Sunday, January 11, 2004

The Twilight Zone and the Fall of Liberalism

Sunday Night Journal — January 11, 2004

I’ve been watching the eight or ten episodes of The Twilight Zone which I taped from the SciFi channel’s marathon in the days leading up to New Year’s Day. Based on these, it seems to me that this show was surely one of the high-water marks of television, and even when one makes the obvious stipulation that such a mark is still not terribly high, it is high enough that many of these spooky and melancholy half-hours remain, some forty years later, enjoyable for their own sake and not just as nostalgia.

What makes them so good?—those that are good, anyway, which is by no means all of them. The technical aspects of film-making have, obviously, come a long way since Rod Serling’s time and whenever the shows require what we now call “special effects”—the rendering of anything that doesn’t exist in the real world—the results make particularly strong demands on one’s suspension of disbelief, and even on the ability to suppress one’s sense of humor. Within their technical limits, though, the shows are visually intriguing and atmospheric (and for my part I like black-and-white photography anyway, whether still or motion). And I’m willing to make an effort to overlook the defects because the stories engage and sustain my interest.

It is not only in their technical means that The Twilight Zone episodes seem clearly of another time. I’m struck also by their highly literary style. Serling’s spoken commentaries are often elaborate and highly figured, as is, where warranted by the plot, the dialogue. They use words in a way—with a weight and complexity—that popular entertainment no longer cares to attempt. This must surely be connected to a general decline in literacy and in the aptitude for the use of language since the ‘50s and early ‘60s. Serling could assume, or at least reasonably hope, that most people would be willing and able to comprehend sentences that no one would use today on television.

There is another quality about these productions which they have in common with many movies and some television shows and music of the period between the early 20th century and the revolution of the mid-‘60s. The best word I can come up with to describe this quality is “adult.” I’m not particularly happy with the term but can’t think of anything better except for synonyms “grown-up” or “mature.” The worship, and faith in the saving powers of, adolescence had not yet taken hold, and many of the characters in The Twilight Zone seem more serious and solid than those in most current popular entertainment. A young man or woman in a Twilight Zone episode seems far more mature and of far more consequence than, say, the characters on Friends. I don't suppose the stars of the ‘50s and early ‘60s were for the most part especially virtuous or noble (but where in the contemporary entertainment world will you find the like of Jimmy Stewart?). Nevertheless they had, at least in their public personae, a dignity that no longer seems attainable. An ironic pose overlaying an essential shallowness and triviality seems to characterize both our entertainers and the characters they play, and if the persons (both real and fictional) seem to want to transcend this they are nevertheless dragged down by the pervasive crudity of the typical movie or television show. The much and justly maligned Cleavers of Leave it to Beaver are improbable but somehow more like what real adults ought to be than the mother and father in Malcolm in the Middle who frequently act like rather unappealing fourteen-year-olds.

Consider what I suppose, on the basis of my fairly limited knowledge, must be the closest thing to The Twilight Zone which has come along since then: The X-Files. I happen to like that show a great deal, mainly for its atmosphere, but Mulder and Scully inhabit, most of the time, the world of prolonged adolescent self-absorption and easy alienation which Hollywood now seems to consider normal at every stage of life. And it seems significant that they are defined by their opposition to the government which employs them. In the tradition of the 1960s, the essential premise of the show is opposition to authority; those in authority are evil or at best weak and untrustworthy, and it is only outsiders who care about the truth.

When the characters in a contemporary movie or television show are not being flip and ironic, of course, they are likely to be self-righteous and self-important and to preach in the most blatant sort of way. The matter of their preaching is for the most part what we loosely call liberalism, often specifically political and nearly always tedious, and I begin to fume, and if possible to escape, the moment it begins.

But The Twilight Zone preaches, too. Of the episodes I taped at random over several days, at least three are fairly thin plots oriented toward making some sort of point about tolerance, the danger of mob psychology, the importance of reason, and generosity toward even the most fallen among us. This was, in the context of the time, liberal preaching. Yet I am not offended or even annoyed; to the contrary, I generally sympathize. This is, I think, because liberalism has suffered, since these episodes were new, a sort of fall.

In Serling’s time liberalism was, or at least wished and tried to be, the advocate of certain virtues, as noted: tolerance, generosity, reason. It is now but a party which proclaims itself the possessor of these virtues, preens itself upon that self-conception, and despises those outside the party. The fatal misstep, perhaps, is found in Shelley’s famous assertion that he would tolerate everything except intolerance. This quickly and I suppose inevitably becomes intolerance of intolerant persons (as opposed to intolerance of the fault itself), then intolerance of persons merely suspected of intolerance, and has now reached a point of intolerance of persons who exhibit any resemblance to persons suspected of intolerance. This (need it be said?) is bigotry.

Liberalism once appealed to our best instincts. Now it is simply another tribe, as rancorous and suspicious of outsiders as any of its enemies, quick to surrender to the ecstacy of mob hatred when that suspicion is inflamed. In this it may be no worse than other tribes, but it merits the special distaste provoked by those who aggressively accuse others of vices which they themselves flagrantly practice. One of the Twilight Zone episodes I taped is about a small-town neighborhood driven to strife by fear that any one of them might be an alien in human disguise. It’s fairly heavy-handed sermonizing, and yet it works because of the way the accusation of secret treachery flits from one person to another while panic spreads like some kind of fast-acting disease: the character who is now counseling restraint and reason may be, in a moment, defending himself and then in short order leading the attack on someone else. The propensity to give way to unreasoning suspicion and violence is a human failing, and Serling’s liberalism would have us all guard our hearts against it. Today's liberalism would offer a list of persons suspected of suspecting. I will be thinking of this episode—it is called “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street”— and its storm of irrational accusations the next time the liberals of the Senate question a conservative judicial nominee.

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