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Wednesday, June 7, 2017

On the CNC3 morning show last week, a guest on to observe world No-Tobacco Day caught my ear when he said the tobacco industry sells the only product that is guaranteed to kill or make sick the majority of its customers. From there, a pretty spectacular beating was put on the tobacco bobolee.

It’s not that this isn’t a valid concern, but what struck me was the attitude of zealotry, which pervades much local do-gooder activism directed at things like this: alcohol, soft-drinks, fast food, sugar. It’s not that the messages are false–smoking will kill you, and so will alcohol, cholesterol and sugar. It’s the delivery; suffused with a passionate intensity which seems to ill-fit the message and messengers.

Not a lot of attention is given to the fact that people choose these things, knowing the dangers. And when people exercise their freedom to disagree with their interlocutors, condescension often follows. They’re bad choices (the reasoning goes) made by uninformed people who need to be saved from themselves, by proselytising activists–a position expatiated at length in David McDermott Hughes’ book on Trinidad, Energy without Conscience.

But what if the problem isn’t with the people who make those choices? They know what they’re getting into, and go willingly. Alcohol will kill you? Sugar? Fat? Smokes? You know what else guarantees you’ll die? Being born.

Maybe the problem is (sometimes) the activists. Maybe it’s a replay of the conflict at the centre of modern life: the desire for escape versus a reflexive Puritanism which seeks to block all avenues of escape. If the Puritans were to have their way, we’d all be wide awake, sober, and alert at all times. I couldn’t imagine a more horrible existence. (Unless you count the possibility of two Carnivals a year.) But, more importantly, no one would be having anything remotely resembling, how to put it–fun?

Puritans fall into two types: those genuinely bewildered by the world as it is, ingenuously offended by its desire to let gay people marry, stoners get high, ravers rave, and Tinder subscribers hook up. Mainly because they secretly, unconsciously, wish they could do those things but can’t.

Then there are those who affect Puritanism in order to put the screws on others, as a form of extended sadomasochism. (Then there are the out and out scoundrels, the televangelists who always get caught fornicating and rolling in sybaritism at the expense of the suckers they hook with their prayer snares.)

But, especially here, even when it’s ingenuous and well-intentioned, the Puritan impulse is usually misdirected and ends up being gratuitously punitive–punishment for its own sake, or for the pleasure of the inflictors. No better example could be found than the breathalyser fiasco.

I’m not advocating a pass for drunk driving. But the breathalyser regime has become so punitive, that someone just over the limit of 35 mcg could end up in jail, or have to find $12,000 - $25,000 and a criminal record. It’s Trumpian in its absurdity.

The point would just as well be made with softer measures, community service, a fine literally a tenth of that proposed. But the politicians and police, two of the most incompetent, corrupt groups in Trinidad and Tobago, are of one mind with this. Catch one or two unlucky offenders and beat them like bobolees. While the thousands of drug dealers, murderers, pedophiles, corrupt businessmen, judicial officials and a variety of criminals roam freely.

In a society like ours, where so few things seem to work, the desire to overdo the one or two things that do work is a sign of pathology, not progress. In our case, it’s the cultural tendency among the powerful and ostensibly righteous to punish for its own sake, or for their pleasure.

From this can be isolated a fundamental axiom of Trinidadian culture: pleasure must be illicit. It’s a relic of plantation society, where the unfortunate were taught their lot was to be sufferers and toilers, and it was the lot of those above them to enjoy the fruits of their labour. Pleasure had to be stolen, hidden, and dirty. This conflated nicely with religious sentiment, which makes suffering a virtue, and pleasure something to be enjoyed only after death, in paradise, or Miami.

I know what you’re thinking: Carnival! Vulgarity! Drinking! Smoking! Sex! Eating pork! Usually all at the same time! But the bacchanalia isn’t really healthy if you look at it closely. There’s no inversion of the world as it is, but a re-emphasising of its fundamental relations. Most of the population just watches other people simulating sex, drinking in all-inclusives, and having the time of their lives behind velvet ropes, via Facebook. It’s a cynical simulacrum of pleasure, a ruse which robs the society of opportunity to invent its own happiness.

All the fantasists of utopia, from the authors of the religious texts to the secular utopians like Aldous Huxley (Brave New World, Island) and George Orwell (1984), have had to make allowances for pleasure–either providing it (soma) or substitutes for it (like Hate Week in 1984, and wars and stoning sinners in the religious texts).

But back in the present, rather than beating up about tobacco and body-slamming people for being a couple of microgrammes over the blood alcohol limit, maybe activists should redirect their attentions to places it’ll do some good. Like legalising marijuana–one fell swoop which will help the sick, ease the suffering of entire communities, and free the oppressed (many of whom are on remand). As for tobacco, alcohol and fast food, well, we get it from the movies much more effectively than local zealots.


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