On March 4, 1960, Twilight Zone aired an episode that spoke to Americans coming through the McCarthy era and continues to speak to us today. Titled The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street, it was written by the show’s creator and host, Rod Serling.
The story opens on a typical middle class American community. People work together and play together in harmony. They are good neighbors who know each other well.
As the narrator says…
“Maple Street, U.S.A. Late summer. A tree-lined little world of front porch gliders, barbecues, the laughter of children and the bell of an ice cream vendor. At the sound of the roar and the flash of light, it will be precisely 6:43 p.m. on Maple Street. This is Maple Street on a late Saturday afternoon. Maple Street – in the last calm and reflective moment – before the monsters came.”
The flash comes and things start to happen, power is gone. The citizens start to self-investigate. As they do, the lights begin to go on for one citizen…they begin to wonder if he caused the event. A car starts for another…they begin to wonder about him. The pace picks up, lights flashing everywhere. People who have known each other for years move to distrust, then anger, then, finally, violence and all that has been built is destroyed. The community becomes a mob. The shift happens quickly.
As the chaos expands, the scene cuts to two men on a hill – aliens tasked with taking over the planet. Looking down on what they have wrought, they are pleased with their experiment in conquest…it was easier than they thought. It can be duplicated everywhere.
The narrator closes…
“The tools of conquest do not necessarily come with bombs and explosions and fallout. There are weapons that are simply thoughts, attitudes, prejudices – to be found only in the minds of men. For the record, prejudices can kill – and suspicion can destroy – and a thoughtless frightened search for a scapegoat has a fallout all of its own – for the children – and the children yet unborn. And the pity of it is – that these things cannot be confined – to the Twilight Zone.”
That is the reality television gave us 90 days after John F. Kennedy inspired the nation with these words at his inauguration…
“Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.”
This morning, I read a well-researched story on the front page of the Washington Post. It’s titled Pizzagate: from rumor, co hashtag, to gunfire. The writers, Marc Fisher, John Woodrow Cox and Peter Hermann track the growth of an extraordinary lie, one that is growing and morphing to fit its continuation. (Why take any responsibility for the man who walked into the pizzeria with a gun to “self-investigate” when you can decide on a more convenient reality…he was a government plant to discredit “the truth”.)
As the social media and phone call harassment expands from the pizzeria to other businesses on Connecticut Avenue, I realize that the people who are doing this are not the puppet masters on Serling’s hill above Maple Street. They are just the mob engaged in entertainment. A generation ago they would have been the people playing live versions of Dungeons and Dragons. In those days the only danger was to themselves. In today’s electronic world, it is more.
Towards the end of their article, the reporters have a disturbing conversation with a 24 year old blogger in Ontario. They write that this young mother remains caught up in the thrill of the chase.
“There is a camaraderie to it’, she said. “It is like sitting around with your friends, saying what really happened to JFK. It is like a giant game especially nowadays when you can crowdsource thousands of emails and figure out what’s going on…and it’s happening today.”
So, reality shows no longer need a network. They are in the hands of individuals. The price to others for their mob entertainment will continue to grow.
And, they will continue to be helped by the people who are standing on Serling’s hill over Maple Street. As Serling wrote…
“Suspicion can destroy.”