The fruit police

[Posted 5:06 PM by Roger Kimball]

A few years ago, my wife and young son, aetat. 2 and a half, visited some friends from England who were staying in Newport, Rhode Island. Soon after arriving, my wife pulled out a banana for our son. Before she could give it to him, our friend David exclaimed wonderingly about the fruit. She gave it to him and he held it aloft, gazing upon it as Hamlet gazed upon the skull of Yorick. "Our masters in Brussels," he said, "would not allow us to have such a banana." He then went on to explain how the food police of the European Union were enforcing all manner of rules and regulations promulgated by the appointed (that is, unelected) ministers of Europe’s new bureaucracy. David told us how his family had been planting a certain type of potato for decades at their farm in Wales: no more. The EU ministers decreed that type of spud verboten. They had rules for hedges, lawns, sausages, and comestibles of every sort. It became a crime to sell a pound of . . . well, of anything: one had to adopt the metric system or go to jail. Bananas that deviated too much from the perpendicular were illegal. I am not sure what happened to bananas that were overly curvaceous: perhaps they were required to take Pilates.

It all seemed so . . . absurd. And so it was. Unless you were caught selling pound of beef or a bendy banana.

I had more or less forgotten this episode until my friend sent me an article from the December 19 issue of the London Times. The headline tells the tale:

Why is this banana legally curved instead of just crooked?
Because it is the fruit of the finest judicial minds in Europe.
Unfortunately, the article is available on-line only for a fee, but here is the gist:
GOODBYE bendy bananas. Farewell curved cucumbers. So long chunky carrots. The European Union has finally triumphed in its quest to tame nature and keep unusually shaped fruit and vegetables off our shop shelves.

The House of Lords yesterday ordered greengrocers across the country to obey every EU horticultural regulation passed over the past 30 years concerning fresh produce and conform to the myriad of rules covering size, length, colour and texture.

The law lords rejected the argument, put forward by the supermarket Asda, that a legal blunder in 1973 had made the EU laws unenforceable. Now greengrocers will have to ensure that under EU regulation 2257/94 their bananas are at least 13.97cm (5.5in) long and 2.69cm (1.06in) round and do not have "abnormal curvature", as set out in an eight-page directive drawn up in 1994.

The ban on bendy bananas was necessary, according to an EU Commission official at the time, to prevent them from being mistaken for a "bicycle wheel". Organic cucumbers will have to straighten up their act, as well. Any that curve more than 10mm per 10cm in length cannot be sold as a Class 1 product.

Peaches must not be less than 5.6cm in diameter between July and October, and Class 1 Victoria plums must measure at least 3.5cm across.

Carrots that are less than 1.9cm wide at the thick end are not allowed, except in baby varieties. Not unreasonably, however, red apples will be illegal if less than 25 per cent of the surface is red. Stephen Alambritis, from the Federation of Small Businesses, said that the ruling could ruin some retailers. "It is ridiculous to expect small shopkeepers to have to double check every single piece of fruit and vegetable before it goes on sale," he said.

"Small businesses have neither the manpower nor the resources to check something like that" -unlike the bigger supermarkets. They insisted that the regulations would make little difference to their working practices because they already adhered to all the necessary European directives.

I have often had occasion to quote Tocqueville’s warning about the process of "democratic despotism," which proceeds by extending
its arms over society as a whole; it covers its surface with a network of small, complicated, painstaking, uniform rules through which the most original minds and the most vigorous souls cannot clear a way to surpass the crowd; it does not break wills, but it softens them, bends them, and directs them; it rarely forces one to act, but it constantly opposes itself to one’s acting; it does not destroy, it prevents things from being born; it does not tyrannize, it hinders, compromises, enervates, extinguishes, dazes, and finally reduces each nation to being nothing more than a herd of timid and industrious animals of which the government is the shepherd.
Of course, the behavior of the EU does not conform exactly to Tocqueville’s scenario. To be sure, it covers the surface of society "with a network of small, complicated, painstaking, uniform rules"--the last time I checked there were 185,000 pages of rules and regulations; the EU "does not tyrannize, it hinders, compromises, enervates, extinguishes, dazes" and so on. But Tocqueville was talking about democratic despotism, and the EU presents the novel spectacle of its bureaucratic, or soft-totalitarian alternative. It is (so far) less brutal, but no less infantilizing, no less an enemy of freedom.

It may seem silly to get worked up about bananas; edicts about potatoes may seem like small potatoes. Does it really matter that one’s favorite sausage or cheese is now deemed illegal? The EU has declared "racism" and "xenophobia" crimes--but who in his right mind would wish to express racist or xenophobic attitudes? Exactly what are racist or xenophobic attitudes? Well, that’s for the ministers in Brussels to determine. You don’t like that? A pity, because, if you’re a European, you’re stuck with it. The ministers are not elected by you, they are appointed by each other. They meet in secret. They issue diktats that affect the lives of the whole European Community. Once upon a time, you could have criticized this sort of tyranny, but the ministers in their wisdom have decided that dissent is unprogressive. Consequently, it is illegal for journalists to criticize the decisions of the EU. Is that an infringement on the right of free speech? Who said anything about a right to free speech? This is the new, multicultural Europe. Health care and welfare and an early retirement for everyone. And a 35-hour work week. Want to work longer hours? That’s a crime too.

The new Europe? Nietzsche saw it coming and described it in Thus Spoke Zarathustra. His name for it was the Last Man:

The earth is small, and on it hops the last man, who makes everything small. His race is as ineradicable as the flea-beetle; the last man lives longest.

"We have invented happiness," say the last men, and they blink. They have left the regions where it was hard to live, for one needs warmth. One still loves one’s neighbor and rubs against him, for one needs warmth.

Becoming sick and harboring suspicion are sinful to them: one proceeds carefully. . . . A little poison now and then: that makes for agreeable dreams. And much poison in the end, for an agreeable death.

One still works, for work is a form of entertainment. But one is careful lest the entertainment become too harrowing. . . .

No shepherd and one herd! Everybody wants the same, everybody is the same: whoever feels different goes voluntarily into a madhouse. . . .

One is clever and knows everything that has ever happened: so there is no end of derision. One still quarrels, but one is soon reconciled--else it might spoil the digestion.

One has one’s little pleasure for the day and one’s little pleasure for the night: but one has a regard for health.

"We have invented happiness," say the last men, and they blink.

Bananas, it turns out, are something to go bananas about.

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