On Milton, Censorship, and Hookahs

I've admired John Milton's work for many years. Scholars consider his epic work, Paradise Lost, the greatest poem ever composed in the English language, and I concur; however, it is a piece of his prose that I prefer.

"To sequester out of the world into Atlantic and Utopian polities, which never can be drawn into use, will not mend our condition. . ."

Written in 1644, Areopagitica is a passionate argument against censorship. But much of what Milton has to say about why banning certain books is a bad idea can also be used to argue that the current trend toward smoking bans is equally futile.

The notion that society must be "protected" from harmful things fuels much of the debate on smoking. The same argument is used to challenge books that certain groups of people find offensive. Instead of exercising their right to choose reading materials for themselves and allowing others to do the same, these groups seek to "protect" us from what they perceive to be "harmful." In essence, this means that the rest of us are too stupid to make the "right" choices. Rather than relying on the individual to decide the value of a book, special interest groups want to tell the rest of us which books have "true" worth based upon their value judgments with the underlying assumption being that their values are superior because they are "right." Milton contends, however, that attempting to construct a Utopian paradise where only good exists will not solve the problem and gives us a rational explanation why:

"They are not skilful considerers of human things, who imagine to remove sin by removing the matter of sin . . . Though ye take from a covetous man all his treasure, he has yet one jewel left, yet cannot bereave him of his covetousnes. Banish all objects of lust, shut up all youth into the severest discipline that can be exercised in any hermitage, ye cannot make them chaste that came not thither so; such great care and wisdom is required to the right managing of this point."

Removing an object of desire from society does not make the desire for that object disappear! The Volstead Act, which became the Eighteenth Amendment, is the perfect example to illustrate Milton's argument.

The Prohibition of alcohol in America was sparked by the ardent desire of a handful of women and religious activists who believed that removing the demon alcohol -- the sin in Milton's equation -- would protect and improve American society. Unfortunately, as history proved, removing the object of sin was not enough to solve the problem, for the desire for the object remained. Instead of creating a Utopian paradise free of alcohol and the negative consequences of drinking it, those who successfully pushed for Prohibition created new problems, some of which are still being dealt with nearly 100 years later. Because Prohibition was unenforceable, the attempt to remove alcohol from society caused
an alarming increase in crime and increased alcohol consumption instead of bringing it to a complete stop.

Prohibition failed because the desire for alcohol was not removed with the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment. The same holds true for the current smoking bans. Closing hookah bars and banning smoking from places where only adults congregate will not convince people to stop smoking, but it will have a negative effect on the livelihoods of those who must now ban smoking patrons from their establishments! Furthermore, just as Prohibition led to a 516 percent increase in alcohol-related crimes, individuals whose businesses depend on smoking patrons will seek ways to get around the laws in order to keep their businesses afloat. To wit, check out
Pipe Ban Is a Pane, France's Smoking Ban Chokes Hookah Bars, or Proposed Tougher Smoking Laws Have Some Richardson Businesses Worried.

Clearly a "skilful considerer of human things," John Milton, a man of the 17th century, had a better understanding of human nature than the lawmakers of the 21st century. The good news is that although the British Parliament did not heed his advice regarding the censorship of books, the Areopagitica played a significant role in our Founding Fathers' understanding of the importance of free speech and press. One can always hope that Milton's influence will still be felt and that "skilful considerer[s] of human things" will come out from behind the smoke screen of political correctness.

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