Magazine article Newsweek International

Perspectives

Magazine article Newsweek International

Perspectives

Article excerpt

A warning notice?" a friend asked the other day, not long after New York City announced its smoking ban. We were walking past the Joseph Papp Public Theater when she spotted the sign near the ticket window, cautioning playgoers that the performance they were about to see involved (gasp!) explicit live cigarette-smoking onstage.

I don't know how many fans of the theater were put off by the prospect of secondhand smoke wafting down from the boards. But since most New Yorkers couldn't afford seats close enough to be affected (the price of Broadway tickets these days is a scandal in itself), we realized the notice served another purpose altogether. The theater was simply making sure it was legally protected in case some tourist in the front row took offense--and sued.

Farfetched? A couple of weeks later an indignant letter writer to The New York Times asked why the actors actually needed to smoke. If the scene called for smoking, she fulminated, couldn't they just hold unlit cigarettes and pretend? Fair enough, I suppose. After all, when a script calls for a fatality, no one actually obliges an actor to die. Yet something worries me here. The issue isn't just to smoke or not to smoke. It's the whiff of the puritanical, or worse. Run-amok public morality, coupled with the fear of litigation, is turning America into a nanny state. And this nanny is Nurse Ratchet.

In the land where Thomas Jefferson proclaimed the best government to be one that governs the least, we now see the most persnickety intrusions into daily life. You can't smoke in public places, including bars and restaurants. You can't use a cell phone in your car, though that's about the most useful place in the world to have one. ("Hell-oo? How the heck do I get to your place? Your directions are hopeless!"). Laws of all sorts prohibit all kinds of behavior at the workplace, from casual touching to off-color jokes. …

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