Last night’s Tall Story grew out of me trying to explain the problem with the smoking ban in some new way. Essentially, if you discriminate in favour of one social group (in this case, short people) you’re bound to discriminate against people who don’t belong to that group (i.e. tall people). I could have used men and women, blacks and whites, just as easily.
But the trouble with using short and tall people is that, unlike smokers, they can’t help being that way. There’s nothing they can do about it. Although it seems that while people can’t be blamed for their vertical dimensions, the same doesn’t apply to their horizontal dimensions. If people are ‘too fat’ or even ‘too thin’, it’s felt that they can do something about it. The same, of course, applies to smokers: it’s a choice of theirs, even if they are addicts. So while people might sympathise with helplessly-tall people being discriminated against, they feel less sympathy for people who have chosen to be the way they are. Like smokers.
And also in the case of smokers, there has been 60 years and more of belittling them and excluding them and slowly making them into social pariahs. That has been happening to tall people. So that now more or less anything can be done to smokers, and hardly anybody will bat an eyelash. Smokers, it is felt, deserve whatever they get. They have been converted into an underclass.
The parallels with the Nazi war on Jews and Gypsies are quite obvious, even if smokers have yet to be gassed en masse. Even the eugenic motivations are more or less identical, of ‘cleansing society’. Furthermore, the Nazis provided the much of the intellectual foundation for the modern war on smokers (Lickint, Muller, etc). But, somehow or other, hardly anyone can see it. Or hardly anyone can bring themselves to see it. Perhaps that’s because smokers aren’t actually being gassed, or because their persecutors aren’t actually wearing black uniforms with death’s heads on their peaked caps. But it’s gone far enough down that path that a few more people should have woken up to it by now. But they haven’t.
There’s also Godwin’s Law, of course, by which anyone who mentions Hitler or the Nazis is deemed to have ‘lost the argument’. I sometimes wonder if perhaps it was by invoking Godwin’s Law that Hitler and the Nazis rose to power in the first place.
For myself, however, the modern war on smokers has served to newly illuminate the Nazi era. I now suspect that most Germans simply didn’t notice what was being done to Jews, in more or less the same way that most people now simply don’t notice what’s being done to smokers. Everyone can see the smokers standing in the cold outside the pubs, and has been seeing them for the last four years. But they ignore it. They’re only smokers, after all. They’re a minority they’ve been taught to despise. They’re weak-willed drug addicts, slowly killing themselves and everyone around them. They don’t deserve any sympathy, or any consideration.
In addition, just as the war on smokers has been going on for 6o years (if not a good deal longer), so also much the same was true of Jews: they were hated and despised long before the Nazis ever showed up. The Nazis just took an existing age-old antisemitism to its logical conclusion. Our modern antismoking zealots are very much like the Nazis (and perhaps even functionally identical) in this respect, and are also continuing where their predecessors left off. They judge (correctly it seems) that smokers have now been so diminished in public esteem that ‘harsh measures’ won’t provoke a backlash. And furthermore, smokers’ self-esteem has been more or less equally reduced in the process, so that many of them feel that they are worthless, and have become too apathetic to fight back. They will no more resist being freighted to the gas chambers than their Jewish predecessors did.
In this respect, a new perspective of the modern Jewish state of Israel also emerges. It’s a state which is fiercely determined to defend itself, and perhaps all the more because so many of their forebears did not defend themselves. The Jews have already been through what smokers are only beginning to experience, and are absolutely determined not to repeat it. Furthermore, the Jews know quite well that modern Europe (and America) is not really very much different from Nazi Germany, and that antisemitism has never really gone away. Nor eugenics either. Nor ideological science. Nor mass propaganda. Nothing has really changed. There just aren’t any swastikas any more.
I sometimes wonder whether the final outcome of the war on smokers will be the emergence of a smokers’ state – a bit like Israel – in which smoking is the national religion, and the right to smoke is defended with a ferocity as great as any Israeli defence of Israel. Do we have to have a new state each time some social group is persecuted? Perhaps we do.
But I still remain surprised at the more or less complete indifference of most people to the exclusion and demonisation of smokers. Of course, as in Nazi Germany, it’s not happening to them as non-smokers, and they’re not too bothered about anything that isn’t happening to them. Yet I don’t think I’ve ever really managed to explain to a single friend of mine what it’s like to be a smoker these days. And I have tried. But their eyes just glaze over, and as likely as not they come out with some antismoking mantra that has been drummed into their heads over several decades.
I used to regularly visit one friend of mine (of some 35 years standing), and sit smoking in her kitchen. She smoked too. So did her late husband. When the smoking ban came into force, she was one of the few friends I continued to visit. She knew that the smoking ban had affected me considerably. Nevertheless, when I saw her last year, she announced that – after 35 years! – she was banning smoking in her house. I was gobsmacked. And next she’ll be wondering why I will never visit her again.
The strange thing about her was that she was, by origin, both German and Jewish, and would have been about 10 years old in 1940. She was just lucky enough to be born in America, where her parents had gone to investigate the possibility of emigration on behalf of the rest of the family in Germany. She was lucky. Her relatives in Germany were not. None of them survived the Holocaust. One would think that someone like that would have a keen awareness of anything even faintly Nazi. But not a bit of it. She’d noticed absolutely nothing. And everything I had said to her about the smoking ban had gone in one ear and straight out the other. And she’d now even joined in the demonisation of smoking.
So it seems to be curiously impossible to explain to people how obscene, how vile, how utterly Nazi, the modern war on smokers has become. Because they simply can’t see it.
Which was why, last night, I tried to explain it in a new way.
Unsuccessfully, as ever.
For try as I might, it seems I simply can’t explain.