I suppose that if you’re a progressive, you’re probably trying to build a better world. And if you’re a conservative you’re trying to prevent the world from getting much worse than it already is.
And if you’re trying to build a better world, you’re probably an optimist. And if you’re trying to prevent it getting much worse, you’re probably a pessimist.
And whether you’re an optimist or a pessimist is probably a matter of your own personal experience. Or perhaps not so much your own experience, but instead the recent experience of the world into which you have arrived. If things had been getting better in that world, you’d expect them to carry on getting better. And if they’d been getting worse, you’d expect them to carry on getting worse.
I have the strong impression that the world was full of expectant optimists in about 1900. Things had been getting better. Living standards were rising sharply almost everywhere. People expected things to soon get better. And some people wanted things to get better not just “soon”, but tomorrow, or – better still – right now.
Reformers are people who are trying to improve life in the long term. Over his lifetime, the reformer hopes to effect some modest improvement. But revolutionaries are people who want to improve things right now. Revolutionaries are boundlessly optimistic. They think anything is possible.
And if you lived in St Petersburg in 1900, and your name was Lenin, or Trotsky, or Stalin, you would have been living in a world where new technologies were rapidly improving the world: railways, telegraphs, motor cars, even airplanes were appearing. You’d have been filled with high expectations. You’d read about all the new innovations appearing in Europe, and you’d say to each other. “We could have that too. And we could have it tomorrow.” And you and your chums would all agree that the only thing standing between you and this new world was tsar Nicholas II. Get rid of him, and a wonderful new era would dawn. And St Peterburg was probably a pretty good place to live in 1900. There were probably lots of bars and coffee shops where you could meet up with fellow revolutionaries and talk revolution.
Europe was full of revolutionaries like this in 1900. And another one of them was called Gavrilo Princip. And his bright idea was that all you needed to do was get rid of Austria-Hungary’s Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and a glorious new era would be inaugurated.
But I was born in England in 1948. And I grew up in the world that revolutionaries like Lenin and Trotsky and Stalin and Princip had bequeathed to me. And it was a bombed-out world. It was a world in which not just one, but two devastating world wars had just been fought. And it was a world in which there had appeared the absolute horror of Auschwitz and Hiroshima. Life had been getting much worse for countless millions of people.
So I was not filled with high hopes at all. I expected to be marched off to war at almost any moment, and to die in a trench. And if that didn’t happen, I expected to die in some nuclear war. And if neither or those things happened, I expected that I’d be gassed in some gas chamber.
That was the prospect that the post-war boomer generation faced. We didn’t see life getting better. We saw it as getting worse. And if none of the aforementioned disasters overtook us, there were plenty more disasters queuing up waiting to happen. Overpopulation. Resource depletion. Acid rain. Global warming. And that’s why we were so gloomy, even if we were living good lives.
Oddly enough, absolutely none of these disasters actually came to pass. The expected WW3 did not follow on from WW1 and WW2. There was no nuclear war. There was no new holocaust. Nor was there overpopulation or resource depletion or acid rain or global warming.
But the expectation of something very different meant that I was never any sort of reformer or revolutionary. I was just hoping things wouldn’t get worse. And I was surprised when not only did they not get much worse, but actually carried on slowly getting better. Post-war Britain was actually a good place to live. It was a country at peace. And it was a country that was not rent with deep political conflict. There weren’t millions of people in concentration camps or gulags.
But there are always reformers and revolutionaries around somewhere or other. And these people are usually to be found where life has always been good, and has always been getting better. In such places expectations are sky-high.
For after WW2 the USA was not a bomb site like much of Britain and Europe and Russia. It was a good place to live before, during, and after both WW1 and WW2. And the sunshine state of California was the best state of all in the USA. You’d find yourself living next door to Marilyn Monroe or Carol Lombard or Lauren Bacall. And what could be better than that?
So California is where all America’s revolutionaries live, just like St Petersburg was where all Russia’s revolutionaries once lived. For in California there is the expectation that life will always get better, and it could be a perfect world tomorrow, if you could just get rid of Nixon or Reagan or Trump, or whoever the current tsar or archduke happens to be.
And smoking bans started life in California. They started out as cautious reforms. But the global war on smoking has become a global revolution driven by revolutionaries as fanatical as Lenin or Trotsky or Gavrilo Princip. And just as those revolutionaries committed atrocities in their day, the new antismoking revolutionaries are committing new atrocities in their turn. Revolutionaries always commit atrocities as they try to hurry up history and arrive at some ideal new world as fast as they possibly can. French revolution = the Terror. Russian revolution = gulags. Pol Pot = Killing Fields.
The latest atrocities aren’t yet as bad as those of previous revolutions. We haven’t yet seen smokers being gassed in gas chambers or shot in ditches. But we have seen millions upon millions of people being reviled and excluded and exiled to the outdoors. We’ve seen communities shattered. And people evicted from their homes, fired from their jobs, and refused medical treatment.
One day some new Solzhenitsyn is going to write a history of the persecution of smokers at the start of the 21st century. It’s going to be the history of a new atrocity. And it’s the same old story: People trying to inaugurate some ideal new world end up creating a far worse one.