A Pipe Dream

Originally published as (curiously enough) In Defense of Cigarettes.

by Matt Labash, National Correspondent  | The Weekly Standard, August 08, 2017

Dear Matt,

I had this thought that America was more civil when everyone smoked. You learned from an early age that people will do something you don’t like but there wasn’t much you could do other than walk away.

Then smokers became not just people doing something others don’t like, but bad people whose second hand smoke (allegedly) kills. Nowadays, anyone who disagrees with you isn’t just different or misguided, they are a bad person who must be ostracized/destroyed. Thoughts? Charles Zambori, Dallas, TX

At the risk of sounding like some heedless libertine, I’ve always loved smokers, even though I’ve never been one. Not habitually. I sometimes tried to smoke cigars during cocktail hours back in the nineties, when twentysomethings felt duty-bound to pretend they liked swing-dancing and pork pie hats and Squirrel Nut Zippers shows while smoking Cohibas as thick as baby legs. (‘Twas an unfortunate chapter in our history, which served as a sneak preview of what our culture would become: a wan remix of a more vital, authentic time from decades past. The redux version feels more like kids playing dress-up.)

Or maybe I’d bum a cigarette at a bar after one too many drinks—back when you could still smoke in bars, before smoking became regarded as an atrocity on a par with kitten-kicking and ethnic cleansing. I’d do this on occasion not because I liked the taste. (I didn’t.) Smoking during a rigorous drinking bout somehow brought on a hangover, which we drinking professionals consider the mark of an amateur. And that nicotine-induced hangover taste the next morning made my mouth feel, in the words of Kingsley Amis, like it had been “used as a latrine by some small creature of the night, and then as its mausoleum.”

But what I was after, on my occasional smoking safaris, was something other than tobacco flavor or diminished lung capacity. I liked the ceremony of the cigarette. The implicit danger of starting a fire near your face. The punctuation that talking while smoking affords, giving your words animation and shading: the stops and starts, the dramatic pauses, sitting still after exhaling while letting the smoke do all the work around you. It could make even some suburban hump drinking piss-water beer at the Greene Turtle on a Tuesday afternoon feel like Robert Mitchum in Out of the Past or like Keith Richards in life.

Though I’ve never been anything more than an infrequent pretender myself, I’ve always been partial to cigarette smokers. Perhaps I developed my taste for second-hand smoke during childhood flights from my Texas abode to visit East Coast relatives on (now defunct) Eastern Airlines. There, while eating your rubber cold-cuts sandwich and sporting your pilot’s clip-on wings (distributed by sunny stewardesses who did not yet realize it was a hate crime for them not to be called “flight attendants”), you’d be entrapped in a tubular suffocation chamber for hours on end, with no escape, smokers happily puffing away all around you as you tried to read your in-flight magazine through a Marlboro smog.

Nowadays, this would be litigated in The Hague. But to me, back then, this was not only the smell of adventure, but of adult compromise. I’d entered a more sophisticated sanctum than the one I typically inhabited. In my elementary-school world, if I had a classmate with an atrocious personal habit—say, little Ricky who wouldn’t stop eating his snot, and whose breath smelled like it—I’d either tell the teacher or chuck a dirt clod at his head during recess. But on the plane, non-smokers and smokers alike all breathed the same air, and stayed civilized, with nobody losing their cool. Long before I went on to become a civil-rights pioneer, this was my earliest lesson in tolerance. I didn’t merely tolerate smokers, however—I actually quite liked them. Maybe because my first chain-smoking acquaintance was my Great Uncle Phil. He smoked Kools and drank Pabst long before it became the beer of choice for people who wear ironic facial hair. We’d sit on his backyard patio, and while away the day. He’d pour me a tall glass of chocolate milk if it was before noon; a few slugs of Blue Ribbon if it was after. He’d occasionally concoct a mission, declaring that we needed to head “to the boondocks” to look for rattlesnakes and deer sheds.

But mostly, we just enjoyed each other’s easy company, him puffing away on Kools all the while, laconically drawing one after another out of the soft pack in his terry-cloth shirt pocket, like he wasn’t in a hurry to break his lungs but eventually would get around to it. (Which he finally did.) He’d drop pearls of adult wisdom on me, saying things like, “Yep, yep, yep …”, as though he was answering a question that had never been asked. And I took it all in. Along with his second-hand smoke.

I’m not pretending that my seven-year-old self had a clean fix on Uncle Phil, what he wanted out of life, or what doubts or fears he secretly harbored, as all men do. I just knew that we had plenty of time to figure out what it all meant, because he wasn’t going anywhere. He still had a half a pack left to smoke. I’ve always divvied up the world into two kinds of people: stayers and goers. Uncle Phil was a stayer, as most smokers are. They are people whose pleasure shaves years off their lives, as the surgeon general forever reminds us. But maybe they know better how to savor the often truncated lives they live. Smokers tend to be people who prize fellowship, discourse, conviviality, and who know how to stop time, or at least to take the edge off its fleetingness. Because they have to linger long enough to finish up their smoke.

I’m well aware that smoking is bad for you. As Mensa member Brooke Shields once put it, “Smoking kills. If you’re killed, you’ve lost a very important part of your life.” Yeah, fine. I don’t smoke, nor will I let my children. But if we’re picking nits, what doesn’t kill us these days? Trans fats, artificial sweeteners, stress, ISIS, etc. The list is long. As other health-science types promise: “What doesn’t kill us, will eventually kill us.” Lately, there’s been a rash of stories that taking too many vitamins can lead to fatal illnesses. In other words, the very supplements you swallow to elongate your life might be snuffing it out like a cigarette.

Or maybe not. Who knows? If you don’t like the science, wait five minutes, until science changes its mind yet again. But one thing we don’t need science to tell us is that we willingly and habitually inject a load of poisons into our system. The kind that aren’t delivered by Philip Morris, but by your cable and Internet providers: the victimhood and self-pity, the partisan rage and distrust that tend to convince us that our side alone is God’s Avenger, while the other side is dishonest, violent, and cheesy—some lab-hatched hybrid of Baghdad Bob, Pol Pot, and vape-shop owners.

We have reached such a fever pitch that it’s easy to succumb to nostalgia, wondering whether the world was more civilized when everyone smoked. Sure, correlation does not imply causation. But maybe we’d be better off trading one cancer for another: to put down our 24/7 hate machines (i.e., our hand computers), and to pick up a pack of cigarettes, offering to share one with somebody you don’t love, or even like. Head outside—that is, if you live in a city that still permits smoking outside—and have a conversation with them. See how it goes. The surgeon general isn’t the only one who should be worried about clearing the air.

Matt Labash: The Washington Examiner