I have recently begun a long-term goal of mine, watching the original Twilight Zone series in its entirety. I very much admire the series, which I believe to be one of the best shows ever to air on U.S. television. At its best moments, the tiny episodes were perfectly cut gems, 24-minute symphonies of brilliant creativity and organic unity. In the best episodes, every element works perfectly — the casting and dialogue, the cinematography, the music, the mise en scene, everything.
Watching them now, though, I am amazed to see how many of them had deep messages about individuality and something close to modern libertarianism or even conservatism. I found this doubly interesting given that Serling et al were probably known as liberals (which is a fine commentary on how the dividing line of political and personal philosophies has slid over the decades).It is not to say the themes and views are inherently “right wing”; it is that the themes and views are simply common sense.
precisely this point, though, which makes it all so pertinent: The
modern left has degraded to the point that it reflects not the
freeminded but the conformed, not the creative but the confused, not
the liberators but the controllers, not the thoughtful but the rabid.
Serling after all was writing during the highly anxious years of the
space race and the Red Scare; perhaps it is our current state of
anxiety that makes these parallels all the more germane.
Spoiler Alert! – In order to discuss the episodes, much detail, including most of the twist endings, must be divulged. If you have not seen this episode I highly recommend viewing it first, both to experience it with all its intended surprise and to see it without my commentary in your mind. After reading, you may want to watch the episode again.
I. The Monsters are Due on Maple Street
(Season 1 / Episode 22 - Oct 2013)
The Monsters are Due on Maple Street is one of the most iconic episodes of The Twilight Zone, and I will assume familiarity with it – if you have not seen it, you owe yourself the pleasure no only of experiencing this classic television play but also pondering its multi-layered meaning.
The dialogue is as follows:
“Just stop a few of their machines…throw them into darkness for a few hours, and then sit back and watch the pattern.”
“And this pattern is always the same?”
“With few variations. They pick the most dangerous enemy they can find, and it’s themselves. All we need do it sit back and watch.”
On suburban Maple Street in Anytown, USA, a few electrical anomalies and mechanical malfunctions were accompanied by a completely unsubstantiated rumor started by a boy no one trusted – at first. Eventually, everyone became convinced that Maple Street had been invaded by aliens with evil intentions. Each person suspected their neighbor, and violence and destruction ensued.
There are two things at play here, the rapid degeneration of society when our modern conveniences fail, and the prophet/scapegoat scenario. Let’s take the first one first. Look familiar?
During the Boston water main break, the National Guard was sent in to hand out water to those too baffled to know how to boil their own. It was peaceful, but one could see how, on a hotter day or once the H2O ran out, things could have gotten ugly.
And did, during Katrina:
In the episode, the aliens’ plan was to let human society destroy itself, then simple walk in and pick up the pieces. Now, while many on the Right are constantly sounding off about the dangers of cultural degeneration, many on the Left sow the seeds of disunity and distrust through class warfare and identity politics. Also, all those libertarian lunatics who store water and food and try to prepare to thrive when the “SHTF”? If they lived near Maple Street, they’d be fine. Perhaps there were some on Maple Street – once things started to get bad, they would have headed for their shelters and you never would have seen them anyway. Would you consider them crazy? They would not be victim or accomplice of the mania that ensued. What’s more, they would not have been accidentally shot dead in the street by a fear filled neighbor like innocent Pete Van Horn was.
The second part of the tragedy of Maple Street is that none of it needed to happen; if the kid had not planted the seed that there were aliens and that they could blend in with the human population, the unexplained phenomena would have came and passed without much fanfare, or at the very least without societal collapse, property destruction, mistrust and murder.
Why did they all trust the kid? Because he provided a solution, an explanation, and a scapegoat alien enough (no pun untended) that it posed no immediate danger to anyone – but we all know how it turned out.
