Wednesday, September 12, 2001

Smoking Out Big Brother

George Orwell hadn't already been sputtering "I told you so's" at every séance he'd been summoned to, he'd sure as heck start now. Unless, of course, that he himself, fiction's Great Prognosticator, is too dumbfounded for words (even smugly terse ones) and chooses instead to remain gratefully and quite silently dead. At least where this issue's concerned.

But the soon-to-be enforced ban on outdoors smoking, much as it out-Orwells even Mr. Orwell, shouldn't render the living silent. It was silence, after all, which lead to the "Candid Traffic Violator Camera." (And if it wasn't excessive silence and/or a scarcity of sound defiance that let this sorry excuse for a 'public safety' measure slip by, then it must have been mass stupidity. What, did people think that Allen Funt would be writing citations? "Smile! You're on Big Brother Camera!")

Okay, so it wasn't mass stupidity. I knew that. Really, I did: an outbreak of mass stupidity would've warranted at least one report from the CDC, perhaps in the form of a travel alert, like, "Epidemic idiocy rages through the Golden State." Yet no such reports have, to date, been filed. Nor has the U.S. Surgeon General issued any warnings, although, now that I mention it, that's not saying much. As late as 1996, the annual Surgeon General's Report on Mental Health favored endorsed electroconvulsive therapy, a.k.a., shock treatments, " a safe, clinically- and cost-effective way to treat severe cases of manic depression and schizophrenia"-- a dismal disclosure, yes. Though hardly a surprising one, considering the 'cost-effective' part; government-sanctioned, a.k.a., subsidized, lobotomies were all the rage in the 40s. In fact, Rosemary Kennedy's 1941 lobotomy was actually performed in Washington, D.C., at the request of her father, JFK's dad. Rose Williams, Tennessee's sister, was "treated" in 1943; Frances Farmer, too outspoken for her own good, that is, too outspoken for a commie-paranoid country's good, got hers in 1948. But I digress.

A person doesn't have to be addicted to that ol' debil tobaccy hisself to see how utterly audacious it is to legislate people's bad habits. Which is exactly what this chutzpah-ridden state of ours aims to do come January, 2002, when it officially becomes a crime to " caught using tobacco products within 15 to 25 feet of a playground, sandbox, park with slides, or any place children congregate."

Let's see if I have this straight: Californians will be free to smoke without impunity 25-and-a-half feet away from a sandbox? A sandbox, I might add, that will more than likely be jam-packed with the toxoplasmotic droppings of some confused cat, no doubt owned by -- oops, scratch that -- no doubt 'the significant other of' someone with more than his own share of bad habits.

If "yes," I'd suggest that the tax assessment (equipping more than 100,000 sworn police officers with a finely-calibrated tape measurer won't be cheap) generated by this make-believe war on make-believe thugs be reallocated the second the war's initial investment in arsenal is recouped. I'd further suggest that such reallocation go towards beefing up the state's gang task forces. Or towards replacing the Candid Traffic Violator Cameras with live cops. Or, for that matter, towards repainting the diamond lanes.

If "no," well, I 'd suggest the same things; the fine points of this legislation don't interest me one whit. I can't get past the fact that the same populace who protested Frito-Lay's exploitation of banditos; who clamored for the rights of mechanical whales (though it wasn't until "Free Willy 3" that Willy started sharing in the box office grosses); who lobbied for the removal of such insensitive, exclusionary terms as 'Christmas vacation' from the public school system -- well, I just can't figure out why such a people would pick now, of all times, to clam up.

This is no time for a collective shrug or cutesy remarks like, "I don't know what apathy means and I don't care." This is one of those times, like the aforementioned lobotomy-happy years or the McCarthy-blighted 50s, when every citizen's, not only the nicotine-addicted citizen's, constitutional rights are at risk. And, since it's fashionable to ostracize smokers these days, anti-smoking laws provide the perfect front for self-serving, overly ambitious politicians. When it was fashionable to ostracize the mentally ill, the would-be furriers of those days hid behind the Dept. of Health and Human Services, where they could go about the business of issuing outrageous decrees and mandates relatively undisturbed. And, when it was fashionable to ostracize liberals, the nation's premier Pinko hunters could and often did use their so-called authority to gag or out and out exile anyone whose politics they didn't like.

So, now it's the smokers' turn in the mushpot. But the San Diego Assemblyman who authored the bill (at the urging of his constituency, a number of whom worried that "all the cigarette butts" their kids kept finding and eating was harmful to their health) and the governor who signed it into law shouldn't get too comfortable. Californians are a fickle bunch. I'acull bet that, before the year is out, flogging smokers will have become passé. And the next fashionable target? Hmm, I don't know; how about negligent parents? Like the indiscriminately breeding fools too lazy to keep an eye on their kids, much less teach them not to eat the stuff they find in sandboxes.



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