Smoke 'Em If You Got 'Em

Once I thought I saw you in a crowded hazy bar, dancing on the light from star to star . . . . ~ Neil Young, 'Like a Hurricane'

This Friday night I will be singing and playing bass with our band in yet another bar. In most ways, it will differ very little from any other gig we've ever played ' except, of course, for one thing:

For the first time, no one will be smoking (at least, not legally). It may be a crowded bar on Friday night, but it sure won't be a hazy one anymore: New York State has arrogated to itself the Power to punish anyone making the choice to partake of a legal drug in a bar (ironically), a restaurant, or any enclosed 'public' space ('public,' in this sense, meaning open to the general public, not 'government-operated,' as in a 'public' park or a 'public' school). This action, while it appears relatively small and insignificant, demonstrates the essential immorality of law and of the State.

First, though, let me, as Richard Nixon used to say, make this perfectly clear: I do not smoke. I do not like smoke. In fact, I hate everything about smoke ' the headaches it gives me, the way it stinks, the way it makes my clothes smell. In fact, when I was two years old, smoke literally almost killed me. Every adult in the house smoked cigarettes, and as a result I became one very sickly child. I contracted pneumonia at the age of two and spent time in an oxygen tent as my parents worried whether I would survive. As I grew up I came down with almost every disease known to man: mumps, measles, German measles, bronchitis, chicken pox, the flu. Every February I missed almost a week of school because I had some bad cold, and every July I ended up with some kind of red, itchy rash covering my body. Once, when I was a junior in high school, I had a headache for two weeks straight. Curiously, since I left home 32 years ago, I have been sick maybe a total of three weeks altogether. I can't prove second-hand smoke did anything to me, but as you can guess, I have my suspicions.

Since I know what smoke continues to do to me, I always take a pocketful of drugs with me when I perform with the band. I know the smoke is going to get to me, so I take something before we start just to head it off, and I take another if I feel my head starting to pound. Some nights I have taken as many as five Extra-Strength Excedrin over the course of a four-hour bar gig. The next morning, my wife unfailingly strips our bed and washes the smell off the sheets ' she hates it even more than I do.

But I made the choice to play there totally freely, knowing what consequences I would face. And others made an equally free choice to go and listen.

Most people in my situation would hail this new law. The State is finally doing something right! It's protecting me! If I get a headache Friday night, it will come from the noise of our playing, not from the smoke of the patrons! My wife won't have to wash our sheets, nor I my clothes!

But I just can't do that. If anything, this saddens me because when I return there Friday night, I know that a little more of our freedom as sovereign individuals has disappeared.

We allow our freedom to slowly and steadily erode because of our way of thinking. Since we believe now in the material rather than the spiritual dimension of life, we have become, essentially, an immoral people. However, morality, because it implies choice, also implies freedom. As we become increasingly immoral, then, we necessarily turn away from choice and toward coercion and force. As Benjamin Franklin said, 'Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom. As nations become corrupt and vicious, they have more need of masters.' We rely now upon Government rather than God, upon law rather than morality, upon force rather than choice, to direct our thinking and our living. We expect law to dictate what we should do and how we should live. Our 'leaders' will make the right choice for us.

But why do we think such things? Why do we prefer the material to the spiritual and willingly trade moral choice for immoral law? We do it partly because our culture, dominated by those with Power and money, not only presents politicians as 'representatives of the people,' it also insists that the majority knows more and knows better than any minority (that Goethe claimed just the opposite ' that 'everything great and intelligent is in the minority' ' has little if any effect on such thinking). These politicians constantly tell us that they will, in essence, find out what's 'wrong' and make it 'right,' and that their efforts on our behalf will make our lives better. H. L. Mencken wrote back in the Twenties that 'the whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed ' and hence clamorous to be led to safety ' by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary,' but like Goethe or practically any dead white male writer, few pay such people any mind because, first, the academic establishment has worked overtime to discredit them as 'racist,' 'sexist,' and 'Eurocentric' and, second, because you have to read even to know of them, and American society has become almost totally illiterate (what's the difference, after all, between someone who can't read and someone who doesn't or won't read?). Smoking, our 'leaders' tell us, endangers the health not only of the individual smokers but also of all those around him. They pass a law, then, and tell us they have made us safe, that they have improved our world in their selfless quest to do our bidding as 'public servants.'

