Saturday, December 4, 2010

A Conservative Vice

Conservative smoking a pipe.
     Virtue and vice have been important to the history of the American Republic.  Generally, conservatives are in favor of virtue and opposed to vice.  One very old fashioned vice, however, remains popular with a shrinking but devout number of conservatives (and, truth be told, liberals).  Smoking tobacco in a briar pipe used to be as unobtrusive as a man wearing a tie or a woman wearing a dress.  Now, it will get you thrown out of a restaurant.  In some places, pipe-smoking in public will get the otherwise law-abiding citizen arrested.  At least the tie and the dress are still allowed, though in many places they have grown rare.

     In many cities these days, acolytes of the humble tobacco pipe are restricted to smoking in their own homes.  Assuming, of course, that the avenging angels from Child Protective Services don’t catch you smoking around the children.  So if you have children and still want to smoke an occasional pipe of fine tobacco, you had better build a private smoking shed.  (Check local regulations first, though, to see if you need permission from anyone to build on your own land.)  Once you have found a place to smoke, you will want to know where to learn all about pipes and tobacco.  As it happens, there is a magazine devoted to just that celebrated topic.

    Pipes and tobaccos is a beautiful, glossy quarterly.  It is thinner and less frequent than of yore, for obvious reasons.  But as the pipe-smoking population declines, there is still time to explore the old world of hand-carved briars and Meerschaums, clay churchwardens, and even the Sherlock Holmes calabash.  The character Holmes was a thinking man, and the pipe is the thinking man’s choice among the options for enjoying tobacco.

     Cigarettes used to be so common that they meant nothing.  Any signaling came from the quality of the tobacco or the silver of the cigarette case.  Cigars have long connoted power.  Apart from the corncob of General Douglas MacArthur, pipes have generally been the props of intellectuals, whether on the Left or the Right.  Tolkien and Lewis were famous pipe smokers, both conservative, both religious. Bertrand Russell was also a pipe man, and he was neither conservative nor religious.  Even the Left-wing feminist science fiction writer Ursula Le Guin used to smoke a pipe.

     The most famous pipe-smoking conservative?  Santa Claus, of course.  What else would you call a self-employed reindeer rancher who is all about private charity, in place of government handouts, and who enforces a strict moral code of naughty and nice?

     Pipes are wonderful tools for encouraging civilized conversation.  You have to sit and fiddle with them.  You might be tempted to have a glass of scotch or bourbon alongside.  There is no rushing about with a pipe (Melville’s Mr. Starbuck was fictional).  At one time, it was a delight to light up a pipeful of Latakia or Virginia after an elegant meal.  Unless you live with a chef or can afford catering, those days are over.

     It is a little odd that the pipe is banned from the public square, when so much that is vulgar or lewd is not.  All right, some people do not like the smoke.  But plenty of other people do not like vulgarity, and their complaints get no hearing.  At least, when California finally does legalize marijuana, it may be possible to assure a zealous Los Angeles policeman that a particularly pungent Perique is really imported pot.

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