Many consider the 1960 episode of the Twilight Zone “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” one of Rod Serling’s most astute social commentaries.
The story takes place during a late summer afternoon in small-town America. Children are playing; on front porches, adults are talking. Suddenly there is a shadow, a roar, and a flash of light. The residents assume they heard and saw a meteor. Yet, the power has gone out. Cars and lawnmowers won’t start. Radios and phones don’t work.
One neighborhood boy, Tommy, remembers the plot of a science-fiction story. In Tommy’s story an alien family lives among them as scouts for an invasion; the outages evidence an invasion is underway. The boy tells the adults, “They don’t want us to leave. That’s why they shut everything off.” Initially, the adults dismiss Tommy’s story, but a seed has been planted.
Then one car starts by itself. Neighbors start talking about the idiosyncrasies of the car’s owner. The owner frequently looks at the sky at night. Is that evidence he is an alien? Accusations spread; mere inconsequential human differences are taken as evidence of being a dangerous alien.
Neighbors begin to watch the homes of neighbors they suspect.
Fear grips individuals, and a mob forms that is primed to stampede.
The mob focuses attention on homes where electricity is on. Fights break out. As lights and car engines go on at random, a riot ensues. Someone is shot dead.
The episode ends with the classic Rod Serling twist. The flash of light was an alien spaceship. No aliens were living on Maple Street. The strategy of the aliens was merely to interrupt everyday life, causing the townspeople to devolve from harmony to hatred, from cooperation to paranoia. Conquering Earth, the aliens conclude, will be no problem at all.
The monsters have escaped the Twilight Zone and have come to tony Nantucket Island. Early in this Covid-19 crisis, the wealthy fled to Nantucket to escape the virus. Now cases on Nantucket are rising, and as on Maple Street, “residents are pointing the fingers at each other over who is to blame.” Some cast aspersions on the outsiders who swelled Nantucket’s population; others point fingers at those they know.
Nantucket neighbors are eager to rat out others for perceived transgressions: “For every individual charged with disregarding public-health guidelines, there seemed to be another calling their neighbors out for their reckless behavior either on social media or privately on calls with the board of health.”
Elizabeth Harris is a “nurse working at the local hospital in Nantucket who is in charge of investigating Covid-19 cases on the island.” Harris says, “I get rat phone calls where people will be like, ‘I know that so and so is positive, and they’re at work and they’re driving around without a mask.’ And I say, you know, ‘you should call a board of health about that.'”
In the Twilight Zone episode, one neighbor under suspicion for having an expensive radio pleads, “Stop telling me who’s dangerous and who isn’t and who’s safe and who’s a menace.”
The man turns to the mob, calling out, “You’re standing here all set to crucify – all set to find a scapegoat – all desperate to point some kind of a finger at a neighbor! Well now look, friends, the only thing that’s gonna happen is that we’ll eat each other up alive.”
Who is Playing the Part of Tommy?
Notes in Serling’s screenplay describe Tommy’s words as stirring the irrational. Tommy’s words brought up “fears that shouldn’t be brought up; words which carried with them a strange kind of validity that came without logic but nonetheless registered and had meaning and effect.”
In their book The Price of Panic: How the Tyranny of Experts Turned a Pandemic into a Catastrophe, Jay Richards, William Briggs, and Douglas Axe correctly explain that during the peak of the lockdowns, the public supported criminalization of low-risk human activities such as walking in the park, family visits, shopping at an open-air fish market, and driving. They report:
“This was not a top-down dictatorship imposed on a resistant public. Polls showed that most Americans supported the lockdowns. If anything, we pushed for them. Neighbors snitched on small church groups with gusto. New Jersey posted a form on its website to make it easy to turn your neighbors in to the authorities. In late March, Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti said that ‘snitches’ in his city would ‘get rewards.'”
Who are the Tommies stirring irrational fears throughout the pandemic? We are responsible for our decisions, but we can be primed for irrational behavior as in the Twilight Zone episode.
Richards and his co-authors are not conspiracy theorists, but they do attribute outsized influence on public policy to World Health Organization (WHO) director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. Ghebreyesus, an Ethiopian microbiologist, is “a long-time communist who wanted socialized medicine worldwide.”
The WHO pushed heavily a model of the pandemic developed by Neil Ferguson and his team at the Imperial College, London. The model,
“projected forty million deaths from the virus worldwide. This model—a piece of mathematical guesswork—was the source of the shocking but bogus claim that 3.4 percent of coronavirus infections were fatal. That’s a good thirty times more deadly than the flu in a severe season. For comparison, the 2018–19 flu had a case mortality rate of about 0.1 percent. Policymakers should have been skeptical. Instead, that number became the basis for their response. With the backing of WHO, the dubious Imperial College model gained official status, as did a few experts with narrow specialties.”
Richards et al. are clear, “When dealing with something as complex as a pandemic, such models are, at best, educated guesses—always wrong in the details, but sometimes helpful in showing what we don’t know. At worst they’re bundles of prejudices wrapped in pretentious academic packaging.”
