue was taken and, not being much for hypocrisy myself, I stopped myself mid-light. The protester—a woman of South African extraction, heavily made-up and rather clearly unhappy that she was pushing (at a rough guess) 35—told me, lips instantaneously aquiver with righteous indignation, that, yes, it really would offend her if I smoked, and that yes she was being serious.

I think I might have laughed; might even have said something like “Really?” But I wasn’t about to have it out with a complete stranger at a friend’s birthday dinner. Nor, indeed, could I have, given that I (so foolishly) asked in the first place. I sheepishly replaced the cigarette in its packet.

But I had, apparently, caused some fairly serious offence by the mere suggestion of smoking, and so she continued. Apologizing repeatedly—but in that oblique way people predisposed to self-righteousness have of apologizing (by making it abundantly clear that the only person who really should be apologizing is the person, oh perversity itself!, on the receiving end of the apology)—she reminded me that I had asked and, if I actually cared, that was her answer. She put an end to the matter (magnanimously, I can’t help thinking she thought) by telling me that I could smoke, just not anywhere near her or the table. Which, of course, I was grateful for as I didn’t think I could handle giving up smoking altogether on such short notice.

Did I mention that we were sitting on a patio? I did. Okay. Just making sure.

There’s a punch line to this story, but I’ll save it for a bit. First I’ll give you the second example.

A couple of years ago, (again) my wife and I were invited to a Thanksgiving dinner at the home of dear friends along with (again again) a handful of complete strangers. Come the end of the meal, in spite of the fact that theirs was normally a non-smoking house, our hosts produced ashtrays for those of us who do, that we could enjoy our post-prandial coffees in company and not suffer (what I fancy they considered) the vulgarity of sending the bunch of us outdoors to smoke as though we were children doing something our mothers had told us we shouldn’t.

No sooner had the few of us lit our cigarettes than one of the gathering, a psychiatrist and (if it doesn’t strike you as redundant) a profoundly silly man—who had got himself nicely pissed on a rapid succession of cocktails at the beginning of the evening, and who had been holding forth on every possible subject for the duration of the meal (which he took with wine)—began to lecture us on the dangers of smoking. Or, indeed, that isn’t quite true, as the emphasis was on the dangers of smoking to him, sitting there at that precise moment. He glibly suggested that he could sue our hosts, if he so chose, for recklessly endangering his health. (This as he was filling his face with the food they’d paid for and spent hours preparing; as he was sucking away their limited supplies of vermouth like it was Gatorade.) He actually pointed his finger at my wife and told her, without a trace of irony or glimmer of the good-humour that comes from a certain amount of realistic remove, that if she ever decided to have children she’d rank lower than the lowest possible bottom-feeding bacteria if she so much as considered smoking while pregnant ... The tension was eventually broken by our host, who made it as clear as tact would allow, that our psychiatrist friend obviously needed rather badly to relax, and wondered if maybe he should smoke a cigarette.

(It should be noted, though, that the ashtrays came out at no other time during the evening, before or after. Their appearance, then, was not so much an incitement to indulge bad habits, as it was (one of those rare and noble and wonderful things) a gesture.)

There’s a punch line to this story too, but I wonder if you’ll allow me to digress for a moment. Yes? You’re too kind.

Whenever I find myself in circumstances such as these, an amusing little voice creeps into my train of thought and says the most fantastical things. A clipped, castrated kind of voice that anyone who makes a habit of reading the Toronto Star—or who has attended U of T’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education—is familiar with. It tells me that there is a lesson to be learned here; a flower of value-relative wisdom that may be plucked and pressed and admired for all time. It tells me that, in the case of (a) it would have been more politically astute[1] of me, given the great weight of “studies” and “statistics”[2] available to the average person, to simply have avoided the possibility of such an unpleasant confrontation by taking my nasty habit somewhere where it risked offending the beliefs (even if they were as thin as smoke itself) of no one. That is, I hasten to add, irrespective of whether or not it happened to be my legal right in a tolerant society to do so in the one place left me by law. (Did I mention that we were outdoors at the time? Oh, yes. So I did.)

