‘Monsters’ among us can be turned back

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Reflections from my Notebook

One of the activities my wife and I enjoy around New Year’s Day is watching vintage “Twilight Zone” episodes. We don’t sit and watch the entire marathon of shows, but catch various episodes here and there. Even though we’ve probably seen every one, the moral lessons resonate in different ways through the years, depending on what is happening in the present.

The shows are dated in some respects as they are shot in black and white, the styles are from 1959 to 1964 when the series first aired and the narrator, Rod Serling, is always smoking a cigarette. However, each episode, in which characters find themselves dealing with often disturbing or unusual events, a clue they are entering "the Twilight Zone," ends with a surprise and often a moral lesson.

One episode that particularly resonated this year was “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street,” set in an ordinary town in 1960 where strange occurrences, such as random, isolated power outages suspected to be due to aliens, rouse the citizenry.  At first the friendly neighbors come together to support each other, but as more strange things happen, they turn on each other, eventually becoming an angry, violent mob chasing down suspects.

The ending shows there really were aliens throwing a wrench in the normal workings of a neighborhood. The conversation between two of them reveals that they discovered they don’t need to directly attack humans to take over Earth. Instead, their goal is to stoke fear in people to let them destroy themselves one neighborhood at a time.

“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,” narrated Serling at the end.

Although it is thought Serling was alluding to the Red Scare during the 1950s, the morality lesson has relevance today as we are seeing that prejudices can kill and a thoughtless, frightened search for a scapegoat can lead to fallout of its own.

Since the “Twilight Zone” series has aired, politicians have used fear to get what they want, even back in 1964 when Lyndon B. Johnson aired a television commercial featuring a 3-year-old picking a daisy in a serene environment that is interrupted by a mushroom cloud, ending with the narrator telling voters the stakes in the election are high, a veiled attack on his presidential opponent, Barry Goldwater, who was a military hawk.

However, in recent years, the political fear-mongering has gotten ugly, centering on entire groups of people who are different, either due to color, nationality, religion or beliefs. Those inflamed fears may have entered in to the neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, where one person died, mass shootings of black people at a church in South Carolina and of Jewish people in a synagogue in Pennsylvania, an increase in hate crimes across the country and general incivility, particularly toward foreigners and immigrants, even legal ones.

The unfolding of these sorry events, one after another, probably has many people thinking Serling was right, we are slowly destroying ourselves from within.

However, if we take a step back and rationally think about the human condition, in many ways these are just temporary blips. Overall, things really are getting better.

For one thing, the “Twilight Zone,” which held a light to our moral failings, was a popular show. Many people do have a conscience and appreciated Serling pointing out where we went wrong.

Most people want to do the right thing and many changes have pushed the country more toward an accepting society than a narrow-minded mob since the airing of the “Monsters” episode in 1960. For example, the Brookings Institute found that in 1958, 44 percent of white people said they would move if a black family became their next-door neighbor; today the figure is 1 percent. In 1964, the year the Civil Rights Act was passed, only 18 percent of whites claimed to have a friend who was black; today 86 percent say they do while 87 percent of blacks assert they have white friends.

In most ways, our society is much more accepting of differences, even if a violent few can’t accept those changes.

Through the years, there has been, and will continue to be, people like Serling who point out the lunacy of our prejudices and the consequences of making scapegoats out of people not like us. We may not realize it, but those visionaries have more of an impact on our society than the fear-mongers do as many ordinary people are taking stands against the divisiveness that leads to hatred.

While the isolated acts of violence may shock us, making it seem like we are entering the Dark Ages, or the “Twilight Zone,” with the seductive, fear-mongering rhetoric that is turning neighbor against neighbor, leading to suspicious mobs looking for a scapegoat, there is an even greater pushback by people who believe we can get along, even with our differences.

It’s not going to happen in a 30-minute episode — not that the trend would make a gripping “Twilight Zone” episode anyway — but we really are on an upward trajectory, something that should provide comfort to people still reeling from these recent, dark, real-life episodes who feel America is better than this.