It is almost always the Left in America that places its hopes on a Messiah, a singular person who can help, or a singular idea which will solve all ills…until later they think of another one, and the old one is discarded. The danger of this is that no one has all the answers – only the Left pretends to. We do not need to be reminded of the ludicrous infatuation the Left felt for Obama in 2008….or perhaps we do:
The only thing in this episode which can be considered a criticism of Right thought was the indictment of McCarthyism – but while most modern Rightists would agree McCarthyism was wrong either in spirit or execution (as Libertarians definitely would) keep in mind in the end of this episode, the alien threat WAS REAL.
II. Eye of the Beholder
Eye of the Beholder is another classic Twilight Zone episode with many overt themes, and brims with anti-collectivist, anti-segregationist, anti-mediocrity and pro-humanist imagery and subtext. The obvious main theme is that beauty in fact is in the eye of the beholder – therefore the beautiful woman in a world of ugliness is herself considered ugly for simply being different from the norm. Forgoing the interesting moral-relativist take one can have on that, let’s delve into the more subtle messages in the episode.
The first thing we see is the woman who cannot see – our protagonist Ms. Tyler, face bandaged and lying in hospital, attended to by a nurse, whose face we cannot see. Because it’s such a famous story, we know why she’s there, but we must suspend disbelief and for the time think of Ms. Tyler and the nurse as equals. But when they first speak, we hear a marked difference. Ms. Tyler asks repeatedly about the weather, the sky, and the clouds, and conjures up all manner of whimsical, human imagery. This compassion and vulnerability is met by the robotic nurse’s cold reply that she never notices such things. Already we suspect, subconsciously, that Ms. Tyler deserves this world more than the nurse, or at least appreciates it more. Ms. Tyler is real, she is an individual; the nurse is a rusty cog in an old, inefficient machine. But perhaps I’m burying my lead…
Eye of the Beholder holds some chilling hints of what will soon become reality for Americans, or what sadly is already in the process of becoming reality.
We learn that this is Ms. Tyler’s eleventh procedure at the state-run hospital; the doctor admits this will be her last trip as “eleven is the mandatory number of experiments; we’re not permitted to do anymore after eleven.”
Permitted by whom?
The doctor seems more human and compassionate than the nurse, as if he is conflicted between his legitimate desire to help Ms. Tyler and the restrictions placed upon him by…who again? No one knows. But something or someone is preventing a doctor from doing all he can or all he wants to in order to help a patient. The Hippocratic Oath has thus been superceded. In place of “First do no harm”, now there is “First do as we say, for as long as we say, then stop when we say”.
What, at this point, is the purpose of a doctor? If his role is reduced to that of a mere puppet the medical field itself is likewise reduced to mere theatre.
Then there is the blood-chilling scene when the doctor touches ever so delicately on the topic of “alternatives” after the state-sanctioned limit to treatment has been reached. Perhaps it’s just that the scene is well played, but it makes my heart skip a beat every time. Perhaps I see more in it than Mr. Serling had intended. I wonder what types of episodes he’d be making today?
“Each of us is afforded as much opportunity as possible to fit in with society”, he says.
Is “fitting in” the ultimate goal of life? And even if it is, who determines how much opportunity is “as much as possible”?
He asks her to “think of the time, money and effort expended” on treating her.
This is a phrase that Americans will hear more and more. After all, provisions are limited, and everyone must have the same treatment, right? Well, it’s not like we’ll need rationing. Then he gets a little defensive, possibly from her forcing him to face that he knows the system is inadequate and broken, and he admonishes her – she should be grateful for whatever care she gets.
“The State is not unsympathetic, your presence here proves that”.
Paging Ms. Sebelius…There was no medical care at all before the State, you twig-chewing Neanderthal. How quickly his tone changes when the lowly patient starts to question the ability, competence, or benevolence of the State. Think that’s fictional? Find the closest liberal and politely question their beliefs (you might want to duck or wear bodily protection before doing so. Bonus - the cleaner cut and professional the liberal is, the funnier the ensuing meltdown).
“You’re not being rational”, the doctor says, and Ayn Rand rolls over in her grave.
