Sixty-three years ago today, CBS first aired the classic Twilight Zone episode, “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street,” one of Rod Serling’s most chilling pieces of social commentary. “Maple Street” depicts an ordinary early-autumn weekend afternoon in a generic white-bread suburban neighborhood, with men mowing lawns, women chatting in their aprons, and children playing hopscotch on the sidewalks. This idyllic scene is suddenly interrupted by a flash of bright lights overhead, which apparently knocks out the electricity and telephone service, and renders cars, lawnmowers and even transistor radios inoperative. The neighbors initially respond with confusion, perhaps tinged with an ever-so-slight bit of Cold War-era paranoia, which escalates into genuine fear when a bookish tween-age boy plants the suggestion that malevolent extra-terrestrials are responsible for the power disruptions and may have already infiltrated the neighborhood with aliens disguised as human beings. As more unexplained things occur – lights in one house turning on and off, a car starting by itself – the neighbors’ unspoken prejudices and suspicions rise to the surface and soon rocket out of control. The Maple Street residents turn on one another, attack one another, and eventually kill one another. The story, which Serling later expanded into a short story, was truly terrifying.
Of course, one of the tale’s many ironies is that the planet really was being invaded by hostile aliens, but the denizens of Maple Street, shaken by a few strategic technological manipulations, chose to view their neighbors as the enemy and to respond violently. Those who feared the monsters were themselves the monsters.
This basic plot device, i.e., outside forces manipulating circumstances to turn friends and neighbors against one another, certainly predated The Twilight Zone, and was sometimes even employed for comic effect. Less than a decade later, the original Star Trek series revisited the same theme with Jerome Bixby’s “Day of the Dove,” where a malignant entity tampered with characters’ memories and perceptions to provoke a state of near-constant hand-to-hand warfare between Klingons and Earthers. But where “Monsters” implied that the human population would ultimately decimate itself and the aliens would simply move in, “Day of the Dove” concluded with both sides discovering the source of the alien interference and then voluntarily disarming while invoking the old Klingon proverb: “Only a fool fights in a burning house.” If Serling was making a statement about people giving in to their worst instincts during times of crisis, Bixby (who was no stranger to downbeat endings) was suggesting that perhaps those same people – with just a little knowledge, with just a little accurate information – might move beyond their prejudices and suspicions, and rise to the better angels of their nature.
So, which of these stories is America’s story? How do we respond when malicious forces try to drive us apart from one another? How well do we recover from misinformation about one another?
The Toteboard is not happy with the answer.
Seven years ago, and possibly earlier, the Russian government began interfering with American politics, with a particular eye on the 2016 presidential election. The subject has been well documented in numerous venues, so it is hardly worth rehearsing here, but suffice it to say that the general plan was to exacerbate simmering (or festering) cultural and partisan tensions by saturating social media with a well-coordinated bombardment of decontextualized factoids, distortions, and outright fabrications, the most bizarre and vile of which played directly to right-wing tendencies toward racism, xenophobia, and conspiracy-mongering.
Fortunately, the Russians left a pretty wide audit trail, and US intelligence agencies were able to painstakingly trace and reconstruct the sources of much of their mischief. Now, one might expect that exposing the perpetrators of blatant lies and laying bare their despicable motivations would actually shake some sense into the folks who fell for those lies, and perhaps even spur them to try to walk back a bit from the dangerous places those lies took them. Well, that’s what a sane, reasonable person might expect. But not everyone is ready to let go of a debunked alternative fact.
Two years after all this shit came out, fewer than half of republicans surveyed believed that Russia meddled in the election.
And two years after that, barely a third of republicans surveyed thought Russian meddling could be a major problem in the 2020 election.
And while there do not seem to be available line-by-line surveys of who still believes which pieces of toxic junk the Russians dumped into our public consciousness, the Toteboard suspects the results would be pretty depressing. Apparently, for a significant chunk of the American public – a particularly aggressive and unstable chunk, for that matter – the rigorous, documented correction of misinformation has little or no effect on their misconceptions. The monsters have no intention of leaving Maple Street.
And we can see this all playing out in real time before our eyes. Even as every accusation of 2020 election fraud has been discredited by researchers and dismissed by the courts, even as Fox News bigwigs publicly admit that their claims about Dominion voting machines were pure bullshit trotted out to gin up sagging ratings, Marjorie Taylor Green and other elected officials are still spouting conspiratorial drivel from the podium and into the headlines, and deranged zealots are still assembling on the streets of Boynton Beach, Florida blowing horns and brandishing their “Trump Won!” and “Fuck Joe Biden!” signs.
And you know, while most of the most loathsome assholerie is to be found among republicans, democrats are not completely immune from what More In Common calls the “perception gap,” i.e., the failure to let go of misperceptions about political opponents, even when informed otherwise. If you don’t think this rings true, well, chew on this especially discouraging statistical tidbit: “Education is intended to make us better informed about the world, so we’d expect that the more educated you become, the more you understand what other Americans think. In fact, the more educated a person is, the worse their Perception Gap – with one critical exception. This trend only holds true for Democrats, not Republicans. In other words, while Republicans’ misperceptions of Democrats do not improve with higher levels of education, Democrats’ understanding of Republicans actually gets worse with every additional degree they earn. This effect is so strong that Democrats without a high school diploma are three times more accurate than those with a postgraduate degree.” To this, the Toteboard can only say “oy vey.”
So where does this leave us? For now, back on Maple Street.
When the sun came up on the following morning Maple Street was silent. Most of the houses had been burned. There were a few bodies lying on sidewalks and draped over porch rails. But the silence was total. There simply was no more life. At four o’clock that afternoon there was no more world, or at least not the kind of world that had greeted the morning. And by Wednesday afternoon of the following week, a new set of residents had moved into Maple Street. They were a handsome race of people. Their faces showed great character. Great character indeed. Great character and excellently shaped heads. Excellently shaped heads – two to each new resident!