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Another Perspective of Rod Serling: His Moorpark College Address

July 2, 2009

In the process of researching a new post for my newsignal: blog, I came across the following speech delivered by The Twilight Zone creator, Rod Serling.

It was December of 1968 when Serling was asked to speak at Moorpark College in Moorpark, CA.  1968 was obviously mired in the turbulence of the Civil Rights movement, the war in Viet Nam, the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, the Chicago Police’s clash with anti-war protestors at the Democratic National Convention, and the political and cultural instability that was part of the social fabric in the 60’s era United States.

Rod Serling, to those who were paying attention, was as much a social critic as he was an entertainer when it came to his writings (if not more so).  His perspective was most clear in the numerous episodes of The Twilight Zone he wrote, or in films such as Seven Days in May or even in Planet of the Apes released earlier that year.

For those of us who only came to know him through the syndicated episodes of The Twilight Zone that were run in marathons during the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays of our childhood, we weren’t privy to know this man outside of the caricature of American pop culture.

The following speech lends a great deal of insight into the man away from the cameras, and well represents the thoughtful, opinionated and passionate man I would have imagined him to be.  Reading this speech some 40 years later, it is interesting to consider the things that have changed since then, and those things which seem just as fresh as if he had been speaking today.

–D.

If you want to prove that God is not dead, first prove that man is alive. — Rod Serling, December 3rd, 1968

There seem to have arisen some complications relevant to my appearance here this evening that should be clarified before I begin.  Plainly and simply.  I refused to sign a loyalty oath which was submitted to me as a prerequisite both for my appearance and my pay.  I gather that your local newspaper and some of its readers read dire and menacing implications in this refusal of mine, and I broach the whole thing only by way of a kind of personal disclaimer.

Number one, I have no interest in overthrowing the government of the United States and number two, to the best of my knowledge I have not or am not now a member of a subversive organization whose aims are similar.  I know there are many of you out there who’ve put me in a genetic classification of someplace between a misanthropic kook and an ungracious dope.  Actually, I’m neither.  I did not sign the loyalty oath and I waived my normal speaking fee, only because of a principle.  I think a requirement that a man affix his signature to a document, reaffirming loyalty, in on one hand ludicrous—and on the other demeaning.

A time-honored concept of Anglo-Saxon justice declares that a man is innocent until proven guilty.  I believe that in a democratic society a man is similarly loyal until proven disloyal.  No testaments of faith, no protestations of affection for his native load, and no amount of signatures will prove a bloody thing—one way or the other as to a man’s patriotism or lack thereof.  The concept of the loyalty oath is a new one in the United States—in its present form it dates back less than twenty years.  It’s been around for a number of decades in different countries under decidedly different forms of government.  It was a requirement in Nazi Germany and in Fascist Italy, and is currently a prerequisite for the status of citizenship in the Soviet Union.

Under dictators, the so-called loyalty oath is a necessary adjunct to a relationship between man and his government.  Both the Fascists and the Communists have a pathological distrust of their own people.  To require a signature under an oath of allegiance seems to me or presume guilt and an attendant disloyalty.  I simply can’t honor that kind of premise—and I won’t honor it.  And it’s for that reason that I did not sign the oath required of me to speak here for pay.  But parenthetically it might be noted that if indeed, I were hell bent to subvert the government of the United States, I would certainly have no qualms about signing anything.

But so much for my own idiosyncrasies.  I’d like to talk to you tonight about the generation gap as it applies to what’s going on.  I find myself in the uncomfortable and almost untenable position of a man in the middle—the so-called moderate liberal whose roots go deep into the American soil, pounded there by immigrant parents who fled Eastern Europe during the nineteenth century because that peculiar breed of flag-wavers on the other side had taken upon themselves to the prerogative of choosing who should survive and who should not.

Because of this particular background there are certain gut-deep philosophies and attitudes that are a part of my bone marrow—unshakable and unswervable.  I will salute our flag and stand for our anthem and feel an affection for my native land with the kind of fervor and admitted emotionalism that would be peculiar especially to a fat-cat Hollywood writer whose father was an uneducated butcher.  This, on the face of it, removes me from the pale of the new left.  It sets me apart—and I suppose in their view, places me dead center in the basement of the establishment.

But I’ll tell you something.  Reserving certain criticism and negative judgment as to methodology, I nonetheless subscribe to and support what are the goals and aspirations of America’s young.  I am much more prone to embrace their causes that I am any cause which would see the perpetuating of certain aged and no longer applicable concepts of ethics, mores, moralities, more peculiar to my own generation.

