You know what I think was the most powerful antismoking influence of them all? It wasn’t any scientist or surgeon general or professor or pundit or expert. It wasn’t any book or ad campaign. It was Star Trek. Yes, Star Trek – and any other TV series or movies that comprehensively foretold or defined the future.
Star Trek was set somewhere in the future. Hundreds of years in the future, judging by the stardates, if I remember rightly. Star Trek was describing the future. It was a little window on the future. This was how it was going to be.
And there was no smoking in the future described in Star Trek. Nobody ever smoked, ever. Nobody even mentioned smoking. It was non-existent. And actually alcohol was non-existent too. They used to occasionally drink blue or green transparent liquid from slender glasses, but that wasn’t wine or anything. It looked like Jeyes’ Fluid.
So you’re 10 years old and you’re sitting there in front of a box which is telling you that there’s going to be no smoking, no drinking, a world government, and all the girls will wear miniskirts like Lieutenant Uhura. And also everything’s going to be very neat and tidy and clean and bland, like the bridge of the Enterprise. And you suck it all up, episode after episode. And it provides you with your picture of the future. Maybe the only one you’ve got. It’s a prophecy, and the prophecy is self-fulfilling.
And then 10 years later, you’re maybe a progressive student in a progressive university or college. And you have your embedded progressive Star Trek vision of the future, and you’re already hard at work to actively make the dream come true. So of course you campaign for smoking bans and alcohol bans and world government and wall-to-wall bland pastel tidiness. Or tidy pastel blandness.
Progressives are optimistic about the future, and want to get there as quickly as possible. So if it’s Tuesday, a progressive will tell you that Wednesday will be better. And Thursday even better still. “Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow.”
All the world’s revolutionaries have been optimistic progressives with some utopian vision of what the world will be like in ten years’ or five years’ time. They know what it’s going to be like. Other people may have a hazy idea of what the future might bring, but the progressives have complete certainty. And they also know that to get to that paradise, they’re going to have to dismantle the present. It’s a necessary precondition. You can’t make omelettes without breaking eggs, they’ll tell you, as they set about it with their hammers.
And yet the world’s revolutionaries invariably fail to construct their utopias. It never works. It always goes wrong somewhere. It always ends up with gas chambers or gulags or killing fields. And that’s because the progressives always use force – either the force of arms or the force of law – to try to make it happen. In their rush to make the world a better place, they always make it a worse place. Sometimes they even make it a much, much worse place.
And it also always fails because every vision of the future is a pipe-dream of some sort, and the more ambitious it is the more impossible it is to ever realise. And Star Trek was Gene Roddenberry’s pipe dream. But his was a peculiarly powerful pipe dream because he managed to construct it as a world that people – TV viewers – could enter into and inhabit for hours on end. They could ‘live’ the dream, every Thursday at 6 pm. That’s something no author of any book can ever manage to achieve, unless he writes a series of books that have the same cast of characters.
And Star Trek has gone from strength to strength. There’s a whole Star Trek franchise now. It’s become an industry, all based on the original series. And it’s not just Star Trek. The picture of the future in almost every sci-fi movie is pretty much exactly the same. Same rugged, teetotal heroes in the same space ships, doing the same things the same way. There’s a remarkable uniformity across the genre. The imaginary future has become a shared object, as if the future were already present and observable.
And the effect has been to make people see smoking and drinking as something passé, or becoming passé. Maybe even eating as well (when did anyone ever eat anything in Star Trek?). And it also leads them to expect a world government too. Because they’ve seen the future, and they even know what people will wear and what sort of pastel colours it’s painted in. And once they’ve got a blueprint for what the world should be like, what the world will be like, all that’s left to be done is to actually build it, make the dream come true.
Some people carry on being optimistic progressives all their lives, trying to hurry the future into existence. But other people come to realise realise that these various futures are all illusory, all pipe dreams. Or else they experience the revolution, and are left scarred for life by it. Or maybe it’s simply because the future inevitably, sooner or later, becomes the past. And what was once so futuristic becomes antiquated. And what was once fashionably In becomes Out. And what was fresh-faced and young becomes old and haggard.
We’ve been told for the past half century that Britain’s future lay in the EU. But since the Brexit vote, that particular future looks unlikely. Britain is having to redefine its own future. Nobody knows what that future is right now.
We’ve also been told for the past half century that the future is going to be “smoke-free”. But is that really any more likely than Britain’s future in the EU? All it’s going to take for that smoke-free future to vanish (quite literally in a puff of smoke) is for someone somewhere to call the bluff, like the Brits did with Brexit. Sooner or later some country – France or Spain or someplace – is going to kick out Tobacco Control and repeal its smoking bans. And when one country leads the way, and shows how it’s done, others will soon follow. And with that the illusion – the so-very-carefully inculcated belief – that the future will be smoke-free will dissolve.
The smoke-free future was always an improbable future anyway. Just as an alcohol-free or meat-free or fat-free or sugar-free or salt-free future are all equally improbable. Or a carbon-free society running on sunshine and windmills is improbable. All these things are little fragile bubbles that have coalesced into one singular, wobbly, enormously improbable bubble which is going to burst sometime very soon. And when it does, that particular vision of the future will instantly belong to the past. And people will write books wondering why anyone ever believed in the first place that the future would be like that. Did they all go mad? Or had they just watched Star Trek and Star Wars and A Space Odyssey?
We probably need a vision of the future – where we’re going – just as much as we need a vision of the past – where we’ve come from -, like a compass course on a map. It tells us who we are. We need imaginative people to come up with fictional futures. We also need imaginative historians to come up with fictional pasts. Because, in its many ways, the past is just as much a fiction as the future: it is open to more or less infinite re-interpretation. At any one time, most people will be captives of one particular fictional binary past and future. But they would do well to remember that they are all illusions, not set in stone. They are all fictions that are continually being re-written.