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Public Policy’s Absent Aesthetics

What she said
“I smoke because I’m hoping for an early death,

And I need to cling to something…”

–the Smiths, “What She Said”

What do you notice about this description (by a writer I respect immensely) of the failure of nicotine patches to replace cigarette smoking?


Unfortunately, [Johann Hari] is on much shakier ground when it comes to critically examining science and suggesting solutions. For example, in a discussion of nicotine addiction, he argues that because the nicotine patch only helps people quit 17.7 percent of the time, this means that only that proportion of cigarette addiction is due to the action of the drug nicotine and the rest of the addictive behavior is simply determined by the person’s background and social environment. While those factors certainly matter, this completely ignores the role that dosage, scheduling of dose and route of administration have in addiction—none of which are unrelated to the way the chemical itself works.

(full article [1], in which this is a side note)

What leapt out to me was the absence of the aesthetic side of smoking vs. wearing the patch. I don’t just mean that smoking looks good, although it does: Smoke dissolves like perfect conversation. Smoke turns women into chapels.

What I mean is that all these aesthetic associations reinforce nicotine addiction. The sights and smells and sounds of smoking (tapping the cigarette against the pack; I knew one woman who made a little kiss sound every time she took a drag) intertwine in memory with the release, calm, or rush of nicotine. Of course alternatives that lack any aesthetic value aren’t real replacements.

This isn’t a brief for smoking. The classic book on this subject is Richard Klein’s Cigarettes Are Sublime [2], which he wrote in part as a (successful) pathway toward quitting. It’s his elegy for his habit. Klein’s book is countercultural—to some, even shocking—because it dares to admit aesthetic motives into a conversation that has been wholly colonized by health-and-safety language.

Mainstream discussion of public policy, or even (in secular contexts) personal moral behavior, proceeds as if health, safety, economic prosperity, and happiness are the only legitimate motives for action. More than that: We talk as if health, safety, economic prosperity, and happiness are the only possible motives for action. This is why we fail to understand the power of religion to motivate behavior. (See also: all the baffled concessions that AA may help people because it gives them a community. Yes, I’m sure that’s often true and usually important, but I suspect proponents of the 12 Steps are not lying when they say that unconditional surrender to a Higher Power has something to do with it.) This is why we try to justify moral claims on the basis of research data purporting to show that they make people richer or safer [3]. This is why we try to figure out what a father [4] is so we can build a replacement—and, on the other side of our family-structure arguments, why we unintentionally imply that there’s no such thing as good-enough parenting [5].

I don’t want to recapitulate Paul W. Kahn’s excellent Putting Liberalism in Its Place [6]—a liberal’s acknowledgment that the liberal categories of reason/discourse and desire/choice don’t exhaust the possibilities for human motives—so I will just say a few things.

First, understanding the aesthetics behind our misdeeds can actually help us replace them. A lot of the early work of sobriety for me involved accepting what I really got from drunkenness—the ecstasy, the cheap imitation of hope [7], the acrid autumnal smell and upper-piano-keys [8] sound of whiskey toppling over ice—and either finding a more sublime expression of these things in God, or kissing them goodbye.

Second, encouraging people to view their lives as a quest for material well-being is not only false to human experience; it’s banal and degrading. We were made for self-gift, not success, or even stability.

Third, we are aesthetic animals inescapably, so we smuggle in the aesthetic politics we disown. We do allow ourselves an aesthetic politics of smoking and other drug use [9], but it’s not a politics that fosters empathy for smokers or offers a greater sublimity than the one they’re (sometimes) seeking. It’s a politics of disgust and shame. We allow ourselves to be disgusted by smoking and smokers: Many of us are proud of our revulsion at the smell of smoke, or our disdain for the weakness of those who smoke. (Like most of our politics of personal behavior, this is a covert form of class war on the part of the rich and aspiring-to-be-rich.) Why do we allow ourselves the worst, most judgmental part of aesthetic politics, but view any talk of beauty as trivial and abhor any talk of finding meaning in suffering?

