It certainly is astonishing to observe so many members of the chattering classes truly and earnestly engaged in the making of modern urban policy these days. Generally, these neo-activists prefer to keep their ironic distance from the boring business of government, dismissing practitioners of the political trade as thieves, liars, frauds and incompetents-in other words, as stock characters in a Maureen Dowd column.
Suddenly, however, these world-weary souls have discovered that mere politicians actually wield power over human beings. Until recently, many chatterers acted as though they believed that power in 21st-century America is exercised not in City Hall or even in Congress, but in the studios of California and the ad agencies of midtown Manhattan.
Of course, this revelation-this idea that a grimy politician can actually make a difference in the ordinary lives of ordinary people-would seem elementary to most good citizens of any given jurisdiction. They’re the people who struggle to pay the latest tax hike, send their kids to rotten and dangerous public schools, and check the news every day to see if their children in uniform are among the latest casualties overseas. You don’t have to tell these people that their President or Mayor really is more important than, say, Martin Scorsese or Jerry Seinfeld.
If, however, you are a member of a class that has insulated itself from most governmental decisions-you send your kids to private schools, you don’t have to worry about expired unemployment benefits, you don’t feel tax increases (as if such a class would ever see a tax hike)-it’s no wonder that you sneer at the presumed power of political figures. They don’t make a difference in your life. In fact, they don’t seem to do anything noteworthy.
And then they go and ban smoking in bars. Suddenly, a host of detached New Yorkers are leading social-protest movements and bravely committing civil disobedience in the name of justice and fair play!
Poverty, health care, policing, reading scores and other such issues inspire little interest in certain rarefied quarters of New York. But Mayor Bloomberg’s smoking ban has inspired unheard-of activism among the city’s cultural elites. Again and again, they ask: What kind of a city would outlaw smoking? (Hint: the same kind of city that tolerated high crime for too many years, that imposes taxes found in few other places on earth, and that graduates students who can barely read. Ah, but those issues are just so, you know-boring.)
I suppose it’s always good when the cynical become engaged in a public issue, or when the world-weary rediscover their capacity for outrage. But why couldn’t the cause be something a bit worthier, a bit more earnest, than the presumed right to inhale poison in public?
That’s not to say the smoking ban is the sort of frivolous issue that typically captures the attention of the hip and fashionable. The always-precarious tavern and restaurant industry has taken a huge hit-especially neighborhood bars that have lost a quarter or more of their business. Understandably, a revived United Restaurant and Tavern Owners of New York is gathering petition signatures and lobbying lawmakers to help overturn the ban in the name of economic survival.
The high-profile nicotine addicts who have rediscovered urban policy, however, are less sympathetic characters. They want to continue to smoke, wherever and whenever they please. They say their nasty habit is nobody’s business, but it is-unless they’re willing to sign a waiver promising to turn down Medicare subsidies in their old age … assuming, of course, that they make it that far.
Regrettably, the Mayor’s crusade has allowed smokers, of all people, to pose as romantic rebels challenging the full might of politically correct government policy. This is an absurd notion, but it very likely resonates with some scatterbrained young people looking for a cool cause to embrace. Yeah, that’s it: defy the establishment by sucking on smoke in public. How, like, radical!
The bar owners and restaurants have a powerful and worthy economic argument. Militant smokers, however, have only their addiction and sense of entitlement. They delight in being seen as liberators; in fact, they are prisoners of the tobacco industry. If it’s liberation they seek, they should embrace anti-smoking legislation and higher tobacco taxes as a way to achieve their freedom.
My father, a lifelong smoker, recently managed to free himself from the cigarette pushers. He died of lung cancer just before Christmas. As he neared his end, he didn’t look very much like those hip, way-cool militant smokers who make sure they are photographed with a butt in hand or an ashtray within reach. There was no glamour, no romance, no attitude in that hospice room.
Instead, there was pain. Pain and struggle and discomfort and sorrow. Then he died. And there was nothing cool about it.