Freedom

James Harkin's book, Big Ideas, will be published by Atlantic later this year.

Fumbling for a post-coital puff

Imagine, as a friend of mine did recently, the following morbid and highly improbable scenario. You're a passenger on an aircraft that loses control on landing. Your plane bounces head-over-heels down the runway, disintegrates and then bursts into flames, leaving you behind on the tarmac: the sole survivor of a horrific crash. Many of us would be paralysed by shock, overcome with guilt or left muttering an instinctive hymn of gratitude to a long-forgotten deity. Not my friend. As he saw it, the trauma would make it the perfect moment for a puff on a cigarette. Lying on the tarmac and still strapped in his seat, he would reach for his top pocket, pull out his cigarette packet and ingest the most sublime lungful of nicotine known to man.

The recommendations of the hardened smoker are nothing if not inventive. His cigarettes are a medicine for every ailment, an accessory without which no experience is complete. They function as a regulator of anxiety, a stimulus to productivity and an insurance policy against boredom in all of its manifestations. They represent a pure burst of concentrated pleasure, impossible to replace and (whisper it) cheap at the price. The experienced puffer finds that everything about his addiction takes on magical qualities: the ceremony of lighting up, the accoutrements of his habit, the odour of burning tar. For the determined smoker, good food is the opportunity for an after-dinner smoke and good conversation is mood-music that never drowns out his need for a puff - even passionate sex is only the means to an end: the fumble for a post-coital cigarette.

Cigarettes have long served as a symbol of exchange and a fluid for mediating social interaction. When I worked as a manager of a homeless persons' hostel for Southwark Council in south London in the early 1990s, I found myself buying an extra packet every morning: dishing out cigarettes was simply the easiest way to win the respect of the residents. George Orwell, during the lean years that inspired him to write Down and Out in Paris and London, recalled that he would go to parties with only one cigarette in his pack, find a smoker and offer it to them. His recipients, invited to peer into an almost empty pack, would inevitably refuse to take his last cigarette and offer out one of their own instead. Thus, according to Orwell, could he puff his way through the party and still have a cigarette left for bedtime. Cigarettes are the only currency available to the prison inmate, the final pleasure accorded to the condemned man. Where governments have called upon the support of their citizenry in time of crisis or war, smoking has turned up in propaganda as a badge of courage under adversity and cigarettes as a morale-boosting ingredient in the rations of soldiers. To smoke has ever been considered patriotic: in 1920, at the end of a bitter world war, American puritans who advocated the prohibition of tobacco were indicted on the charge of treason.

Cigarettes – and the myriad rituals and gestures that accompany smoking – have been an important vehicle for the transmission of meaning and characterisation in films. The on-screen affair between Bogart and Lauren Bacall in To Have or Have Not developed with the cigarette as a romantic prop and a sexual fetish. In Tony Harrison's modern interpretation of the Prometheus legend, the heat and light that the smoker conjures into being serves as a token of the human impulse to invention and ingenuity. Or smoking can simply be a tribute to the joy of being alive. Asked by a Newsweek reporter what was the most important thing in his life, the existential smoker Jean-Paul Sartre grumbled: "I don't know. Everything. Living. Smoking."

Somewhere in the past 20 years our love affair with the smoker has turned sour. It will finally end in acrimonious divorce on 1 July 2007, when smoking will be banned in almost any of England's public places. Remember the busybody who coughed theatrically when you lit up? Most of us took no notice. But now he's back, he's brought all his friends and together they want to save us from ourselves. After 1 July 2007, our pubs and clubs will be full of these people, celebrating their brilliant progressive victory in saving us from ourselves. If we are to fight back, we need to know something about what freedom is, because my preference for a cigarette forms part of a class of desires that, when taken together, play an important and highly contested role in our understanding of freedom.

In an essay published 20 years ago, the Hegelian philosopher Charles Taylor took issue with a central foundation of postwar liberal political theory: the idea that freedom should consist of no more than the absence of external constraints on individual desire – so-called "negative freedom", in the (shamelessly plagiarized) terminology of Sir Isaiah Berlin. Taylor's critique of that idea was disarmingly simple. Once the liberal acknowledges that each of us spends our time bound up in a struggle between contradictory desires, and that some of those desires are experienced as qualitatively more noble than others, there emerges the possibility that the uses to which we put our freedom might be self-defeating or plain wrong-headed. Any idea of freedom founded on the maximization of our brute or immediate desires is, as a consequence, found to be one-sided and impoverished.

There is an important truth in Taylor's argument. Smoking – whatever its merits – is a filthy habit and most of us want to give up. I take pleasure in my addiction to nicotine while, at the same time I aspire to a healthier, smoke-free lifestyle. A philosophy that only registered my immediate desire for a cigarette would look insipid, since few of us are such slaves to desire that we can be said to be unaware of the consequences of our own actions. Standing behind the allure of my freedom to smoke is a conscious and responsible human being who weighs the value of alternative courses of action in accordance with a wholly personal set of circumstances and inclinations.

Charles Taylor was right that my freedom to smoke is simple-minded and easy to scoff at, but there is no reason why we should let the anti-smoking zealots have the last philosophical laugh. When Taylor's truth about the narrowness of my freedom to smoke is employed to justify a government campaign to second-guess my desires and persuade me of the need for more responsible consumer choices, it becomes a perversion of itself – it relieves individuals of responsibility for their actions and makes responsibility for those actions the stuff of good government. All the same, if we are to defend smoking, we need to defer to Charles Taylor. In order to defend my freedom to smoke, we need to admit the shallowness and the emptiness of my freedom to smoke compared with other, more substantial freedoms.

Sometimes, when you want to fight for freedom, you have to hold up the banner and join battle against freedom. That is the only way in which the smoker, banished to the furtive margins of the city like a gay man in the 1950s, is going to become an emblem of something more lasting than his packet of fags.

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