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Excerpt from The Culture of Make Believe

Tobacco (p. 70)

From chapter "Contempt"

My publisher, who is also my editor, is quitting smoking. He’s miserable. Two nights ago, in a restaurant, he asked the server if she had a hammer.


“So you can hit me over the head and kill me. At least that would stop the cravings.”

I haven’t shown him any of this book. I did tell him, in a telephone conversation, about the tangle I’m trying to puzzle out, and he said, “You should talk about contempt.”

I asked why.

“It fits,” he said. “I don’t know whether the tobacco executives hate me, but I’m pretty sure they feel contempt for me—not so much me in particular, but as a target. They’d have to feel contempt for me in order to make money from my slow suicide.”

Tobacco, I thought? Contempt? Growing tobacco a hate crime? I just don’t know. But he’s got a point. To intentionally addict people to something you know will kill them would take, as I said earlier of slavery, a fair amount of disdain. The tangle of threads just keeps getting thicker.

I sighed.

He said he’d tried to quit several times before, but this time he was going to make it.

I asked why.

“Because I understand now why I was killing myself. It’s not just that the tobacco executives feel contempt for me, but that I felt contempt for myself.”

Though he couldn’t see me, I nodded.

“If I really valued myself,” he said evenly, “could I hurt myself in this way?”

I shook my head. Silence on the line.

“I think this is one reason, too, that we’re killing the planet.” He paused, and almost unconsciously I listened for the slight puffing that in previous times would have indicated he was taking a drag, followed by a long, slow exhalation, but I heard nothing. “I think deep inside we don’t believe we deserve clean rivers, clean air, ponds full of frogs, intact ecosystems, a livable world.”

I told him I agreed.

“If we loved ourselves,” he said, before correcting himself and speaking so quickly the words ran into each other, “or even if we just didn’t hate ourselves”—a long pause, and again I listened in vain for the puff—“would we be able to destroy our home?”