(This is a long letter, with an even longer reply, but this reader has several excellent points, including the politicization of smoking and over-eating. -- Joe Bageant.)
I smoke cigarettes. This is my 49th or 50th year -- don't know which.
When this war on smokers really heated up, in the late 90's, I wrote to a friend in San Francisco, and asked her what was going on. "Is this some kind of grassroots movement?," I asked, in caps. She said she didn't know what it was, exactly, but that it couldn't be a grassroots deal, because they were very, very rich, and very powerful, and they had the full support of governments, corporations, and all of the media, without exception. They were getting lots of tax money, she said -- hundreds of millions -- and there were rumors that the big pharmaceutical companies were involved in funding and planning operations. "After all," she added: "They want to sell nicotine patches, nicotine gum, and a shitload of tranquilizers to the masses who quit as they get the piss pounded out of them." She said that a mutual friend had remarked that it was sure to become the largest social engineering project in the history of the world, and that, though he didn't smoke -- he found it frightening.
I avoided studying the whole thing, because all of the TV infomercials seemed to be telling me that there was an enormous amount of new evidence about the horrors of smoking -- for smokers, themselves, and for everyone they come into contact with. I just didn't want to think about it. But I, too, felt frightened about the social engineering. Still do.
Then, one day, three or four years ago, I had to do a bunch of outdoor work. The following morning, I sat down to try to catch the weather report on the local 6:00 news. I turned on the TV, and they went immediately to some huge anti-smoking rally in Seattle. It was a big, sumptuous event in a banquet room of a ritzy hotel. The governor of Washington State was there, as were the mayors of Seattle, Tacoma, and Everett, one US Senator, a couple congressmen, and a bunch of local city and county politicians. The place was crawling with media. The politicians were falling all over each other to genuflect before the local anti-smoker uber-thugs, and smoking was declared infinitely worse than nuclear war or even a possible collision between earth and a massive rogue meteor.
I thought, "Well, I guess I should look into all this. It just keeps getting more frightening."
That was dozens of books and hundreds of essays and articles and a pretty serious number of epidemiological studies ago. I had planned to write an essay for the Left, but now I've got a dozen rough draft essays, and so much information bookmarked, on Word documents in folders all over the computer, and scattered all around the garage in books and print stuff, that I don't know where I am, half the time. I'm so fucking lost and overwhelmed, that I'm not sure what to do. If you have any advice -- any at all -- about how to keep all this stuff straight, I'd sure like to hear it.
But, beyond the "ME" in all this, we smokers are being "Denormalized." That's the official term. Unofficially, it means that we're characterized as being, in many ways, subhuman -- unworthy of any consideration whatsoever, under any circumstances, like a disease or a repeatedly offending child molester. And, of course, they're taking more and more of our money, and sending it on up the line to the well-to-do professionals who promise to protect society from us drooling psychopaths down here at the bottom. And, in the employment section of the want ads, more and more businesses and government agencies declare that "users" of tobacco, in any form, need not apply: "Urine and blood samples will be taken when we accept your application."
Generally, this war is described as a battle against big tobacco, but, of course, it's actually a war on working people, their habits, their little idiot joys, their little mechanisms of coping.
In any case, the point of this letter is that, throughout the last few years, I've been expecting ("Oh, any day now!," I'd tell myself) some of the big guns on the Left to write some essay condemning all this shit -- but, of course, it has never come. Alexander Cockburn, George Monbiot, and a host of hotshots have even written in favor of what's happening, and Amy Goodman spoke out about what a good idea it is to support a Republican Senator's plan to force smokers -- primarily working and poor folks -- to pay for health insurance for the country's neediest kids. Presumably, the Left would rather not foot the bill itself, so it's handed the burden off to the poor.
I don't understand how this is a Left issue. I don't understand how they're letting all this go on, unchallenged, without even a critical comment.
