The classic “Twilight Zone” was more dialed into the innate flaws of humanity than any sampling of pop culture since perhaps the Bible. Like the Bible, its heroes had great shortcomings and rarely was there an ending without pain. In perhaps his most poignant episode, Rod Serling’s “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” crafts a slow-burn of suspicion as an idyllic 50’s neighborhood descends into madness. Without a morsel of evidence, fingers are pointed, sides are drawn and eventually shots fired. Lives are lost and pandemonium ensues as the alien perpetrators sit back and relish the chaos. It’s as much an indictment of both the fragility of our superficial bonds with neighbors as our built-in desire to see others as guilty. Of what? Doesn’t matter. Anything. So long we come out appearing to have the moral high ground.
We presently need not look any further than social media and our local markets to find a less than subtle microcosm of the lessons of Maple Street. The comments and looks one receives if they aren’t adhering to the latest germ protocol are the initial stages of the maladjusted conjecture Serling warned us about. Violate any of these nebulous and ever-changing rules and you risk the frowning of a lifetime. Or worse – an instantaneous assessment of your moral character. I care more about human life than you. I am noble. You are scum. Never mind that we are all are far more likely to die from a thousand other things than the current crisis at hand.
So to then does paranoia lead to self-importance. Were Serling’s teleplay twenty pages longer we can imagine the next analogy found among the desolate store shelves. Why has this happened? The population of any given town has not increased twenty-fold. People have not expanded their freezer space and I suspect very few of them have developed the ability to can perishables. Likely a huge portion of this food will go to waste, spoiled and then discarded, but hey – no one else got it. Those hundreds of rolls of paper products folks are hoarding? At least their neighbor doesn’t have them.
It’s equally fascinating to read social posts of judgmental peers excoriating those who question authority and might browse for more than ‘essential items’. And who determines what is essential in our free society? Why others, of course. What’s missing is that if you happen to be the manufacturer of so declared ‘non-essential product’, then it is very essential. That scented candle in the home décor aisle might seem superfluous to many, but it’s the life blood of the small business that manufactures and distributes them.
Civilization is going through a truly illuminating social experiment of sorts to determine what kind of neighbors we really are. Will we be like those on Rod Serling’s Maple Street? Gunning down a fellow citizen for not behaving the way we deem appropriate? One has to assume the longer it goes on the more likely the threads of society will be exposed. For every infection point of a virus, anxiety it would seem, is far more contagious. We are chipping away at this fabric not because of what is but because of what might be. Perhaps instead of the constant salutation of “stay safe”, we might consider “stay rational”.
And then look over our shoulder.