First, Mrs. Brand seems baffled by the power that’s turned off as she's cooking soup. Then a neighbor discovers her phone has stopped working. Then someone’s radio malfunctions and a power mower in the neighborhood breaks down mysteriously.
The Monsters are Due on Maple Street.
When this melodrama aired on The Twilight Zone on March 4, 1960, with a spellbinding script by Rod Serling, I'd recently turned 8. McCarthyism had ended just a few years earlier, although the Cold War still raged.
The plot of the 30-minute segment was chilling for everyone who watched that night: an all-American suburban neighborhood comes undone when neighbors begin turning on one another as each strange, inexplicable occurrence ignites suspicions of one another, turning neighbors into suspects, into possible “space aliens,” according to one Maple Street boy’s interpretation that stirs a nightmarish conspiracy theory.
"They don't want us to leave,” the boy tells the panicked adults. “That's why they shut everything off. ...That was the way they prepared things for the landing. They sent four people. A mother and a father and two kids who looked just like humans...but they weren't."
These days, we’re also living in spooky times. QAnon followers make even space aliens seem tame.
A packet of genetic material surrounded by a spiky protein shell one-thousandth the width of an eyelash has, in a matter of months, disrupted virtually all human activity on Planet Earth. Nearly a million reported deaths globally, with nearly 27 million reported cases – and the number of U.S deaths approaching 200,000 -- has devastated the global economy and changed daily life for billions of people.
The virus, which according to a story in The Washington Post "leads such a zombielike existence that it’s barely considered a living organism ...but as soon as it gets into a human airway, the virus hijacks our cells to create millions more versions of itself," was labeled "The China virus" by a macabre master of mob manipulation.
He termed it "a hoax." Truly, I find him the living embodiment of a hoax.
His habitual use of epithets, derision and bullying attacks, certainly unfitting for the leader of what had been the world’s leading democracy, has railed against Mexicans, Muslims, Chinese, women, Jews, Blacks, the press and virtually every group against whose derision he believes will win him backing. The extreme contempt for each of those targets obviously existed before Mr. Hoax entered the scene, and unfortunately helped bring him to power.
In fact, that cynical contempt -- the racism, misogyny, anti-Semitism and homophobia -- has stained civilization since time began. It's a sick reality that’s taken many forms, against Rohingya and other Muslims, against Bosnians, Hazara, Native Americans, and countless other groups, and it's been used as a tyrannical tool since time immemorial as despots have attempted to solidify control by turning populations against one another to consolidate power.
The Rodgers and Hammerstein song still rings true:
"You've got to be taught to hate and fear,
You've got to be taught from year to year,
It's got to be drummed in your dear little ear,
You've got to be carefully taught....
You've got to be taught before it's too late,
Before you are six, or seven or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate
You've got to be carefully taught ..."
If it weren’t so deadly, this kind of subhuman stupidity could almost be laughed at as an absurdity. Dr. Seuss's "Sneeches" did so as a teaching tool for children, and Sweet Honey in the Rock's "Dog, Dog" also managed to convey the inanity of prejudice.
But there’s nothing funny about how blind we are to our societal contempt for “the other,” and how willing we are to buy into the hatemongering we’re constantly being sold. At any level, buying into the 'enemy" mindset feeds our small-mindedness, our pettiness, our inhumanity as well as a gradual destruction of life on this planet.
Rwandan genocide offers a stark example of how ugly and baseless ethnic genocide can be. German and then Belgian colonists turned divisions between the minority Tutsi minority and majority Hutus into an ugly rivalry, bestowing the Tutsis with privileges and using the minority to enforce colonial rule. As many as 1 million Rwandans were killed over three short months of 1994.
History is rife with other chilling examples as well, from Russian anti-Semitism erupting into pogroms and the Holocaust’s extermination of Jews, Romany and homosexuals. The evil of racism and religious intolerance, and their abuse by countless authoritarian regimes has persisted, often unleashing genocide: Pol Pot’s Cambodia, contemporary China’s campaigns against Tibetan and Uighurs, and the Modi government’s systemic attacks and repressive policies on India’s Muslims.
The number of White supremacist, anti-Muslim, anti-Semitic and anti-immigrant hate groups has been boiling over in this country, in part because of a deliberate strategy by one political party to harvest divisiveness.
The Southern Poverty Law Center, which has been tracking hate groups since 1990, and which found 940 such groups in 2019, issued a criticism in June of the Justice Department's labeling "INTIFA" a domestic terrorism group, citing a Brennan Center for Justice report titled “Wrong Priorities on Fighting Terrorism”: “Within the field of domestic terrorism, the Justice Department has a history of minimizing far-right violence while aggressively targeting minority activists and far-left protest movements. The latter group has engaged in civil disobedience and vandalism but statistically has presented a much lower danger to human life, which is a key element of the federal definition of terrorism.”
Like the forest fires spreading across parts of California, becoming more intense with each passing year, the decades of hatred-seeding threatens to entirely disrupt the social fabric -- an objective promoted by the Russian government as a way to further its own agenda.
Attacks, verbal and otherwise, on "the other," as we seek a scapegoat for society’s ills, have become normalized, and yet is an inhumane reality threatening domestic tranquility.
Paula Green, an international peaceworker who's turned her expertise to dealing with the growing divide in this country, told the New York Times. “People are making up stories about ‘the other’ — Muslims, Trump voters, whoever ‘the other’ is: 'They don’t have the values that we have. They don’t behave like we do. They are not nice. They are evil.’ That’s dehumanization. And when it spreads, it can be very hard to correct.”
Rather than falling into the “us” versus “them” trap, Green says, we need to widen our circle of inclusion.
"Humanity is a quality we owe to each other.”
Otherwise, we face the Monsters of Maple Street, and discover the monsters are of our own making.
The classic 1960 episode ends with two figures looking down on the chaos they've created.
“They pick the most dangerous enemy they can find," says one of them. (A space alien? A foreign cyber attacker? A domestic terrorist?) "And it's themselves. And all we need do is sit back...and watch. Their world is full of Maple Streets. And we'll go from one to the other and let them destroy themselves.”