Shortly before he took the role that made him a star, as the towering out-of-time caveman in Eegah!, actor Richard Kiel starred in one of the most famous and well-constructed episodes of The Twilight Zone. Kiel played a gigantic alien who came to Earth, addressed the United Nations, and promised that his people would turn Earth into a paradise. They provided cures for cancer, new sources of cheap energy, and even interstellar tourist flights. They were guided by a book, written in the alien language, whose title codebreakers finally translated as To Serve Man. Of course, just as the human protagonist was about to go on the alien spacecraft for a trip to the alien home planet, his dreams of seeing the alien paradise were crushed when his assistant rushed to the gate and told him that the codebreakers had finished decoding the book: To Serve Man was a cookbook.
Cue the creepy Twilight Zone music.
As twist endings go, “To Serve Man…it’s a cookbook!” ranks right up there with “Soylent Green is made of people!” and Kevin Spacey’s disappearing limp. For me, the punchline is that title. Aliens that promise us good stuff but really want us for dinner is a time-honored trope of science fiction, most recently seen in the television series V. But it took the Twilight Zone to sum up the heart of it all in three words: to serve man.
This is the direction my mind wanders when politicians start talking about the wonderful things they are going to do for us. “Vote for me and I’ll set you free!” sang the Temptations in “Ball of Confusion.” But the contradiction is stark. A politician can not “set you free” unless he is abolishing laws. We are born free and, in the words of the Declaration of Independence, endowed by Our Creator (i.e., God) with rights. All laws put restrictions on the idea of being totally free.
Many times, these restrictions are necessary. We have laws against murder that restrict my freedom to go around killing people…and that’s a good thing. Absent law, society swings into anarchy. While the V for Vendetta crowd at Occupy Wherever may wear the anarchist A symbol and punk rockers love to promote the idea of anarchy, the reality is far different. You want to know what anarchy looks like? Go to a riot. Go live in Somalia. Anarchy is as frightening a concept as totalitarianism. In either case you are living under a jackboot of fear: fear of your neighbors in one, fear of the state in another.
The difficult part of threading the needle is knowing where to stop when creating new laws. At what point does a law become a genuine abridgement of freedom, as opposed to a societal blockade against crime and anarchy?
It’s a point we long ago passed in America. We’re not as far along as Canada, where writing a legitimate criticism of Islam can land you in front of a Human Rights Council, and we’re nowhere near the totalitarian regimes of China, North Korea, or Cuba. But make no mistake, many of the laws being passed in this country serve no purpose except to empower an already bloated governmental bureaucracy. These laws are not designed to hold off encroaching hordes of Vandals or Visigoths. No, they are to help us lead better lives.These laws are designed to serve man.
Listen to Barack Obama, or any one of dozens of politicians from either party. They promise to make things better for us. They speak of the helpless in society and pass laws that affect everyone, helpless or not. Obamacare was originally meant to address the problem of people who did not have health insurance, but it spun into a near total takeover of everyone’s healthcare choices. In 2008 candidate Obama famously talked about his election as the moment when the oceans would begin to recede as he would enact laws that would stem the approaching tide of global warming. They promise to take care of us.
There was a moment in the 1992 Presidential Debate that Rush Limbaugh used to mercilessly mock. A man from the audience asked messers Clinton, Bush, and Perot a question:
The focus of my work as a domestic mediator is meeting the needs of the children that I work with, by way of their parents, and not the wants of their parents. And I ask the three of you, how can we, as symbolically the children of the future president, expect the two of you, the three of you to meet our needs, the needs in housing and in crime and you name it, as opposed to the wants of your political spin doctors and your political parties?
This man, and I use the term loosely, would be the first one on board the spaceship, and the first to end up as alien gruel. He hammered his point home about how much of a child he really is by asking the candidates to “cross our hearts” in their promise not to talk bad about each other.
Could we cross our hearts? It sounds silly here but could we make a commitment? You know, we’re not under oath at this point but could you make a commitment to the citizens of the U.S. to meet our needs, and we have many, and not yours again? I repeat that. It’s a real need, I think, that we all have.
What’s telling here, though, is that none of the candidates stepped down from behind his podium, grabbed this dude by the shoulders, and yelled “You can ACT LIKE A MAN!!” like Don Corleone shaking some spine into Johnny Fontaine. Too bad, because a largely forgotten debate moment would be legendary today if one of them had done that. And that moment should not be forgotten, because it speaks to the way that too many people view government: as a provider of goods, services, safety. Government’s job, many people believe, is to care for the citizenry. This belief is a complete subversion of what the relationship between citizen and government was intended to be.The fact of the matter is this: government does not care. It is not a human being, it is an institution created by people, empowered by people, and ultimately controlled by people. Politicians are public servants. They are not smarter than the average person, they are not more enlightened, more trustworthy, or more beneficient. Yet, they seem to believe that it is their job to make sure that no harm comes to us. We are the symbolic children of government, they believe, and they are becoming more protective parents every day. Pretty soon we’ll be living in bubbles, lest we come into contact with some airborne chemical that they believe is harmful to our growth.
You can hear it loud and clear in the debate over entitlements, when the Republicans manage to find their cojones and actually talk about this stuff. The very concept of a government-supplied “entitlement” speaks volumes. The documents that created this country, from the Articles of Confederation to the Declaration to the Federalist and Anti-Federalist papers to the Constitution to the Bill of Rights, make clear that the only thing we Americans are entitled to is freedom. Any mention of rights in these documents is only to stress that the government can not infringe on those self-evident rights.
By referring to Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security as “entitlements” you are putting yourself squarely on the road to serfdom. You have established your relationship with the government as being one in which the government provides for you, and you are now the child waiting to be fed. The public servants have now become the public’s masters.
Politicians like to talk of these “entitlements” as providing a “social safety net” so that the elderly won’t have to eat cat food, and the poor will have healthcare. But what they are really doing is creating a system of government where politicians get to decide what rights we have, and how they are exercised. By being the Great Provider, government assumes total control over our lives, and the freedom that truly is our national entitlement becomes just one more item to be controlled, legislated, and regulated. Some politicians do this because they truly mean well. Some do it because they seek expanded power. The result is the same: the average American ends up living where every action and thought is regulated, and some actions and thoughts once considered perfectly acceptable, are now illegal. We are not there yet, but we are on the road, heading in that direction.
Politicians who promise to pass laws that provide for us for our own good are no different from the alien Kanamit in The Twilight Zone. Instead of “To Serve Man” they instead talk about building a safety net. But if the alien book is full of recipes, the social safety net is a spiderweb. Once we are in it, we are stuck, as a ravenous governmental Shelob descends on us. And as the web grows larger and stronger, the chance of breaking free and embracing our national birthright becomes smaller and weaker.