What warning can a classic episode of The Twilight Zone bring to the COVID-19 crisis?
COVID-19 is the first real global crisis of the 21st Century, and with accelerating global warming and unprecedented CO2 levels, it won’t be the last. Some pundits have asked why so much attention is being paid to this epidemic, with extraordinary measures being taken at national levels, when it is nowhere near as much a threat as climate change which is an existential threat to our civilisation if not our species. It’s the immediacy of the perceived threat, something that people are seeing on a personal level, responding to the hysteria whipped up by the media. It’s ‘every man for himself.’
Seeing the videos of people panic buying and actually fighting over toilet rolls, I was reminded of an episode of The Twilight Zone: The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street. First broadcast in 1960, the episode, written and narrated by Rod Serling himself, observes what happens over the course of an afternoon as an ordinary suburban street dissolves into anarchy and murder after what is no more than a power cut. A boy remembers the plot of a comic book which told about the precursor to an alien invasion, and suddenly friends and neighbours, consumed with paranoia, turn on each other seeing each other’s usual behaviour as now somehow sinister. The twist in the tale? The camera zooms out to two figures on the hillside observing the chaos. These are aliens, running a field test of their strategy, showing how easy it would be to conquer the human race without even lifting a weapon, just by fanning their suspicion so that they attack each other.
Serling says in the epilogue:
“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 and the children yet unborn. And the pity of it is that these things cannot be confined… to the Twilight Zone.”
Obviously the show was a product of its time, but the basis of the story remains true to this day.
With COVID-19, the immediate scapegoat was China. But the media pointed the finger not initially at the nation, but at its culture and customs, its culinary practices and overcrowding. Even BBC presenters were tweeting orientalist terms and tropes, and initial TV reports were accompanied by pictures of traditional Chinese street markets, despite Wuhan being a provincial capital, a modern city and technology hub. Racist attacks against Asians greatly increased as a result, in the UK, building on the xenophobia and prejudice against all perceived foreigners since Brexit.
In the story, the neighbours on Maple Street are all out enjoying the Saturday afternoon. Kids playing, eating ice cream, the adults fixing their cars, doing household chores or just relaxing on their porches. The street is a community — and it is homogenous, it’s a ‘white neighbourhood’ in middle class suburbia. At first, they regard the problem as something they can address together, with some of the men volunteering on behalf of the community to drive into town and see if they can find anything out. This all falls apart very quickly however, as if the community spirit was just a convention, a veneer. The immediate targets are the family who were last to move into the neighbourhood, the Goodmans (note the name). Les Goodman speaks with a noticeable northern European accent — the others all speaking with typical mid-US accents. However, this is never explicitly referred to. The others become a mob, looking for a common enemy, but even this unity collapses as the paranoia spreads, and chaos ensues.
In the UK in 2020, we don’t have that community spirit as a starting point. Thatcherism proudly exhorted the doctrine that there was no such thing as society, and at the heart of right-wing capitalism or what is termed in the US as libertarianism, the only unit that matters is the individual, and beyond that the (traditional) family. If society doesn’t exist, then the individual has no societal or shared responsibility. From here, the idea for example of paying taxes to support others less well-off — as a benefit to society and in the long term back to the individual — makes no sense.
At the heart of the panic-buying and hysteria is this selfishness, with no thought given to the immediate community or society as a whole. In abstract, the idea of people actually fighting over toilet roll or hand sanitiser makes no sense whatsoever — when even in the most rabid right-wing tabloids people are being told to avoid close contact with others.
The media have engendered an underlying fear and sense of panic. The tabloid press and even the BBC giving the illness wall-to-wall coverage with daily, if not hourly, updates on fatalities. Whilst this might meet with some government agenda to exploit the crisis to push through its agenda on restricting human and workers’ rights, this stokes the fear, the suspicion not just of everyone else but anything we might touch. We are starting our story on Maple Street three-quarters of the way through, when even the mob falls apart. We are already alienated. And the greatest threat isn’t the virus, but each other.
This time it isn’t aliens watching from the hilltop, but our governments, the mega-corporations, the ‘elite’. Already self-isolating in stately homes and gated apartment blocks where the poor have their own doors, with access to the best healthcare money can buy, they have nothing to directly fear from this outbreak. Their only fear? The collapse of the tenuous patterns of trade and exploitation, the failure of that knife-edge debt/credit balance that their workers and customers have to navigate every time their wheel their trolleys down the supermarket aisles. Control must be restored, not to benefit the people below, but those above. And the chaos can be exploited, turned to aid in the election of one candidate and not another, to supress dissent to increasingly authoritarian policies, to shatter community and unified action, to get people to vote away their own freedoms.
These are the monsters of Maple Street.