I have been falling asleep at odd times. I woke up at 4:00 AM, went back to bed around 7:00, then slept until 3:00 PM. I slept through a huge blizzard and awoke to white everything, only to learn that sneakers don’t work in snow. I was the only person in Vienna wearing them. They slip, they are cold, the cold air knifes right through them. But the snow has its upsides. It is fresh, clean, at least before the foot traffic slushes it all up. The frozen nightscape of St. Stephen’s cathedral is worth all the slipping and uncertain purchase.
Reading US news from afar is weird. Trump is insane, but distance makes the insanity grow louder. However you voted, once you set foot on foreign territory, this is your president, scrambled brains and all. Keep your head down and try to look local, that’s all I can advise. Of course if anyone has been paying attention, and I’m not sure why they would, Austria has elected Eric Trump as its chancellor in the guise of a clown named Sebastian Kurz.
In addition to chumming with Putin, forming a coalition with the thinly disguised Neo Nazi Party, and promising to make Austria great again (think “Anschluss”), the big political news since I’ve arrived has been the government’s decision to go back on legislation that would have banned smoking in restaurants. In the scheme of Trump Trade Wars, Russia’s Big New Dickweapon, and indiscriminate bombing and gassing of civilians in Syria, you might think … so?
The problem with smoking in Austria
Austria is the ashtray of the EU, or something not far from it. Thirty-eight percent of all Austrians smoke. Lagging far behind other EU countries, to say nothing of nation-states like California, in 2015 Austria’s parliament voted to phase out smoking in restaurants, clubs, and bars. It was a hot-button issue, as addictions and the multinational corporations that profit from them always are, but with the phase-out, the health minister confidently predicted that in 2018, when the ban was to become total, “Three years from now this will not be an emotional issue.”
Note to self: Don’t hire that dude to pick my Lotto numbers.
In Austria today no issue is hotter, or more of a protruding button, than the smoking ban. For three years food-service establishments have had a system of joke partitions that separate patrons, and they work about as well as you would expect, marginally for customers, not at all for employees. Now that there’s a new right-wing sheriff in town, the government is refusing to enact the final phase of the ban. Does this sound like Trump refusing to enforce the healthcare or environmental protection laws?
What’s fascinating is not that a bunch of race-baiting, immigrant-bashing, swastika-honoring politicians want to give the “people” the “right to smoke.” It’s that the tools, language, tropes, bugaboos, and arguments they use are identical with those used by the right-wing populist governments that have spread like syphilis in the world’s Neo-fascist Fall, from the Philippines to Poland to Hungary to the good ole U.S.A.
Can’t see the forest for the demagogues
Demagoguery works best when clothed in freedom and patriotism, and the Austrian smoking ban is dressed in its Sunday patriotic best because flags and national pride have proven, time and time again, to sway people more than facts. And smoking bans are nothing if not fact-based. There is simply no public health problem that kills more people and is more easily managed than smoking.
By raising prices, changing advertising laws, raising the smoking age, and especially by limiting the places that you can smoke, people live longer. This is no more controversial factually than stating that the sun, 100% of the time, rises in the east and sets in the west.
But there are simple and powerful forces that oppose simple public health solutions. The first is the tobacco lobby, the second are the politicians willing to carry their water, and by far the most important are the smoking addicts. In Austria an overwhelming number of white, middle-aged men smoke, and these are precisely the constituents of the right wing VPO and the extreme-right FPO (“People’s Party” and “Freedom Party,” natch.)
Neo-fascism is based on the principle that the many owe the few. Contrasted with social democracy, which orients to “enough for everyone” neo-fascism and its U.S. Republican counterparts orient to “everything for me, nothing for you.” These neo-fascist forces are what underlie all of the right-tilt political movements that have overrun run Eastern Europe, Russia, Venezuela, and of course the U.S.A.
And the way the power grab is orchestrated here in Austria is a sad textbook case on a small and simple issue that shows how a committed band of thieves can always outfox a disorganized, lazy, and arrogant majority.
The words they carried
The FPO rose to power ostensibly on its call for more “direct democracy” and the insinuation that the true will of the people was being ignored by corrupt politicians. This is of course an absurd complaint in a representative democracy. If your voice is not being heard, it is because you are not voting. Like Trump, who peppered his campaign with insinuations that the polls were corrupt, neo-fascism comes to power using the very levers it claims are corrupt.
The insincerity of the FPO’s claims regarding a corrupt democracy became immediately evident when almost 400,000 Austrians signed a petition urging the government to enact the smoking ban. When presented with the petition, the FPO was no longer interested in direct democracy or the will of the people, and self-righteously announced that the ruling coalition had reached an agreement, as iƒf such a thing were sacrosanct and immune from revision.
The next and most powerful call to action for neo-fascism is of course freedom. In this case, the right to poison other people thanks to your addiction is couched as a truly fundamental issue of human rights: The freedom of customers to patronize where they want, the freedom of businesses to cater to the customers they want, the freedom of employees to work where they want, and crucially, the freedom of every red-blooded Austrian to decide for himself how healthy he wants to be. Throw in a few barbs denigrating political correctness, that is, justice and equality, and the recipe is perfect.
Never mind that the freedom to be addicted in public impinges on the freedom of non-addicts exposed to secondhand smoke to stay alive. If this sounds familiar, “My freedoms are paramount!” it’s because we just went through another round of freedoms at the Parkland High School Shooting in Florida, where the neo-fascists proved once again that freedom trumps all, except of course Trump.
But the lexicon and imagery hardly run dry once the freedom dog has been trotted out and shown off at halftime. The next dog in the show is patriotism and culture, which in the Austrian smoking war has been pithily described by the flacks for the FPO as a battle agains the “Nicotine Taliban.” No slogan works better than one that invokes Muslim terrorists, never mind that Afghanistan has one of the highest smoking rates on earth.
As with neo-fascists from Duterte to Erdogan to Orban to Trump to Kurz, this sick sellout of young people, secondhand smoke victims, smoking addicts, and ordinary people who want to go grab a bite and not have to take a shower afterwards, when you can’t overcome facts or rational thought, hit ’em with arguments so bizarre and patently patriotic that the opposition is overwhelmed by what it thinks is the stupidity of the argument, when in fact it’s being battered by a sophisticated, intelligent, well-executed attack.
In this case the broadside came from the newly installed neo-fascist Health Minister herself, who defended killing off the ban by saying that “A smoking ban will wreck Austria’s tradition of being welcoming to guests.” While normal people wondered if she thinks she is the head of the tourism department rather than the health ministry, or whether they’re waiting for someone to point out that smoking kills about 143 people per week in Austria and the health minister should care about that, or whether they’re astonished at the abortion of an idea that Austria’s tourism industry thrives because it caters to smokers, well, you’ve missed the point.
Because those who are listening on key heard all they needed to hear when they heard “Austrian tradition.” Combined with the imagery of the Nicotine Taliban, the troops are hereby officially rallied. This isn’t about a health minister protecting health, it’s about a high level government official defending the traditions–dare we say the purity?–of the Austrian race.
Freedom. Patriotism. The will of the people.
What could be simpler?
For $2.99 per month you can subscribe to this blog and pay to support what you might otherwise take for free. Click here and select the “subscribe” link in the upper right-hand corner. Thank you!