Wednesday, February 13, 2013

The Smoke Police, Ethics or Foolishness?



An interesting conversation developed last week at the big round corner table at Mon Ami restaurant in Prague, where eight or ten friends gather for dinner and conversation on Wednesday nights. Robin regularly plays piano that night and we knock back a few beers or glasses of Moravian red. It’s special to have a regular gathering in a foreign city, where the owners smile to see us and the table is always quietly reserved for our disparate group. Early on, my friend Charlie noticed several of us had switched to electronic cigarettes and I voiced my frustration over the increasing criminality of smoking in public

I’m a little to the left of really supporting the ever-increasing efforts of the smoke-police, while Charlie’s relieved not to have his clothes and hair stink when he gets home at night.
Admittedly he has more hair than I, but I’m married to a non-smoker and know the complaint. We agree smoking’s an addiction, no argument on that, but I feel frustrated when government, in this case a European Union ruling from Brussels, singles me out. For Charlie it’s a matter of ethics, a small social contribution we make to one another and he makes the case that for him, ethics begins at the bottom and builds upward. I suck thoughtfully and addictively on my non-intrusive electronic pipe and agree and yet…and yet…

Something doesn’t fit for me in that argument and I struggle for definition. Words are important to writers and the ground under us shifts according to their use. Is smoking or not in public spaces really an ethical issue or is that too strong a word? If I concede the term, Charlie, how does its meaning radiate outward from there?

In the same way that an understanding of right and wrong begins at Mom’s knee and is nurtured from there by family and friends—essentially the experiences of life—respect for that ethical concept, I maintain, is a top-down thing. Mom and Dad are the first taste of hierarchal structure for children, in this case our immediate family. And our regard for who they are and what they believe either flourishes or withers by the degree of respect we receive from schoolmates, close friends, bosses in our early working life and the social and political structure that we accept as a personal hierarchy. It’s not an accident of language that those we admire or respect, we look up to. Up is higher. Who we look up to may say more about us than it does about them.

If Mom’s scaffold is sturdy, we’re pretty much okay. If the world beyond her knee includes an abusive father and chaotic street life based on poverty and drugs, ethics is a steeper climb. That’s a negative hierarchy and certainly not impossible to overcome, but a hell of a lot steeper climb and that’s where Charlie and I draw different conclusions. He’s had a life that would knock most boys and certainly most men down, but at every critical stage someone was there for him and he climbed. My life was smoother and I climbed as well, but not nearly so steeply or high. The respect we have for each other allows us to disagree without acrimony, because we’ve both been around for more decades that we’d care to admit and, in our own way, we’re both right. A natural born optimist, I find it more and more difficult today to maintain what Charlie and I might agree to define as ethical optimism.

My American society is being asked to contribute more and more from the bottom up, even as its unique hierarchal structure gives us fewer and fewer icons to look up to. Congress boasts a 9% approval rating. Banks are now too large to fail and people too small to succeed. Corporations (granted personhood by the Supreme Court) are suddenly too large to prosecute and our prisons are chock-full of minor criminals. The legislators we elected to represent us are deadlocked and we who elected them twist in the wind, as the America I love hardens at the top and weakens at the bottom. Needy and confused, the nation turns toward sports figures and celebrities, Youtube and Facebook, Fox News and John Stewart. Lacking leadership and common goals, we are entertained. Bread and circuses. It all makes a ban on smoking in public look foolish and off the mark, like patching a tiny hole in a hurricane.

Those we once looked up to, unable to house the homeless, get a handle on either our debt or our violent gun culture, but they can damn well keep us from smoking in public places and call that an ethical decision. Here in Prague, it seems we are headed for a total ban on indoor smoking and the side of me that loves Charlie and my other non-smoking friends supports that. I prepare for it as best I can, by going electronic instead of quitting, because that’s the apparent direction of the world and I accept that. Inventiveness being what it is, our consumer society has given me a brilliantly conceived alternative choice—how cool is that?

But ethical? I’m not so sure. Perhaps Charlie and I might agree that it’s micro-ethical at best, while the macro-ethics of the nations on our planet are in various stages of chaos.