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From Arch Oboler to Star Trek: How old Sci-Fi gives us Insight into the issues of Today

As a kid, Star Trek was my babysitter from 5-6 pm every day on WGN in Chicago. I can say with much confidence that James T. Kirk was a role model. His insight taught me much.

Now there were many so-so TOS episodes, and back then Let That Be Your Last Battlefield was on my list. I recently rewatched it and found that this season the classic had taken on a new sense of meaning. In it, the Enterprise is caught in a war of hatred between two aliens bent on destroying each other. The root of their hatred is that one has a black and white face, while the other a white and black face.

Unable to put their hatred aside, they almost take the Enterprise with them in their conflict.

So simplistic, and yet it makes me think of the deep divisions in America today. We have seen more than 640,000 Americans die due to COVID, and yet we are deeply divided on a way forward. And when so many with health issues and under 12 are at risk, we fall into a ridiculous debate of personal liberties.

Looking forward from 1969, we have to ask how we allow political differences to divide us to the point that some are willing to allow thousands to die over an ideology? Not unlike Lokai and Bele, the aliens with different markings but genetically the same, we can’t see the truth when it is right in front of us.

Suddenly the dated lines of the Star Trek tele-play seem poignant and powerful.

As the bridge crew laments that the two same beings could not put their mutual hate aside:

"It doesn't make any sense." Uhura

"To expect sense from two mentalities of such extreme viewpoints, is not logical." Spock

"But their planet's dead. Does it matter now which one of them was right?" Sulu

"Not to Lokai and Bele. All that matters to them is their hate. Do you suppose that's all they ever had, sir?" Uhura

"No… but that's all they have left." Kirk

Somehow, we have come to a place where motivation is linked to outrage, where hatred is a force to unite, and painting the other side as evil is a way to bring people together.

The great radio writer Arch Oboler is known for many powerful radio plays, but none as hard hitting, perhaps, as The Laughing Man: The Ultimate In Horror. In this radio monologue a historian far in the future addresses us and recounts how an old man has brought him a written record from a lost civilization that had fallen millennia ago.

Incredulous and amused the scholar reads from the record of 20,000 years ago. The text said that people had fought about the land over who owned what. And the book said that they fought over “race” — the difference between humans — and yet the book says that all humans had the same origin. And a man walked the world and said "for the glory of God, peace on earth," and then they went out to murder with bright music playing…

And here’s the climax, the book said that the people had machines which could fly through the air - imagine the wonder if it were true, but the book said that they loaded the machines with horrible tearing things, and dropped them over crowded places.

Humans struggled for centuries; they studied and toiled, rivers of heartache trying to build a healthier world for their children to live in - and then they threw poison clouds down from the sky and killed them off by the tens of thousands, killing the children. Laughing, the breathless man asks “Isn’t it all a joke?”

I listen to Oboler’s play and I think of the messaging around the mask. "Children need immunity," we hear, "they need to see each other." Some people say that because they love their children. And, over a hypocritical political belief grounded in fake science and hate, they expose children to a killer disease - one whose side effects we are just coming to understand. In the sake of freedom, they expose them by the hundreds of thousands. And the most exposed are children from communities of color.

Maybe we need to spend less on war and weapons and more on education and public health. Because as dark as Arch Oboler's vision was 70 years ago, the one I see playing out today is chilling. Common values have become warped in disinformation and twisted in hate and ignorance. Between the idyllic future of Star Trek and the post-apocalyptic world of Oboler, we still have choices. Let's hope we can learn to listen again.


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