I felt a large hand descend on my shoulder.

By Gregory Clark, Illustrated by James Frise, March 2, 1946.

“Squabble, squabble,” muttered Jimmie Frise, “always squabbling!” “Who?” I inquired.

We had got a seat in the street car, and Jim had settled comfortably to read the front page of the newspaper.

“Everybody,” replied Jim. “Squabbles at all levels. Nations squabbling. Provinces squabbling. Cities squabbling. Counties, townships. Sections of cities. Employer versus employee. Husband against wife…”

“You’re reading the news, Jim,” I explained. “Turn to the sporting pages…”

“More squabbles,” said Jim. “What is sport but organized squabbles?”

“Okay, then,” I chuckled, “turn to the comics.”

“Comics?” scoffed Jim. “Tragics, you mean! Nothing but squabbles there. Even the laughs are got with squabbles.”

“Of course,” I explained, “after all, Jim, life itself is a contest. The very essence of life is conflict. It isn’t only among human beings. There isn’t a single living creature, not even a tree, not even grass, that does not live by conflict.”

“Just look at this front page!” said Jim, spreading the paper out. “Look! The nations gathered together to find peace. And they are fighting like tigers. Look! A wife shoots her husband! And here one province says that other provinces are trying to rob her. Here – two giant trucks collide on highway. I suppose the two drivers were each trying to hog the centre of the road.”

“We human beings,” I submitted, “may look like monsters. But you ought to see what goes on in wild nature. Not a tree grows but has fought to the death hundreds of its brothers. The seeds of a maple fall. They germinate and take root. From that instant, it is a battle to the death among these infant maples. They try to strangle each other’s roots. They try to smother each other by cutting off the sunlight and air. I’ll say this for infant human beings: they aren’t bloodthirsty like the young of most other living creatures.”

“I guess babies are about the only really decent human beings,” agreed Jim.

“Only when they are helpless and lying on their backs,” I pointed out. “Put two babies old enough to crawl in the same crib, and they immediately start demonstrating that life is a struggle. They try to rob each other. They poke each other in the eye with their fingers. As soon as they get two teeth, they seem to know what they are for, and sink them into the fat little hind leg of the other baby…”

“Holy smoke,” protested Jim. “Isn’t there anything in the world that is really peaceful? How about music?”

“Haw, music!” I snorted. “You make music by the conflict of hair from a horse’s tail scraped across a string made of sheep’s gut. You create music by the conflict of human wind trying to escape through a brass tube, and the vibration of its efforts to escape makes the music. You get the whole foundation of music in the rhythm, which is produced by pounding a drumstick on a stretched sheep’s hide. Music peaceful!”

“Flowers?” pleaded Jim anxiously.

“Like the maple tree infant I mentioned,” I stated, “a flower is the product of a vicious unseen battle, from the tiny seed to the triumphant bush that has beaten all its kith and kin back into the soil to feed it. The very best food for plants is the humus of other plants that have been destroyed in the battle of life.”

“Well…” sighed Jim a little desperately, turning the page and examining page two with eager hope.

“We are always looking for peace, Jim,” I philosophized, “when, as a matter of simple fact, we ought to be looking for controlled and organized conflict. Nowhere in the living world is there peace, or anything like it. We human beings ought to recognize that fact and start working out an entirely new philosophy of life.”

An Eternal Struggle

“Isn’t somebody always trying to do that?” demanded Jim.

“No; so far,” I pointed out, “everybody with a new philosophy or a new political scheme promises peace at the end of it. To bring industrial peace… says one. You might as well bring silent music. You might as well try to think of motionless movement. Industry itself is conflict.”

“And we can’t live without industry,” proffered Jim.

“So we can’t live without conflict,” I wound up. “Therefore, that the whole world has to agree on is -conflict is basic. Now let us organize and control conflict for the common good.”

“Yeah,” laughed Jimmie, “and what is the common good? That’s like the question Pontius Pilate asked.”

“The common good,” I explained, “is food and shelter.”

“Food and shelter!” cried Jim. “Do you call that the common good?”

“I do,” I asserted. “Absolutely guarantee food and shelter to every human being everywhere, every day, without fail, without the possibility of failure – and you’ve got the world by the tail.”