I would rather have a son or daughter of mine march through the streets of Chicago protesting injustice—than I would siring a Chicago policeman who’ll club anyone who’ll get in his way—and that includes sixteen-year-olds, newspaper photographers, and senior citizens.

And if anyone wants to raise the spectre of “provocation”—I say this categorically.  There is no provocation extant short of a motive of self defense to excuse as representative of law and order wading in with a billy-club under the pretense of saving the sovereign city of Chicago.  Of the four hundred young people currently held under arraignment for so-called assault and battery, half of them are under eighteen and half of those under a hundred and twenty pounds.

Suddenly we are a nation whose new battle slogan is law and order.  Last year it won countless numbers of elections.  It’s the great new American euphemism.  Law and Order.  It is now interchangeable with God, Motherhood, the Constitution and the Holy Grail.  But how empty and how suspect is this sloganry when it points up the incredible selectivity on the part of America’s citizenry—how picky and choosey they are when it comes to moral outrage.

There was no hue and cry for a re-examination of American conscience when four little Negro girls were bombed to pieces in a Birmingham church.  There was no collective gasp of offense when three young civil rights workers were slaughtered in Mississippi.  There were no slogans at all attending the bombing of over a hundred churches in the south in the past five years, or the fact that there have only been two lawyers, available to defend civil rights cases in the state of Mississippi until last year—or that juries were all white—or that a white man accused of first degree homicide has never, in the history of the south, been given a sentence commensurate with the proven charge.  Or we could go down the list of flagrant violations of law and order as they have existed for the past hundred years—beginning with the five thousand lynchings.

These assaults on conscience we live with, and nobody cries out for law and order.  For a quarter of a century, in the Congress of the United States, we tried to get passed an anti-lynching bill.  A simple law to protect the lives of black citizens below the Mason-Dixon line.  This was not legislation, as our protesting brethren so often take us to task for—the legislation of brotherly love with they say is impossible.  It was a law making it a federal offense to hang a human being from a tree, cover him with kerosene and cremate him.  But the loudest cheerleaders of our current law and order rallies—the Eastlands and the Strom Thurmonds—were the very gentlemen who fought against that legislation until it was ultimately passed.

It’s hardly a revelation to me that the young people in this country take a dim view of our current up-tightness when it comes to street rioting.  They believe, and I think quite properly, that on the scale of misbehavior the black man who takes a torch to a building or breaks a window to loot, and does so out of passion, is less the criminal than the white man who puts his torch to human beings and does so with a cold, calculated, predatory pre-planned blueprint of destruction.

The black man, because he’s suffered this for over a hundred years, looks upon us as a convocation of lizards—a cold blooded species of being who will call out the national guard to keep a ghetto from being burned down—but will raise no finger, let alone an octave of voice, to protest what has been done to him over the past century.

Look across that generation gap now and see it as they see it—the young.  Thirty two billion dollars into a civil war ten thousand miles from our shore to protect the freedom of the South Vietnamese and keep the Viet Cong from attacking San Francisco.  That’s where we are told is America’s destiny—in the rice paddies of DaNang.  And America’s youth—or at least a sizeable share of them—find this to be patently unbelievable.

America’s destiny, in their view, lies on the streets of Newark, Miami, Chicago, Los Angeles and Harlem.  That’s where we keep alive the dream.  Not in Saigon.  And certainly not at the cost of twenty-thousand dead American boys with a hundred-thousand wounded and a half a million civilians put to a torch.  Again, the inconsistencies.  The Hawks who bleat most loudly for our continuing participation in this war—these are the ones who’ve passed the propositions 14—and woe be unto the oriental who has the temerity to put a garbage can next to his.  Again inconsistency.

Those who shout loudest for fiscal sanity—an end to so-called federal handouts.  Stop this nonsense about Federal Aid to education, federal housing, aid to cities.  These are the gentlemen who watched us throw two billion dollars to help prop up the French Colonial Government whose good offices are indistinguishable from the North Vietnamese.

What don’t we like about the enemy?  They imprison people without trial.  They stifle free speech. They close down newspapers.  They rig elections.  Every objective and dispassionate view presented to us by bona fide journalists, historians and intelligent observers, are uniformly critical of all the governments of Vietnam—the North, the South and the French.  So what, indeed, are we defending there?

