Friday, July 4, 2008

It's a Good Life

Over the Fourth of July weekend the Sci Fi channel was having one of their periodic Twilight Zone marathons. One of the episodes I watched was "It's a Good Life," (season 3, episode 8 of that season) starring the child actor Bill Mumy, who plays Anthony Fremont, a boy with the power to turn people into anything he wanted, or send them "to the cornfield," meaning kill them off. He could do pretty much anything he wanted, and could read people's minds.

So everyone had to think happy thoughts, especially about Anthony himself, or it was off to the cornfield with them. Anthony didn't like singing, so no one could sing, or play any records with singing. Once Anthony decided to make it snow, thereby ruining much of that season's crops, it being the growing season. Anthony's father was initially horrified, but quickly recovered his senses, and admitted that it was good that Anthony made it snow. "That's a good thing you did, Anthony."

Anthony had turned the little town of Peaksville, Ohio into his own little kingdom, of which he was the absolute monarch and God. No one could leave the town, no one else could come in. The rest of the world had, for all practical purposes, ceased to exist. The population was shrinking, since he occasionally got angry with some of the residents and sent them to the cornfield, whence no one returned. The crops suffered from his whims, as did the livestock and other domestic animals, like dogs.

I've seen this episode before. But this time it struck me as an excellent description of life under an absolute ruler, whether a modern dictator, or a traditional monarch. Historically, such rulers had, and the modern ones continue to have, absolute power, including the power of life and death over all of his or her subjects, which could be, and often was, exercised at whim. So the subjects must all live in fear of the ruler, and pretend to be happy and agree with any whim of the ruler, lest they be sent to the cornfield.

So, for example, if a King wanted to levy a huge new tax on "his" people, in order to build a colossal new luxury palace, what could the hapless subject say? "That's a good thing you did, your Majesty."

And if a dictator wants his farmers to stop farming and melt their "extra" pots and pans, and anything else they can find that is made of iron, to increase the country's steel production statistics? And this will cause thousands to die of starvation, since the crops are being neglected? Students, too, and their teachers, must spend all their time searching for scrap metal to melt down, and forget about classes? "That's a good thing you did, Chairman Mao. I'm very happy!"

That last example was something that actually happened in China under Mao, circa 1957. In describing it, Chinese author Jung Chang wrote:

This absurd situation reflected not only Mao's ignorance of how an economy worked, but also an almost metaphysical disregard for reality, which might have been interesting in a poet, but in a political leader with absolute power was quite another matter. One of its main components was a deep-seated contempt for human life. (from Wild Swans, by Jung Chang)

That's a perfect description of Anthony, absolute ruler of Peaksville, Ohio. And also of Kim Jong-il. And it represents everything Hugo Chavez aspires to be, as well.

The episode also shows one character who refuses to submit to this pathetic slave existence. He starts singing in Anthony's face, and telling him exactly what a monster he is. Anthony begins threatening him with the cornfield. The rebel then pleads with the other victims to take advantage of Anthony while he is distracted by this rebellion, and attack him. But no one else does, and the rebel is sent to the cornfield. This also is similar to life under a dictatorship. The bravest ones are the first to die, or end up in prison, because they agree with Patrick Henry. But most people simply submit like sheep, and go on living as slaves.

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