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Smoking Like a Man

My recent article on William F. Buckley generated more controversy than I anticipated—including one disapproving comment from the former publisher of National Review. Well, very good! Journalism isn’t a lucrative profession, and I don’t think I’m compromising any trade secrets by saying so. A writer must be satisfied in knowing that his work is read and weighed by his readers. This one, at least, seems to have been.

A smaller controversy focused on my calling Buckley’s own 2007 column on smoking “manly.” One commenter wrote that “it just doesn’t really seem masculine or feminine in any identifiable way. Is it just that you agree with it?” Quite the opposite, in fact. It has nothing to do with my agreeing or not, but rather Buckley’s disagreeing with himself.

The opposite of “manly” isn’t “womanly,” we know, because Man and Woman are complimentary, not antithetical. A better antonym would be “neuter”: de-sexed, genderless, disembodied. This is what Russell Kirk meant when he called John Stuart Mill a “defecated intellect”: he’d purged himself of his humanity in order to become a creature of pure, objective reason. One who hates the body and delights in the mind we Christians call Gnostic.

This is a charge commonly brought against libertarians by conservatives and progressives alike. Their ideology seems cold and unfeeling: indeed, inhuman. But the solution is not the progressive’s humanism, which reduces the humane (that is, human-ness) to yet more neutered sentiments that don’t correspond to our nature. The humanist may be kind, but Man is magnanimous and Woman is sweet. The humanist is empathetic; Man is protective and Woman nurturing.

The libertarian is a defecated universalist; the progressive is a sensual universalist. We conservatives, however, are Christian particularists. We have no desire for a mind that transcends the body; neither do we seek for a body that transcends the mind. I’m a 25-year-old Catholic Bostonian of WASP and Irish extraction; it’s not for me to tell a 60-year-old medicine woman on the Great Steppe how to run her yurt.

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Buckley, a self-professed libertarian, therefore had to acknowledge his own hypocrisy when he concluded that the pleasures of tobacco didn’t justify its dangers:

Stick me in a confessional and ask the question: Sir, if you had the authority, would you forbid smoking in America? You’d get a solemn and contrite, Yes. Solemn because I would be violating my secular commitment to the free marketplace. Contrite, because my relative indifference to tobacco poison for so many years puts me in something of the position of the Zyklon B defendants after World War II.

These aren’t the words of a defecated intellect. They’re the words of an old-timer whose classmates used to take the attitude that, without cigarettes, “We’ll just die from something else.” They’re the words of a husband who watched his wife succumb to “60 years of nonstop smoking.” They’re the words of a father whose son (not coincidentally) wrote a bestselling novel lambasting the tobacco industry, which was later turned into a major motion picture. They’re the words of one who had given himself emphysema by inhaling cigars, which killed him three months after he published that column.

Here, Buckley is writing, not as libertarian, but as a man. He wants to protect those who are young and reckless (as he once was) from their own indiscretions. He acknowledges his sins, but he doesn’t bewail them: he simply tries to put the situation right. Most importantly, he’s determined not to allow his ideology to override these instincts—which, after all, God puts in our head for a reason.

I’m reminded of my future father-in-law asking me to quit smoking before I married his daughter. An occasional but enthusiastic pipe smoker himself, he’d nevertheless watched too many relatives die from their habits. He asked with an embarrassed smile, clearly more accustomed to defending the moderate use of the tobacco than condemning addiction.

If the aforementioned commenter is still curious, that’s my position, too. I don’t agree with Buckley that tobacco should be banned. Cigarettes, perhaps, since they’re only enjoyable to the addict. If cigarette smokers appreciated the fragrance and body of their tobacco, they’d smoke Luckies—not these filtered monstrosities that taste like stale bread and warm plastic. We can have no kinder words than Kurt Vonnegut’s, who called cigarettes “a classy way to commit suicide.” But cigars? No. Pipes? Never.

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Myself, I’m ambidextrous. Seven years of smoking Lucky Strikes have allowed me to inhale pipes just as easily. Mostly, though, it was the Luckies.

I’m too young to have really felt the ill health effects, but I felt them enough to be grateful for an excuse to quit. Of course it never made my lungs work better. It deadens the ability to smell and taste, which robs the seasons of their crispness and makes a kiss less sweet.

That cigarettes are relaxing is patently a myth: they’re stimulants, not depressants. The smoker after a puff is more anxious than the non-smoker after a lungful of fresh air. The smoker in need of a fix, meanwhile, is a catastrophe. They also give one a false sense of accomplishment: you feel as though you’ve “done something” and are less inclined to work. In fact, what you’ve done is worse than nothing. The smoker achieves less in the course of an artificially shortened lifetime than he would otherwise.

Besides the hole they burned in my wallet, though, the pain I felt most acutely was this: my addiction to smoking ruined smoking itself. A serene pleasure became a gnawing vice. I sucked down the fumes just to get my fix, envying those like my father-in-law-to-be who saw the pipe as something to be savored slowly. To him, it was the perfect complement to a pint and conversation or a draught and a good book. Michael Foley was correct when he wrote that

the pipe corresponds to the rational part of the soul, which explains why we tend to picture wise figures smoking pipes: the Oxford don surrounded by his great books, or Sherlock Holmes, who, in Doyle’s original stories, actually smoked other sorts of tobacco as well, yet is almost always portrayed with a pipe. Unlike cigars and cigarettes, a pipe endures. Similarly, the questions of the philosopher far outlast the passing concerns of physical desires on the one hand and human ambitions on the other.

Smoking a pipe is a chance for the connoisseur to muse, contemplate, brood…in any event, to “get at” a part of themselves that’s usually drowned out in the day-to-day. For me, the junkie, it was part of the day-to-day. It wasn’t a break from routine: it was the smelliest, wheeziest, priciest, most time-consuming part of my routine.

The weakness of addiction is itself not only unmanly; it’s un-Christian. Our Lord went 40 days in the wilderness without food; I couldn’t go 40 minutes without a fix. Cigarettes, moreover, are appetitive. I’ve always found it harder to refuse a fourth drink or a second helping of dinner when I smoke.

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Consider the home-spun wisdom of Benjamin Franklin:

We hear of the conversion of water into wine at the marriage in Cana, as of a miracle. But this conversion is, through the goodness of God, made every day before our eyes. Behold the rain which descends from heaven upon our vineyards, and which incorporates itself with the grapes to be changed into wine; a constant proof that God loves us and loves to see us happy!

My palate isn’t refined, by any means, but I know enough about wine for Franklin’s argument to be immediately convincing—that is, I’ve tasted it. Franklin’s line does not, however, suggest that God tolerates drunkenness. “Oenophile” isn’t always just a euphemism for “wino.”

The same may be said of tobacco. All of Creation conspires to bring that rich crop from the earth, and we shouldn’t feel guilty for availing ourselves of it. It’s good to be cognizant of the dangers of excessive use, but don’t let that frighten you from enjoying this exquisite pleasure on occasion. Major feast days, birthdays, anniversaries, and once-in-a-lifetime celebrations like ordinations or engagements are a good rule of thumb.

And that, I hope, is a proper and masculine attitude towards smoking.

Michael Warren Davis is associate editor of the Catholic Herald. Find him at www.michaelwarrendavis.com.

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