The misapplication of the concept of “rationality” has led to other social constructs (see social Darwinism, white supremacy, and Soviet indoctrination), when in fact the true application of rationality utter destroys these untruths.
Of course, the doctor advises Ms. Tyler into self-exile if the “treatment” fails…one can see this as a reflection of racial segregation or, as Ms. Tyler puts it, the corralling of undesirables into “ghettos”…remember the last time that happened? What can go wrong!
“THE STATE IS NOT GOD!” She finally declares, and while everyone in any audience feels solidarity with her, it is difficult to imagine how liberals can tie their psyches in knots trying to justify relating to that fact – Ms. Tyler after all follows up her tirade with “the State can’t make ugliness a crime” – well, it hasn’t, says the liberal. All right, replace “ugliness” with “smoking”, “obesity”, or “questioning the State”.
When the State decrees that questioning the State is a crime, we’ll all be glancing behind us, wondering why we can’t see the Rubicon anymore.
In the later half of the episode, the already dark plot slides even further toward the abyss when we learn that with the State-sanctioned mandate of equality, it is not simply beauty that is banned, but differentness. Thus is exposed the commentary on every dictatorial regime of the past century – the ruler who only wants to rule those who fit his mold; the denial and violent opposition to any idea which is not in lockstep with the party line, and the fascistic use of the unified power of government, business, healthcare, social leaders and education to enforce and police the citizen-subjects from cradle to grave. But perhaps I’m reading too much into this – please watch it yourself, it’s Episode 6 in Season 2 – you decide.
When the nurse escapes Ms. Tyler’s room to gossip with a coworker, she asks if she has seen Ms. Tyler without the bandages. She replies in the affirmative, and asserts that “If [her face] were mine I’d bury myself in a grave someplace”, another subtle hint about what the human animal must be reduced to, what little value it must be taught to place on its own existence or human life in general, for a world like this to exist – Is something inconvenient, or worse yet, contrary to our beliefs? Kill it; in fact, it has an obligation to kill itself. Really think about that, and see if you notice the theme in your day-to-day conversations, TV watching, or reading. If you do, run in the opposite direction.
Oh, and the nurse finally adds: “Poor thing – Some people want to live no matter what.” No, nurse #2, not some people. PEOPLE. People want to live; thinking humans with minds and souls have the unquenchable desire to exist. Perhaps the concept is foreign to her because it had been so long since she parted company with them.
III. The Lateness of the Hour
(Season 2 / Episode 8 - Dec 2013)
Season 2, Episode 8 is entitled The Lateness of the Hour, and I find, as in many of The Twilight Zone episodes, that this choice of phrase bears a double meaning. Now, The Lateness of the Hour is far from TZ’s best efforts…its predictable plot twist is made more obvious by the slow pacing of a miniscule amount of story information (a common fault of some of the more pedestrian episodes…perhaps Serling would have enjoyed exploring today’s 15-minute late night comedies or the 5-minute driveby “webisode” in addition to the traditional 22min (then 25min) format. But I digress). Nevertheless, as is the case in both the best and not-so-best TZ episodes, there are some wonderful lines, and a great monologue. They are great because they resonate with the audience, to our ineffable humanity. To our natural human thirst for expressing individuality.
What follows is a journey through the episode, with links (as always) to parallels in our own world.
The story revolves around a well-to-do family, made rich by Father’s genius inventions. In fact, the first sound we hear, aside from a crack of thunder, are the indulgent, nearly orgasmic groans of delight emanating from Mother, who is getting a deep massage from what we first assume is the maid but later learn is the raison d’être of the family’s wealth – a life-like humanoid robot servant.
It seems that Father’s technological genius has created innumerable inventions to keep the house at a constant 72 degrees, select the most optimal lighting conditions at all times, and above all manufacture a crew of robots visually indistinguishable from their human masters. These inventions have made an insulated world of mindless, numbing comfort and predictability. They eat dinner at the same time each day, and when daughter Jaina suggests going out to a restaurant, Father honestly wonders why.
“Why in the world would we go out to a restaurant?”
