August 03, 2007

Life Back Home on Maple Street

Our induction into Rod Serling's black, white and macabre world happened on a weekly basis, often beginning with a disturbingly ordinary scene of a suburban neighborhood in Somewhere, U.S.A. It wasn't until we saw Rod Serling's wraith-like figure standing to one side, and the sign post up ahead that read "Twilight Zone," that we realized we'd arrived once again in Weirdsville. I wonder if this discombobulation seeped into the unconscious of David Lynch and affected his noir-style of depicting the very strange in ordinary surroundings.

Among the entire oeuvre, I would say my favorite episode (that is to say: the one that freaked me out the most) was "The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street." People in a simple American neighborhood suddenly experience strange mishaps. Beginning at 6:43 p.m. on a Saturday evening, the lights don't work in some houses, but they do in others. Power tools fire up of their own accord. Telephones mysteriously ring, or fail to work at all. The residents of Maple Street begin to wonder what's going on, they become fearful. And then they begin to suspect each other. What is that radio set the old man is working on down in his basement? Who is he communicating with? Why hasn't that family lost its electrical power throughout this entire strange episode? By the end of the half hour, the houses are on fire, the once-civilized people are running amok, and Maple Street is in ruins. The camera pans back to a hill above the neighborhood. A few extraterrestrials calmly observe the carnage down below. The leader explains the modus operandi in tones that are less gloating than sympathetic:

Alien #1: Understand the procedure now? Just stop a few of their machines, and radios, and telephones, and lawnmowers, throw them into darkness for a few hours and then, sit back and watch the pattern. Alien #2: And this pattern is always the same? Alien #1: With few variations. They pick the most dangerous enemy they can find. And it's themselves. All we need do is sit back and watch. Alien #2: Then I take it that this place- This "Maple Street" is not unique? Alien #1: By no means. The world is full of Maple Streets. And we'll go from one to the other and let them destroy themselves. One to the other...One to the other...One to the other..

I thought about this episode after reading that 77,000 bridges in the United States are "structurally deficient," the rating applied to the bridge in Minneapolis just before it fell, and the estimate of the American Society of Civil Engineers that America has about $1.5 trillion in deferred maintenance on highways, bridges and other infrastructure. Meanwhile, every few months the United States Congress takes up a defense appropriations bill of some amount or another, or an "emergency supplemental" to keep the Iraq and Afghan wars going all-out, and then reflexively grants George Bush whatever amount he asks for (and then some) for his desert folly, which, even if "successful," will have no discernible effect on the quality or security of life in the United States. The low estimate of $1 trillion if averaged with the high estimate of $2 trillion as the cost of the Iraq War (by the Congressional Budget Office) is neatly congruent with the cost of repairing the country's essential infrastructure. So we can say that we're fixing and destroying stuff over there so we can't fix it here.

At this point the war continues so that Bush doesn't have to admit that he lost and so the Democrats don't have to defend themselves against the charge that they made Bush lose. In some ways it has become a war without an external referent. It is about itself, but built into itself is this fatal opportunity cost.

I have no doubt that Osama bin Laden is a canny and intelligent guy, but it's hard to invest him with the clairvoyance of those aliens standing on the hill above Maple Street. Isn't it? Could he have seen that one dramatic and horrific act of violence against the United States would so obsess the country that it would descend completely into irrationality, neglect its own priorities and throw everything it has into the pursuit of phantoms? Did he know that George W. Bush, a career failure in business, would pay no attention to the country's bottom line, that he could not order and prioritize the nation's resources to take care of necessary business here, and that the country would fall literally apart under his leadership? We lost New Orleans under Bush. Now bridges in the federal interstate highway system are collapsing while under normal use. The military is broken and debilitated. The national debt and the external debt to foreign countries have soared out of control. Was it a coincidence that Osama wanted to strike early in Bush's presidency so the Decider would have as much time to work with as bin Laden could give him?

Certain things seem obvious. In living memory, partisanship has never been so strident. The momentary cohesion in the country immediately after 9/11 has given way to a divisiveness that weakens the country profoundly. The essential civil liberties of American citizens are under assault. We have, in other words, turned on each other, and if bin Laden was the instigator, the devolution now proceeds without any further input from him. Down here on Maple Street, we're taking care of the destruction all by ourselves.

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