Calling out individuals, such as Ghebreyesus and Ferguson, for their mistakes may help us avoid future errors. Still, throughout this crisis, the part of Tommy has been played by “the science.” Law professor Bruce Pardy observes, “’Obey the science’ has come to mean ‘Believe what we tell you and do as you are told.’” Pardy instructs, “Pronouncements from medical officials deserve skepticism, not because they are bad doctors or scientists, but because they have lost sight of the limits of their own expertise.”
Pardy makes clear, “Science makes an excellent servant and an imperious master. It is a method of enquiry, not an approved set of conclusions.”
In short, “’Obey the science’ is an anti-scientific sentiment wielded to achieve public compliance with political agendas.”
Cheerleading for the official “experts” is the media. Richards and his colleagues explain, “These experts, however, could never have done so much damage without a gullible, self-righteous, and weaponized media that spread their projections far and wide. The press carpet-bombed the world with stories about impending shortages of hospital beds, ventilators, and emergency room capacity.”
Yet, fueling the negativity of the media is the mindset of viewers. As I explored in my essay, There is a More Beautiful Melody than Fear, consumers demand negative news: “News stories are negative because so many of us have a negative mindset. People seek stories of hopelessness because stories of despair reflect their state of mind. Many don’t want their fearful mindset to be interrupted.”
Listening to “Tommy” has consequences. As Richards and his colleagues recount,
“Our fear of the coronavirus did what no real war, depression, terror attack, or disease had ever done before. It not only emptied hotels and airplanes. It shuttered professional baseball and basketball and the Summer Olympics. It closed schools, businesses, and churches. It kept healthy people with near-zero risk of death huddled in their homes for months.”
Why Do We Believe “Tommy?”
Like the residents on Maple Street, the real question is, why do we take actions that lead to eating “each other up alive?” The Arbinger Institute, in their book, The Outward Mindset, argues, “If there is one truism about life, surely it is that we are inextricably and inescapably together.” Attacking each other would seem to be madness.
There was a real problem on Maple Street but false beliefs drove a dysfunctional response. There is a real problem in Nantucket but ratting each other out won’t solve the problem.
The Arbinger Institute draws on the work of philosopher Martin Buber to reflect on the human condition:
“There are basically two ways of being with others: we can be in the world seeing others as they are, as people, or we can be in the world seeing others as they are not, as objects. [Buber] called the first way of being the I-You way and the second the I-It way… We are always in relation, inescapably and reciprocally together, both affecting and being affected by others. We can be connected to others as with people or connected to others as with objects, but we are always connected. Separation is an abstraction. Together is our reality.”
When grounded in the “I-You” way of being, others are people like ourselves connected to us through our interdependence.
When grounded in the “I-It” way of being, others are dehumanized as separate “objects” who are judged by how well they meet our demands.
Grounded in “I-It,” we believe Tommy because we want to have objects to blame. Coercing those we have already dehumanized comes easy.
In The Outward Mindset, Arbinger applies Buber’s insights to define the “Isolated Leader” who sees others as objects to be manipulated:
“The Isolated Leader is an inherently isolated human mind, necessarily apart and disconnected from those he leads. He occupies the position of subject in his experience, which makes those he leads objects in the world of his experience. Which is to say that the leader experiences himself as inherently separate from those he leads. He is the leader and others are the led. “
During the Covid-19 crisis, America has been subjected to many “isolated leaders.” New York City’s mayor Bill de Blasio, who danced with his wife in Times Square on New Year’s Eve while banning other New Yorkers from joining him, is the latest example.
In the UK, the data, according to The Lancet, shows that political hypocrisy corrodes the public’s trust that government can handle the pandemic effectively. Ethan Yang recently called on politicians and experts to have the humility to learn from their hypocrisy and modify their rules.
Through Arbinger’s lens, we understand why hypocritical politicians feel no need to follow their own Covid-19 rules:
“From his separated stance, the Isolated Leader keeps leader-like opportunities, responsibilities, and benefits to himself. He does this not out of malice but as the logical extension of his worldview: leader-like things necessarily attach to the one who is the leader. His responsibilities, obligations, opportunities, and rewards are unique to his leader-self.”
The Isolated Leader, seeing others as separate objects, “is at war with reality.” When the humanity in others is not valued, when the reality of mutual interdependence is denied, cruel, pointless policies are to be expected. Yet, the evidence is clear, “There is no relationship between lockdowns (or whatever else people want to call them to mask their true nature) and virus control.” The AIER staff explains,
“The pro-lockdown evidence is shockingly thin, and based largely on comparing real-world outcomes against dire computer-generated forecasts derived from empirically untested models, and then merely positing that stringencies and “nonpharmaceutical interventions” account for the difference between the fictionalized vs. the real outcome.”
Rod Serling’s patented end-of-episode commentary for “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” provides a timeless reminder:
“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…the children yet unborn.”
During Covid-19, our actions compounded the impact of the virus. If it is true that we get the politicians we deserve, then it is we who must change. Residents destroyed their own community on Maple Street when they started seeing their neighbors as objects. Turning on others with whom we are interdependent is a form of mental illness. The worst economic and social consequences of the pandemic will be over when we decide to wake up from our psychosis. Isolated leaders will never sound the all-clear signal. Our choice is to withdraw our belief in their madness.