“I don’t know, it’s just that it would be...different.”
“Yes, I have no doubt it would be different. We’d walk through the rain and get ourselves sopping wet. And we’d eat some greasy, unpalatable food served off of dirty, unwashed plates. And after that it would be a moot question whether we’d succumb to tomain or pneumonia.”
Are you starting to see? The house provides everything you can need. It provides everything you will need. Why risk the big scary world out there, filled with variables and danger (read: free market)? Whatever fleeting thrills the unrestrained outside may offer, they are obviously inferior to….well, to what exactly? We’ll find out.
In here, everything is controlled. Why can’t Jaina just slip ever deeper, like Mother, into the living coma that is their existence?
Jaina’s increasing frustration with the prison-like reality of her existence results in a showdown where she confronts her father and the army of servants, and the audience wonders which is the more powerful foe, the stony, unfeeling machines or the human mind which created them. What follows is a monologue that would make John Galt smirk. An excerpt:
“Time is running out, Father. Instead of controlling you’re being controlled. Why, you’re becoming dependent [back when that was a perjorative term I suppose]. You’re reaching the point where you won’t be able to exist without them. Destroy them, Father. Get rid of them. Dismantle them.”
This battle cry of freedom goes on in various scenes, but within certain conversations more interesting connections are made our modern reality. Two viewpoints:
Perhaps the robots can be seen as government programs, created with the best of intentions, but once created, become monstrously immortal, creating ever-increasing dependence on government largesse, while allowing humanity to atrophy. Father implores, “Jaina, they’re not just machines…you know how many hours I spent at developing them and perfecting them.” The hubris of self-aggrandizement has blinded father to the realities he has created. With your indulgence, dear reader, I quote Ian Malcolm:
Inapplicable, you say? Government programs are not dinosaurs, you say?
Or, perhaps the robots are a commentary on governmental interference with job training and higher education. Father, perhaps tipping his hand, goes on to brag about how each robot was designed for a specialized task. Efficient, yes, but as he himself admits, “the handyman knows nothing beyond being a handyman.” Three cheers for social engineering and pigeonholing the workforce, as well as conditioning for learned ignorance.
Either way, the robots remain inescapably part of the “governing system” of the household. Ironically when Jaina compares her life in the house to that of a human vegetable kept alive in a hospital, the maid comes in to give Mother, against her own protestations, her daily pill. “Take your medicine” metaphors, as well as Obamacare references seem gratuitous here, as this will quickly become the new normal unless some modern-day Jainas out there fight to change it.
In a climatic scene, Jaina finally attacks Mother and Father directly:
“I’m acting like a woman who wants something more than just to be massaged five times a day. Or a man who thinks paradise is having his pipes filled and refilled and having his slippers put on a taken off. I’ll give you a choice – get rid of them, or I’ll leave.”
As she is marching out, she is chastised by a chorus of the robot servants. Why can’t this troublemaker just keep her divisive mouth shut? How ungrateful she is for all the comfort and predictability Father and the robots have provided her. She’s just an insolent, ungrateful mooch – or worse than that, as we’ll find out – she’s a hypocrite.
But first, another interesting facet: when Father surprisingly agrees with Jaina and orders his robots into his lab to be dismantled, they understandably fight for their existence. The parallels are obvious. Father, for the sake of the episode, retains the power to order them out of existence, but we all know in reality the army of steel could easily have ended Father when he tried to interfere. Where do we stand today? Does a “Father” or a “Jaina” in today’s world retain enough power to dismantle our robots, or would they simply band together and unleash an avalanche of murderous steel on whatever brave voice sought to call them for what they were? Who can tell.
Now, full disclosure, the twist of course is that Jaina herself is one of the machines, a daughter-robot created by Father to have a family. While some would argue this makes her ranting for freedom hypocritical or at least ironic, it is important to remember two things – first, Jaina slowly comes to realize her true identity over the course of the episode, her Father having erased any memory of her robot heritage from her mind.*
Secondly, her mere identity as a robot is not as important as the validity of her stance (only a liberal would put so much importance on identity and so little on outlook). Thirdly, and perhaps most germaine, Serling just couldn’t resist throwing in a double plot twist, however hackneyed it might have been…so forgive this unnecessary dramatic device which lowers this episode’s stock and confounds this metaphorical analysis; had it been omitted, both would have been more sound.
