The Worm Turns

FOR some time there had appeared in the newspapers vague reference to a mysterious personage known as the Grand Vermicularius. He was the head of a secret society which had sprung up very rapidly and had ramifications throughout the country. Its objects were unknown and its membership carefully concealed. It was supposed to be strong on propaganda and to be boring from within. The new organization held no public meetings, announced no programme, made no threats. But it was hinted that the members of the I. O. T. W. might be found in all churches, parties, labor unions, colleges, public schools, and chambers of commerce. The minister of your church, the senior warden, the editor of your daily newspaper, might be affiliated. Even the wife of your bosom might be enrolled as an auxiliary without your knowing it. For, while the initiated had their secret signs and passwords by which they were known to each other, they were pledged to silence as to the order when they were in the presence of outsiders. This secretiveness was terrifying to an open-minded democracy. Even the Grand Kleagle was alarmed over an empire more invisible than his own. Of late several elections had turned out differently from the way they had been planned by astute party leaders. It was suspected, though not proved, that the Grand Vermicularius had something to do with these political mishaps.

The title of the potentate had led many people to consult the dictionary. ‘ Vermicular,’ as an adjective, was defined as ‘like a worm in form or movement, tortuous, sinuous, writhing or wiggling.’ This threw little light upon the nature of the society, but conveyed the impression that its chief officer was a dangerous character.

Various patriotic orders became alarmed and began to send warnings through the mails that there was a vast society doubtless financed by foreign gold and aimed at the very heart of the Republic. They did not know just what it was, but that made the peril more imminent.

All this aroused my curiosity and I determined to have an interview with the Grand Vermicularius. How this interview was finally brought about it is needless for me to relate.

I confess that it was with some trepidation that I came into the presence of this formidable personage of whom I had heard so much. I had formed an idea of what he was like. I had pictured him as a dark saturnine man with black hair and bushy eyebrows, and eyes, such as I had often read about, that bore you right through and reveal your innermost secrets, while all the time retaining their own inscrutability. I had rather expected to be seated in such a way that a single ray of light would fall upon my tell-tale countenance while he sat in semi-darkness.

But when the Grand Vermicularius received me in the sitting room of his modest house on Elm Street all my preconceived notions were shattered. There was an air of imperturbable domesticity in his surroundings. There was not a suggestion of the conspirator or the autocrat. His appearance was that of the ordinary business man of the better type. His manner was frank and friendly, and he entered into conversation like one who has nothing to conceal. ‘I suppose,’ he said, ‘that you want to know about our new order. If you want to find out about our passwords and ritual I have nothing to tell. But if you want to know about our objects and principles I am glad to give you information. The I. O. T. W. — which, being interpreted, is the Independent Order of Turning Worms — is made up of people who have been ignored and trampled upon and misrepresented till we can’t stand it any longer. We have become classconscious. We demand redress of grievances. We have turned! ’

‘So I have understood,’ I said; ‘but what class do you represent.?’

The Grand Vermicularius went to his bookshelf and, taking down a volume of Milton, read, ‘“That hapless race of men whose misfortune it is to have understanding.” That’s us!’

‘Oh, I see what you are driving at,’ I said. ‘You represent the militant intelligentsia. You think the intelligent minority should assert itself against the stupid majority. It is too bad that, where there are so few men of superior ability, they should n’t be allowed to rule over the other kind. I suppose you agree with Mr. Mencken about the unconscionable number of yokels and morons and nitwits who can always outvote the men of understanding.’

‘You have totally misapprehended my meaning,’ said the Grand Vermicularius with a touch of asperity in his voice. ‘When I identified myself with the men of understanding you don’t think that I set up for a superior person! The class I represent is the majority in this country. We are people of plain understanding. We are neither morons nor yokels; neither are we geniuses, bigots, or fanatics. We are people who mind our own business, accept our responsibilities, and are more or less aware of our limitations. We support the churches and schools, and at the same time try to improve them; we pay our taxes, not without some grumbling; we serve on time-consuming committees, and do all sorts of chores for the public. We believe in Progress, but when we get on the train we go only as far as our ticket allows us, for we don’t believe in beating our way to Utopia. We get our opinions as we get our household supplies, according to our daily needs, and on the cash-and-carry plan. We are the kind of people whose existence in large numbers is taken for granted in every scheme of democratic control. Without us trial by jury or universal suffrage would be impossible. We make free institutions work — so far as they do work.

’Our job is not spectacular, but we keep everlastingly at it. We are aware that our modest endeavors do not make an exciting theme for oratory. You have read the inscription on the pedestal of the statue of Wendell Phillips in the Boston Public Gardens, “Whether in chains or in laurels, liberty knows nothing but victories.” This may be true, but most of the time when we have seen Liberty she was neither in chains nor in laurels, but in working dress. She was not having her victories, but in great need of reliable assistants. We are the kind of people who are not above helping her with her chores. Some of us have been working like slaves for free institutions, and mighty little recognition do we get for our labor.

