Saturday, May 09, 2009

A Cold Topic

Over the last couple of years, I have literally read thousands of what can be termed "standardized essays," the writing portions of standardized tests that are otherwise comprised of multiple-choice answers bubbled in with #2 pencils. In general, the essays are generated in response to specific prompts in which writers are asked to explore the pros and cons of an issue, or agree or disagree with a quotation. One interesting (and somewhat amusing) trend I've observed is an effort by test takers in introductory paragraphs to establish the given issue as a raging public debate. For example: "The issue of whether the penny should be discontinued in America is a huge controversy confronting our country. Many people strongly believe that it should be eliminated, while others firmly argue that it should be kept. Both sides offer valid points..." A common phrase used in these essays is "hot topic," such as in "The role of computers in society today is a hot topic." Despite these writers collective willingness to designate virtually anything as a "hot topic," and in spite of the possible influence of a clothing store in the pervasive usage of the phrase, I find myself intrigued by its applications.

We certainly do have a lot of "hot topics" in society today. Given the economic climate, all the difficult decisions that both government and private industries are being forced to make give rise to "hot topics." And since our new president is of a different political persuasion from the old one, many dormant issues (such as stem cell research) rise once again to join the realm of "hot topics." And then there are the issues that are always hot topics (I think I'll drop the quotes from here on out), regardless of the vicissitudes of the news cycle: abortion, guns, and more recently gay rights and counter-terrorism efforts.

But what of issues that were once hot topics, now gone cold? When passion subsides, when the air is let of a balloon, it can indicate a paradigm shift. I'd say that gambling in America is not a hot topic, at least not anymore. As scholar Alan Wolfe writes: "The growth in gaming has not produced an anti-gambling movement...observing gambling in America is like listening to one hand clapping; there is no right and left." The cooling of the topic indicates a general acceptance of social gambling, just like social drinking is acceptable in America, despite the very legality of alcohol itself once being a very hot topic.

And another issue strikes me as, if not a cold topic, at least a cooling topic. The now apparent inevitability of a ban on public smoking in Wisconsin, and the public reaction to the proposed ban, show the makings of a paradigm shift. In cases where a topic is a hot topic, the existence or implementation of a law doesn't necessarily mean the end of the controversy. Indeed, the anti-abortion movement didn't really exist before abortion was legalized. The fact that two separate constitutional amendments were passed in regards to alcohol prohibition (the second repealing the first) indicates that that topic remained hot.

Yet, with smoking bans, though there does continue to be a vocal opposition from some libertarians and smokers themselves, I get a sense of resignation. There is a vibe of inevitability, that no matter what leaders we elect in the future, this ban is here to stay for all time. The powerful Wisconsin Tavern League lobby, once entrenched against the ban, conceded to inevitability by choosing to negotiate instead for a one-year delay in the ban for taverns. I got a similar sense a few years ago while living in Kentucky, a state much more historically aligned with the tobacco industry than Wisconsin. There was vehement opposition to the many municipal bans that were enacted in the mid-2000s, but once the bans went into effect, the vocalness of the opposition dropped off the radar.

What this all indicates to me is that we now live in a post-smoking nation. While people will continue to smoke and some will start smoking for some time, the paradigm has shifted. C. Everett Koop was a little optimistic when he predicted, in 1988, a "smoke free class of 2000," but I don't think it's out of the realm of the possibility that the class of 2000 will still be living when a truly smoke-free class graduates.

On the other hand, I have little hope that this future smoke-free class will approach their standardized essays any differently than today's crop of test takers.


Blogger Jason said...

In Georgia everything was smoke-free and we had to get used to that when we moved back up here. Talk about a change of pace..

5:31 PM  
Blogger mhoce said...

I agree that smoking is a thing of the past. Even though people will still smoke, I feel that there is enough information now out for the general public that the numbers of smokers are going to continue to dwindle in the years to come. Hopefully some day (maybe not soon) the world will be smoke free and another huge issue, world peace will arrive.

7:55 PM  
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