Once you name the willful exclusion of aesthetics from our conversations about policy and personal conduct you notice it everywhere: in our understanding of depression [10], for example. So this post is an admittedly sketchy attempt to name the thing, so we can recognize it whenever it raises its banal head.

Eve Tushnet is a TAC contributing editor, blogs at Patheos.com [11], and is the author of the recently-released book Gay and Catholic: Accepting My Sexuality, Finding Community, Living My Faith [12].

Follow @evetushnet [13]

7 Comments (Open | Close)

7 Comments To "Public Policy’s Absent Aesthetics"

#1 Comment By jtgw On March 2, 2015 @ 2:26 pm

This reminds me of an argument Chesterton made for Christianity, which was that Christianity doesn’t account for pain in the world as much as it accounts for pleasure. I didn’t entirely follow his reasoning, but it sounds interesting.

#2 Comment By Austin On March 2, 2015 @ 3:10 pm

So much in this one post! Thank you

#3 Comment By tz On March 2, 2015 @ 4:43 pm

My mother (who passed many years ago) was once upset when I bought ultralight cigarettes – she said they had no taste. They didn’t raise the nicotine levels although all the actions were there. You might also be able to do a vape/eCig that didn’t have anything addictive.

I think part of it is the ritual, but it is also that although it is in response to addiction, you are engaged with the act that causes pleasure – there is the pleasure itself, but also your behavior is being rewarded. The “patch” requires no effort after application, it just sits there and gives a low level of pleasure. Maybe if it had a button.

We wouldn’t have a pandemic of STDs if self-abuse sufficed and I suspect the roots of the problem are similar.

#4 Comment By seydlitz89 On March 2, 2015 @ 4:54 pm

Another great post Eve . . .

#5 Comment By WillW On March 2, 2015 @ 8:02 pm

A local DJ had it nailed. If you don’t smoke, how are the other kids supposed to know your’re cool? That really sums it up far more than any study can.

#6 Comment By Joan On March 5, 2015 @ 8:27 am

Talk about aesthetics usually uses the word “appeal”, as in “Joe Camel is a cartoon character. You’re going to tell me he’s not designed to appeal to kids?” It’s a more value-neutral term (more familiar to us from the legal system) than “beauty”, which implies approval. It also limits our awareness of aesthetics to the conscious, calculated efforts of advertisers. Inherent beauty…

… is, as the old saying goes, in the eye of the beholder. Opponents of gay rights often express straightforward visceral disgust at the sight of same-sex public displays of affection, while gay rights activists call the same sight “beautiful.” We can see the same viewpoint difference in controversies from wilderness protection to the right-to-farm laws. These also expose the social class factor in our perception of beauty, between the white collar types who think the “racket” of an engine spoils the beauty of a rural scene and the blue collar types who spend their working lives surrounded by machine noises and don’t have any problem with the sounds made by motor boats, ski mobiles and all-terrain vehicles.

We also make a mistake when we describe nicotine as purely a pleasure drug, attractive only for its “release, calm, or rush”. Many years ago, I watched a friend go through the whole cycle of quitting cigarettes, being nicotine-free for a few weeks, trying the patch, then going back to cigarettes. She complained that, when she was nicotine-free, her brain didn’t work as well ( [14]) and that the patch gave her “too much” nicotine all at once. Cigarettes provide precise moment-to-moment dosage control, so that’s what she opted for. If she were doing it now, I expect that she’d go for the vape and stick with it.

#7 Comment By Stephen W. Carson On March 6, 2015 @ 12:22 pm

You list these possible factors: health, safety, economic prosperity, happiness, religion, aesthetics.

Perhaps this fits under “happiness” but it feels like you’re missing the elephant in the room.

Emotional needs.

See for example: [15]

The emotional angle is especially potent for those of us who consider emotions to not be random (or vestigial socio-biological detritus), but important pointers placed in us by our Creator to our genuine spiritual needs.

Everyone has seen it and probably experienced it… All “rational” (health, etc.) considerations point away from the behaviour. But you do it anyway, because you are getting some kind of emotional payoff.

Dealing with genuine emotional/spiritual needs is, of course, not the domain of public policy at all. And the government only makes things worse when it tries to help in areas like these.