“What nonsense,” scoffed Jim. “Why, life consists of a thousand things…”

“No, sir,” I cut in. “Food and shelter is the secret of it all. Give every living human being guaranteed, unfailing food and shelter, every day of their lives. From there on, they will branch up into the thousand and one other things of life. They can cook the food well, or cook it poorly. They can make themselves nice homes or they can continue to dwell in slovenly hovels. They can be ambitious and build cathedrals, great cities; or they can just lie around in the sun, doing nothing, and waiting for the next guaranteed meal. But – the way the world is now, the tragic struggle for food and shelter is essential to our whole way of life. There are millions of men who truly and passionately believe that if you didn’t force the common man to struggle for his food and shelter, nobody would do ANY work.”

“I begin to see your point,” admitted Jim.

“If you didn’t make the masses of mankind worry,” I went on, “about where their next meal was coming from, or how they were going to pay the rent, why, you couldn’t hire anybody to work for you for love or money.”

“Well, neither you could,” asserted Jim. “You give everybody a house for nothing, and guarantee him food, as you say, every day, without fail – and how many of us would go to work?”

“There, Mr. Frise,” I triumphed, “I have you! You are guilty of blasphemy. As a Christian, you admit that men are made in God’s image. So you proceed on the assumption that they are made in the devil’s image and treat them like dogs. You deny them the simplest fundamentals, food and shelter, and then say to them – now work, you devils, or else starve and freeze to death.”

“Not me,” interrupted Jimmie. “I didn’t. say that!”

“But when you assume,” I pursued, “that if you gave all men, everywhere, in North America, Europe, Asia, Africa, their shelter and food guaranteed, none of them would go to work, you say it.”

“A lot of them wouldn’t,” insisted Jim.

“A lot of them don’t now,” I pointed out. “But by far the vast majority of men have as urgent a desire to work, to be doing something, as they have to eat or to be warm. If for no other reason than to escape from the wife and kids during the day, plenty of men will take a job. But in the great mass of mankind there is a natural instinct to work, to do something, to create something. In our present social system, we ignore that basic instinct. We threaten all mankind with starvation and death from exposure, unless he works.”

“We Need Some Air”

“Well, how can it be changed?” demanded Jim.

“It’s being changed right under your nose,” I announced. “All over the world. All the ‘isms’ are doing nothing else but changing that basic error. Trades unionism, socialism, communism – all the ‘isms’ are the expression of the common man’s decision that he isn’t going to be starved and frozen to death any more. It would be hard to say how many human beings have been starved and frozen to death in past centuries due to this highly respected belief. I bet a hundred thousand, nay, maybe a million human beings have perished from the consequences of poor diet or exposure, for one who has died in war.”

“Probably so,” agreed Jim.

“Yet, we are struggling furiously to correct war,” I submitted, “and at the same time struggling furiously to maintain the old theory that if you don’t work, you starve.”

“You have a dirty way,” accused Jimmie, “of presenting the case.”

“I find this street car,” I digressed, “very stuffy, don’t you?”

“You’ve got yourself all worked up,” explained Jim. “If you’re going to make speeches on the social system, you ought to wear lighter underwear.”

“I’m going to open this window a bit,” I said, reaching up and taking hold of the winder that winds the street car window up.

Outside it was a nice, crisp afternoon. I wound the window up four inches and a refreshing gush of sweet air blew in.

“Aha, that’s better, I heaved, taking a good breath. “Well, Jim, the whole human problem is getting clearer, week by week, month by month.”

“It sure is,” chuckled Jimmie, nudging me and nodding towards the lady sitting in front of us. She was very ostentatiously shrugging her shoulders and pulling her collar up around her neck.

“A little fresh air,” I said, “never hurt anybody. This car is foggy, it’s so stuffy. As I was saying. Jim, one thing about all the conflict of ideas raging in the world today, it’s bound to work us nearer to some sort of understanding of the basic problems. And I think one of the basic…”

“Would you mind,” suddenly said the lady in front, turning sharply around, “shutting that window, please?”

“Pardon me,” I said, “but this car is positively steamy. Don’t you find it too warm?”

“I’ve just got out of bed from the flu,” said the lady tartly.

“I’ll run it down a little,” I agreed.

