The Obsolete Man

Email Print


As a vision
of totalitarianism, "The Obsolete Man" encapsulates a
common fear felt throughout America during the cold war era: the
destruction of the rights of man at the hands of the state.

By far, my
favorite episode of The Twilight Zone I've yet seen was an
episode written by Rod Serling and which originally aired on June
2, 1961.  This episode, titled "The
Obsolete Man
," is set in a dystopian future at a point
when the state has total control over the lives of man, and can
and does declare those men and women who do not serve its ends as

The episode
begins with a librarian named Romney Wordsworth having been declared
obsolete by the Chancellor for his occupation.  Serling, in
his introduction, describes Wordsworth as "a citizen of the
State [who] will soon have to be eliminated, because he's built
out of flesh and because he has a mind."

This is a future
in which the state has "proven" there is no God, and has
eliminated all books.  If this state is the former United States
of America, as one could easily infer from the American accents
of the characters, then clearly the first amendment, too, has been
rendered obsolete, if not the entire Constitution.  What remains
of a justice system is but a façade. In addition, the
state routinely executes the obsolete live on television, for the
"educative effect [it has] on the population."  The
state, it is revealed, likes to see people beg for mercy in their
final hour.  It is this sort of televised set-up that Wordsworth
requests for his own imminent death, but for the ulterior motive
of showing his resolve against the state.

feels no guilt for his actions, and feels no need to sugar-coat
them or pretend they are anything other than what they are. 
A probable-libertarian at heart, Wordsworth is able to recognise
that he is not truly a criminal, since his "crimes" entail
no victims, unless we are to absurdly count statism as a victim. 
Hence the strength Wordsworth is able to display — strength rooted
in his assuredness that he, not his state, is right, and that his
state is by all reasonable accounts certainly unjust.

Not ironically,
the state is fully aware that its philosophical roots are in dictatorships
of the past.  The Chancellor acknowledges quite openly that
their predecessors include Hitler and Stalin, but says that they
did not go far enough.

I'll spare
the reader from the main plot twist, in case he or she is now interested
in seeing the episode for him- or herself.  Needless to say,
this episode will likely be of interest to libertarian and librarians

Rod Serling
ends this episode by saying,

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 u2018M' for mankind…in the Twilight Zone.

Those wishing
to buy a copy of "The Obsolete Man" can do so here
It is coupled with another episode titled "Death's Head Revisited,"
which confronts the ideals of Nazism and anti-Semitism.

16, 2006

Peak [send him mail]
is the former President of the College
Libertarians of Towson
, at Towson University, Maryland.

Email Print