One of the things I find rather strange about smoking is that more or less everyone seems to believe, somewhere deep in their hearts, that they shouldn’t do it. It doesn’t just apply to smoking though. It applies to alcohol, and to sex, and to food, and to any number of other things. If there’s any sort of general rule, it seems to be: If you like doing it, you shouldn’t be doing it. If it’s nice, then it must be naughty.
I sometimes wonder if it’s a purely Christian (and perhaps Protestant) Western trait. But Islam seems to be as self-denying as Christianity, and Buddhism too. And Hindu fakirs are as ascetic as any of them. Furthermore, our latest bunch of killjoys aren’t making any notably religious appeal. So perhaps it’s part of some set of universal human values.
One explanation for this that I toy with is the idea that it is anything that isn’t strictly necessary for continued life is what is looked upon with disfavour. They are the things which you wouldn’t take with you in an emergency. Cigarettes? Whisky? Comfortable armchairs? Carpets? Chocolates? Cream cakes? Fluffy towels? Perfume? Deodorant? Patent leather shoes? Paintings? Novels? You wouldn’t grab any of those in an emergency. You’d grab knives and water and tools and ropes and guns and iron rations and warm clothes and stout shoes. Things like that. The killjoys are perhaps really just people who believe that we face some sort of emergency. Or that if we aren’t facing one right now, we will tomorrow. Or the day after. And so we have stripped down to the bare minimum, and ready for anything. And we have to be physically fit, of course. You need to be in peak physical condition if you’re going to outrun the tsunami, or the pursuing velociraptors.
And we live in a time of alarm. There was (and perhaps still is) the War On Terror. And then there’s Global Warming. And there are any number of epidemics of swine flu and bird flu and tobacco and obesity. And plenty of other dire threats to our comfortable way of life. Faced with all these various threats, we must learn to do without our multitude of luxuries and amusements. We must stub out the cigarettes, stow away the whisky, run off the fat, and get ready for the apocalypse. And also, in the coming emergency, we will have to be organised into an army, with some people giving orders, and everyone else obeying them. That also happens in emergencies.
Anyway, the result is that, because everyone knows that they shouldn’t really be smoking and drinking and eating cream cakes and sitting in well-upholstered armchairs with their feet up watching football, when the killjoys show up telling everyone that it’s got to stop, and there’s a war on, or some other sort of emergency, nobody will contradict them. Instead everyone will guiltily agree that they’re right, and isn’t it awful how people smoke and drink too much, and sit on their backsides getting fat. And the longer that they’ve been sitting smoking and drinking and watching TV, the guiltier they feel about it. And in the Western world, we’ve been doing that for about 50 years.
This is likely to work very well if there really is some genuine threat to continued prosperity and well-being. But these days all the threats are manufactured. They all have the nature of hoaxes. The War on Terror is a hoax. And so also is global warming. And so is the ‘epidemic’ of obesity. Obesity is, if anything, a mark of prosperity and well-being. It’s being thin and emaciated which is the mark of poverty and hardship. But you’d almost think, these days, that if Allied armies had overrun German concentration camps in 1945, and found them full of very fat people sitting on armchairs reading books, there’d be a terrible outcry at the sheer horror of it, and the guards would have been put on trial, and made to shamefacedly admit that they’d been feeding their prisoners with Black Forest Gateau and whipped cream, and encouraging them to play chess.
When emergencies are confected out of nothing, people wise up soon enough, if they don’t do so right away. You can fool all of the people some of the time, and you can fool some of the people all of the time, but… And when emergencies are concocted with smoke and mirrors, the likelihood is that the sense of emergency will burst like a bubble, and with it all the moral fervour that attends it.
But if there is some sort of genuine emergency, then the other danger that killjoys face is that with their strictures they make life much worse than it actually needs to be. They take it too far. They go over the top. Filled with righteousness, convinced of their own virtue, and unconstrained by criticism, they start doing more harm than good. The smoking ban is a good example of this sort of thing. In the first place it’s based on another hoax, of course – the hoax of passive smoking. But not content with banning everyone from smoking indoors in public places, the killjoys now want to ban them outdoors as well, and in their cars, and in their homes. And one might discern in the public response in Stony Stratford the beginnings of a backlash to this sort of overkill. People have begun to have had enough. The cure has become worse than the disease.
There probably routinely comes a time when the do-gooders start to look like do-badders. When they cease to look like the answer to a problem, but have themselves become the problem.
It’s probably in times of affluence and prosperity and general well-being that killjoys start appearing in large numbers, feeding off a growing sense of guilt about that prosperity, and the fear that it can’t last. And conversely it’s in times of genuine crisis and hardship that the finger-waggers disappear. When I was growing up in England in the aftermath of World War II, there was what now seems to be remarkable dearth of them. The people had endured war and suffering and tragedy and shortages and rationing. They were glad of any small pleasure. Like the novelty of a cup of instant coffee, or of a half shoulder of lamb. It was to be another 20 years before the killjoys started to crawl out of their burrows again.
We live in a time a faux-emergency, of false alarm. The faux-emergency of passive smoke, and of global warming, and international terrorism.
And if there was a real emergency, we wouldn’t be ready for it, because we’d been wasting our time running round in circles dealing with purely imaginary, invented emergencies.