The Nation's Pulse

Smoking Room

Christopher Hitchens defends human dignity in Washington, D.C.

By 6.23.05

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Recently dining at a Dupont Circle establishment, Christopher Hitchens noticed there weren't ashtrays at the bar. When he asked for a smoking area, he learned the restaurant is a "non-smoking facility." Hitchens has seen the cold, inhospitable future of dining in smoke-free D.C. bars and restaurants and he won't accept it. "I don't go to dinner at facilities," he says.

Hitchens, the accomplished British writer, told the D.C. Council last week that its proposed smoking ban is "un-American." The Washington Post reported this characterization without explanation. Yet one of Washington's most colorful and prolific journalists, who is applying for American citizenship, troubled himself with the tedium of a D.C. Council hearing to object to a smoking ban in the capital city's bars and restaurants. What would Hitchens find un-American about such a ban? Its denial of tobacco's role in our nation's founding and general ignorance of history? Its destruction of the third place? Its affront to liberty?

The ban is un-American for all these reasons, Hitchens explained in an interview with TAS Tuesday. Settings such as the Apollo Room in Williamsburg's Raleigh Tavern were crucial to civilized life and the plotting of the American Revolution, Hitchens says. "The availability of intoxicating liquors and various forms of tobacco is in some way essential here. The existence of the bohemian has always been important to the righted life. You went there for an unrestricted atmosphere."

Smoking bans would have stilted the development of some of America's cultural treasures as well, he argues. "If you want to go hear jazz in New Orleans there will be no smoke in the blues room. Without smoking and drinking there would be no ----ing jazz."

Yet smoking's historical role isn't the lynchpin of Hitchen's opposition to the bans. He grants claims that second-hand smoke is hazardous to others' health, even though "the academiology of it as a problem isn't all that stellar." Airplanes and railcars aren't polite places for smoking either -- people who don't like smoke "shouldn't have to breathe my air," he says.

Even if the science were impeccable, smoking bans undermine the personal liberty of both patron and proprietor. "The attempt to have a one size fits all program for all drinking and eating establishments is un-American in the way that someone who owns a bar cannot hang out a shingle saying, 'This is Murphy's Pub. If you don't like smoke, stay out,'" he says. "It's saying we know better than you. It's not up to you or your customers."

Proponents say the ban is necessary to protect workers. Hitchens isn't buying that argument: "Nobody can be compelled to take a job in a restaurant that allows smoking. I'm not an uncritical fan of market forces, but I'm sure they're good enough to sort this out without any help. The idea that there's a worker whose only skill is being a barman or a waiter who can only find a job in a place where he has to inhale others' smoke... I don't believe in the existence of this person. And if he does exist, he shouldn't be able to change my behavior."

At the council meeting, Hitchens pressed Jim Graham, a proponent of the ban and 1st Ward Councilman, to produce such a person. Graham declined. Such a person's existence is "just as likely that a devout Christian would come and complain that he could only find a job in a strip joint," he told the council. Noting that strip clubs are exempted from the smoking ban, Hitchens said to TAS, "I don't know why these blue noses and puritans are trying to drive me into a life of debauchery."

In reducing bars and restaurants to mere workplaces, "a very paltry definition of a place of reflection and entertainment," Hitchens argues that the D.C. Council rejects the most basic tenets of hospitality. He asked the council, "Is it not beyond the wit of this great city, this great country, this great culture, to find a place where people like myself can meet people to whom hospitality means, 'This is my house but when you're here this is your house and you can do as you please'? And that's why we call it a hospitality industry in the first place."

Hitchens is only asking for separation between smokers and non-smokers. Since the council won't accept even the most accommodating compromise and allow some highly regulated smoking establishments, it's "using taxpayers' money to try and change our behavior." The ban proponents' position is "not logical or moral in its force....It wouldn't pass muster in a sophomoric class on formal logic."

This former man of the left is a bit puzzled to find himself opposing left-wing prohibitionists. Reasoning by the standard of "diversity," "which I think you could be sure would be a celebrated word on the D.C. Council," the smoking ban ought not to pass.

Though conservatives have historically favored some prohibitions, Hitchens concedes that "the current version of prohibitionism is a left one. It's phrased in what you'd have to describe as a liberal voice, but it has a fundamentally illiberal conclusion. And it believes everywhere should be a freakin' cheerful Disneyland. I don't want to live in a freakin' cheerful Disneyland. I want to live in a world with fearful anxiety and with all the things to combat it."

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About the Author

David Holman is a reporter for The American Spectator.