‘The trouble with our class is that nobody takes us seriously. There are so many of us that we can’t get a fair hearing. When people discuss what they call the Social Unrest they always talk about the grievances of minorities. The intellectuals don’t have all the appreciation they deserve; the unemployed don’t have all the work they demand. If a man is a bigot or a crank or an obstructionist, if he is a superman or a pseudosuperman or an underdog, he will be heard. Minorities have a way of organizing effectively, and they adopt more or less terroristic methods. People pay attention to them because they have a way of making themselves dangerous. In the most frigidly polite circles nobody would ignore the presence of a rattlesnake with nine rattles.

‘It’s because we are so patient and make so few unreasonable demands that we are treated so shamefully. We are looked upon as negligible quantities by the very people who would n’t know what to do if we were to go on a general strike. They think we will go on doing our various duties no matter how we are treated. Everyone who wants to get a reputation for cleverness picks upon us. The intelligentsia taunt us for our mediocrity. When we try to cheer up and make the best of a hard situation our critics call us smug. When we are interested in our local community we are called provincial. The eager radicals scorn us because we don’t go far enough. The high-and-dry conservatives chide us for going at all. The cocksure reformers scold us whatever we do. Even the publicity agents chide us because when they try to sell more new ideas than our market can absorb they encounter what they call “sales resistance.”

' Here is an advertisement which appeared in a popular magazine: “Ninety per cent of the population is behind the times. Eight per cent is ahead of them. Two per cent leads the way. Are you of the two per cent?”

‘Of course we know the way one can qualify as a two-per-center: by paying two dollars and a half for the magazine. But I won’t accept the offer. I don’t admit that ninety per cent of the population is behind the times. We are the times.

‘So far as the things that are most vital to democracy are concerned we are all right. We have good horse sense and love of fair play, and enough intelligence to make an interesting society. Ninety-nine out of a hundred people believe in making this the land of the free and the home of the brave. Why don’t we make a better job of it ? ’

‘That has often puzzled me,’ I said.

‘Of course it has,’said the Grand Vermicularius. ‘You are an average man. You mean well. But with reasonable and tolerant citizens like yourself in the vast majority, what do we see? The most amazing outbreaks of intolerance and bigotry take place and you do nothing to prevent them. You seem to be helpless and do nothing but grumble over the excesses of narrow-minded minorities. In every group, social, political, or religious, there are the bigots and the nonbigots. The nonbigots have the numerical preponderance, but they seem to be lacking in backbone. They allow themselves to be misrepresented. It’s because they are unorganized. People of good sense and good temper, I believe, ought to be organized in one big union. Then they would have some influence.

‘I thought of many forms of organization, but they were all too amiable to be effective. One day I had a talk with a friend of mine who was an exDragon. “The trouble with your friends,” he said, “is that nobody is afraid of you. You put your trust in great moral principles. But a great moral principle never scared anyone. It does n’t jump out at a fellow as he is going through the woods, and clutch him with its skinny fingers and make him promise to be good. Nobody thinks about it as an old witch who will catch him if he does n’t watch out. And the consequence is that he does n’t watch out. He makes a polite bow to the great moral principle, and then thinks no more about it. I believe you fellows,” said the ex-Dragon, “could put us all out of business if you understood more about human nature.”

‘That set me thinking. I saw that plain common sense must n’t be made too plain, and I made up my mind to found a new organization. Our organization, to be effective, must have something cryptic about it. As the exDragon said, we must keep people guessing. There must be a salutary mixture of publicity and secrecy. Hence the I. O. T. W.

‘The first thing was to get a totem and a slogan. All the larger quadrupeds like the Moose and Elk and Lion had been already preëmpted. Then I remembered Shakespeare’s remark that “the smallest worm will turn being trodden on.” In a flash the whole thing came to me. I would organize the Independent Order of Turning Worms. Our insignia would be a worm rampant, with the motto “I turn.” Again I turned to Shakespeare and found “A certain convocation of politic worms.” Just the name for the Supreme Council which would meet in the Thrice-Hidden Burrow of the Great Awareness.

‘This Great Awareness is the fundamental principle of our order. The modest man who asks only to be allowed to think his own thoughts and go about his business is often imposed upon by his aggressive associates. But when his rights as an individual are trampled upon the humblest member of the I. O. T. W. is not only aware of it, but is able instantly to make others aware of his awareness. He has only to give the secret sign of our order to be sure of sympathy and assistance in his chosen work of minding his own business, for, as I have said, we are everywhere.

