The Obsolete Man


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 "obsolete."

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.

Wordsworth 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 alike.

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.

August 16, 2006