• Gary Woronchak

Maple Street lessons apply today

I fear we’re going to see a whole lot of crazy over the next week. As when we visit a seasonal haunted house (or used to), anxiety is heightened by not knowing what new horror will pop up, how or when. It’s that feeling of being tensed up so you’ll be ready for the spooky as it comes.

It will be big, count on it. It will be some fantastic claim of misdeeds, “proof” of this or that, a damning video, maybe even a key arrest. Or, an official-looking email that tells you the election is postponed, or that it’s unsafe to vote. It doesn’t matter if it’s made up, or quickly disproven, or, frankly, which candidate it seeks to help or hurt. The point is to spread disinformation at supersonic speeds so it sticks. They don’t expect it to stick with everybody. But they know it will with enough to further their goals of chaos and uncertainty.

We’ve been sharing and subjected to bad information for so long, consider the next week as the grand finale, like when they blast lots of pyrotechnics to signal the end of the fireworks displays we used to have.

The problem is, this grand finale itself will be grandly false. It won’t be the end. Misinformation isn’t going anywhere, nor is its wild-eyed cousin, the conspiracy theory. This awful invention of social media will see to that.

That this threatens civil society is not a revelation. We all know how divided, how terribly polarized we have become. We know how even a Facebook post that starts off civilly so quickly degenerates into bitter back and forth between both friends and strangers.

It’s no longer just a matter of different opinions on issues. It’s a matter of not being able to agree on what’s true. Facts are what we want them to be now. The term, “post-truth era” has been used. It’s when we can’t begin our debates with a shared agreement of objective facts.

Could American society implode from this? Absolutely. Can we stop it, even as we see it coming? I’m not so sure.

We can draw a lesson from a place in which we might feel we now reside: The Twilight Zone.

Specifically, we can look to “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street,” episode 22 of the first season of the famed television anthology series that trafficked in science fiction and fantasy, usually with a strong moral preaching. A lesson that first aired in 1960 applies sixty years later.

Misinformation and conspiracy theories pop up quickly on Maple Street, a block like most others. The episode begins serenely enough, until some sort of meteor screeches overhead, grabbing the attention of neighbors who are all outdoors on a sunny day.

Feeling the uncertainty and anxiety of the mysterious fly-by (not unlike uncertainty and anxiety caused by, say, a pandemic in a polarized political climate), the neighbors are further unnerved by other phenomena. Cars won’t start, power goes out, that sort of thing.

An imaginative boy plants a conspiracy seed by relating a science fiction story where visitors from another planet come to meet up with an advance team that lives among humans, looking just like them.

While all cars can’t be started, Les Goodman’s auto starts up with no one in it. The neighbors wonder why. One points out Les “never did come out to look at that thing that flew overhead. He wasn’t even interested.” Portly Charlie Farnsworth chimes in, “he always was an oddball. Him and his whole family,” adding in a tough guy tone, “What do you say we go over and ask him?”

The group of neighbors start to run toward Les, when level-headed Steve Brand (famed character actor Claude Akins) warns sternly, “Wait a minute. Let’s not be a mob!”

Chances are you’ve seen this episode, so you already know that things go downhill quickly, Steve’s advice notwithstanding.

A neighbor says she’s seen Les from her porch late at night. “I’ve seen Les Goodman here, in the wee hours of the morning, standing in his yard just looking up at the sky. As if he was looking for something. As if he was waiting for something.”

Les tells the neighbors crowding him, “You know what I’m guilty of? Insomnia.” Sensing a growing agitation among him neighbors as the conspiracy builds steam, Les delivers a fateful prophecy:

“And you don’t even know what you’re starting here. Because, let me tell you … let me tell you … you’re starting something here that, that’s what you should be frightened of. As God is my witness, you’re letting something start here that’s … that’s a nightmare.”

A nightmare indeed, based on snowballing misinformation stemming from fear and uncertainty.

Other neighbors’ lights turn on and off mysteriously, raising new suspicions. Portly Charlie shoots and kills another neighbor who was walking toward the group in the shadows. Soon enough, the neighbors of Maple Street descend into full chaos and destroy each other.

The twist ending, as you may know, is that there actually were a couple guys from outer space on that meteor-thing that passed overhead. In the distance, they gloat over how they manipulated Maple Street into lawless turmoil.

Says one of the aliens: “Just stop a few of their machines, and radios, and telephones, and lawn mowers. Throw them in the darkness for a few hours and … sit back and watch the pattern. … They pick the most dangerous enemy they can find. And it’s themselves. All we

need do is sit back and watch.”

Muses the other alien: “Then I take it this place, this Maple Street, is not unique.”

As they board their spaceship, the first alien responds: “By no means. Their world is full of Maple Streets. And we’ll go from one to another and let them destroy themselves.”

Let’s emphasize that last part: Let them destroy themselves.

Sounding familiar yet?

Narrator, series creator and episode writer Rod Serling summed it up in a manner to which we should pay close attention. With his legendary speaking cadence, Sterling notes as the episode ends:

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 children yet unborn. And the pity of it is, that these things cannot be confined ... to the Twilight Zone.”

Let’s figure out how to do better. Somehow.



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