May 29, 2008

Is America ready for a cigarette smoking president?

I am not on principle opposed to health.  Some of my best friends are healthy.  Still, for as long as people have (mistakenly) believed that democratic debate can only proceed from those principles everyone shares, people have been excising everything controversial?everything that we actually need to have a democratic conversation about?from the public sphere, and left in only the most innocuous first principles.  At last count, we still had “It’s good to be physically healthy,” “I don’t know about justice, so let’s have fairness,” and “The American flag is pretty boss.”

When the political arena has so few principles to work with, people get unduly zealous about the ones they’ve got; hence the “cult of health,” hence the present epidemic of smoking bans and ridiculous statements about smoking bans (”…waiting two-and-a-half years to enact a smoking ordinance was, from a public health standpoint, unacceptable”).

Even this article, which is more sympathetic to smokers than most of what gets written about us, is so wrapped up the health obsession that it comes to the strange conclusion that smoking is about being unhealthy. (The title of the piece is “It’s about knowing you’ll die.”)  If smoking didn’t kill you, no one would do it?  I rather think everyone would.

Cigarettes are about the camaraderie of a night out, the reverie of a night in, generosity?try asking a stranger for money, then try asking him for a light?and style.  These are slipperier concepts than “health,” but it is still an accepted truth, at least in some circles, that they are more important.  A cultural preoccupation with bodily health can result in some decent high comedy, but it also shortchanges spiritual health, flattens our ability to have real public discussion about when and where smoking should be legal, and robs us of the ability to enjoy small pleasures.

In other words, can Barack please have a cigarette?

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