The Death of Cool

The settlement between the tobacco companies and the 40 state attorneys general has been widely noted as a landmark in public health and consumer safety. And it is. Perhaps most interesting about the deal was that it targeted images—the Camel, the Cowboy, those swim-suited Newport smokers—as key elements of the tobacco threat.

As a former smoker, and practicing cultural critic, I can tell you that the image war matters. I can also tell you that banning images from actual cigarette advertising is only the first shot in the battle.

Pardon an autobiographical anecdote, please. Ten years ago this December, my wife, Polly, and I saw Penn and Teller do their stage show on Broadway. Today Penn and Teller have settled into an honorable, mid-level, anti-magic career. But back then they were on fire. They were a revelation. They were the world’s first and only punk rock magic act.

These two entertainers amazed us with feats of illusion, and then amazed us even more by revealing how some of the tricks were done, in blatant defiance of the "magician’s code." They deconstructed the role of the magician, and their own role as celebrity performers. After the show they stood on the sidewalk outside the theater, in the freezing cold, and shook hands with the audience.

It was all about the old rock-and-roll ideal of breaking down the barriers between audience and performer—at least that’s what Penn said in a painfully earnest sermonette near the end of the evening. In the course of that rap, he also proselytized for his "straight-edge" philosophy: He claimed never to have been drunk or stoned, and insisted, persuasively, that alcohol and drugs only made you stupid and forgetful.

"However," the chain-smoking Penn added, "smoking cigarettes may kill you, but it makes you look so cool that it’s worth it."

"Amen," I had to murmur. "That’s why we do it."

Back then I was still a practicing nicotine addict. I knew everything the doctors and scientists said about smoking. I’d known it for years. The packs already had health warnings when I started. And I knew that Penn was right, it was cool.

It also made you feel great for a few minutes. Ten years ago the research hadn’t come out about the power of nicotine addiction or about exactly how nicotine works in the brain to induce that sensation of pervasive well-being. I suppose the tobacco companies were still sitting on it. When it did come out, I was a recovering smoker and could only say, nostalgically, "Yes, it’s exactly like that."

BUT MOSTLY IT was cool. Smoking was Bogart and Bacall, Sartre and Beauvoir, Charlie Parker, all the Beats, and Robert Mitchum, escaped from the chain gang and still sneering at the law. In this century all the images of rebellion came shrouded in tobacco smoke, even the religious ones. Martin Luther King and Dorothy Day both smoked in private, don’t you know?

Finally the emerging evidence about second-hand smoke got to me. I knew that I could never have children and smoke around them. So, as the time for reproduction drew near, I finally put them down, one day at a time. It took preparation for me to do that, and a certain period of mourning.

I had to say goodbye to that sullen, cool, and calm character I’d never really been, and get used to my nervous, emotionally erratic, and unmedicated real self. And I had to let go of those pictures of what it meant to be cool and unconventional. Like the picture of Robert Johnson, with his guitar in hand, his eyes peering into the spirit world, and a long white cancer stick in the corner of his mouth.

When the postal department put that picture of Johnson on a postage stamp a few years ago, his cigarette was airbrushed out. I have mixed feelings about that falsification. It’s false, for one thing.

But it is time, at last, for some cultural reconstruction in America. If we can’t airbrush our cultural history, we can at least point out its folly, at every turn, loudly, until everyone is terminally bored with the whole subject of cigarettes.

When I saw Penn and Teller 10 years ago, it was a Sunday night at the tail end of a holiday weekend in New York. Our car was outside packed for the return trip to Washington, D.C. A little later we stopped at a service area on the New Jersey Turnpike. I opened the trunk to retrieve something from our suitcase and discovered that the car had been robbed while we were in the theater. All the cool stuff we’d packed for a Manhattan weekend, and all the other cool stuff we’d bought there, was gone for good.

DANNY DUNCAN COLLUM, a Sojourners contributing editor, teaches creative writing at Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore.

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