The voice then tells me that in the case of (b) I should have refused the exceptional consideration given me by my hosts—under the jurisdiction of their private residence—on the grounds that it might not only offend another guest, as it did, but that it might illicit in such a person a too telling display of crudeness, depriving him of his right to toe the progressive and popular line without fear of appearing intolerant himself. Or, indeed, of having to take any responsibility himself—as the only person present who objected to our smoking—by, say, leaving the room until we were done.

It tells me, in effect—and this is the really fantastical bit—that the concerns people such as these have about health actually do outweigh those of taste and, I daresay, civilization; given that these latter are essentially a matter of personal opinion, while health is a matter of science. Of fact. It tells me, furthermore—and here the voice seems to strain a bit, perhaps conscious of the frozen limit of even its own credulity—that while the law may to an extent provide for smoking now, the direction that it (the law) is moving in, is enough to make it my responsibility to behave as though smoking were already illegal.

It is, of course, an odd and perplexing and, ultimately, very suspicious fact that this voice speaks with the kind of self-assurance that no reason can penetrate. It speaks, that is, not so much with conviction, as it does with certainty. Absolute certainty. (In spite of the fact—and, hence, my misgivings—that the voice rarely, if ever, actually passes the scrutiny of reason.) It is, however, and like I say, only a little voice in my mind, and it only ever serves to entertain me. But that’s because, for better or worse, I’m unusually pig-headed. To others—to the, as it were, mean of society—it is the very Voice of Conscience that rings loud and proud in their ears, and from their mouths, inciting them to casually dismiss anything, as nonsense, anything that might suggest it is in error.

Such—as St. Gilbert says—is “the moral condition of American Culture in the decay of Puritanism”; where society associates with right and wrong the absence or presence of mere damages. (As in: something that can only be treated by litigation.) And thus: “of what the great theologians and moral philosophers have meant by a sin, these people have no more idea than a child drinking milk has of a great toxicologist analysing poisons.”

… But I mentioned punch lines, and I really should get to them.

In the case of the South African: I was under the impression for a large part of the evening that she was a woman of means. She was, you see, decorated all over her person (in the conventional areas—the others I could not say) with diamonds. Lots of ‘em. Which, in and of itself, is nothing that can be sneered at. And I didn’t, and don’t. But it did eventually come out that the means that provided for all this gratuity were (as a matter of interest, her husband’s and not her own—but I don’t sneer at that either) actually, relatively speaking, quite modest. So how, then, does such a person come into possession of a large collection of diamond jewellery? … She gets an “in” with someone in the diamond business, of course! In this case, her husband was a middle-rung executive at DeBeers (and thus, of course, the South African connection).

The DeBeers, that is, that controls two thirds of the world’s diamond interests. The DeBeers most recently featured in the news because of its apparent involvement in the displacement of Botswanan Bushmen to build a diamond mine. The DeBeers that has long-suffered now the intense scrutiny of the UN, Amnesty International, and Human Rights Watch. The DeBeers that always seems to be re-offending for its involvement in the black market trade of diamonds, directly linked to any number of large-scale atrocities that have plagued the African continent, in their most extreme manifestations, over the course of the last nearly fifteen years ...

And there they were: so-called “blood diamonds.” Glittering (even, did I imagine it, tittering?) back at me as I sat there semi-conscious from lack of nicotine.

Now, I didn’t perform the experiment, so this might ring a little hollow, but: do you think if I had asked her to, that she would’ve removed those baubles from sight because of the offence they gave me? That because I’d read too many stories of hands being hacked off for them, that I couldn’t bring myself to sit at table with such grim and obvious reminders. Indeed, the very evidence itself! Do you think that I would have got from her anything other than an onslaught of even more and righteouser indignation if I had? Alas, no. And while she wasn’t drinking Chesterton’s glass of milk, you got the distinct impression that it was only the absence from our table of a set of severed hands that justified, absolutely, her position. (And to give her a little credit for being, at least, consistent: it was, I guess, in this way that she could countenance my continuing to smoke, but on the condition that it was out of her sight, and therefore out of her mind. That is, off her conscience.)

