George Walford: Class Struggle (etc.)

“The curious thing was that the closer one came to [Sacco and Vanzetti’s] own stations in society the more virulent was the judgement. The two were merely ‘Reds’ to shop clerks, ‘damn Reds’ in cigar stores, and ‘God-damn Reds’ to taxi drivers.” Those who tried to avert this judicial murder included Sacco’s employer, Mussolini, William G. Thompson (one of the principal lawyers of New England), Romain Rolland, Einstein and Bernard Shaw. “In [the USA] the intelligentsia turned out almost to the last man for Sacco and Vanzetti” (Phil Stong, “The Last Days of Sacco and Vanzetti”, in: Leighton I. ed. 1949 The Aspirin Age. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 181)

An American rail passenger, who had written in to complain of bedbugs in his berth, received a letter of the most fulsome apology. Such a thing had never occurred before in the history of the line, the most rigorous enquiry would be made, those responsible discovered and severely disciplined; please accept their most humble apologies – and so on. The effect was spoilt by an interoffice memo carelessly enclosed: “Send this guy the bug letter.”

An advertisement for a fly-killer costing £1 promised to refund £10 if the purchaser found it failing to work when the instructions were followed. Having sent in your £1 you received two flat pieces of wood, with instructions to place the fly on one piece and hit it with the other.

The growing tendency to hold suppliers responsible for the outcome when their goods are used produces some vigorous evasions. The main British suppliers of parts for hang-gliders and microlight aircraft sell all their goods subject to the express warning that they are not suitable for aviation.

“CIGARETTES are responsible for 1,000 times more deaths each year than heroin.” (Adam Raphael, Observer, 22 July 90). One’s first reaction, that if so then cigarettes, too, should be banned (rather than heroin be freed) needs restraining. Specific diseases, and fatal ones, have been firmly linked to the use of tobacco, while no equivalent blame has been fixed on heroin. Most of the harm associated with the prohibited drugs comes rather from attempts to enforce the ban on them, producing use of dirty needles and shared needles, with consequent transmission of hepatitis and AIDS, and, above all, forcing up the price, obliging many addicts to take to crime to feed their habits and encouraging the pushers.

JACK LIVELY reviews (TLS 15 June 90) the book by K. D. Ewing and C. A. Gearty: Freedom under Thatcher: Civil liberties in modern Britain. He says: “The authors do not deny that the rhetoric has assumed reality in some areas – in the freeing of markets and in the expansion of consumer choice – but these gains they insist have been far outweighed by losses in fundamental freedoms: of the person, of expression, of assembly, of association, from arbitrary and unaccountable official actions.”

That is, Thatcherism promotes economic freedom and political control, while Ewing and Gearty favour the contrary movements.

DON GIOVANNI could never have existed in classical or medieval times, he is inescapably a modern, though an early one. Making this point, John Kerrigan goes on to stress that while the adventures of Hercules or Gawain derive interest from their variety, the Don’s achievement lies in repetition and, more, in repetitions accurately counted. Leporello’s “catalogue aria” totals his Spanish conquests; not about a thousand, nearly a thousand or over a thousand, but exactly “mille e tre.” (TLS 3 Aug) Don Giovanni belongs, in short, to the period when the ideology of precision was growing to social stature; his careful score-keeping belongs with quantitative democracy, railway time-tables, detailed balance-sheets, racing timed to the fraction of a second, careful analysis of cricket scores and the billiard-ball conception of the universe.

NEW ZEALAND: Early Polynesian hunters burning the forest margins created much of the open tussock country, and two-thirds of present-day grassland is the result of early colonists burning the rain-forest. Vaughan Yarwood of Auckland reports this in a letter to TLS (13 April). He concludes “New Zealand pastoralism is induced and has been environmentally devastating.”

ASKED how he would disperse a hostile crowd, a police cadet replied that he would take up a collection. Perhaps they should try that with the poll tax demos.

from Ideological Commentary 49, January 1991.