I’ve previously tiraded about paternalism in my beloved Chicago. I won’t beat that dead horse, but I just can’t ignore the latest liberty restriction imposed by our esteemed aldermaniacs. The members of the aldermen’s Buildings Committee recently voted to extend the city’s smoking ban to performers in theatrical productions.
What a freakin’ embarrassment.
The aldermen remind me of the administrators of my Baptist high school, who routinely censored student theatrical productions. Lest we offend our more sensitive brethren (i.e., those who might give money to the school), we were required to refer to the elderberry wine in Arsenic and Old Lace as sassafras tea. The big dance in Meet Me in St. Louis became a banquet. I’m not kidding. Good Baptists don’t drink or dance.
Not surprisingly, the censored productions lost a bit of their zip and we performers looked like idiots. But there was an even more negative result. A large proportion of my classmates, long forced to adhere to a ridiculously stringent code of conduct, eventually turned into wild heathens. The continual top-down control wore on them until they could take it no more and they rebelled, throwing out the baby of Christian belief itself with the bathwater of one particular brand of Baptist fundamentalism. It’s tragic, but it’s an inevitable result of overly stringent conduct restrictions.
This is one of the reasons I oppose smoking bans: they make smoking more attractive to the most impressionable folks out there, rebellion-prone youngsters. I also oppose them because they remedy no genuine technological externality. People who choose to go to an establishment that permits smoking have decided to accept the risks, inconveniences, and benefits (yes, for some folks there are some) of a smoking-permitted zone. The owner of the property at issue has every incentive to maximize the attractiveness of her venue by selecting the optimal smoking policy.
When it comes to censoring smoking in theatrical productions, these arguments are even stronger. A ban on portrayals of smoking was the end of the slippery slope in the film Thank You for Smoking, in which an anti-Tobacco senator tried to order Hollywood to doctor old movie star portraits so that the actorsâ€™ cigarettes were replaced with innocuous items like candy canes and chopsticks. The notion that the government would try to censor art (and history) as part of its anti-smoking crusade seemed ridiculous enough to evoke a few laughs. Now it’s for real, and it’s bound to create more smoking rebels.
With respect to externalities, any theatre patron who is offended by onstage smoking — either because of the “risk” presented (by the way, there’s not one) or the message conveyed — can ask in advance whether the production involves smoking and can spend his entertainment dollars elsewhere if he’s so inclined. People routinely decline to see plays that involve offensive elements. (Should the Board of Aldermen protect the easily offended from The Vagina Monologues?)
Theatre critic Terry Teachout had it right in this weekend’s WSJ:
To perform “[A] Streetcar [Named Desire]” without cigarettes, or “Twelve Angry Men” without a smoke-filled jury room, is to insult the intelligence of audiences who come to see these well-known plays expecting to see them performed as written. … Such a ban isn’t unconstitutional — but it’s stupid, which is even worse. It makes Chicago look like a backwoods burg full of philistine pols with nothing better to do than mind other people’s business. … [S]ince when did Carl Sandburg’s City of the Big Shoulders turn into Nannytown, U.S.A.? As for those Chicagoans who don’t care to have their nostrils brutalized by the smell of a lone cigarette burning halfway across a crowded theater, they have an inalienable right of their own — the right to head for the nearest exit. I urge them to exercise it and leave the actors to go about their stage business undisturbed.