If it’s simply as Dean Rusk would have us believe—that the north should return to their side of the fence and the south remain on theirs, it might be pointed out that Premier Ky and President Thieu are both northerners and it points up again the fact that this is a civil war.  And if precedentially we must leave our native soil to attack any government that displeases us, we have opened ourselves up one helluva can of peas.  We’d best load up the ships for South America, Greece, Eastern Europe and elsewhere—where governments exist without the sanction of their people.  And we will have embarked on an international adventure that has no end and at a cost that is incomprehensible.

What turns that younger generation off?  Examine, if you will, the candidacy of George Wallace.  That political stalwart who made a public quote that he would never be out-niggered again.  This from the man running for the highest office in the land.  And though a fraternity of wishful thinkers tell us he’s been discredited, the young are much more realistic. They look at his ten million votes.  They look at his thirteen percent share of the ballot, one out of seven.  And they realize that had California gone to Humphrey—we might on this very day still not have a president-elect.

Let me, at this juncture, play devil’s advocate.  I’ve reserved my criticism for my generation. Let’s examine both the pot and the kettle.  The campus of San Francisco State University, for example.  I’ll say this unequivocally.  For students to disrupt classes, to shout down opposing voices of argument, to tear up public property and to foist their will—however just their cause and legitimate their grievances—is an act of criminal, stupid, self-defeating insanity.

The very things they seek: equal education, equal voices, a decent regard and respect for the rights of all—these are the things they throw aside when they practice their own special thing—the introduction of anarchy.  And they do something else that is almost suicidal.  They dissolve whatever possible support and understanding that might be forthcoming.  And no—repeat—no social pressure can succeed on any level without support.  We’ve seen this phenomena before—when you cannot argue with a man, you either belt him in the mouth or shout him down. That may be an emotional cathartic but it does nothing to advance a cause.

Now where does it all end?  The generation gap that looks with jaundiced youthful eyes at the war, the draft, deeply embedded social inequality and the worship of anachronisms which have become more ritualistic than real.  There are two quotes that I think applicable, albeit abstract, and I ask for your indulgence when I march out quotations.  This is the double syndrome of men who write for a living and men who are over forty.  The young smoke pot—we inhale from our Bartlett’s.

The first quote is on the tombstone of Martin Luther King, Jr.  It comes from the book of Genesis: “They said to one another, Behold, here cometh the dreamer…let us slay him…and we shall see what might become of his dreams.”  Scott Fitzgerald said, “In the dark night of the soul it is always three o’clock in the morning.”  During this long night of our souls there have been other dreamers and they, too, have been slain.  John Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, Medger Evers, King, and others.  Each had his dream and each paid his price.  And I’ll tell you what this dream is.  It’s pointed up by an apocryphal story.

When Goethe lay dying he was supposed to have opened his eyes in the last moment before death and said, “Light.  Please give me more light.  A hundred years later, the Spanish philosopher, (Miguel de) Unamuno, upon hearing what Goethe said, said, “Impossible, Goethe could not have said that.  He would have never asked for light.  He would have said, ‘Warmth…let there be warmth.’  Men do not die of the darkness…they die of the cold.  It is the frost that kills. That’s what the dream is.  That’s what it’s all about.  The oneness of men.”

What is the generation gap?  It’s the plaintive and desperate cry of the young that men should be one.  If we can ever accomplish this, understand it, assimilate it, act from its premise—that elusive dream might take on form.

That, my friends, is what I think it’s all about.  I think the destiny of all men is not to sit in the rubble of their own making but to reach out for an ultimate perfection which is to be had.  At the moment, it is a dream.  But as of the moment we clasp hands with our neighbor, we build the first span to bridge the gap between the young and the old.  At this hour, it’s a wish.  But we have it within our power to make it a reality.  If you want to prove that God is not dead, first prove that man is alive.

Wording of the Oath

“I solemnly affirm/swear that I will support the Constitution of the United States of America, the Constitution of the State of California, and the laws of the United States and the State of California and will, by precept and example, promote respect for the Flag and the statutes of the State of California, reverence for law and order, and undivided allegiance to the Government of the United States of America.”

2 Comments leave one →
  1. July 2, 2009 9:13 pm

    Excellent Blog. A piece of the unknown Rod Serling. You would make him proud.

  2. July 3, 2009 1:12 pm

    Amazing…thanks for sharing this!!!

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