Victoria: Chapter 16

By the third decade of the 21st century, the dissolution of the United States had reached the point where each year brought a new crisis. The crisis of 2023 began with the Persell Amendment to the Clean Air Act, a measure intended to prevent the smoking of tobacco.

I am not making this up. I know it sounds like satire, but it happened.

In the 1990s and 2000s, as the greatest country in the world turned itself into a cultural toxic waste dump, one of the great issues that absorbed the federal government’s attention was – tobacco smoke.

The government and the “health industry” that lived off the government whooped it up that tobacco smoke was second only to Xyclon B as the worst thing you could inhale. At first, they just tried to get smokers to quit. But like all bandwagons of the absurd, once their campaign got rolling it rolled over everybody. Soon, they were shrieking that just smelling the smoke from someone else’s pipe, cigar, or cigarette was enough to put you in the grave tomorrow, or by next week at the latest. They called it “second-hand smoke.”

Of course, you got far more crap in your lungs just walking past a bus, but that didn’t matter. Smoking was outlawed far and wide where anyone might smell the smoke. Smokers were literally driven out, into back alleys and onto loading docks for a furtive puff.

A reasonable man, or even woman, might have considered that people had been smoking for some centuries, yet by a miracle the human race had survived. Smokers and non-smokers had even managed to get along, quite nicely in most cases. The secret was etiquette. Good manners dictated that some places were for smoking and some were not, and that where the lines were uncertain, smokers asked the assembled company for permission before they indulged. Previous to the hysteria, permission was usually graciously given, and no one seemed the worse for it.

But by the early 2000s, anti-smoking militancy was the “cause” of the day. Avoiding tobacco smoke had become the equivalent of Fletcherizing – the 19th century movement that promised sparkling health and a Methuselah lifespan to anyone who chewed each bite of food one hundred times. Americans always were suckers for health crazes.

And politicians were always on the lookout for suckers. So when the Clean Air Act came up for renewal in 2023, Senator Whitman Persell (“Wimpy” to his friends), Democrat of California, saw a chance to score some points with the anti-tobacco harpies. He proposed an amendment whereby anyone who smelled tobacco smoke anywhere might sue any nearby smoker. The plaintiff did not have to prove that the smoker was smoking at the time; the fact that he or she was an admitted smoker was considered proof enough. The amendment encouraged triple damages for “pain and suffering.” With the enthusiastic backing of the Cisneros administration and the usual craven collapse by Congressional Republicans, the amendment was signed into law. The Health Nazis triumphantly proclaimed “the end of tobacco smoking in America.”

As the law intended, smokers found themselves hunted like rats. A smoker, placed under oath on the witness stand, had to admit smoking or be guilty of perjury. But if they admitted they smoked, they lost the suit, along with their life savings and most else they owned. Repairmen, neighbors, even family members would come into a smoker’s home and promptly file a lawsuit, which they won. If someone smelled smoke in someone else’s clothes, they sued and won. The Surgeon General even issued a pamphlet suggesting ways smokers could be trapped into revealing their filthy habit, and then sued. It was a virtual reign of terror, enforced by impoverishment.

But the result was not the end of tobacco smoking in America. The result was war. Smokers fought back.

It started about six months after the Persell Amendment took effect. In Pasadena, a little old lady had been sued by a Meals on Wheels deliverywoman who had spotted a telltale cigarette butt in her kitchen garbage. As usual, the smoker lost, and the court ordered her home seized and sold to pay the deliverywoman her winnings. In the final court session on the case, the little old lady pulled a Saturday Night Special out of her handbag and blew away the judge and the plaintiff.

She was shot down herself by a sheriff, but on her way to court she had sent a letter to the L.A. Times explaining her action. “I had nothing more to lose,” she wrote. “I would rather die quickly than be left on the street, penniless. And I won’t stop smoking. I was born and grew up in England, and I remember how, in 1940, when a Nazi invasion seemed certain, Churchill had posters printed up saying, ‘You Can Always Take One With You.’ So that is what I will try to do.”

Her story was picked up by the rest of the media, not in sympathy but to demonstrate how all smokers were dangerous extremists. However, smokers got a different message. “You Can Always Take One With You” posters appeared on walls and street signs. Other smokers who had lost everything, or feared they soon would, began shooting. They shot judges and lawyers. They shot the people who had sued them, or other members of the plaintiffs families. They shot government health personnel. One of them shot Senator Persell; regrettably, he survived. They all left the same message: “I had nothing more to lose.”

Up in Maine, our Maine First state government saw an opportunity. The Governor proposed, and the legislature adopted, a “Resolution of Nullification” that stated that hereafter, the Persell Amendment would not apply in Maine. Maine folks still had good manners, and we would handle tobacco smoke the old way, as a matter of etiquette.

The feds understood quite well what nullification meant for them; that battle had gone the other way in the 1830s, and the long-ago victory was still an important part of their power. They went to the Supreme Court and Maine was overruled.

But our Governor, John C. Adams, stuck to his guns – or rather, our guns. He wrote to the President and told him the Nullification Ordinance still stood, and that whatever a federal court might rule, no monies based on a Persell Amendment judgment would be paid in Maine. If Washington didn’t like it, they could try to send in federal agents again. We Christian Marines made it clear we were not averse to another meeting like the one at Lake Sebasticook, and the state militia raised on the occasion was still available.

Under normal circumstances, Cisneros probably would have sent in federal agents, or troops. But the federal government was by this time caught up in a real crisis, and it didn’t have much attention to spare to the tobacco question. Once it was clear we had successfully nullified Persell, Vermont and New Hampshire did the same, as did the states of the deep South. Elsewhere, smokers kept shooting.

The smokers’ defiance had showed the power of leaderless resistance. In former wars and revolutions, effective, sustained resistance required leadership and organization. Without a Continental Congress or a Jacobin Directorate or a Bolshevik Party to guide and direct and order, action could not be sustained. Now, in the 21st century, the Internet supplied “virtual organization” by allowing the actions of one to inspire others, and the actions of those others to instruct and animate more. From the standpoint of the government, it was a nightmare; the rebellions (there were soon many) had no head that could be cut off, no junta or central committee or official spokesmen who could be arrested or assassinated. The ubiquity of the Internet meant it could not be silenced, and it could not discipline itself to pass over stories that people wanted to see. For good and for ill, the Internet was the sorcerer’s apprentice.

Now pardon me, if you’ll be so gracious, while I light a fresh cigar. tr favicon