It’s Four O’Clock in America

The recent rage to knock down statues of men deemed to be evil has reminded me of an episode of The Twilight Zone. That series, which I believe was the best that television has ever gotten, mingled Greek tragedies with Christian morality plays, and sometimes the screenplays partook of both. That is the case with an episode called “Four O’Clock,” based on a very short story of the same name, by Price Day.

The original story is quickly told, though subtle in its details. An old man in England during the war, an apparently shy and retiring type named Crangle, has been thinking about how to wipe away evil from the world. He lives alone in a flat, with his parrot Pet, who every so often says, “Nut.” When she does, he reaches up and gives her one, which she crunches in her beak.  Otherwise she looks down on him “with a hard, cold, reptilian eye, an ancient eye, an eye older by age upon age than the human race.”

We may think here of the ancient enemy, the slithering tempter in Eden, except that it appears that Pet has had objections to what Mr. Crangle wants to do. “You’re quite wrong, Pet,” he says, “as I have explained to you often enough before. The moral angle presents no difficulties at all.” That “moral angle” involves identifying who the evil people are, and the author gives us a definition that strikes Mr. Crangle as incontestable: “An evil person was a person who would seem evil to an all-knowing Mr. Crangle.” Call it the tautology of the narcissist.

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It’s the practical question that has preoccupied Mr. Crangle. One time, years before, when he felt godlike power surging upon him, he had thought to cause all the airplane wings in the world to go limp, so that when the men went out to fly, they would find their machines useless. Crangle thinks of how terrible the air-raids have been, and does not trouble to consider such trivialities as German armies swarming across Europe. But the moment passed, as it did also when he was about to turn all the wheels in the world square or triangular, so that they would catch in the asphalt. Crangle does not trouble to consider such trivialities as commerce and food.

This time he feels it is not going to pass. What then to do? At first he thought he should place a mark on the foreheads of all evil people—think here of the “mark of Cain”—but then they would recognize one another and band together. Then he thought it would be fine to make them all into giants, so that their big hands could not fumble with typewriters and telephones and other delicate instruments, but that wouldn’t do; the big people would run amok. So he is going to turn all the evil people into dwarfs, no more than two feet tall.

“Nut,” says Pet, and he reaches her one, as he watches the hand on the clock and chatters about how absurd and conspicuous the evil people will be, in just two minutes. People will not know for a while what has happened, but they will soon “see the design.”

The clock hand moves closer and closer, and then touches the dot above the twelve. “Now!” says Crangle, filled with the godlike power. An alarm goes off.

“Nut,” says Pet, when the bells cease.

Crangle does not go to the window to see whether the power has worked. He knows: “His hand, as he stretched it up, failed by a full foot and a half to reach the cage.”

Rod Serling, the creator of The Twilight Zone, in adapting the story for his screenplay, gave it a political coloring appropriate for the time. Serling was what we may call a conservative liberal, a man who believed in American liberty and the superiority of a democratic way of life, but who also understood the dark regions of the human soul: our proneness to folly, cowardice, wrath, lust, and greed; our inability to know ourselves; our continual failure to do what we know is right, or to fight what we know is wrong.

So when he filled out the short story to cover a twenty-five minute screenplay, he gave Mr. Crangle a political aim that everyone would have recognized from America’s recent past. Crangle is an American, not an Englishman. He is not shy. He is obsessed; he keeps voluminous files on every person he can; he is, we might say, politically engaged. He makes phone calls to rat on people. We hear him call the superintendent of a school to accuse a young teacher of drinking, and to suggest, note the power of the insinuation, that the young man’s relations with his students might not be appropriate. He writes letters to rat on people. We see him confronted by the wife of a young doctor, whom Crangle has accused of homicide, because the man got to a dying woman too late one bad night at the hospital when he was solely responsible for half of the ward. He contacts the FBI to rat on people. His final interlocutor, other than his parrot, is a representative of the FBI, who tries gently to remind him that we in America have something called law.

Crangle suddenly realizes that the FBI man is not interested in ferreting out all of the evil people.

“Oh, I get it now,” he says. “I understand. I understand perfectly. Why, I was an idiot not to have realized it sooner. Of course, of course you people have gotten into the FBI!  Stands to reason, you’ve infiltrated every place. Let me tell you something, Mr. Hall, let me tell you something. For the next fifteen or twenty minutes, you enjoy yourself to the utmost, because you’ll be two feet tall! Two feet tall, Mr. Hall, that’s what you’re going to be! Two feet tall, do you hear me? You and all the rest of them—all the evil people. They’re going to be two feet tall!”

Serling’s viewers would have thought immediately of HUAC, the House Un-American Activities Committee, and the senate hearings led by Joseph McCarthy, aimed at identifying and weeding out communists and their sympathizers from positions in the State Department, and, more troubling, from their work in the movie and television industries. Those hearings have entered the liberal imagination as the 1950s equivalent of the Salem witch hunts, with heroic resisters and prosecutors motivated by superstition, madness, ambition, self-righteousness, and cruelty. The analogy fails, because in fact there were Soviet sympathizers and even Soviet agents in important positions, influencing American policy and passing secrets to communists who made plain their desire to destroy us. Alger Hiss was a spy and a liar.

I am not justifying McCarthy, and in fact Serling avoids the trap of casting Crangle simply as a would-be political purifier. The key point is not that Crangle has the wrong political position.  Nor is it that he has the wrong moral position. It is that he pretends to know the souls of other human beings. He is consumed with envy in its old sense, invidia, the malignant desire to see all things inside out. The overworked doctor must have been negligent. The gregarious teacher who visits bars must be sleeping around, and getting too close to some of his students. Serling is not saying that negligence is all right, or sleeping around, or trespassing the boundaries of right order between teacher and pupil. What then is the point?

It has to do with our fallenness. We are not God. We are not even saints. What is evil, then, is the ambition to purge society of all evil, and in that cause to play the spy, to seek occasion for conflict, to find fault, to turn someone’s virtue into vice, and his vice into crime, to refuse to forbear with all of the confusions that beset every human life.

The ancient Greek who was wise understood that the attempt to stand in the place of a god would call nemesis down upon you, even sometimes if you did so without full knowledge. The Christian who is wise understands that if he wants to find out what is wrong with the world, he need only look in the mirror. What he sees there will not be a political position, but a human being. If he is honest, he will see that he has sinned exceedingly, and say, mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. He will not engage in the happy exercise of apologizing for other people’s sins, especially when those other people are dead and cannot defend themselves. He has enough sins of his own to worry about.

We are a nation of Crangles: the Puritan without God, McCarthy without patriotism. Fools. You may throw the rope around the head of Columbus or Lee or Grant or Junipero Serra, but it is only yourselves you are pulling down. You cannot see the human greatness in a sinner, or the divine sanctity in a saint. You are small.

“Nut,” says Pet.


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