As for the psychiatrist … Well, come the end of the evening, he got in his black, rag-top BMW and drove home. After—in case you’ve forgotten—consuming enough booze to make an elephant unsteady upon its pins. Indeed, I have it on good authority that the man makes such a habit of drinking and driving that, when he was on another occasion pulled over by a RIDE program, his reflexive (though inarticulately slurred) command that he be allowed to speak with his lawyer ended-up being his one and only saving grace. (Apparently the arrest was for some reason being filmed, and while the police at the time were unable to understand the—as I say—heavily slurred request for a lawyer, it was deciphered later in playback. All charges (and they were serious) were consequently dropped.)

Chesterton suggests that the greatest moral deficiency in people such as these is that “they go by associations and not by abstractions.” And, indeed, this—what I think was relatively embryonic in his day—is now the ideological 6 lane highway being blazed (or paved, I guess) across the face of the West. For I can’t help thinking—indeed, I know for a fact—that smoking is a greater sin in the eyes of society than either driving under the influence, or financing warlords in third world countries. That is: so long as the drunk behind the wheel never actually kills anyone in so doing, and the diamond-clad lass never actually severs a set of hands using her own. For—the rationale asserts—we shall always know the appalling effect tobacco smoke has on the smoker and the (ahem) passive smoker, but we cannot be empirically certain that one jaunt in a car after a dozen or so drinks will result in a death, or serious hurt, or any hurt at all (if you exclude the next day’s hangover). And, of course, statistically the latter is far safer than the former. What good then is an abstract morality if it limits freedom based on principle rather than actuality; that is, what good is it if it is restrictive where no harm is necessarily being done?

But, you see, in this way chance—not choice—becomes the underlying condition of our freedom.

It would, of course, be ridiculous of me to suggest that smoking isn’t unhealthy—and I might even acknowledge the possibility that it is, as it were, passively aggressive to non-smokers (but I’m afraid only marginally so, and there are all sorts of goddamn statistics to back up this claim too). But it is the very height of error to suggest that smoking is any more or less harmful than a host of other behaviours[3] tolerated (in some cases, even, encouraged) by the societal norm. Indeed smoking, I can’t help thinking, is one of the few truly liberally democratic symbols left to us! One, after all, has the choice to smoke or not to; and one can choose to be in the company of smokers, or not to be. But what we emphasize as statistically lesser evils make no such provision. Whatever percentage it is of the 16, 654 alcohol related fatalities recorded in the USA in 2004 that were not themselves the offending parties (that is: were innocent bystanders), were given no choice whatsoever in the manner of their death. Likewise this is so of the thousands that have died or been brutally mutilated for the sake of the supply-controlled diamond industry.

And yet between the person known to drink and drive (but without accident), the person who wears jewellery bought at the cost of innocent lives (but who has taken none herself), and the smoker, it is the last that is singled out for society’s most severe censure. And I’ll tell you why.

When the progressively minded progeny of the late 60s' ideological revolution began to take control of the mechanisms of power, they—in keeping with the extreme significance they invested in statistical analysis—decided that certain types of sin were preferable to certain other types of sin. The cardinal virtue of their brave new secular faith being victimhood, precluded sins of choice because they would undermine virtually every person’s inalienable right to be a victim (a kind of post-hippy equivalent to Bunyan’s “To Be a Pilgrim”). This because sins of choice carry a weight of conscious responsibility on the part of the sinner. Thus, sins of chance—determined always by a posteriori fact finding, and prioritised accordingly—ceased to be the reproof of right-thinking men to improve their quality by evermore rigorous examination and application of abstract morality, and became, quite contrarily, the desired state of grace in a society reconciled (indeed, committed) to its own self-interest.

And thus my two friends, hypocrites to their very cores, will not only go to their graves under the incredibly banal impression that whatever their sins might have been, smokers’ were greater; but as much, I expect, will be their absolution in the minds of their (surviving) contemporaries.

Hilaire Belloc—good friend to G.K. Chesterton, a fellow writer (now, like GK, absurdly unpopular), smoker, and Catholic—wrote the following little epigram in dedication to people such as these. A fitting note upon which to end, I think. It is called “On a Puritan”:

He served his God so faithfully and well
that now he sees him face to face, in hell.

[1] Political Astuteness being the transcendental state of the secular religion, given us by the likes of the Toronto Star and OISE (and, of course, the current government).
[2] That is, “the rationalist’s substitute for demonology.”
[3] By which I mean both habits of the material variety as well as habits of mind.