After all, when Jaina realizes her identity, she despises it rather than accepts it. And besides that, Father’s monstrous solution to the “Jaina problem” is to simply reprogram her as the new maid, to replace the one he was forced (by Jaina) to dismantle. Father and Mother still have their “daughter” around, and have a new set of hands to fill their pipes and massage their skin. That was, after all, all they ever wanted – unquestioning servitude.
A final thought: When Jaina, in a private moment with her Father, explains calmly that she just wants the window open and the sun to come in, Father replies that would destroy his life’s work. Anyone remember the (liberal) saying from the 70s, sunlight is the best disinfectant? It’s still true. So let’s open some windows, and bask in the free sun. If the (government)-controlled environment can’t survive that, it was an illusion all along. And above all we must remember The Lateness of the Hour.
* The real-world parallels of our robots fighting against their own nature when humbled by the light of truth are extremely rare, but should be greatly celebrated. The public sector union members who eventually starts speaking out against their hegemony; the administrator of some wasteful bureaucracy who publicly moves to have his department liquidated; even Jane Roe is a great example, though one that has been swept under the rug. But the facts are out there for those willing to look.
IV. A Penny for your Thoughts
This episode is simple in concept and execution yet broad in implications (as the best are). The political commentary is clear-cut and eternal, yet holds a special significance these days. The message? The transformative nature of a state of absolute surveillance.
This episode’s set-up is one of TZ’s most well-known – mild mannered bank assistant Hector Poole tosses a quarter for a newspaper, and it lands on its edge. Immediately Poole is able to hear the thoughts of everyone near him, and goes through a few distinct phases:
First, he uses his newfound power for his own amusement. He surprises the security guard and impishly embarrasses a big depositor. He eventually has to start staring at people’s lips to separate what they say publically with their mouth and privately in their thoughts. If he is not looking right at them, he can’t distinguish the difference, which gets him in trouble when he outs a borrower who is planning to gamble away a large loan.
At this point, Poole has followed a pretty standard path of development of a new skill – first he flaunts it, wasting its value mostly, then he wields it on purpose, but awkwardly. In saving his lady friend from the office jerk, we see him do something chivalrous, but this also marks the moment when Poole gains full control over the his power and uses it vindictively. What could go wrong?
In the third phase Poole is at his greatest strength, and it’s then that he makes the biggest mistakes and becomes the most dangerous. He overhears the thoughts of a milquetoast old employee stating he plans to rob the bank. Poole tells his boss, who initially rejects the idea out of hand, but is slowly convinced that this “future crime” is credible and action must be taken. The manager not only stops the old man, but brags about his hitherto nonexistent suspicion, “I’ve had my eye on you for a long time!”
Of course, the old man is innocent. So what did Poole overhear? The man clearly was thinking through the steps to rob the bank. Where did Poole’s powers fail him? The old man gives the explanation: robbing the bank was simply a dream of his, which he would never go through with. “Don’t you ever dream, Mr. Poole?” he asks. Poole suddenly realizes the fatal problem with absolute surveillance, and what separates intelligence from mere information is context. Eventually Poole starts to go insane, unable to turn off the thoughts he hears. “Until today, everything was normal. I was happy. It’s like seeing people with their clothes off. At least I learned one thing – people are not like you think they are at all.”
I haven’t been making the obvious parallels to modern society and the surveillance state, but perhaps they are all too clear. In news story after news story, further layers of the onion are revealed. The NSA is tapping the Associated Press. Security Agencies are listening in to overseas calls. No wait, it’s all calls. They are following our doings on the Internet. No, wait – they are caching every email, every keystroke. They’re not even reading them, they’re just holding them for…what exactly? Perhaps to react like the inept bank manager when someone is convicted of some future infraction - “I’ve had my eye on you for a long time!” But wait, wasn’t the old man in the episode innocent? Wasn’t he emblematic of the horrendous injustices inherent in a system of absolute surveillance? Careful, now, watch what you say. Rather, you don’t have to, but someone else is.