‘The phenomenal growth of our order is explained by the transparent simplicity of our aims and the wellcalculated mystery of our proceedings. You will notice a change that takes place wherever we establish our Burrows. I was talking with an efficient salesman the other day. He was complaining that he had lately encountered a great deal of sales resistance. I smiled because I knew the reason. He had taken a course in psychology and had learned the art, by the right appeal to the subconscious ego of his prospect, of making him buy any amount of goods that he did n’t want. Hut psychology is a game two can play at. We have established classes in our burrows of preventive psychology.

‘Our order cuts across all the lines to which people are accustomed. But there is one thing which unites us in a far-flung brotherhood. Each one is prepared to assert his individuality against the tyranny of the little group of which he is a loyal unit. Our members do not renounce any of their old affiliations — they only make new ones. We are all we used to be and something more. We are Jesuits, Jews, Baptists, Republicans, MiddleWesterners, Socialists, Down-East Yankees, realtors, motorists, behaviorists, vegetarians, professors, capitalists, single-taxers, Congressmen, ministers, archaeologists, and simplified spellers. We allow ourselves to be classified and card-catalogued and psychoanalyzed in all sorts of ways, for the benefit of statistical science. We answer the questionnaires that are sent to us.

‘All members of the order are pledged to keep an open mind. The Commandment which we promise to obey is one that has been much neglected by overzealous persons who are anxious to reform everybody but themselves. It is the Ninth Commandment— “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.” Our Chaplain, who is officially known as the Worshipful Glowworm, preached a sermon on the Great Commandment which is placed in the hands of all initiates. In this sermon he upheld the thesis that the best way to avoid bearing false witness against your neighbor is to be willing to listen to your neighbor when he is bearing witness to his own opinions and manner of life. You should be willing to hear him out. You bear false witness against him when you draw inferences from his statements and attribute them to him. He is not responsible for your logic. You should also learn, said the Chaplain, that it’s bad manners to call names, but if you must do so you must know what the names mean. This is a rule of the order. It is enforced by an officer known as the Formidable Nomenclator. He conducts the much-dreaded Ordeal of the Dictionary. Above his tribunal is a Shakespearean motto — “Define, define, well-educated infant.” Words like “syndicalist, socialist, materialist, anarchist, bolshevist, puritan, Christian, pagan,” and the like, must be defined before they are used. Adjectives derived from collective nouns, like “Jesuitical, Methodistical, Jewish,” and the like, are closely inspected to see that no pestiferous associations are attached to them.

‘We do not allow members to indulge in wholesale accusations such as are to be found in Alexander Pope’s couplet: —

Is he a Churchman? then he’s fond of power:
A Quaker? sly: a Presbyterian? sour.

In each case the indictment must be so drawn up as to point to a single individual and not to include all the members of the group to which he belongs. One sour Presbyterian must not be allowed to destroy the reputation of a whole presbytery which, but for him, may be all sweetness and light. You have no idea how many letters I receive from persons in all parts of the country who have been braced up by our order. Here is one from a high-school teacher: —

‘ Blessings on you, honored Vermicularius, for what you have done for me. I am one of that hopeless race of men whose misfortune it is to teach American history with some understanding of the subject. Moreover, I was rash enough to try to make my pupils understand it too. In making the attempt I got in wrong with some of the most influential persons in the community. One of my pupils reported that I had said that George Washington was a revolutionist. His angry parent came to me and said that I was no fit person to teach children — I was putting ideas into their heads. I very tactlessly told him that that was what I was here for. I afterward explained that I was referring to the American Revolution and not to the Russian, but the harm hail been done. He replied that it was not what I said but the way I said it that made the mischief. His children came home and reported the way Samuel Adams and Patrick Henry talked, just as if they were real people. It sounded seditious. There must be some kind of propaganda behind it.

‘Now if there is anything that makes the cold shivers run down the spines of some of our citizens it’s that word. Tennyson tells how the Northern Parmer riding to the mill heard his horse’s hoofs beating out a single word. (I give the word as our own generation would probably understand it.)

Property, property, property—that’s what I ’ears him say.

These nervous citizens hear another refrain which has to them a sinister sound: —

Propaganda, propaganda, propaganda — that’s what I hear them say.

Now I wasn’t interested in any propaganda. I wanted to teach American history and make it a live subject.

‘Just as I had made up my mind to give up teaching and go to raising chickens, I told my troubles to a member of the school board whom I had most feared because he was spoken of as belonging to the old guard. I told him that I had no ulterior motives. I was n’t trying to influence the next election. My pupils won’t be of voting age anyway for four or five years, and by that time there will be a new set of issues. All I wanted to do was to teach American history.

