By Greg Clark, February 25, 1939
“I’d be willing to bet,” stated Jimmie Frise, “that in 25 years the whole world will be Nazi.”
“Never,” I declared.
“By Nazi,” said Jim, “I mean Fascist or Communist or some kind of gang control, like Nazi.”
“Never,” I repeated stoutly.
“Yes, sir,” insisted Jim, “the whole shooting match is moving that way. Slow but sure. You can actually see the trend now, the way you can see autumn coming.”
“I would rather see spring coming.” I put in.
“Well, it’s autumn we’re looking at, all over the world now,” said Jim. “For a hundred years we have had summer. Now comes the autumn of the world. Soon all the trees of a shady and comfortable life will be bare. Soon the fields of human endeavor will be bleak and gray. And all mankind will muffle up and hide away in their lonely shuttered houses against the winter of a stormy world.”
“You talk as if history went in seasons,” I protested.
“So it does,” said Jim.
“We’d never submit to any gang control.” I stated. “Not us. We’ve tasted freedom. We’ll never let go of it.”
“We’ve sold our freedom,” said Jim gently, “for something more comfortable. We sold our freedom for efficiency. We have gradually submitted to efficiency in all things. Electric light is more efficient than candles. Street cars are a more efficient way of going to work than walking, Shoe factories are a more efficient way of making shoes than cobbling.”
“Now, now,” I cut in; “all you want to do is kick against progress.”
“Not me,” disagreed Jim. “All I want to do is show you what progress is. And where it goes. You admit that the biggest effort of the past hundred years has certainly been in making the means of life more efficient in all things.”
“I sure do,” I agreed.
“Okay.” said Jim. “Then the best way to run a country is the best way to run a factory – hand it over to one man or a gang of men, called a board of directors, and let them run it with what they deem to be the maximum of efficiency.”
“Huh, for themselves,” I scoffed.
“Ah, no,” said Jim. “You can’t find a board of directors in the whole of North America, in the whole world, who will admit they are running their company in their own interests.”
“Sure they won’t,” I agreed.
“They are running it,” said Jim, “in the interests of the industry, of the public welfare.”
“Well, the public isn’t faring very well in most parts of the world,” I pointed out.
Life Can Never Be Easy
“It’s their own fault,” declared Jim. “They wanted life to be easy. And life can never be easy. If it comes easy one way, it becomes uneasy some other way. That is all history is – the story of men’s trading one thing for another thing, always in the hope of getting something for nothing.”
“Such as?” I challenged.
“Such as,” said Jim, “this: We grew our cattle and rendered our tallow and molded our candles and so had light. But that was uncomfortable and hard, so we traded that for a corporation that gave us electric light at the touch of a button. But now, when we lose our job because the factory we work for is run by a stupid or ruthless board of directors and we can’t pay our electric light bill, the power is turned off on us, and there we are, in darkness. A more terrible darkness than ordinary darkness because now we have forgotten how to grow cattle and render tallow and mold candles. That is a terrifying darkness. A much more terrifying darkness than any our ancestors knew, however poor and humble they were.”
“Pooh, Jimmie,” I protested; “those ancestors, living in hovels, were at the mercy of any roving robber baron that passed by their shack.”
“Today, how different?” said Jim; only he asked it as a question and raised his eyebrows and looked at me with a mocking expression.
“Well, anyway,” I retorted, even if we have robber barons among us today it is better than being bullied by a dictator and his gang.”
“Don’t be too sure,” said Jim. “Inefficient bullies surely can’t be as good as efficient bullies. Not if there is any virtue in efficiency.”
“You hate efficiency,” I sneered.
“I think it is overrated,” admitted Jim. “I’ve seen it destroy a great deal of human joy and happiness.”
“It made things cheaper,” I pointed out.
“But threw a lot of men out of jobs,” countered Jim.
“It organized a disorganized world,” I declared.
