Magazine article The American Prospect

Among the Bear-Baiters

Magazine article The American Prospect

Among the Bear-Baiters

Article excerpt

I'M WRITING THIS WHILE ENJOYING ONE OF THE most satisfying moments of my day, one of the most satisfying moments known to humanity. It's morning. I prefer to take a sip, even two, from my favorite old oversized coffee cup, with a glazed blue-checker band, before firing up. My lighter has been acting up lately, but the pack of Winstons is nearly full--and, hooray; the flame doesn't sputter as it did last night. The deep pull, after hours of sleeping abstinence, is ambrosial. The large box of Nicorette, planted on the desk corner at New Year's, doesn't have a chance, not today.

It used to be said that tobacco smoking was a habit. These days, the plainer word is addiction. But is smoking also a hobby? Most addictions start out as hobbies. And don't people refer loosely to their hobbies as addictions? Like: The guy's a real computer-game addict or she's hooked on shopping. There once was a time when we smokers freely indulged ourselves anywhere we pleased. But then, on or around July 1987, human nature changed. The hobbydom of tobacco died, or to be more exact, was banned, at least in respectable company. If it can be likened to a sport, smoking in America went from being baseball, the national pastime, to become something like bear-baiting or cock-fighting--a quaint, vicious, shameful activity practiced secretly by knots of marginals, their sanity highly questionable.

Yes, talking up the good old days of smoking is golden-age mythologizing. Things were never that wonderful. Tobacco, a nasty weed to harvest, lay behind the worst mass exploitation implanted in the American colonies, of white indentured servants as well as African slaves, spurred by indifference among royal profiteers in the mother country. In 1691, a group of Virginians dispatched one Dr. James Blair to London to raise funds for a new college, which would train men for the ministry. Blair met with some success until he called upon the royal treasury commissioner, Sir Edward Seymour, who appears to have been the R.J. Reynolds of his day. The supplicant Blair said that the good people of Virginia, just like those of England, had souls to save. "Souls!" Seymour shot back. "Damn your souls. Grow tobacco." Blair eventually raised his endowment (and established the College of William and Mary), but the souls of Virginians remained wrapped in tobacco leaves for centuries to come. …

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