Politics & Policy

A Lifestyle So Good, It’s Mandatory

Enjoying an e-cigarette at Digita Ciggz in San Rafael, Calif. (Justin Sullivan/Getty)
In California, it’s lifestyle liberalism versus nicotine vapors.

California has effectively decriminalized marijuana (possession of less than an ounce is a civil matter roughly equivalent to a speeding ticket — a rarely written speeding ticket), and the state has a medical (ahem) marijuana program that is, for the moment, largely unregulated. At the same time, the state is launching a progressive jihad against “vaping,” the use of so-called e-cigarettes that deliver nicotine in the form of vapor. The state public-health department says that this is justified by the presence of certain carcinogens — benzene, formaldehyde, nickel, and lead—in e-cigarette vapor. But by California’s own account, all of those chemicals are present in marijuana smoke, too, along with 29 other carcinogens.

If that seems inconsistent to you, you are thinking about it the wrong way: For all of its scientific pretensions and empirical posturing, progressivism is not about evidence, and at its heart it is not even about public policy at all: It is about aesthetics.

The goal of progressivism is not to make the world rational; it’s to make the world Portland.

Vaping is, from the point of view of your average organic-quinoa and hot-yoga enthusiast, a lowlife thing. It is not the same thing as smoking, but it looks too much like smoking for their tastes. Indeed, California cites the possibility of vaping’s “re-normalizing smoking behavior” as a principal cause of concern. Dr. Ron Chapman, director of the California Department of Public Health, says that vaping should be treated like “other important outbreaks or epidemics.”

But epidemics of what? Prole tastes?

Progressivism, especially in its well-heeled coastal expressions, is not a philosophy — it’s a lifestyle. Specifically, it is a brand of conspicuous consumption, which in a land of plenty such as ours as often as not takes the form of conspicuous non-consumption: no gluten, no bleached flour, no Budweiser, no Walmart, no SUVs, no Toby Keith, etc. The people who set the cultural tone in places such as Berkeley, Seattle, or Austin would no more be caught vaping than they would slurping down a Shamrock Shake at McDonald’s — and they conclude without thinking that, therefore, neither should anybody else. The wise man understands that there’s a reason that Baskin-Robbins has 31 flavors; the lifestyle progressive in Park Slope shudders in horror at the refined sugar in all of them, and seeks to have them restricted.

There is not much that I myself am inclined to ban, from Big Gulps to recreational drugs, and I do appreciate that the main problem with rocky-road ice cream is the same as the problem with cocaine: It is exactly as good as advertised. But progressives, who so frequently adhere to insane theories of parenting, have trouble saying “no” to their children. Which is unsurprising, if you think about it: If you won’t say no to your teenage daughter’s elective mastectomy, how are you going to say no to an ice-cream cone? If you want a brief encapsulation of the view from Park Slope, consider this parent’s complaint about the ice-cream vendors in the park: “I should not have to fight with my children every warm day on the playground just so someone can make a living!” Making a living — psah! If only those ice-cream-peddling nobodies had had the good sense to get an MBA — or to marry somebody with one.

They cannot say no to their own children, but they can say no to grown adults they’ve never met. It’s the only rational thing to do: Science says vaping is dangerous, and progressives are all about the science. Until they aren’t.

On the matter of consumers’ contribution to global warming, Arianna Huffington was celebrated for leading a moralistic crusade against SUVs, which are disproportionately favored by the sort of people who might vape, eat at Applebee’s, watch the wrong television shows, and vote the wrong way. In reality, the most carbon-intensive thing the typical well-heeled American does is take an international flight — but you will not see progressives leading campaigns against European vacations or exotic eco-tourism in Southeast Asia or South America. Why? Because they dislike SUVs for other reasons — representing as they do suburbia, affluence, and the implicit rejection of tiny hybrids — and emissions are simply a handy cudgel. International travel, on the other hand, is considered an ipso facto moral good, being an integral part of how one learns to sneer at American culture and American habits. International jet travel is, therefore, necessary, and necessarily good.

It’s too bad there’s no subway to Cambodia. Transportation is a deeply aesthetic concern for progressives, which is why you hear Trader Joe’s–shopping types demanding the construction of a commuter light-rail network in Houston, a city three and a half times the area of Andorra with a population density approximately that of Mars. In places such as Houston and Los Angeles, effective forms of mass transit are more likely to move on wheels than on tracks. But in the progressive mind, trains are virtuous and sophisticated, and the bus is for . . . others.

This habit extends throughout the culture. For example, there is precisely as much evidence for the theoretical basis of yoga (the flow of mystical energy through the nāḍi, which, strictly speaking, do not exist) and chiropractic (the manipulation of vitalistic “innate intelligence,” which also, strictly speaking, does not exist) as there is for the young-Earth creationist notion that Adam rode out of Eden on the back of a prancing brontosaurus. But those ideas receive radically different receptions. Creationism, or even open discussions of criticism of conventional evolutionary models (generally daft but culturally significant) that might conceivably lead to discussion of creationism, is considered by progressives to be so dangerous that it is formally repressed in many circumstances. But fashionable pseudoscience ranging from homeopathy to aromatherapy is — at the insistence of those same progressives — subsidized by the federal government and the states under lunatic provisions of the Affordable Care Act, which should probably be renamed the Theoretically Affordable Craptastic Insurance Policy and Pseudoscientific Mystical Horsepucky Non-Care Because We Say So Act.

Similarly, there is no meaningful evidence that organic foods are more nutritious or safer, but the lifestyle progressives who run the Boulder schools insist on them, along with yoga. What’s banned? Chocolate milk.

And vaping, of course, if the February 3 vote at the city council goes as expected. As with California, chemicals from marijuana smoke will be officially tolerable, while the same chemicals from nicotine vaporizers will be officially outlawed.

On the subject of second-hand exposures to carcinogens from smoking and vaporizing, a critical issue seems to be temperature. A number of studies have suggested that low-temperature vaporizing produces only a tiny fraction of the already tiny amount of the substances giving the progressives in California and Colorado the fantods. But the debate will not be high-temperature versus low-temperature vaping. Why? Because vaping looks like smoking.

There are many conservatives who prefer organic food, who do yoga, who like trains, and who would prefer living in Brooklyn to living in Plano. De gustibus and all that. The difference is that progressives, blazing with self-righteousness, believe themselves entitled to make their preferences a matter of law.

And that’s the Left in short: A lifestyle so good, it’s mandatory.

— Kevin D. Williamson is roving correspondent for National Review.


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