“Ready to the hand.” retorted Jim, “of the ultimate efficiency expert, the dictator.”
“Jim,” I admitted, “I begin to see what you’re driving at. It isn’t that the dictators have taken possession of men. It is only that men have cheerfully handed themselves over to dictators.”
“Now you’ve got it,” said Jim. “The last of all to submit to efficiency were the farmers. But the minute farmers began to organize into co-operatives and take on efficiency machines in trade for greater ease and security, they started to form battalions for some dictator – of their own choosing.”
“Then the only free man now,” I cried, “is the most backward man: the hillbilly, the tramp, the savage.”
“Everybody else,” decreed Jim, “is tossing his freedom away, lining up behind the glamorous banners of efficiency and preparing to march at the command of a dictator.”
“To heck with it,” I said.
“Too late,” said Jim.
“It is never too late,” I cried.
“It is always too late,” sighed Jim. “Look at history.”
“Jim,” I shouted, “we’re newspapermen. Let’s get going. Let us rouse the public. Let us write articles. Let us hold public meetings. Let us stage radio programs. Let us take up the fiery cross of freedom and warn the people of this country where we are headed.”
“They’d never listen,” said Jim.
“Let Us Fight Efficiency”
“Sure, they’ll listen,” I cried. “We’ll make them listen. We’ll stage a revival. We’ll employ the smartest talent. We’ll adopt the most modern and up-to-date methods of propaganda. I don’t mean any countrified little outburst. I mean, take the country by storm. Set it on fire.”
“We’ll be efficient,” said Jim slyly. “We’ll be a couple of dictators in no time.”
“There you go,” I said bitterly; “being cynical about the most sacred things of all, human freedom.”
“No,” said Jim, “I was just agreeing with you. Let us put on a whale of an efficient assault against efficiency.”
“I don’t believe you mean it,” I said cautiously.
“You’re right; I don’t,” said Jim. “Some things are deeper than words or even ideas. And biological trend is one of them. Purely biologically mankind has chosen to be more comfortable by means of efficiency. Efficiency is not a natural thing in men. By nature they are inefficient, happy-go-lucky, decent, amiable, hoping for the best. To adopt efficiency, mankind has to change its nature. One of the changes it has to make is to give up its sense of freedom in being happy-go-lucky, amiable, decent and hoping for the best. In all things, for generations past, we have chosen efficiency. Okay. It is almost complete. In 25 years we will have realized our dreams. We will be efficient. It will not be men who will be our despots. It will be the despot, efficiency.”
“Then,” I cried, “let us fight efficiency.”
“How?” laughed Jim.
“By turning back,” I pleaded eagerly. “By reviving the means of freedom, by refusing to buy factory-made goods.”
“Ha,” said Jim, “a sort of William Morris or Elbert Hubbard revival of the homely arts and crafts.”
“Let us encourage our wives and daughters to knit and weave,” I explained. “Our sons to take up metal hammering and wood working. Let us start a back-to-the-land movement, not amongst the unemployed, but amongst the rich and influential and well-to-do.”
“They’d love it,” agreed Jim.
“It’s the well-to-do we’ve got to rouse,” I cried. “If we show them where they are leading us and themselves they’ll draw back.”
“Most well-to-do people are dictators already in their own sphere,” said Jim.
“But they wouldn’t like to be under a Hitler,” I triumphed.
“They’ll have to like it,” smiled Jim, “because they themselves have proven – in their own field – that authority is efficiency and efficiency is success.”
“Which do we want most,” I demanded, “success or happiness?”
“Now you’ve divided mankind into the four classes,” said Jim. “Those who want happiness, those who want success, those who want both, and those who will sacrifice either for the other. There you’ve got them all.”
“Do you mean to say there are people who want only success?” I asked.
“The business and professional world is full of them,” replied Jim.
“And people who want only happiness?”
