What Interferes with Justice
Dear Unknown Friends:
We are serializing a work of philosophic, historic, and immediate importance: Eli Siegel’s 1968 lecture We Are Unrepresented. Quoting John Stuart Mill, Aristotle, and articles from current newspapers, he describes what that tremendous, needed thing, representation, is. It is “to have the power that is in things and people bring out, with respect, what is in a person or persons.” He speaks about the need of people to be represented in the workings of their nation, and about the interference—the fact that so much throughout the centuries, people have stopped others from being represented.
America then was in the midst of the Vietnam War; and Mr. Siegel speaks about the feeling in Americans which he saw intensifying and increasing: that the war did not represent America; its purpose was not to protect America nor to make anyone free.
In the present section, he comments on an instance of horrible misrepresentation in judicial history: the ordeal of Sacco and Vanzetti, from their arrest in 1920 to their execution seven years later. There were protests and appeals for justice by persons of thought throughout the civilized world, because it seemed plain that the immigrant shoemaker and fish seller were being convicted of a murder they did not commit. It seemed clear that the judge, Webster Thayer, was wrongly instructing the jury and had predetermined that two persons with backgrounds and political beliefs he disliked should die.
In this section of the lecture, Mr. Siegel describes the thing in the human self which makes a person cruel to other people—whether that person is wearing judicial robes or everyday garments. To explain it, he quotes his translation of and note to La Fontaine’s poem “The Wolf and the Lamb,” published in Mr. Siegel’s book of poems Hail, American Development. And we print both the translation and note here too.
Every instance of cruelty, Aesthetic Realism shows, arises from contempt, which Mr. Siegel defined in the following principle: “There is a disposition in every person to think he will be for himself by making less of the outside world.” From this disposition, ordinary but always ugly, comes the inter-belittling by husband and wife in the kitchen, and also all racial prejudice; come wars, and also the ganging up by children against another child in a playground.
In Massachusetts, 1920-27, it was contempt that had various people of wealth and position feel their state should be owned by only the “right” people. Contempt had them feel that any way of seeing the world which seemed to lessen their comfort and supremacy should be wiped out, along with the persons who espoused it.
A Study in Contempt
Judge Webster Thayer, who presided over the Sacco and Vanzetti trial, has been much condemned. But he has not been seen as a study in human contempt, a means of understanding the dangerous, hurtful thing in everyone—because without Aesthetic Realism, people have not known what contempt is. “The fact,” Mr. Siegel writes,
that most people have felt...they had the right to see other people and other objects in a way that seemed to go with comfort—this fact is the beginning of the injustice and pain of the world. It is contempt in its first universal, hideous form. [Self and World, p. 3]
In Herbert B. Ehrmann’s careful book The Case That Will Not Die (1969), we find much evidence that Judge Thayer saw the radical immigrants Sacco and Vanzetti as affronting his notion of who should own Massachusetts and the world. And because he took them as a personal insult to his comfort and self-importance, he wanted them punished, no matter what the facts of the case were.
Ehrmann quotes Boston Globe reporter Frank Sibley as saying of Thayer: “His whole manner, attitude seemed to be that the jurors were there to convict these men” (p. 464). Ehrmann quotes others who tell how Thayer talked in social settings while the case was in progress; and the contempt Mr. Siegel describes—the making one’s sense of self more important than the facts—is within all the quoted remarks. For example, the writer Robert Benchley describes Thayer saying to companions at the Worcester Golf Club
that a “bunch of parlor radicals were trying to get these guys off and trying to bring pressure to bear on the Bench,” and that he “would show them and would get those guys hanged,” and that he, Judge Thayer, “would also like to hang a few dozen of the radicals.” [P. 469]
A Dartmouth professor, James P. Richardson, quotes Thayer as saying to him: “Did you see what I did with those anarchistic bastards the other day? I guess that will hold them for a while” (p. 472).
Ehrmann describes the fact that it was not just the judge who behaved so reprehensibly, but people in the highest positions in Massachusetts:
Those in authority were well alerted to the growing conviction among responsible men and women that the case was a departure from the fair procedures required in a criminal prosecution. This fact and the protest were both ignored. Among those who closed ranks against all criticism were seasoned lawyers, university graduates, trial and review judges, college presidents, and a governor who had previously served as a Congressman. [P. ix]
Ehrmann does not understand why. And that is because he does not understand contempt, with its desire to expunge anything—any fact, any evidence, any person—that threatens one’s self-importance.
What We Need to Learn
In 1977, on the 50th anniversary of the execution, the governor of Massachusetts, Michael Dukakis, issued a proclamation which is really a statement of regret. It indicates that the trial was unfair and declares that
any stigma and disgrace should be forever removed from the names of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti,...and so, from the name of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.
Yet to be against the cause of that disgrace and so many others, we need to learn what Aesthetic Realism teaches: that we take care of ourselves, are truly selfish and important, by seeing justly what’s not ourselves. That is what happens in all art, including the La Fontaine poem and Mr. Siegel’s translation. And that is what Mr. Siegel himself embodied in all his life and work.