COLUMN

The dangerous New Puritans

Allan Fotheringham April 10 1989
COLUMN

The dangerous New Puritans

Allan Fotheringham April 10 1989

The dangerous New Puritans

COLUMN

ALLAN FOTHERINGHAM

There was this pitiful scene the other morning. It was the chilly end of March, and the man in a thin sports jacket shivered as he stood in the parking lot outside the large Toronto office building on Bay Street. Inside, there was a spacious mall and an atrium that reached up seven stories. But a new sign signified it was now that most pristine of areas, a smoke-free zone, and the unhappy-looking man—driven from his office by the regulations and now from the mall—had to stand in the cold to indulge in his disgraceful act: a midmoming fag.

Somebody really should do something about this endangered species who have become the victims of today’s bullies. Today’s bullies are the New Puritans, vigorous crusaders who would save everyone with their righteousness. They have found a cowering group to whip and they are doing it with a tight smile of glee. It is not pleasant to watch. Someone must come to the defence of the children of nicotine.

Your blushing agent does not partake in the filthy habit, never has, never will. This is not the ranting of a convert (the worst kind), not the pious declamations of someone who has given up the weed. It is merely a declaration from a well-known champion of the downtrodden, the picked-upon wretches of society, the dregs of humanity. In such company has been placed the unhappy chap in the parking lot.

Go in any restaurant and, before waiter Ralph gives you a 15-minute recitation of the specials, you are asked if you require a smoking or nonsmoking table. This is always great when you have no idea of the habits of the stranger you have arranged to meet. The planes are mostly smoke-free. Hotels now ask if you’d like a nonsmoking floor. (What do you do when an uncle drops by for a visit with a son who happens to have a main squeeze on his arm who smokes? Ask her to go out in the parking lot?) Toronto city council, in an act that is draconian, has just banned both drivers and passengers from smoking in taxis. Orwell lives.

Everyone goes to hell by sins of individual choice, and if smokers want to kill themselves, it doesn’t worry me. What does worry is the

unseemly joy of the New Puritans who have now been given a legalized whip and are utilizing it with glee. When Carry Nation took her axe and started chopping up saloons, her enjoyment was not so much in letting the cheap booze run into the gutters as terrorizing the guys who had their snouts in the beaker. There was a religiosity to it, a superiority, now enjoyed by the aerobic crowd who prance down the sidewalk in their skintight jogging spandex, glaring grimly at cars that refuse to give them the right-of-way.

We have long since abandoned the offer (years ago proffered on this here page) of $1,000 to the first witness who could remember ever seeing a smiling jogger. But we retain our puzzlement why they can’t go about their joyless reclamation of their bodies in more private surroundings. It is the firm belief here that if there were a full Olympic-sized track available every other block in our cities, the

joggers would still be dripping their sweat on you at every red light because of their need to punish you for going out to a disgusting lunch that might include 43 things that are either banned, polluted, blighted or injected with cyanide.

The New Puritans, blissful in their certainty because they know their hearts are pure, have found someone to punish—just as Carry Nation and the prim-faced pillars of the church meted out their form of justice to the boys at the bar. For New Puritans, their temple is the body—purified in the gym, preened on the sidewalk at lunch hour, cleansed of everything but organically raised broccoli. They have become the new bores, if you must know it.

I feel sorry for any persecuted minority. At one newspaper I know, the designated smoking room at the back—rather like a ward where you consign lepers—has spawned at least two romances between addicts who have commiserated (and obviously done other things) about their fate. It is rather like what springs up among people in a lifeboat after two weeks at sea.

The point is that we’ve got these pitiful addicts on the run. Though I’ve yet to ever see one empty his own ashtray (the visual blight as bad as the ingested one), we’ve taught them a few manners—not in the elevator thank you, not in my face when I’m eating, only between two consenting adults in bed. But do we have to kick them when they’re down? They ought to be pitied, not hung by the thumbs. Enough. They deserve only so much.

This advice won’t do much good, we realize, cognizant of the perversity of the human animal. There is the essential need to feel superior, to exult in being in on the new fad, the wave of the moment, the secret to one-upmanship. The wave is currently controlled by the aerobic icon, Jane Fonda, the god, Arnold Schwarzenegger—the Moses who will lead the flock into the land of pecs and deltoids.

I just don’t like their smugness. I don’t like their grim superiority, grinding their fitness into the faces of the poor wretch sucking on his smoke in the parking lot, shame written on his face, a man shucked from the Right Place in society—in his office, in his building—because the Right People want to punish him. I had the distinct impression of the stocks in Puritan times, his head and his hands locked in the wooden device.

In truth, that’s where the designer-jogger crowd has got him. There’s just one problem. I don’t like the cruel look of pleasure I see on their faces as they smile on him, freezing, as he sneaks a puff.