Rod Serling Day (2)
May 15, 2016
Rev. Douglas Taylor
Every famous person is born somewhere. Susan B. Anthony, Millard Fillmore, Béla Bartók , and Paul Newman each have hometowns and special locations that claim them. In Binghamton we get to claim Rod Serling. He was born in Syracuse but the family moved to Binghamton when he was 2 and Rod graduated from Binghamton High School in 1943. Students who took classes from Helen Foley at the Binghamton high school remember Rod Serling’s occasional visits in which he would talk to students about film and television, story writing and production. He was a generous man who loved to connect back to his roots.
Binghamton loves to talk about this native son of ours. Forty years after his death, new exhibits and programs related to the Twilight Zone and Rod Serling are still opening. The Historical Society hosted an event at WSKG just a few weeks back, and the Bundy Museum has a recently expanded exhibit running. “Everyone has to have a hometown,” Rod Serling said, “Binghamton’s mine.”
The reason I am preaching about Rod Serling has less to do with his geography and more to do with his theology. Rod and his siblings were raised in a Reformed Jewish home here in town. He was never a member of our Unitarian Universalist congregation here in Binghamton. But when he was a student at Antioch College in Ohio, he met and married Carol Kramer. Carol’s Unitarian grandmother encouraged the couple attend a Unitarian church. And in the late 1940’s, Rod and Carol Serling joined the Unitarian church in Columbus, OH.
When the family moved to California in 1957, they became active members of the Santa Monica Unitarian church. The minister Ernie Pipes served that congregation for over 30 years and remembered Rod Serling as generous man. For example, as a fundraiser for the congregation, Serling would offer screenings his films for the congregation with discussions after that he would lead. He liked to visit the RE classes on occasion to discuss his work with the kids.
We are going to do just that here in our congregation this afternoon. We won’t have Rod Serling himself joining us, but we will be able to watch the genius of his work with a few episodes and talk about them together. I want to show you a clip now from one of the episodes, “The Monster Are Due on Maple Street.” It is one of the two episodes the planning team selected for this afternoon.
It opens with a view of Maple Street, a normal ordinary street on a normal and ordinary day. There is a strange sound and a flash of light that seems to travel through the sky from one side of the street to the other. We see people look up and watch it go by. They comment to each other about it and decide that it must have been a meteor. They each shrug, admitting it was certainly odd. And the narrator tells us it was “the last calm and reflective moment before the monsters came to Maple Street.”
The clip we are going to watch picks up early in the episode, just after folks start to notice the power has suddenly and inexplicably gone out and the phones are not working. People begin to gather as they notice it isn’t just their own house with this problem.
From 3 minute mark to 9 minute mark on the DVD
“Let’s not be a mob!” he says.
This episode is about how easy it is to get caught up in mob mentality. It is about fear and panic as tools of prejudice and chaos. Given the context in which it was written, it is easy to extrapolate that this episode is not just about fear in general. It is also about McCarthyism and the Red Scare that was going on in the 50’s and 60’s. And I argue that it is equally about Terrorism and Islamophobia that is happening in our country today. A significant number of the messages in his episodes are about addressing the problem of prejudice, about seeing the consequences of treating people with differences as ‘the other.’
To update this episode, my first thought was of how dramatic it would be if this morning, all the power in our electronics just stopped like that. How quickly would you notice if that happened in your house? I have a household a five right now, and in today’s middleclass culture that means I have five computers, five cell phones, a few tablets, to add to the 1960’s list of lights, stoves, and radios mentioned in the clip.
In some ways, just watching the first 3 minutes of the episode with today’s sensibilities, I would assume the message was going to about being too attached to our electronics and how we don’t know our neighbors anymore. And that may well be a worthwhile episode, but I suspect it might be a little too prosaic a message for what Rod Serling was doing with the Twilight Zone. But then again, remembering the closing lines of the episode – part of the message is that humanity’s worst enemy is itself. In what ways are we destroying ourselves piece by piece today? We can talk more about the actual episode and its messages this afternoon.
Let me drift back into the conversation about what Rod Serling was doing with the show. He considered his job as a writer was to “menace the public conscience.” He wanted to lift up the ethical questions of the day and challenge his viewers. He was a story teller, living by the axiom that the one who tells the stories helps shape how we see the world.
In his day, Serling learned to disguise his messages after having his stories dramatically altered or outright refused due to concerns from the government censors and advertising executives. Serling started writing in the genre of Science Fiction not because he loved SciFi or because he was particularly skilled in that niche but because his social critique would get past the censors. He claimed, “A Martian can say things that a Republican or Democrat can’t.”
What would Rod Serling be doing today, what would an updated Twilight Zone be like? I think we get lost in the delight of the spooky and strange element of the show at the detriment of the deeper message. Serling would not necessarily be doing anything SciFi today because he wouldn’t need to be disguising his messages from censors today.
There are a great many documentaries available today offering political and social critique. Comedians doing late night shows are able to offer stinging and truthful commentary mixed in with the jokes. Censorship is not the issue today. Society has different ways of closing down unpopular truth-speakers. So my question is what are the hurdles Rod Serling would be overcoming to get his messages of social critique to the public today?
I think one over-arching problem for truth-tellers today is that there is not a single ‘acceptable’ claim on truth as was the case back in Serling’s day, no single ‘party line’ that is hard to speak against. Instead today we have so many voices speaking, truth gets lost in the milieu. Advertising companies and political talking heads drive the population into market niches feeding us consumable bytes of information. I believe the great enemy of truth today that Serling would work to circumvent is the well-dressed lie and the difficulty of discerning real truth amidst the glitter and grime.
The Washington Post ran an article yesterday talking about a problem called “Pluralistic Ignorance.” Basically, research by social scientists show that I, for example, will ‘self-silence’ myself out of an incorrect assumption that other people don’t agree with me, this becomes amplified by a doubt in my own competence on the subject. The social scientists call this “Pluralistic ignorance,” the misplaced belief that others know better or wouldn’t agree with me so I won’t even bother speaking up. This then spirals because nobody knows what others think about the issue because nobody is talking about it. The examples in the article are about climate change, gender-related issues, and the civil rights movement from the 60’s and 70’s.
I imagine Rod Serling would have been able to spin a fabulous story about a compelling lie that no one challenges even though the majority of people privately suspect it is untrue. And lies are essentially stories that can shape how we see the world. Serling was a genius storyteller, revealing truth in disguise.
His messages in the Twilight Zone often centered on peace and equality, respect for differences, and the importance of civility.
These values can be seen in the clip we just saw from “The Monster Are Due on Maple Street.” These are the values that would show up in a story today about racism, gender issues, climate change, or political incivility. Serling would be telling stories today not necessarily with aliens and oddities, although that certainly would still work today and perhaps prove a necessary element I suppose. But more importantly, Serling would be writing stories, I believe, about discerning truth in the confusion and profusion of lies that pass for commentary and even news these days.
Rod Serling was a Unitarian Universalist steeped in the naturalistic Humanist values of truth, tolerance, and respect for our differences toward the end of building a civil society in which all people could thrive. We can still learn about today’s problems through the lessons he offered in the past. We can still discern truth and wisdom from the genius of his work, and indeed, we can even unleash our own capacity to tell the truths our world needs to hear; and to tell them with confidence and style as he and others have done throughout the ages.
Come, let us gather around the wisdom of such genius for a few moments, and then let us rise and add our voices to the story as we move boldly into the beckoning future together.
In a world without end,
may it be so.