‘ “That’s what we hired you for, was n’t it?” he said. Then he gave me the mystic sign of awareness and told me about the new order.

‘ “More than half the school board belong to it and a lot of the parents,” he went on, “ When your persecutors bring your case before the board they’ll get a big jolt. We have agreed among ourselves to give up the attempt to make education safe for ignorance. We have turned.”

‘Of late,’ said the Grand Vermicularius, ‘there are evidences that the professors in our colleges are giving up their attitude of lofty detachment and are joining us. They have found that that academic freedom of which they were so proud cannot be maintained as a matter of course and by their own unaided efforts. They need assistance from the community.

’It’s hard for the learned to meet the new conditions. Up to within a few centuries academic freedom meant that scholars could say anything they pleased so long as they said it in Latin. The difficulties of an unknown tongue protected them from the attacks of their enemies, as the Alps protect the Swiss. With the grammatical passes strongly held, the learned in their linguistic fastness preserved their freedom during ages of barbarism. But now that they must speak in the vulgar tongue their protection is gone.

‘Academic freedom is seen to be a part of the general struggle against meddlesome tyranny. As Longfellow puts it, against all that hinders or impedes the action of the nobler will. The professor is a man who professes; he must make common cause with business men, plucky politicians, conscientious plumbers, market gardeners, and all other persons who insist on actually doing what they profess to do. If a gas fitter professes to make a tight joint, he resents the interference of a boss who orders him to do poor work. If a member of our order professes to teach biology, he teaches simon-pure biology. He refuses to have anything to do with biology with a string tied to it. And it’s so with all the other arts and sciences. The professors these days are with us to a man. Our Burrows are full of them.

‘If you have always lived in an atmosphere of intellectual freedom you have no idea of the loneliness of hapless men who have the misfortune to be born with a good understanding without any opportunities for cultivating it, and who live in a community hostile to the interchange of ideas. They arc often ostracized for opinions which they do not hold.

‘Here is a letter from a man in Arkomesoropilis, Arkansas: —

‘I have long been known as the Village Atheist. You know what that means. It came about through my reading a sizable book, a rare incident in our neighborhood. The author said he was a deist, and I said that I agreed with his views. So I was at once dubbed an atheist. I did n’t mean to go that far, but it wasn’t any use for one man to go against the crowd in the matter of a name. It won’t do in our town to make too nice distinctions. It is not our way. I got to feel pretty much alone. But since a Burrow of the I. O. T. W. has been formed here I’ve had, for the first time, what might be called intellectual fellowship. It’s been a real treat to talk things over with people who don’t expect you to agree with them. I find that I do agree with them more than I thought and I’m not so queer as I prided myself on being.

‘The other night the Deputy Nomenclator — who, by the way, is a Deacon in the Fundamentalist Church at the Four Corners — sprang the Dictionary Test upon us. We all recited in concert the ritual, “Define, define, well-educated infant.” This put us in the right mood. He discovered that the word “deist” meant a person who believes that there is a god, and an atheist is one who believes that there is n’t. “If that’s the case,” said the Deacon, “ it makes quite a difference. If you are a deist I don’t see why we should keep on calling you an atheist.”

‘After that we got to be quite chummy. We found we had a lot of ideas in common and he took quite a shine to me. After a time I found that he was making a deep study of the dictionary. One day he came to me and said, “I’ve found fifty-seven varieties of Christians, and I have n t got more than half through the book. You are probably one of the kinds I have n’t found out about yet. If you don t mind, I’m going to take a chance and call you a Christian — at least you ’ll let me put you on the waiting list.” I said I did n’t mind and I’d like to catalogue him as a liberal, of a hard-shell variety. He said he did n’t mind. So he keeps on going to his kind of church anti I keep on not going but we get along first-rate.

‘Some of the more zealous members of the Klan thought we were going too far in taking everybody in and breaking down the usual antipathies, and thought they would run us out of town. So one night they put on their hoods and broke into our Burrow. They thought they were going to intimidate us, but when they looked around and saw a lot of their big men seated with us and wearing the insignia of the worm rampant, they changed their tune. You see, we in Arkomesoropilis are great joiners, and there was nothing to hinder anyone from enjoying the hospitality of both the Klan and the Burrow. Some thought the double membership did them good — that it kind of steadied them. So we asked the young fellows who had come to run us out of town to take off their hoods and stay for refreshments. They did so, and, as the saying is, a very enjoyable time was had.

‘I could read to you a great many more letters,’ said the Grand Vermicularius, ‘but I think you have got a general idea of what we are up to.’

‘Your idea, I said, ‘seems to be a very reasonable one, but could n’t you get it over to the public without so much mystification?’

‘The ex-Dragon thinks not,’ said the Grand Vermicularius.