I wound the window down to two inches. “Is that better now, madam?” I inquired solicitously.

She waited a moment and then said: “I don’t feel it blowing on me now, thank you.”

“The basic thing they are going to discover, Jim,” I resumed, “as the result of all this world-wide conflict of ideas, is that lawless enterprise, whether by individuals, or companies or nations, can no longer be tolerated. And lawless enterprise simply can’t exist, unless it has vast numbers of slave workers at its command, living in daily fear for their food and shelter.”

I felt something brush my hat from behind, and then noticed the window beside me, which was open only two inches, quietly closing.

I turned quickly, and saw the man who sat behind me, standing up, leaning over and calmly winding the handle over my head.

The handle, I might say, of MY window. I sat for a minute thinking. Then I calmly reached up, and wound the window up two inches.

“Listen, windbag,” said a voice right in my ear – in fact, he leaned forward and spoke under the brim of my hat – “that breeze is blowing right back on me.”

“This is my window,” I retorted. “I’m sitting here.”

“Try, the window ahead of you, squirt,” said the voice under my hat brim, “and see, how it feels, blowing icicles on you.”

“I don’t intend to smother,” I asserted.

“And I,” said the voice, “don’t intend to freeze.”

Might versus Right

And he stood up, leaned forward and proceeded to wind the window down.

I looked at Jim. He was deeply engrossed in the sport page. But there was a curious expression on his face.

He seemed to be listening and watching and holding his breath.

I braced myself, reached up and took hold of the handle. I started to wind. And as I did so, I felt a large hand descend on my shoulder, another hand seized my wrist and wrenched it from the knob.

The man was not merely bigger than I, he was standing up and had the advantage of me. I struggled. But he won. He wound the window shut.

“Good for you,” called the lady sitting in front of me.

And several others joined in various growls, mutters and snorts of approval for my adversary.

What can you do when you are the victim of indignity?

I sat for a moment, watching Jim out of the corner of my eye. He seemed engrossed in the racing news. He seemed not to notice what was going on around him.

“Jim,” I said, “is this a free country, or isn’t it? Are you going to sit there and be smothered to death?”

“Smothered,” said Jim heavily, “starved or frozen to death – that seems to be the destiny of us all.”

“You’re laughing.” I charged.

“Who? Me?” protested Jim.

I suddenly got mad. I reached up and wound the window a foot wide.

The man behind me did not seize my shoulder this time.

He took the flat of his big hand and brought it down on top of my hat. With his full weight, he squashed me down in my seat, my hat shoved over my eyes and nose. And he held me there while he wound the window shut.

He leaned down and spoke to me before taking his hand off the top of my head.

“Listen, Shorty,” he gritted, “you touch, that window once more, and I tell you what I’ll do. I’ll take you and shove you through the window!”

He sat back. I slowly erected myself and straightened my hat.

All around, I could hear laughter, chuckles, snickers and comments of a highly approving character.

“Jim,” I said, rising, “I’m not staying on this car another instant. If a citizen can be subjected to such indignity in public and with such complete public approval…”

“Hire a hall,” said a lady across the aisle.

I pulled the bell cord and walked to the exit. Jim followed.

“It’s only four blocks,” said Jim, as the car moved away. “The walk will do us good.”

“I couldn’t get into a fight with the guy,” I protested excitedly. “He was twice my size. Why didn’t you show more spunk?”

“Weeelll,” cogitated Jimmie, as we set off homeward on foot, “to tell the truth, I couldn’t just figure out which side I was on.”

“Jim, the car stank, it was so stuffy,” I cried. “As a measure of public health, as a sanitary measure, Jim, I opened that window. In the public welfare…”

“Yeah,” pondered Jim, adjusting his long stride to my short one, “the public welfare. You see, some of those people had light underwear on and some heavy. Some were warm-blooded people like you, and others were cold-blooded like me.”

“I was smothering,” I asserted.

“And the guy behind you was freezing,” said Jim. “It’s hard to adjust temperature to please everybody. It’s hard to adjust anything to please everybody. It depends so much on how much clothing you’ve got on, how much food you’ve eaten, and whether you are hot or cold by nature…”

“Ah, squabble, squabble, squabble…” I admitted.