Ralph Dumain on The Twilight Zone

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Fri Sep 20 10:29:35 MDT 2002

(Thanks to Jim Farmelant for forwarding this to me from the yahoo
marxistphilosophy email list that Dumain moderates. It is in response to my
post that Jim apparently crossposted there. Dumain was one of the more
colorful characters among a host of colorful characters that inhabited the
original Marxism list of yore, from which this one springs. For the longest
time, Dumain had adopted the persona of an African-American until I spilled
the beans on him. He was in fact a Yid just like myself. Sort of reminded
me of the wonderful New Yorker cartoon of the dog sitting at a computer
keyboard who is telling the dog looking over his shoulder that "Nobody can
tell that you are dog on the Internet." Despite the
unforgivably  gratuitous swipe at me--sniff--Dumain's piece is quite good.)

I'm sure my readers have been nonplussed by the prevalence of cultural
matters I've put before this list, and not even from an explicitly Marxist
perspective. I should add that there is a regrettably provincial
concentration on the United States as well. On this latter point, I am
dependent on others to relate the conditions of their home countries; I can
only write about matters close to home. On the former points, rather than
selling Marxism like laundry detergent, or discussing political economy and
political matters alone, the symbolic framework within we move and
techniques for orienting ourselves within a heavily laden ideological
environment constitute pressing issues for us.

In this instance, Lou Proyect once again reveals his utter philistinism and
buttheaded propagandistic attitude toward cultural matters. He is, however,
quite right to highlight the social importance of the original "Twilight
Zone". I jokingly tell people that I got my entire value system not from
the Bible but from "The Twilight Zone". Many a truth is said in jest; this
is not much of an exaggeration. "The Twilight Zone" was objectively a
result of a decades-long development of the best liberal instincts of the
American people. Not the liberalism of the ruling class, but the liberalism
of the people. A liberalism that raised expectations so high, that it could
not be contained as intended and threatened to spill over into radicalism,
which is why it had to be destroyed as a political force as a response to
the economic, political, and legitimation crisis of the mid-'70s. Before
the crises of the late-60s which forced television reluctantly to change,
there was a long line of social development from the Great Depression, the
New Deal, the Second World War, and the McCarthy era, up to the point of
the Kennedy Era in which a number of key television programs came to the fore.

All the best American dramatic television series came in the early 1960s
(Actually TWZ began at the end of the '50s), and they all represent the
same set of liberal values. Two were science fiction series, two
naturalistic drama: "The Twilight Zone", "The Outer Limits", "The
Fugitive", "Route 66." Each of these was bitterly resisted or interfered

with by the conservative, unsophisticated morons who controlled the
networks. Rod Serling, who had become the most celebrated writer in
television history with his naturalistic dramas, had to resort to trickery
to talk the suits into a science fiction show. He pulled off an incredible
coup by making a _writer_ a star and the host of a television series.
Stories can be told about the history of these other series as well.

The upshot though is that all arose in the shadow of poverty, war and fear,
amidst an historically unprecedented prosperity and the hopes for a better
future. The messages were all the same, especially coming out of
McCarthyism, the Cold War and the menace of nuclear war. These television
shows were all about compassion for society's losers, the frustrations and
dead ends, and the dangers of bigotry and hate, scapegoating, the rule of
fear, smallmindedness, greed and ruthlessness. They also reflect the highly
restricted social vocabulary of the time, as official society had
suppressed the public depiction of large sections of social reality. And of
course nothing could be said about the United States as an imperial power.
No one approached the fundamental problems of the organization of society
embodied in political economy and the fundamental nature of American
capitalism. The reigning approach to social problems was from a standpoint
of moral idealism. This moral idealism constitutes both the greatest
weakness and the greatest strength of the American people, combining a lack
of comprehension of social structure with the highest expectations and
demands for the quality of life. You can understand nothing about the
American people without understanding this. This moral idealism exhibits a
dual character. On the one hand, it is a necessary tool of liberal
capitalism, an ideological abstraction that can be used by the ideologists
of the ruling class to justify any empirical action or cover up empirical
reality. (Kennedy himself, who never exhibited any moral courage for a day
in his life, exploited it in his book PROFILES IN COURAGE). But _their_
moral idealism is not ours, nor is their liberalism.

Rod Serling struggled to inject social issues into television as best he
could, from the moralistic liberal American standpoint. He also used some
of the most important writers in science fiction and fantasy, such as
Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont. Matheson might have escaped some
radar screens, but he has had a long and influential career as a fiction
and screenwriter which continues to this day. But you always know a Serling
script when you see it on TV, without even reading the credits.
Characteristic themes: people who grew up in small towns are lost and
alienated in the dehumanizing rat race of the big city, low-class losers
seek last minute redemption from their dead-end lives, the positive and
negative aspects of wish fulfillment and dreams come to pass, the greedy
and the ruthless get their comeuppance. The A&E television biography of
Serling confirms these themes as deeply rooted in Serling's purview,
psychology, and experience.  At its worst, Serling's shows were
overbearing, didactic morality plays. Sometimes he couldn't stop after
making his point; he'd just go on and on and flog a dead horse. Some of the
science fiction gimmicks had no plausible causality even in a sci fi
universe: someone experiences a moral crisis, something miraculous happens,
and then the consequences of the psychological crisis are played out. But
at its best, Serling's profound humanism effectively communicated his
themes. This is the ideological environment that produced me.

In my next post, I will explain the ideological issues implicated in the
revival of programs from the '60s under the changed conditions of the '80s,
'90s, and today, and hope to explain why so many of these revivals,
including the newest attempt to revive "The Twilight Zone", are travesties
or failures.

Louis Proyect

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