Outside, city CCTV cameras record most of our every moves, and google street-view cars take care of the rest. Your computer and phone can be searched even when turned off, and can be remotely and covertly turned on to monitor you. The NSA have been in collusion with the major IT companies to share information outside of context (what if you were judged based solely on your internet searches?). On how long you watched a youtube video? What about warrants? Recently, the latest – even Internet encryption is not impervious to their reach.
Where does that leave us? Well, like Mr. Poole said, it’s like being seen with all your clothes off (which they can probably do too*). But more importantly is where it leaves them, the Poole-Factum-Leviathan.
*This one’s a joke**
Poole initially conceived his power as so vast he didn’t even know how to use it, which ultimately was its most accurate appraisal. Technology has enabled our level of surveillance and further advancements in technology will lead inexorably to an increased ability to snoop. When he first used his power, he did so awkwardly and with mixed results (perhaps this is the phase we find ourselves in now). But it was when he fully exercised his power when he was the most dangerous - not because of any moral outrage but because he was simply wrong, drawing conclusions which his unbridled power seemed to warrant but any straight-thinking person would dispute. It’s also important to notice that when it all falls apart Poole apologizes for his wrongful accusation and is fired – think either of those things will happen in our scenario?
Oh, one more thing – Poole, little mild-mannered Poole, does end up getting his job back. By blackmailing his boss. Perhaps he is a pretty accurate depiction of our present station…
In perhaps the most telling moment, at the
ability to hear people’s thoughts is lifted, and the main emotion he
feels is relief. Relief that he is again
“normal”, that people’s private lives are again private…after all, even
Poole’s record was marred by error and corruption, and he
V. The Rip van Winkle Caper
A short interlude for a short month – toward the end of season 2, there is an episode called The Rip van Winkle Caper. It’s not one of the gilded episodes, but the twist is quite unexpected. Forgiving its flaws (it opens with a plot exposition complex enough for a movie, which takes up most of the episode’s runtime), it is the twist itself that provides an interesting link to some modern problems, and makes the episode end up in unexpected territory. This post will as well. Let’s dive in…
The story, as mentioned, is poor and unbalanced. But it’s the ending that matters. Gold thieves plan to cryogenically freeze themselves until the manhunt cools down, then awaken to spend their riches. Of course, they wake up hundreds of years in the future, and one thief kills the other while guarding one precious gold bar. He sets off from the hiding place, which unfortunately was in the middle of the desert, clutching his valuable prize, and eventually drops dead from exhaustion.
This episode seems to have more of a commentary than a clear moral. But the commentary is clear, and its implications are multifaceted: the nature of value is scarcity. Now, this isn’t necessarily a political point, or a social one, but it is so basic that it ramifies into numerous different fields. Some thoughts:
• The idea of valuing that which is scarce most likely goes back to prehistory, and thus can be considered a basic element of human existence. Moutain people prized seashells; the Silk Road brought Asian wares to Europe. Manhattan was purchased for a trifle, insignificant to the Dutch, but desired by the Indians.
• Speaking of worthless money, the idea that this episode has particularly to do with gold is interesting (and ironic that gold becomes worthless through ubiquity). A little primer, if you don’t already know, on fiat currency.
• Perceived value (investor sentiment) can be a powerful force. Flower fans, consider this and then this. The gold market of course is highly subject to investor sentiment, but so is everything else. Remember how everyone thought in 2005-6 that house values could not go down?
• Which brings us to the concept of bubbles and boom-bust cycles, and the difficulty in discerning the actual value of anything. Which brings up that classic capitalist-inspired sentiment your item is worth what someone is willing to pay for it. The thief robbed and killed for his gold, which was discarded like an old tulip by a future person who saw no value in it.