Then, this morning, I awoke to read a piece by Alexander Cockburn on Counterpunch which literally spends a couple dozen paragraphs attacking fat folks (never had that problem, but the wife is pretty chubby, and I know some very bright, very Left, very serious, very, very fine fat folks).
He actually calls them names, and trashes and demeans them from a number of perspectives. It's a savage, creepy piece.
And, I don't understand how being fat is a Left issue, either. What the fuck is all this shit?
I've always thought of myself as a Lefty -- a "Left Anarchist," that is -- to differentiate myself from Libertarians, with whom, I'll admit, I have some things in common, but their belief in "The Free Market," and the joys of big business, just makes me puke. I thought of myself as a Lefty because I just couldn't stop hearing all the calls for help, from all round me -- all the poverty, all the misery, all the injustice, all the racism, all the sexism, all the violence, all the loneliness, all the situations and people you've so excellently described in your book. I wanted to help, in whatever small ways I could, those folks who were suffering and consistently ignored. And, of course, I wanted to understand what was happening -- how something this terrible could have come to be and could continue to be.
I don't see how punishing smokers, many of whom have been dedicated and effective "members" of the Left, throughout their lives, is responding to cries of help from those who most desperately need it. I don't see how punishing fat people fits into this framework, either. The essential structure that is attacking smokers is working toward various denormalization programs for fat folks -- with, again, Big Pharma generally leading the way. Lots of stuff for drinkers, too, on the horizon.
Even in a "perfect world," a world after the revolution, this shit would not make sense to me, but in a world in which virtually everything is sick and twisted, anti-human and often anti-life, spending tens of billions of dollars to make smokers and drinkers and fat folks the equivalent of Jews in 1930's Germany (this is not hyperbole), it seems to me absolutely inconceivable.
The second-hand smoke deal, as confirmed by 149 epidemiological spousal studies, workplace studies, and childhood studies, is nothing more than "perception management." Smokers are accused of being murderers.
I decided, after trying to make sense of Cockburn's essay, to write a letter to Joe Bageant and ask him to give me his take on all this madness. I've written 50+ letters to various people and newspapers and magazines and TV stations and various governmental agencies and NO ONE has ever replied. There's a dark, very disturbing religious quality to this whole thing, as if someone like me is writing letters asking priests if they mind if I have sex with the nuns.
What do you think, Joe?
Thanks for listening to this torrent of babble. Oh yes, and thanks for being Joe Bageant.
Dear Other Joe,
I scarcely know where to begin on this topic. As a smoker for 40 years, I think I've experienced every emotion and held just about every opinion possible on the subject. I've enjoyed the hell out of smoking most of the time (before it helped ruin my health), hated myself for being addicted, loathed the fact that despite having both kinds of COPD, I cannot seem to quit. I've quit for up to a year at a time, only to go back. Right now I am taking Welbutrin, which helps more than anything I've ever seen, but I still lapse in and out of the addiction.
As you can see, I'm not prone to defend smoking at this late age when I suffer from so many of its long term effects. Long term suddenly got short on me.
However, I do observe the same things as you regarding the anti-smoking movement. It is extremely classist.
Our society never asks why most of America's underclass people smoke. America is a society at the edge of a cliff. Many people fall over the cliff but instead of building a fence, America sends middle class professionals down in a basket to pick the pockets of the dead and dying victims, either through the "recovery industry" or expensive end of life care and funerary services. In the case of smoking, however, middle class Americans, left or right, seem intent on beating up the victims for sheer enjoyment or, as you point out, to fulfill some unfathomable political agenda. The prevailing philosophy seems to be "Why exercise an ounce of mercy when you can expend a pound of cruelty?"
Smoking and drinking are indeed among the few miserable pleasures available to working class and working underclass folks. They were and are always there for me when little else is, so long as I am willing to pass my money up the class ladder. They make money for the middle and upper classes two ways, first through corporate sales profits, then later through medical treatment for the diseases incurred (or in the case of insured middle class people hooked on nicotine, patches and pharmaceuticals).
