Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Thank You For Smoking Plain, Vanilla Liberty

One of the most unjustly neglected film releases of 2006 is now out on DVD. Thank You For Smoking, based on Christopher Buckley's novel of the same name, offers a wry look at lobbying and counter-lobbying in the tobacco industry. The devilishly clever protagonist, spin doctor Nick Naylor, fights for poor, disenfranchised corporations while combating the smoking opponents led by a sanctimonious Vermont senator. In addition to this difficult role, he tries to reconnect with son Joey, who lives with his divorced mother.

Early in the film Naylor appears at little Joey's classroom for a presentation on his career. He cheerfully proselytizes for his cash crop, this exchange in particular catching my notice:

"It's good to listen to your parents--Joey.
All I'm suggesting is that there will always be people trying to tell you what to do and what to think. There probably already are people doing that, am I right?"
"yeah," the class mumbles.
"I'm here to say that when someone tries to act like some sort of an expert, you can respond: 'Who says?'"
A little boy pipes up: "So cigarettes are good for you?"
"No, that's not--that's not what I'm getting at. My point is that you have to think for yourself. You have to challenge authority!
If your parents told you that chocolate was dangerous, would you just take their word for it?"
The students raise their voice: "No"
"Exactly! So perhaps instead of acting like sheep when it comes to cigarettes, you should find out for yourself!"

Some have taken the film as a defense of freedom. Later in the film, Naylor indeed hits the favorite phrases of lifestyle liberalism: he declares that the world is a dangerous place and inveighs against treating mature adults like children.

Yet his earlier classroom escapade recounted above undermines such a libertarian reading: if children are taught from an early age that they already have the competence for such decisions, that "who says?" really is an argument winner, it is difficult truthfully to claim that they have the foundation for mature decision-making which makes paternalistic government unnecessary. Uncritical anti-authoritarianism is being preached by a confidence man who is boosting the self-regard of students in hopes they will become pliable, reliable consumers. The children are being indoctrinated into incompetent skepticism, being too poorly-formed to note the contradiction in their instruction.

"So what happens when you're wrong?"
"Joey, I'm never wrong."
"But you can't always be right."
"Well if it's your job to be right then you're never wrong."
"But what if you *are* wrong?"
Okay, let's say that you're defending chocolate, and I'm defending vanilla. Now, if I were to say to you 'Vanilla is the best flavor of ice cream', you'd say:"
"No, chocloate is."
"Exactly, but you can't win that argument. So, I'll ask you: 'so you think chocolate is the end-all, be-all of ice cream, do you?'"
"It's the best ice cream, I wouldn't order any other."
"Oh, so it's all chocolate for you, isn't it?"
"Yes, chocolate is all I need."
"Well I need more than chocolate. And for that matter I need more than vanilla. I believe that we need freedom, and choice when it comes to our ice cream, and that, Joey Naylor, that is the definition of liberty."
"But that's not what we're talking about."
"Ah, but that's what I'm talking about."
"But... you didn't prove that vanilla was the best."
"I didn't have to, I proved that you're wrong, and if you're wrong, I'm right."
"But you still didn't convince me."
"I said I'm not after you, I'm after them."
Points to surrounding crowd

This reduction of liberty to a choice between ice cream flavors is a sad but honestly funny reflection on our general inability to debate the superiority or inferiority of certain specific choices.

It is an artful cop-out, this sly change of subject. For Naylor's chumps, ways of life are neither higher nor lower, just "different." So different are they that the only thing they have in common is immunity from not just governmental action, but even critical engagement. That the content of our character is related to the quality of our choices in life, that we must be trained well to be fit to choose well, is rarely suggested.

When I saw this movie in an artsy theater, the crowd--a boisterous audience, to be sure--remained oddly passive during this scene. I was the only one who laughed. The humor behind Naylor's pandering is perhaps too subtle for those nursed on the thinnest form of freedom, a liberty that is all style and no content. Though he ends his so-called argument with grandiose emoting about sweet, chocolatey Liberty, It is quite fitting that Naylor started out defending vanilla.

No comments: