One of the features of our new internet era has been the arrival of a new army of public intellectuals. In the past these people would be usually caged within the pages of newspapers or periodicals, or in TV or radio studios, or in universities. But the new intellectuals of the internet era seem to have broken out of what’s now called the “mainstream media”, and are simply people who will record themselves speaking to camera or microphone, and publish the results online, usually on YouTube, skipping the universities and newspapers and TV studios.
Some of them seem to simply have the gift of the gab. Others come from one profession or discipline or other – like philosophy or science or history or law -. and bring with them some degree of expertise.
It could almost be said that Donald Trump is one of these public intellectuals, who has used not YouTube to short-circuit the mainstream media, but instead Twitter, boiling down his message into a very few words, often sent several times a day to millions of avid followers – something about which another new public intellectual, Lionel Nation (a lawyer), commented recently:
The new public intellectuals have a global range. You can watch them or listen to them everywhere (except maybe China or North Korea). Recent arrivals (in the UK at least) have been Americans like Michael Savage, Mark Levin, Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, Victor Davis Hansen, and many others. But there are also Canadians like Jordan Peterson, and Brits like Douglas Murray, Roger Scruton, David Starkey. And most of them can talk, non-stop, often for hours on end: it’s a remarkable skill, that I don’t possess.
I tend to watch them over lunch, so as to have something to chew over in my mind while I’m chewing on a steak or whatever, when holding a knife and fork prevents me from writing or typing.
I’ve been listening to them for years now. They talk about everything. They talk about Trump. They talk about Brexit. They talk about science. They talk about Europe. They talk about Global Warming. They talk about politics. They talk about everything.
But there’s one thing that they never, ever talk about.
They never talk about smoking bans.
And smoking bans are something I think about every day, because I wake up every day thinking about them, and quite often carry on thinking about them for the rest of the day.
Why don’t they ever talk about smoking bans? Well, since these days most people don’t smoke, most people don’t think about smoking bans at all, ever. Why should they? It’s really only smokers like me who are likely to think about smoking bans, because it’s people like me who are on the receiving end of them.
But if most of the ten or so people I’ve just listed don’t smoke, chances are that a couple of them probably still do. So some of them must be experiencing the exclusion which smokers all over the world are experiencing. So why don’t the smokers among them address the matter of smoking and smoking bans? And in fact, given that in the past intellectuals were very often avid smokers (e.g. Jean Paul Sartre), shouldn’t we expect that most of these new intellectuals would smoke?
The answer, most likely, is that most of them have drunk the kool-aid about smoking just like everybody else. Because, after all, everybody knows that Smoking Causes Lung Cancer, don’t they? And wouldn’t the world’s intellectuals be the very first to have learned this indisputable fact of life? And so, if any of these new intellectuals still smokes, they’ll probably conceal the habit, and never mention it while they expound upon politics or philosophy or law. Above all, they will not actually smoke a cigarette or a pipe or cigar while speaking or conversing with others.
For that’s the other odd fact of the new internet public intellectual forum: it’s a smoke-free zone.
Many years ago, at the age of about 7 or 8, I used to uncomprehendingly watch a programme on my grandfather’s new black-and-white television called the Brain Trust, on which the noted public intellectuals of the time would discuss matters of pressing public concern, usually wreathed in clouds of smoke. I had no idea what they were talking about, but I knew that they were people who thought about stuff, and I could see that they also smoked, and it created for me a permanent association between thinking and smoking.
That seems to be all over now. The new public intellectuals don’t smoke. And I increasingly wonder whether they might not think either. And I’m becoming gradually more and more disenchanted with all of them.
For, given the increasingly obscene persecution and exclusion of smokers from public life, they’re increasingly looking to me like those pre-war German intellectuals who would talk about everything and anything (art, literature, philosophy, science) except the ever-worsening plight of the Jews who lived all around them, and to which they were all seemingly completely oblivious.
The worst of it, in some ways, is that I no longer expect them to ever address the global exclusion of smokers from public life. For them it’s something that simply isn’t happening, and by failing or refusing to comment upon it, they have become complicit with it.