Smoking unarguably costs America billions upon billions in medical expenses. But you gotta ask just who the billions are paid out to. They are paid out to the "healthcare industry," which is just that -- an industry -- to support the millions of doctors and others in the professional classes. Which means cigarettes will always be with us. Somebody's gotta pay for their hot tubs and vacations in Provence.
As far as I am concerned the government could ban the goddamned things and we'd all be better off, black market or no black market. That would certainly solve my problem, and I suspect solve the problem for millions of others like me, who wouldn't smoke if cigs were not available at all. I know that probably makes a libertarian like yourself blanch. But I'm only speaking from my own selfish perspective. I wouldn't knock off a liquor store to buy a pack of smokes on the black market, nor would most smokers I know.
Put simply, I'd do anything to kick my nicotine addiction, which as Ray Charles said, "is worse than heroin." I believe him. While I was back in the States this summer working on the new book, my webmaster, Ken Smith, said to me, "You're a vet. Why not use your VA benefits?'" I avoid anything related to the US government for the same reasons one avoids any other criminal cartel. But considering the way my health has seriously gone to hell (COPD, hypertension and type two diabetes) and that I couldn't breathe, couldn't fuck, couldn't sleep, and had arthritic pain 24/7, I decided to go, and as long as I was going, to give smoking cessation a shot. I must say here that the VA hospital treatment turned out to be excellent. Beyond excellent.
I found myself in the smoking cessation program with the kind of people I've known all my life, hard looking people by the commercially indoctrinated middle class standard. There was a tough Lynndie England type who was an Iraq War vet, a black diabetic guy with no feet, a retired construction foreman who was trying for something like the tenth time.
As I looked around and listened to each of these rough looking brothers and sisters speak, I realized that not a goddamned one of them was going to be able to quit smoking. Not because they are weak (hell, half of them have been shot at and shot back) but because of the very real fact of addiction, plus the nerve wracking insecurity of daily American life. No employment security at all, no health insurance for their spouses, no viable future for their kids, not enough real education to comprehend the greater world and the larger forces that govern our lives (which in this country means working against us to make a buck). Eventually any one of these or other hazards will slow-walk them down and fuck up their nerves -– again -– and they're gonna be right back on the fags. Ultimately, some will go down to emphysema or a heart attack.
And I thought: "There's no damned reason to believe I'm special or any different than anybody else around this table. After all, I'm here ain't I?"
I also thought about how so many of the people who read my books and essays, so many of my friends on the left, would view these people if they encountered them on the street. There would be the instant assessment of their coarse manners, poor diction and working man's bluntness that is so often mistaken for surliness, and their obvious lack of education. "Trashy and dumb," would be the verdict.
There are a million ways to be smug and the American left holds the copyright on three quarters of them. Down inside most lefties feel superior to the majority of Americans for the simple reason that they are indeed superior. Morally superior (at least in the justice sense), intellectually and politically superior too, if you exclude every member of the Democratic Party. However, the American left is void of compassion, the thing that is at the very heart of the true left the world round. And by true left I mean the people dying for the cause in places we never heard of and never will.
Given the afore named virtues and qualities possessed by most lefties, they are convinced they know everything about the people around them and what is best for everyone else. People should not own guns, or eat meat, wear fur or shop at WalMart. They should be able to obtain abortion on demand and pot should be legal. Maybe so, but those who do not agree will never be convinced of that by people they will never meet, but who insist upon calling them "sheeple" and "'Merkins" on the Internet and in other public venues.
All of which is not the worst thing in the world. In a nation that proclaims every citizen to be an individual, precious and special in his or her own right, merely for being born, well, a lot of folks are bound to take such bullshit a mite too seriously. As in, "I'm special, and you might be too, but the rest of them are just sheeple." I've done that myself, so I'm throwing stones from a glass house. It took a lifetime to recognize the lack of compassion in American society. Hell, I was raised there too. And it took the raw obscenity of George Bush for me to realize that ideology had taken over the political and civic arenas, the only venues where a society can exercise compassion collectively and by force of legislation and law demonstrate its humanity and evolution.
