The Twilight Zone, Healthcare Reform, and "The Obsolete Man"

ad5522e245f779af8a6412c19f456698I still remember staying up late on weeknights in my youth watching episodes of The Twilight Zone. I appreciated the interesting storylines and twist endings, but as a child, and later as a teenager, I was rarely able to appreciate the depth of the issues involved in many of the episodes as Rod Serling and other writers engaged in some of the best writing and social commentary on television. As an adult, repeated viewing of The Twilight Zone, both in the various holiday marathons on television, and in my growing personal collection on DVD, has helped me appreciate the program as not only solid entertainment, but also in providing commentary on pressing social issues of the past, of the time period when the program aired, and I believe in application to issues of the present day.

One of the episodes that recently appeared in a collection of “best of” for the series was “The Obsolete Man” which first aired on June 6, 1961. This episode was written by Serling, and his opening narration for the piece went like this:

“You walk into this room at your own risk, because it leads to the future, not a future that will be but one that might be. This is not a new world, it is simply an extension of what began in the old one. It has patterned itself after every dictator who has ever planted the ripping imprint of a booth on the pages of history since the beginning of time. It has refinements, technological advances, and a more sophisticated approach to the destruction of human freedom. But like every one of the superstates that preceded it, it has one iron rule: logic is an enemy and truth is a menace. . . . This is Mr. Romney Wordsworth, in his last forty-eight hours on Earth. He’s a citizen of the State but will soon have to be eliminated, because he’s built out of flesh and because he has a mind. Mr. Romney Wordsworth, who will draw his last breaths in the Twilight Zone.”

As this episode begins we find Wordsworth (played by Burgess Meredith) entering into a hall of judgment for the State. A long table sits before him, and at the end of the table is a tall podium where the judge for the State, the Chancellor (played by Fritz Weaver), announces the sentence of death upon Wordsworth and works out the details for the accused as to the manner of execution. Wordsworth is an enemy of the State who has lost his usefulness. As a result he has become obsolete. Yet he uses his final moments on earth through the means of execution to make the point to the State that the individual matters, as does freedom, and in so doing brings embarrassment upon the Chancellor. After Wordworth’s death the Chancellor returns to the same hall of judgment to resume his duties only to find that only to find that the State now finds him worthy of death. In the chilling final scene the Chancellor pleads for his life by arguing that he still serves a useful function to the State, only to find the government’s representatives chanting repeatedly, “Obsolete! Obsolete!” The episode concludes with Serling’s final narration:

“The Chancellor – the late Chancellor – was only partly correct. He was obsolete. But so was the State, the entity he worshipped. Any state, any entity, any ideology that fails to recognize the worth, the dignity, the rights of man, that state is obsolete. A case to be filed under ‘M’ for mankind . . . in the Twilight Zone.

Airing as it did in the first decades following World War II, it is no surprise that The Twilight Zone included several episodes that critiqued the dangers of Nazism, fascism, and other forms of totalitarianism. As such Serling’s concern for government abuses of the past still serves as a valid critique for our reflection on history. But I would also suggest that this episode has much to say to us today about current issues as well.

Citizens of the United States are currently embroiled in a debate over reforming healthcare. If the Administration’s healthcare plan is implemented it will give the government control in one seventh of the country’s economy. This follows on the heels of the government’s bailout and resulting financial interest in large segments of the auto industry and banking industry. In response to a worldwide recession the government has grown larger and more powerful.

This growth and power is not only the result of the Obama Administration’s actions. For several presidential administrations over several decades, both Republican and Democrat, and despite promises to reduce government during Republican administrations, the government has grown, and with it has come greater power and finances in the hands of political leaders across party lines.

Perhaps Serling has something to say to us in the twenty-first century. As government grows more powerful and is poised to take control over a major aspect of the individual, in the name of reformation and cost savings will some members and segments of our society be declared obsolete? Regardless of the party affiliations of my readers, I hope we will pause to think through what our government is currently proposing, openly debate the issues involved, and that we will also take to heart Serling’s closing narration for this episode lest our State become obsolete in the quest for hope and change.

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There are 8 Comments to "The Twilight Zone, Healthcare Reform, and "The Obsolete Man""

  • Jeanette says:

    I love your ability to make past horror so poignantly current to our own troubled times. My fav Twilight Zone episode will always be the one with the toys in the donation bin who think they're real.

  • THank you for your kind comments. I enjoy your site and reflections as well. Here's to a fellow Twilight Zone fan.I'm torn on a single favorite episode, but one high on the list is the one with Dennis Weaver who can't wake up from a recurring nightmare loop where he is on trial for his life and he repeats the dream just as he's about to be executed. Now there's a nightmare.

  • ilozzoc says:

    I'm not sure I share your concern, per se, but the comparison you draw is fascinating, and in doing so, you show me how Serling's Zone is timeless and topical; a true classic in every sense.

    And this episode in particular is so brilliant in its barest of staging and stark lighting.

  • Cory Gross says:

    It's kind of weirdly fascinating to watch the American debate from across the 49th and see the different definitions and fears about freedom voice themselves.

    I guess I just take it for granted, already having universal healthcare, that it's a good and liberating thing. We also all sorts of nifty socialized things from EI to the CBC to government grants out the wazoo that I'm not the least bit afraid of.

    I'd almost argue that providing services for the public is the only thing that legitimizes a State... If it doesn't serve the people by providing things like universal healthcare, education, and solving other bureaucratic problems of providing the greatest good for the greatest number, then I can't imagine what possible beneficial use it has.

    Nevertheless, yay for The Twilight Zone! That's not one of my favorite episodes, but I do love crafty ol' Burgess Meredith in it.

  • Ken Potter says:

    I have always regarded this as one of my favorite episodes, particularly due to its eerie prophecy. I have always found this to be an accurate portrayal of where we seem to be headed, if you simply extrapolate the evolution of our government. The poetic justice at the end is a nice touch. You don't find that positive twist in "Number 12 Looks Just Like You", which is the other brilliant extrapolation of sorts.

  • [...] a previous post I used an episode of The Twilight Zone as a metaphor in application to current events. I will do [...]

  • cheryl bell says:

    I absolutely love the Twilight Zone and completely disagree with your comparison of the Obama administration's push for universal health care and the increasing size and power of government. How you could not draw such a comparison when George Bush was president is beyond me and demonstrates your political allegiance - to the Republican party. No other president in the history of this country trambled over individual rights, constitutional freedoms, and the right to criticize government more than George W. Bush, all in the name of national security. The suspension of Habeas Corpus should have scared everyone in this country and yet as many others, you seemed silent on the issue. White Nationalism is alive and well in this country ! I believe that Rod Serling would agree with that assessment more than yours!

  • Cheryl, thanks for your comments, but I wish you would have dealt with the substance of the parallel I drew between Obama's healthcare and the Twilight Zone episode rather than merely pointing fingers at Republicans and Bush. Time to take responsibility for progressive policy failures isn't it? And if you don't like the idea of Obama compared to "The Obsolete Man," what about the possibility of him as an alien Kanamit promising utopia in "To Serve Man"?

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