False Alarm

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.

About Frank Davis

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11 Responses to False Alarm

  1. If you don’t think I’d take CHOCOLATE with me in an emergency, yer friggin’ loonytunes man! I’ve got three 72ounce bags of Nestle’s chocolate bits in a closet two feet behind me at the moment and you’ll have to go THROUGH me to take ’em!

    MJM (akd M&M)

  2. Mesmer says:


    The Nazi experiment (as it is very often referenced in scholarly works) was a trial run of what many very influential people around the world considered to be just what the doctor ordered (eugenics, lifestyle control, etc.) but then it all went to hell. These people had to wait at least a generation to allow the masses to forget what it had all been like in the beginning and now they’re ready to give it a try again. And if it goes to hell again…………………………well, try, try again.

  3. Walt says:

    I don’t know that They give up in genuine emergencies….When it was discovered that UN relief flights to Bosnia (early 90s) were also carrying cigarattes to that desperate population, the UN responded by…suspending relief flights…When those Chilean miners were trapped underground, the authorities first refused to give them cigarettes–first, at all, and finally relented by giving them too few, and meting them out on a daily basis….In the wake of Sept 11 in NYC, Mayor Bloomberg reminded a frazzled city that “more people were killed every year in the city by smoking” than had died in the towers, and warned against using the anxiety and confusion as an excuse to smoke. Not long thereafter, he banned it in bars.

    • Frank Davis says:

      Was Bloomberg mayor in 2001? I thought it was someone called Giuliani or something? He was thought very well of after 9/11 for a while. Or maybe he was mayor of something different.

      9/11 was a real event, of course. A lot of very real people died. The people who are “killed by smoking” are a construct. Not a single one of them has ever been identified in the city’s morgues. They can’t be compared with each other.

    • Brigitte says:

      Walt, as Frank said, I, too, am pretty sure Rudy Guiliani was still New York’s Mayor at 9/11 although he was on his way out of the office. Bloomberg entered shortly after and made headlines with his “more people were killed every year in the city by smoking” statement.

      I didn’t know that the trapped Chilean miners were initially refused their request for cigarettes. But then, the BBC would not proudly announce that the miners were asking for them.

      • Frank Davis says:

        Did Bloomberg really say that? I’ve no recollection of that. Have you got a link?

        I did know that the trapped Chilean miners were initially refused cigarettes, although not that they only got them on a daily basis. These people would refuse a dying man a cigarette. In fact I’m sure they do so on a daily basis.

      • Brigitte says:

        Bloomberg did say that and it was happily announced by the BBC at the time.

        The reason why I remember this so vividly is that 9/11 used to be a private mourning day for me (my brother’s death anniversary) until 2001.

  4. richard says:

    Don’t forget that we aren’t allowed knives and guns either. Why not? It’s because a protester’s eggs, paint or custard pie could otherwise become steel and shot. That would never do.
    NB: don’t forget toilet roll in your emergency “Bug Out Bag” – a priceless commodity!

  5. Brenda says:

    If I looked round and saw a velociraptor chasing me I would rather have a lit cigarette on me than a gun.
    One whiff of second hand smoke would be more lethal than bullet and the poor beast would drop dead in a second.

  6. Gary K. says:

    Wellll, everyone ‘knows’ some things are bad for you; because, they have been taught/trained to believe that they are bad.

    But; they may also ‘know’ from looking around them, that this is not true.

    Intuition tells them that, if there is a disaster and everyone is on a reduced diet, being obese gives them a better chance of not starving.

    Puritans believe disasters are at hand and the obese/sinful sloths have a better chance of surviving.

    Puritans ‘know’ this and have envy and hate for the obese.
    It is not fair, the obese must be punished for their unfair advantages.
    Thus, a lot of false crap gets spread around.

  7. Xen347 says:

    Brenda (and all)

    Many years ago, not too long after the, sadly premature, demise of Bill Hicks, a certain Dennis Leary gained some popularity for his stand up comedy (always seemed to me that he was trading on Hick’s success, but whatever).

    Anyway, one of his routines concerned itself with, what was then, a small but growing clamour for something to be done about smoking in America and in particular New York. This was waaay back, sometime in the eighties. In this particular skit he had the NYPD being called to an armed robbery in progress and when they spilled out of the B & W and assumed their combat positions, they all pulled… a pack of cigarettes out of their holsters. The officer in charge took a loud hailer and informed the robbers that if they didn’t surrender immediately he would give the order for his men to light up.

    Leary then went on to mimic the actions of the police officers by lighting up (he was a smoker himself and practically chain smoked through his act) and blowing smoke furiously in the direction of the would be robbers, whilst informing them about their imminent death if they didn’t surrender.

    How everyone laughed at the sheer absurdity of the piece. Leary himself, in making his point to the audience, peppered his lines with expletives as he described the total lunacy of where all this was headed.

    And now I look around…

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