THE PURSUIT OF WORLDLINESS
by Barry Edelson
A Gilded Cage
In "The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street", a suburban neighborhood descends into recrimination and violence when the power goes out with no explanation. This was an episode in the first season of The Twilight Zone, Rod Serling's weekly exploration into the darkest recesses of human fear. The story must have been especially compelling when it aired in 1960, because it was adapted for children to read and discuss in school. It was an era in which students of all ages were taught to hide under their desks (absurdly) to protect themselves from nuclear bombs. It was also a time before adults became hesitant to frighten children in order to teach them valuable lessons of survival (see Grimm's Fairy Tales). Such a shocking story would now be deemed utterly unsuitable for fifth and sixth graders. But remember that required reading for scarcely older young adults back then included cheerless fare about humanity gone awry such as Lord of the Flies, 1984 and On the Beach. The world faced armageddon (or so we believed), and there was no point in pretending otherwise.
In Serling's disturbing tale, the electricity and phone lines initially go off for everyone, and no one's car will start. Then one person's car starts mysteriously; someone else's lights come on. Those people quickly become targets of their neighbors' suspicion. A sunny Saturday afternoon turns into a dark night of arguments and confrontations. Previously unmentioned personal foibles are suddenly reimagined as threatening behavior: a ham radio becomes a means of espionage; a late night walk is an unaccountable deviation from the norm. As the night wears on and patience wears thin, one neighbor murders another in the street, and a melee ensues.
It turns out that alien invaders are responsible for the strange incident on Maple Street. It might be easy to dismiss the story as science fiction, because the aliens arrive in the kind of tin-foil "flying saucer" common to movies of the period. However, the aliens are distinctly human in appearance. Serling's stories are surreal and fantastical, but they are parables of human experience, much like the best science fiction. This is not a story about aliens from space but the paranoid fear of aliens from other countries. The fear of Communism was so pervasive in the 1950s and 1960s that it was the thinly veiled pretext of many books and movies from the time. The entire Star Trek franchise was a space-race assertion of American values in the face of totalitarian evil; even the ship's name, Enterprise, was an affirmation of the superiority of capitalism. In The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, people are slowly "taken over" by some kind of parasitic beings when they fall asleep. When they awaken, they appear perfectly normal, but their personalities have been supplanted by automatons (read: Commies). The fate of liberty rests in the hands of a small number of resisters.
Especially chilling for us today is the rationale provided at the end of the episode. In the final scene, one of the aliens explains the Maple Street strategy to another: "They pick the most dangerous enemy they can find...and it's themselves. And all we need do is sit back...and watch." Apparently the Russians figured this out during the Cold War and never forgot it. Their attempts to manipulate our last presidential election can be rationalized in almost exactly the same words. Today, fomenting discord and turning us against one another has been made astonishingly easy by the advent of social media. But this strategy of social disintegration has clearly been a part of the Russian arsenal for generations. How pathetic that the lessons for us have always been so obvious and yet we have learned so little. The final voice-over includes this: "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...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."
Some of those then unborn children now live in places like Parkland, Florida. One could hardly choose a name of a town more evocative of the middle American ideal: Parkland. It suggests trees and grass, and children playing in the sunshine, just like the manicured neighborhood in "The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street". But just as Maple Street symbolizes the dark undercurrent of human fear, Parkland will now be forever synonymous with mass murder, and with the unending national delusion about guns and safety.
For a variety of reasons, the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School has had an impact on the country that surpasses that of most of the other mass school shootings of the last two decades. The most obvious reason is that the surviving classmates of the shooting victims refuse to let the issue fade from view. For gun rights advocates who would like the issue to just go away, this particular incident couldn't have happened in a worse place. The boldness and persistence of the students, even in the face of threats and vilification on an industrial scale, is something to behold. The National Rifle Association, and its many allies in politics and the media, know they have a big problem, or they would not be going to such extraordinary lengths to mount an organized campaign to discredit a bunch of high school kids. Like adolescents everywhere, the Parkland activists have an extremely sensitive bullshit meter, and have demonstrated no reluctance about calling out the hypocrisy of the elected officials who stand to gain from the status quo. They have pointed an accusing finger at the emperor who is wearing no clothes, and they will clearly not stop.
The other explanation is that a shooting in an affluent community like Parkland in Broward County has brought home to many similar communities across the country that, no matter where you are, it could really happen anywhere. It's hard to explain why this reaction wasn't prompted on such a scale after Columbine, which also took place in a well-to-do suburban area, near Denver, or after Sandy Hook, which is in a serene area of central Connecticut. Perhaps the Columbine shooting, in 1999, was too early in the sequence of tragedy, and seemed at the time like an isolated event. Perhaps Sandy Hook, so shocking because of the deaths of children so young, was too raw and too anomalous to seem real. But this time, the reaction has been very strong everywhere. Rallies have been held throughout the country in support of the Parkland students and their gun-control efforts. It is possible that the cumulative effect of so many shootings over a generation has brought things to a boiling point. Today's high school students are being called the school-shooting generation, since they were born after Columbine and have known no other reality. Many are plainly not willing to sit idly by and wait to be victims. They want to grow up in a better world. It is also likely that the domination of government by pro-gun Republicans has finally roused the somnolent left, as it has been roused about a range of issues.