But how does this, in fact, actually work? In this instance, a group of people get together in Albany. Because they have successfully convinced a majority of those who believe in politics of their fitness and rightness for 'office,' the culture has invested these people with the Power to determine 'the law.' People's conditioning through years of forced government indoctrination in the 'public schools' and through mindless hour upon hour in front of the telescreen have made people unwilling or, in many cases, unable to question or wonder about the types of people attracted by such a position and whether they, or the system in which they work, function effectively or not. After all, we must not take it into our heads that perhaps people go into politics for selfish reasons, that they do it to make money without doing very much and that they want people to look up at them as saviors of some kind, as people so necessary that the world itself would crumble and fall without them. We must not think too hard (if at all) about the fact that politics derives from lies and that the better someone lies, the better he does in an election. We must not think too hard (if at all) about that phrase 'the lesser of two evils' and realize that even the lesser of these remains evil.

So in an effort to curry the favor of those who vote (of those who believe in the political system and, in so doing, support the idea, at least implicitly, that might makes right and that they can use Power for good), in order to retain their money and their Power, these legislators decree that anyone found guilty of smoking a cigarette in a bar or restaurant could be subject to a fine and perhaps imprisonment. Their law also threatens the livelihood of the business owner, whose license to sell liquor, after all, comes from the State; violating this law could cause the State to take that license away. Their decrees have Power because as a society we believe that what they say constitutes a 'law' and that therefore police and the various court officials and other State functionaries have the right to use Power to enforce these decrees ' Power denied, of course, to us mere mortals. The fact that 'the people' have elected them to position puts them both literally and figuratively above and beyond the rest.

We seldom think, 'Who the hell are these people to tell anyone what to do?' Some of us no longer even have the capacity to think such a thing. Our culture has almost everyone convinced in one way or another that such a set-up is not only right, even 'moral,' but that the survival of freedom and liberty require it. But we have to remember that bar we're playing at Friday night does not belong to anyone in the legislature (if it did, it would no doubt have some kind of exemption), and that the only person in the world with any moral right to determine whether or not people smoke there is the owner of that bar: not you, not me, not the customers, and certainly not some immoral, self-obsessed gang of Power hungry, money grubbing, lying little weasels in Albany. The owner of the bar is the one with the investment. He alone has the moral right to make these decisions. Like any government, the NYS legislature has no right whatsoever' it has only Power.

If the owner didn't want people to smoke in his bar, it would be up to him to let people know and to enforce it. But he's not in business to enforce either morality or health; he's running a bar. Telling people not to smoke can only lessen his chances of success, and he hasn't told them to stop because he knows his customers want to smoke. His money depends on pleasing his customers. The legislators, of course, don't have any such concerns. They get all the money they want by stealing it (they call it 'taxation'). They care only about themselves and how the voting public perceives them, and they will use the Power of the State accordingly. That people become unhappy, that they lose yet another bit of what freedom yet remains, means absolutely nothing to them.

I must admit that I will enjoy playing in a smoke-free room Friday night. But I must also admit sadness at the absence of choice, at the lack of freedom, we now have ' sadness at the further suppression of moral choice by legal dictates. And I promise to work very hard to overcome the almost overwhelming temptation I'll have to start the night by lighting up some big fat cigar, sticking it in my mouth and puffing up a storm as we start playing Van Morrison's Moondance, and advising the crowd to 'Smoke 'em if you got 'em, ladies and gentlemen ' smoke 'em if you got 'em . . . .'

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Craig Russell is a writer and musician in upstate New York.