“The trades and labor world is full of them,” said Jim. “And the loan shark offices are packed with the people who want both. And the quiet places of the earth, the gentle farms, the little cottages on the edges of villages, are filled with people who have surrendered success for happiness; and the lobbies of hotels and the night clubs and the office lights burning high and late into the night, and all the other lonely places of the earth are filled with those who choose success at the price of happiness.”
“I hate the look of the future,” I muttered.
“There is nothing you can do about the future any more than you can do anything about the past,” said Jim. “It’s all buried deep in the nature of men.”
“Then,” I declared, leaping to my feet, “let’s do something about the nature of men.”
“What do you think,” demanded Jimmie, “the churches have been doing for a thousand years; and schools and ten thousand writers and philosophers and reformers and statesmen?”
I slapped my leg emphatically.
“But we’ve never been in such peril before,” I cried.
“We’ve always been in peril,” replied Jim, “hence churches, teachers, philosophers and statesmen.”
“Let’s take up the torch,” I pleaded.
Beclouding the Issue
And at that instant I smelled a curious smell.
“Phew,” I interrupted. “What’s that smell?”
Jim sat forward.
“H’m,” he said, “it smells like sulphur …”
“Ouch,” I yelled, leaping violently backwards.
My leg was stinging with a sharp bee-like sting, right on the thigh. I reached into my pocket. My fingers stung as if from fire.
“Your pants are afire,” commented Jim, pointing.
A faint cloud of smoke was emerging from my mid region.
“Jimmie,” I shouted, reaching frantically into my pants pocket and attempting to pull the pocket inside out.
“Matches on fire in your pocket,” said Jim, rising to his feet.
“Hyah,” I gasped, scrabbling with one hand to draw out the pocket and with the other holding the front of my pant leg free of my leg.
“You shouldn’t use old-fashioned matches …” commented Jim.
“Help me,” I bellowed, starting to skip around, because the fire was now beginning to scorch my tender leg. “Help.”
“Well, for heaven’s sake,” said Jim, “take your pants off.”
For now an evil-smelling cloud of smoke of scorched cloth and smothering matches was billowing from my pants and I was indeed in peril.
I tore my coat off faster than ever I removed it in all my life, Jim whipped my plaid pullover of me and in a thrice I had slipped my pants down, to reveal a completely charred pocket and a large hole, smoldering at the edges, in both my tweed trousers and my underwear. And on my leg a nasty red spot.
I beat the smoldering cloth out.
“What a silly thing…” I gasped.
“You shouldn’t carry those dangerous old-fashioned matches,” declared Jim firmly.
“They’re the only kind I like,” I stated indignantly. “Those safety ones just go fffff.”
“Then,” insisted Jim, “you shouldn’t slap your leg the way you do. Don’t be so vehement if you’re going to carry dynamite in your pants pocket.”
“I’ll slap my leg if I like,” I retorted, more in indignation than anything, because no man likes to be standing with his pants half off and his clothes on fire and listen to somebody lecturing him.
“Sure, sure,” said Jim bitterly. “And you’re the guy that wants to change human nature and set the world on fire for freedom and you can’t even keep your pants from catching fire.”
“Okay, okay.” I said, “but what do I do now? I can’t go around with a hole in the leg of my pants.”
“There’s a cleaning place across the road,” said Jim, “where they mend all kinds of burns and things.”
“I can’t go over and sit there with my pants off,” I informed him angrily.
“Okay, okay,” said Jim. “Take them off and I’ll take them over and have them patched up somehow and wait for them.”
“Suppose somebody comes in?” I asked.
“Lock the door,” said Jim, “and when I come back I’ll rap three short, quick raps so you’ll know it is me.”
So Jim took my pants and I locked the door, and just to be doubly sure I put my overcoat on and sat at my desk with my legs under it, and tried to think about the way the world is going. But by the time Jimmie got back I hadn’t thought up a single thing. Which goes to show that without his pants a man isn’t much of a thinker.