Schools have become increasingly security-conscious over the years, but Parkland has brought a new-found urgency. There has never been such a headlong rush to tighten entry to buildings, employ all the technology available and hire more watchful eyes. If parents are afraid to send their children to school, and teachers feel vulnerable in their classrooms, and students are afraid to use the bathroom during the day for fear of being trapped if a shooter should appear in the hallway, then schools cannot take the position that they're already safe enough and nothing more need be done. The puerile debate about whether to arm teachers is the tip of a very large iceberg. There's no going back now: our schools are going to be locked very tight for the foreseeable future. Every student beginning in pre-kindergarten is going to experience school as a place where survival is something that can no longer be taken for granted.
And so we drill: the lock-down has largely replaced the fire drill as the most urgently practiced exercise in student safety. Thanks to stringent building codes and incessant practice, it's been generations since anyone has actually died in a fire in a school building. It is no longer a worry. The Parkland shooter cynically played on that very preparedness when he pulled the fire alarm to draw more victims out into the open. Students and staff have had to learn a new lesson about the supremacy of the lock-down over the fire alarm. Nearly every teacher and student in America now knows where to go and what to do in an active-shooter incident. It is a constant topic of discussion and planning.
A first grader asked her principal after a recent lock-down exercise: "Why do we have to keep on having drills? We know what to do." More sad than reassuring.
Walls Within Walls
We all say we don't want to turn our schools into jails, but that's exactly what we are doing. More correctly, we are turning them into gilded cages. Inside, all seems normal. But getting in and out of a school, which ought to be one of the most welcoming places on earth, has become an ordeal. We have been forced to bring levels of security to school buildings that use to be reserved for corporate offices and military installations. By our actions, we have implicitly answered the question: how do we keep people safe in a country awash with guns? We can't. We can only barricade ourselves as best we can.
Strangely, the appeal of building a wall along our southern border now makes a kind of perverse sense. What is being proposed is that we turn America into a giant gated community. With no distinction between rich and poor, everyone benefits from keeping undesirables out. With enough security, everyone can enjoy the privileges of the wealthy and famous. We can all have peace of mind that there are no terrorists or foreign-speaking criminals among us.
But that misses the lessons of Parkland entirely, not to mention the message of Maple Street. It isn't terrorists or Mexicans who are shooting our kids in school. We're doing this to ourselves. Nearly every mass shooting in our history, and most terrorist acts in the homeland, have been committed by Americans, whether out of zealotry or insanity or some depraved combination of the two. Walls are useless because, unless we want to live entirely in cages, we cannot gate ourselves off from one another. We have to live together, like it or not. Even on line, where we have created the illusion of separation, we're in this together. We're a big and diverse country, and we will always have big differences. We can't just wish one another away.
Americans do indeed have enemies. Soviet Communism was a significant threat to Western civilization, as was Nazism before it, and both Islamic fascism and Russian nationalism today. But as a society we have done a dreadful job of preventing reasonable and justified fear from being transformed into widespread and dangerous paranoia. Worse, we always do an excellent job of identifying scapegoats instead of addressing our real problems.
The answer is not to counter the nationalism of others with a nationalism of our own. That is a strategy rooted in fantasy and doomed to failure. Even if the past really was the paradise that some people imagine, there isn't any way to go back there. In any event, why would we want to become merely a watered-down version of our adversaries? As during the Cold War, we have gone too far down the path of copying our enemies' methods and slowly abandoning our own values. By debating whether water-boarding is torture, for example, we have allowed ourselves to be defined by false dichotomies, and made ourselves vulnerable to demagoguery on a range of issues. As a very powerful nation, we need to avoid the temptation to pursue every destructive avenue available to us. If we start behaving like savages, we have defeated ourselves. The aliens win.
There is a higher aspiration than mere security: To eschew the politics of ideological purity by voting for candidates who do not think compromise is a form of betrayal. To register people to vote, not with the intention of turning them into Democrats and Republicans but into believers in democracy and republicanism. To become thoughtful consumers of information, get our news from reliable sources, and stop relying on the lazy and comforting convenience of the internet, talk radio and cable television. To be not merely tolerant of our neighbors but accepting of them, and to welcome peaceful outsiders into our midst. To reject fear as the basis of organizing our schools, workplaces and public spaces, so that security does not become an end in itself. To defend our liberties against the encroachments of power, no matter who is in power. To make inveterate skeptics of our children, so they do not become prey to robotic obedience, and instead leave their minds open to all the possibilities in the world.
Or, we can go ahead and build a wall, arm ourselves, and close our doors against our neighbors. We would all sleep better at night. Just like the people in Parkland. And on Maple Street.
April 15, 2018
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