It was the snuffing out of what compassion remained in the Democratic Party that ceded the political stage to hard rightist forces. The Democratic leadership, fickle spineless cunts that they are, let the rightists reduce everything to ideological warfare, handing the rightists the field of play.
It no longer matters if Democrats are the majority. We don't see our warfare abroad decreasing. It's expanding. And following an ideological war over healthcare reform, we "won." We got reform. Reform which forces 40 million of America's poorest and hardest working folks into bed with insurance corporations, sucking an additional 70 billion dollars a year in public funds from the citizens' pockets into insurance industry coffers. We don't need the insurance companies at all. Never did. Never will. But they are still leeching us because "we won." We the supposed proponents of universal healthcare, we who believe in the right of all children and old folks, the right of all people to freedom from pain and misery, we won.
After the ceding of issues and principles to ideology, the only exposure to politics the people got was to ideological warfare. And the only way they got to vote was based on ideology. The left was entirely sucked into this game. Now it's the only game in town and will remain so. You cannot backtrack on pure meanness once it is unleashed, because if you quit playing the game, soften up and exhibit compassion, the opposition eats you alive next election. Calls you the kumbaya crowd and mocks you mercilessly through its extensive network of media puppets, a la Beck, Limbaugh. The crowd loves mockery. Meanwhile the nation continues to rot under a soulless ideological sun. Perishing for want of a drink from compassion's cup.
I think many Americans voted for Obama because in their minds he represented the promise of a more compassionate America. They forgot, or chose to forget, that the promise was a political promise. Which is to say it was all either just smoke, or unfulfillable by even the best intended mortal in such a heavily armed high stakes whorehouse. Some of the best among us have thrown in the towel, lost all faith in the political process. Frankly, in my 63 years as an American I've never seen more hearts broken nor more bitter people created by a single event. And that includes the Vietnam War.
Those who remain politically involved have internalized politics as ideological warfare. Which means no thing nor person is now safe from the toothy maw of ideology. As the Red Brigades in China showed us, ideology is the big grinder, baby.
For the common people, ideological adherence can only be demonstrated by zeal. And in their zeal, which is really unarticulated frustration at their powerlessness, the people start to cannibalize one another according to the social themes and agendas issued to them by institutions and corporations through the state sanctioned media. What themes are not about conformity are about denormalization of individuals and behaviors. First the smokers (in a country established as a tobacco colony), then the fat guys (in a nation whose government force feeds its people corn syrup through corn subsidies). To see smoking, physical attractiveness and other human attributes and frailties politicized is chilling. To see the left (which apparently does not own a single mirror between them) so whole-heartedly taking part in such cannibalism bodes even grimmer. Among other things, it means that the worst people among us have managed to turn the left once again against their brothers and sisters on this earth, against the very people who most need what liberalism and the left has to offer humanity. Things like justice, genuine equality, environmental healing, freedom from hating and being hated -- all of us bound together by our commonalities as human beings. By acknowledging our equal weaknesses, we become equally strong.
Which means we are fucked. As long as Americans remain convinced we are each so damned individual, unique, special and different from our neighbor, better than our neighbor, we're sunk. As long as we are kept divided, the murderous assholes will keep on owning the game, keep on looting destroying and extorting the people's wealth and health.
Yes, I think the anti-smoking movement is becoming a mass social control program. But not in the ways I sense you see things. I don't believe any grand wizard or corporate cabal cooked it up behind the curtain (although they certainly capitalize on it). Not directly anyway. I believe it just came down the pike wearing opportunity's hat. In America one man's misery has always been another's opportunity to make a buck. We are not good at "the common good." And besides, nobody wants to miss their big chance at that buck, which they are assured will surely come along here in the land of opportunity.
At heart, it's a predatory society. So damned mean we no longer even notice its inherent cruelty. A strongman's democracy in which bodily appearance has become political, and the only allowable vice is self-righteousness.
In art and labor,