• Today we grapple with an added problem in markets, as high speed and automatic trading algorithms are spit out by computers faster than anyone can react to them, having the potential to upend entire markets.
• And all that economic blather is nothing compared to scarcity as applied to you. As futurists and tech companies are making their predictions for the future of artificial intelligence (AI), one has to wonder: what is it inside us that make us unique (read: scarce (read: valuable))? We are already seeing mechanical advancements in robots endangering the low-skilled tier of the human workforce, what about when machines can learn faster than humans? What when they are consistently stronger and longer living, without need for upkeep or maintenance? What when they can replicate human consciousness, the ineffable spirit of humankind which, like the gold in this episode, was once revered for its scarcity and uniqueness?
What then, the episode ultimately
postulates, is the nature
VI. The Obsolete Man
(Season 2 / Episode 24 - Mar 2014)
This month – a slight diversion.
This blog was formed to illustrate elements of right-wing (individualism, small-government, creativity, risk and reward) thought in an otherwise left-wing environment (Ithaca NY in the 1960s and 70s, where The Twilight Zone was conceived). The implications of the sliding scale, how the mainstream left wing of then has become the mainstream right wing of now, is a shocking shift in the political spectrum. If today’s moderately conservative are inline with the moderately left-wing of a half century ago, it shows how far the spectrum has tilted left in the intervening years.
But with The Obsolete Man, the final episode in Season 2, we see not only how a strange situation of today illustrates truths about a world gone by, but also how this phenomenon is universal – there are elements in The Twilight Zone meant to unnerve and shock the audience which, decades before its creation, were seemingly innocuous, even celebrated events.
First, the cinematography: in The
we see a dystopian future (of course) where
citizens are led before a tribunal to prove their work has value (to
and they are not, indeed, obsolete. If the tribunal, in their infinite
infallible wisdom, finds that you are obsolete, then it is only the
duty of the
state to liquidate (that would be execute) you. Serling and his
cinematographers and set designers picked all the great clichés
for the scary
tribunal room – the stark lighting, the high angles, the
of the tribunal members, these people who hold so much fate in their
Scary stuff. But it reminded me of
something, something I
had seen before, something not
fictional, but in the real world.
Oh yes. Just as creepy. Yet this is not the set of some sci-fi horror flick, it’s the signing ceremony which opened the United Nations in 1945. Nothing utopian about the United Nations, right? It’s shocking that the elements by 1970 we universally agreed would be “scary” for an unthinking behemoth of state overreach were so similar to those which were legitimately used by these unthinking nit wits to create a behemoth of state overreach. One wonders what the League of Nations looked like when it opened for business – something like a mix of a Nuremburg rally and a Superfriends conference?
The fact that the actual opening of the U.N., the press photo staged to best show whatever its creators wanted to show, is more akin to a dystopian nightmare about the mortal dangers of bureaucracy could be an article in itself. But for now just let it sink in.
’Cause there’s more…
The man trying to prove his non-obsolescence, Romney Wordsworth, is a librarian. The library was the historical repository of knowledge, but now through an unidentified combination of technology superceding books (sound familiar?) and the state desiring control of information (sound familiar?) libraries and thus librarians are deemed obsolete.
As an aside, if you have the instrospection of try to discern good and evil in the world, in any situation look to who is seeking to destroy – and there is the evil.
When Wordsworth appeals to the idea of God, the tribunal replies “The State has proved there is no God.” Besides the obvious deductive fallacy in this statement, it interestingly echoes an earlier TZ episode. In Eye of the Beholder, Mrs. Tyler declares “The State is not God!” In Obsolete Man, the state finds a way that they don’t have to be.
Wordsworth of course is sentenced to die that night and gets to choose his method of execution (who ever said the state isn’t benevolent?). Here the God issue develops further, and becomes the pivotal argument in the conclusion of the story. Wordsworth locks himself and the state’s Chancellor in his explosive-rigged apartment and, while the hidden cameras broadcast the scene live to national television, he calmly argues with the increasingly agitated Chancellor.
