Smoke and mirrors
March 20, 2007 § 12 Comments
Okay, that does it. I have got to write about this.
As you have by now heard, Illinois Senator Barack Obama is running for the leadership of the American Democratic Party. He is young, intelligent, and a strong public speaker. He has written two books. He is well-travelled. He has never supported the war in Iraq. He even looks good in a swimsuit. And he is, by all accounts, the first African-American man to have a genuine shot at becoming president of the United States of America.
The only problem? Barack Obama is a smoker, whose presidential hopes will apparently stand or fall on whether he is able to kick the habit before the Democratic primaries begin.
According to a recent article in the St. Petersburg Times, titled “Obama tries to drop dirty little vice,” Obama’s smoking habit is a sign of “weakness and lack of willpower. A presidential candidate would not want to be seen as lacking strong will or determination.” The Times piece echoes similar statements that have appeared in other news publications, including the venerable New York Times, which has pointed to Obama’s penchant for cigarettes as a “flaw” in an otherwise impeccable public image. As though a black man who has managed to reach the highest summit of the American political system knows nothing of strength or determination.
Michael Seigel, who remains my favourite public health researcher, has already written about some of the reasons why this line of argument is utterly specious, so I will refrain from repeating them here. What I will do–in fact, what will make my head explode if I don’t–is to explain why questioning Obama’s fitness to be president because of his smoking habit is as discriminatory as questioning his fitness to be president because of his race.
As I’ve argued elsewhere, habits are inextricably linked to culture. What we choose to smoke, drink, and eat is as much a part of our identity as the neighbourhoods we live in or the flags we fly. What do you think of when you think of a pint of lager? England, of course. Of vodka? Russia. Sake? Japan. If you have traveled more extensively, then you know that khat is enjoyed in East African countries, that shisha is smoked in numerous Arab ones, and that Turkish coffee is de rigueur throughout the Balkan peninsula. In other words, every culture has its vice, even those in which vices are expressly forbidden.
In the United States, cigarette smoking is disproportionately practiced by the members of three communities: African-Americans, aboriginals, and poor whites. According to a 2005 study, 59 per cent of low-income black men smoke, a number that “dumbfounded” its authors, who immediately called for further research into the phenomenon. Another recent study shows that smoking rates are highest among people with “working class jobs, low educational level, and low income,” and recommends that future health initiatives attend to “the complexities of class along with race/ethnicity and gender.”
What this means is that a statistically disproportionate number of blacks, aboriginals, and poor white people are now or will become dependent upon cigarettes, which I will remind you remain a legal and heavily taxed product. By the reasoning employed by the St. Petersburg Times, this means that a statistically disproportionate number of blacks, aboriginals, and poor white people are considered, by definition, to be unfit to run for public office.
If you look closely, you will see a set of discriminatory practices masquerading as liberalism, or, to put it somewhat more bluntly, a kinder, healthier racism. Think about it. We think it’s just swell that a black man is running for president, because as good, educated liberals we have rightly been taught that to believe otherwise is racist. However, if that black man should still possess vestiges of cultural behaviours that offend our “progressive” sensibilities–if we “smell tobacco on his suits,” as the Boston Globe puts it–then we will disenfranchise him without a second thought. It’s not because we’re racist, you see. We like the man well enough; we just don’t like his habits, his ways. Besides, he can always quit, can’t he?
Thus, we remain untarnished by racism, even as we relegate millions of black men–and women, and all the Others who aren’t like us–to the political wilderness.
The worst of it is, the public disavowal of smoking, like the public disavowal of sex, is a complete sham. Despite bans of their own making, politicians continue to smoke, as is evidenced by the fact that both the National Assembly and the House of Commons still provide smoking rooms for government officials, a courtesy that is now illegal in any other workplace. In California, where in some counties it is illegal to smoke out of doors, and where in one it may soon be a criminal offense to smoke in a privately-owned condo unit or semi-detached home, the governor has erected a furnished smoking tent to which he and his colleagues may retire for serious discussion.
No, it’s perfectly all right that Arnold Schwarzenegger smokes, because he is a rich, white Republican: pure “GOP old-school”, as Salon.com describes it. Obama, by contrast, must curry the favour of his white, liberal constituency by endlessly apologizing to them for his weakness, by invoking scripture (“the flesh is weak”), and, ultimately, by cleansing himself of his habit. Only then will he be judged fit by the power-brokers of the Democratic Party to be the first black president in American history. Ridiculous.
Mr. Obama, if you or your handlers should ever stumble across this post, may I respectfully suggest that you follow the same advice Governor Schwarzenegger recently gave to the man I hope you will succeed as president:
I have a politically incorrect smoking tent — I don’t know if you have heard about that one. People come in there, Democrats and Republicans, and they take off their jackets and rip off their ties and they sit down and they smoke a stogy and they talk and they schmooze. You can’t catch a socially transmitted disease by sitting down with people who hold ideas different from yours. I say get yourself a smoking tent.
Then, Mr. Obama, light yourself up a Camel and start fixing your impossibly broken country.