More About Cigarettes

I got dinner with my sisters last night. Kate and I both have birthdays around Christmas so one dinner covers a lot of celebrations. On the way back to the train, Becca told my wife about the time that we were in the car, parked in the driveway when a radio host asked what was the meaning of Christmas. Before anyone could say anything I clasped my hands together and yelled “PRESENTS!” We all had to sit in the car while Dad delivered a lecture on why I should never ever say that.

Another thing I did last night: before we left for dinner, I sent a column into the local Orange County paper in which I said that “Christmas is about the gifts.” It’s a funny coincidence but it’s also a bit more complicated. I started writing about a passage from a Paul Auster essay or letter about interactions in the city with the homeless and destitute:

“Stock up on cigarettes as well. Common wisdom says that cigarettes are bad for your health, but what common wisdom neglects to say is that they also give great comfort to the people who smoke them.”

That idea bounces around in my head and the more it lingers, the more radical it seems, but on a list of things I shouldn’t have said in that column, “Christmas is about the gifts” probably falls below both “stock up on cigarettes” and the implied politics of Auster’s statement. Auster doesn’t argue for tolerance; he argues for indulgence and for comfort. That’s almost a perfect inverse of the way we frame almost anything of importance.

I was sitting on a D-train under Queens Boulevard when I read Tony Judt’s argument in Ill Fares the Land that modern conservatism was truly radical; that only in the U.K. and United States and only since the conservative revolution of Reagan and Thatcher have important arguments been framed only in bare economic terms. A certain amount of collective moral compassion was always present in policy-making even in those two countries until movement conservatism took power. The radicalism of the idea is not really up for debate. Speaking to the scope of her project, Margaret Thatcher said to the Sunday Times that “Economics are the method; the object is to change the heart and soul.” She, Reagan, and their ilk were successful. When we see children without food, our first question is usually “why aren’t their parents working?” rather than “why does the wealthiest nation in the world let them starve?” It’s a comfort (though a small one) to believe that such wasn’t always the state of our souls. This particular frame is so thoroughly stitched through our fabric that I do a full double take when someone looks in from the other side.

In her book on poverty and universal basic income, journalist Annie Lowrey wrote that eradication of poverty would “mean seeing [the poor] as deserving for no other reason than their poverty.” She continues to disagree with Judt, stating that such compassion “is not and has never been part of this country’s social contract.” She is American, born at the height of the Reagan revolution. Judt is British, born during the first years of the massive expansion of Britain’s post-war social safety net. Their perspectives are bound to differ, but the fact remains: we may or may not have seen the poor as deserving of help simply because of their poverty in the past but we definitely don’t now.

I’ll leave the connection between Auster’s cigarettes and my thoughts on Christmas gifts to your imagination until the column comes out (if it does). But Auster prods Lowrey’s notion, one that is on the far left of Democratic Party politics even now, further still. Lowrey argues that poor people deserve not to suffer because people deserve not to suffer. Auster argues that people deserve comfort, pleasure, and harmless indulgences, simply because they’re people.