Wordsworth doesn’t fear death, partially because of his faith in God and perhaps partially because he longs to escape the nightmare world he lives in. The Chancellor of course becomes increasingly scared and ends up begging for his life, which Wordsworth ultimately grants.
But the damage is done – although he escapes with his life, he does not keep it for long – the next person called before the tribunal is the Chancellor, who cannot defend his non-obsolescence. The irony of the state becoming so large it attacks itself, like a rabid animal or the mythological ouroboros, is delicious.
But it is during their time locked in the apartment that strong statements on faith are made – Wordsworth has a secret Bible, banned by the state (sound familiar?) but read openly, on live television, in his hour of need, for comfort. And as a weapon. You see in choosing not only the method of his execution, but his deportment during, Wordsworth, like the Christian martyrs of antiquity and hunger strikers of today, has exercised the epitome of power. It is an individual power.
A concept that is not spoken outright in this episode but eluded to throughout is the concept that the individual’s fight against a bloated self-important bureaucracy is not the struggle of belief vs. atheism, it is the struggle between belief in a supernatural god-creator of human things and belief in a human-created thing itself – the state. The Chancellor and the tribunal are not simply anti-religion government workers, they are the priests and prophets of a new religion, the religion of the state.
Anyone who thinks that likening big-government supporters to religious zealots is an unfair comparison should search for things like “environmentalism as religion” or “statism as religion” and see what arguments come up. It’s an issue too large for these pages, but the general concept is that humans have a need to interface with a God-like entity, and if atheism reigns (as it has in all statist societies) those energies and that relationship must be grafted on to something else – the creation of a safety net which provides security (social justice) or a doctrine which spouts doom and gloom consequences for our immoral behavior (environmentalism) easily fill the void. Then the adherents defend their position as a religious zealot would.
Disagree? Try arguing with them.
But to return to the episode for a wrap up, the crux of the argument is made in a pair of bookend quotes from Serling’s opening and closing monologues. Setting the stage he says “This is not a new world - it is simply an extension of what began in the old one. It has refinements, technological advances, and a more sophisticated approach to the destruction of human freedom. It has one iron rule: logic is an enemy and truth is a menace.”
Disagree? Like I said, try arguing with them, and you’ll see how far logic and truth get you. At the end, he adds: “Any state, any entity, any ideology which fails to recognize the worth, the dignity, the rights of man, that state is obsolete.”
Oh, Rod….now who’s being idealistic?
VII. The Shelter
(Season 3 / Episode 3 - Apr 2014)
Ok, so the lesson of this one is short and
The simple story – one person on the block, the neighborhood doctor, is ridiculed for building a bomb shelter for his family. That is, until an emergency broadcast tells of a probable missile attack. Mr. Prepared locks himself and his family in his shelter, as he had planned, and one by one the unprepared neighbors visit to beg their way in.
As you can imagine, the previous group of friends rapidly deteriorates into desperate parents trying to protect their children – something perhaps they should have thought of before this day, as the doctor had. The desperation quickly turns to rage and mob-mentality as tribalism takes over. The doctor, so recently a beloved friend, is now the other and must be coerced, punished, or destroyed.
Never mind that he offered his basement to a neighbor who had none. Never mind that he stated that taking any additional people in to the small space would be a death sentence for everyone. And never mind that the mob tries to break down the shelter door to get in, even though that would render the shelter useless for all. Mob mentality rules and a “you-have-what-I-want-so-I’ll-smash-things-until-I-get-it” ethos reigns.
The theme becomes writ large when the pitchfork-laden townsfolk seek out a battering ram to smash in the shelter door. Someone’s got one a few blocks away....but wait, one of them say – if we go get it that other neighborhood might know our neighborhood has a shelter...they’d swamp us and we’d all die! The irony of scale of course is lost on them.
Serling said at the end there is “no moral” to the story...but oh, there is – BUILD YOUR OWN DAMN SHELTER and BE PREPARED.