Human Liberty and “The Obsolete Man”

Have we finally arrived at the real—and inhuman—Twilight Zone?

Is there a common thread between Christians and other “enemies of the faith” murdered by the scores in the Middle East, Africa, and elsewhere; “enemies of the state” beaten or disappearing in Russia, China, and North Korea; and many other states where a failure to conform to the orthodoxy of the day gets one publicly vilified, shunted to the side, or worse?

At first glance, an avowedly atheistic Kim Jong-un of North Korea, materialists Vladimir Putin of Russia and Xi Jinping of China, and the leaders of ISIS and Al-Qaeda don’t seem to have much in common, though all of them share a foundational belief in the obsolete man.

Rod Serling captures this truth in the 1961 Twilight Zone episode, “The Obsolete Man”, which he himself wrote, where Romney Wordsworth (Burgess Meredith), a librarian in a state without books, is judged to be obsolete and sentenced to death. There’s not much room for subtlety in a half-hour show, and Serling gives it to us with both barrels, a parable rather than a fleshed-out story. The warehouse-like courtroom has no human ornamentation, a spartan beehive with buzzing drone-like people, while Wordsworth’s small room is cluttered with books but feels homey and comfortable, in spite of the menace outside his door.

Serling introduces this dystopian state as a place where “Logic is an enemy and truth is a menace…a future that might be”. As the story progresses, we learn the “State has proven there is no God”, to which Wordsworth replies, “You can’t erase God with an edict.” When he’s judged obsolete, Wordsworth responds, “No man is obsolete. I am a human being. I exist”, to which the Chancellor of the state responds, “Delusions that you inject into your printer’s veins with printer’s ink…the state has no use for your kind…no more books means no more librarians”. How this state executes Wordsworth, giving him a choice of how to die and broadcasting his death for its “Educative effect on the population” is where Serling displays his characteristic ironical twist, when the Chancellor poses this question: “How does a man react to the knowledge that he is going to be blown to bits?” Not much later, with the clock ticking, Wordsworth counters with a word of his own: “Let’s see how a Chancellor of the state dies…let’s have a little chat…just you and me and the great equalizer.”

Wordsworth proceeds to read from Scripture, which happens to be the Book of books proscribed by the state, beginning with Psalm 23, while the Chancellor smokes in nervous silence. Imagine such a scene on network television today, without Wordsworth being portrayed as nutty or fanatical.

Serling’s postscript sounds quaint today, when reasons are given for equivocation on every subject. He says, “Any state that does not recognize the worth, the dignity, the rights of man, is obsolete.” As states in the West assume more control over societies, as we put more of our faith in the state (China, Russia), and as ideologies dominate cultures and societies (North Korea, ISIS, Al-Qaeda), human beings get smaller, as Wordsworth seems to shrink in the massive state courtroom, and those that don’t fit become “obsolete”, shunted to the side, jailed, or executed, not for any evil they’ve committed, but because ”The state (or the ideology that’s proclaimed) has no use for your kind.”

What Serling leaves unaddressed, inevitably in such a short film, is the balance between human freedom and the welfare of the community, or society. In “The Obsolete Man”, Serling only has time for the big picture, and an endorsement of societies free enough to debate where individual freedom ought to begin and end.

In much of what Pope Francis says and writes, he seems to be exploring human freedom in relation to responsibility; in relation to capitalist, statist, and theocratic abuse of power; and in relation to mercy—what Serling does in “The Obsolete Man” with Wordsworth’s final act.

Scripture tells us over and over that God wants human hearts to choose him, choose him every day, and when Pharisees, or Islam, or Christians coerce human beings into choosing him, it isn’t good enough. Each person has to make this choice and bear the consequences.

In his time, no one would have called Serling a reactionary or religious zealot, though his views about human liberty are no longer compatible with those who apply gender, sexual orientation, religious, psychological, racial, ethnic, or class struggle tests to every spoken or written word—an approach that nullifies any talk about absolute values and permanent meaning. He was from a generation that saw the fruits of fanatical quests for efficiency, orderliness, ideological purity, where the obsolete were eliminated by the millions; chiefly Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, and Mao’s China, but also plenty of would-be imitators. At one point in the show, Serling’s Chancellor states that the problem with Hitler and Stalin was they didn’t go far enough. Serling was a humanist, though one who knew that liberty, justice, and mercy can only be built on a foundation of “The worth, the dignity, the rights” of every human being.

Mere fiction? Not today. Not if our eyes and ears are wide open.

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About Thomas M. Doran 84 Articles
Thomas M. Doran is the author of the Tolkien-inspired Toward the Gleam (Ignatius Press, 2011), The Lucifer Ego, and Kataklusmos (2020). He has worked on hundreds of environmental and infrastructure projects, was president of Tetra Tech/MPS, was an adjunct professor of engineering at Lawrence Technological University, and is a member of the College of Fellows of The Engineering Society of Detroit.