Michael Harvey
Rabbi | Advocate | Educator

Florida & DeSantis’ “Obsolete Man”

In just this year alone, the state of Florida, under the leadership of DeSantis, has banned Critical Race Theory (dismissal of American History), passed the “Don’t say Gay” bill (dismissal of existence of LGBTQIA) and banned hundreds of books (dismissal of information).

Back in 1959, Rod Serling wrote and televised the Twilight Zone episode entitled “The Obsolete Man”. In a future totalitarian society, a librarian is declared obsolete and sentenced to death. This future society has decided on everything people need to know.  The episode begins with Serling’s words: You walk into this room at your own risk because it leads to the future, not a future that will be, but one that might be. This is not anew world. It is simply an extension of what began in the old one. It has patterned itself after every dictator who has ever planted the ripping imprint of a boot on the pages of history since the beginning of time. It has refinements, technological advances, and a more sophisticated approach to the destruction of human freedom But like every one of the superstates that preceded it, it has one iron rule: Logic is an enemy, and truth is a menace. Serling then introduces the character Romney Wordsworth whom he calls: “a citizen of the state, but will soon have to be eliminated because he’s built out of flesh and because he has a mind.” In the episode, Mr. Wordsworth introduces himself in a cold dark room with a leader of “the state” standing high above him in judgment. Mr. Wordsworth is a librarian, and is considered “obsolete.”

The leader of the state analyzes Wordsworth’s profession, asking “Having to do with books… But since there are no more books, Mr. Wordsworth, there are no more libraries. And, of course, it follows that there is very little call for the services of a librarian.”  This is an extreme example of what Serling saw in Nazi Germany as well as in other totalitarian regimes of the 20th century, which burned hundreds and thousands of books to erase thought and mind from the citizens and force obedience. And it is an extreme example of what is happening in Florida right now. But the lesson is the same. In the episode, the state continues, “Case in point: A minister. A minister would tell us that his function is that of preaching the word of god.”  “And, of course, it follows that since the state has proven that there is no god, that would make the function of a minister somewhat academic, as well.” Wordsworth screams back “There is a god!” To which the state replies, “You are in error, Mr. Wordsworth “There is no god! The state has proven that there is no god!” Wordsworth says the words we have always wanted to say about many things: “You cannot erase god with an edict!” You cannot erase history with an edict. You cannot erase LGBTQIA with an edict.

Wordsworth screams what many of us wish to scream at Florida and the Republican party today, “I am nothing more than a reminder to you that you cannot destroy truth by burning pages.” The state replies to him, “You’re a bug, mr. Wordsworth, a crawling insect an ugly, misinformed little creature who has no purpose here, no meaning.  You’re a dealer in books and two-cent fines and pamphlets and closed stacks and the musty insides of a language factory that spews out meaningless words on an assembly line, Words, Mr. Wordsworth, that have no substance and no dimension. Like air, like the wind, like a vacuum that you make believe has an existence by scribbling index numbers on little cards.” Wordsworth proudly states the words that the state is unable to hear “I am a human being, I exist!” We hear those words from others, “I am transgender, I exist!”; “I am the descendant of a slave, I exist!” Wordsworth yells, “if I speak one thought aloud, that thought lives, even after I’m shoveled into my grave!”

A profound thought and a true one that Wordsworth speaks. In response, the state speaks weakly yet in a stern voice: “Delusions, Mr. Wordsworth, delusions that you inject into your veins with printer’s ink. The narcotics that you call literature, the bible, poetry, essays. All kind, all of it an opiate to make you think you have a strength when you have no strength at all. You have nothing but spindly limbs and a dream, and the state has no use for your kind! You waste our time…and you’re not worth the waste.

In the end, Wordsworth has the last laugh, reading from the Bible, trapping the representative of the state in his apartment as the televised execution by bomb is just minutes away. The state representative shows his cowardice and is let go, but then rendered obsolete himself.  The episode ends with these words: “The chancellor, the late chancellor, was only partly correct. He was obsolete, but so is the state, the entity he worshipped. Any state, any entity, any ideology that fails to recognize the worth, the dignity, the rights of man that state is obsolete. A case to be filed under “m” for mankind in the twilight zone.” The point of all this is that Republicans and attempt to bury slavery and racism by banning books about it, but the history lives and the thoughts live. They can attempt to ban books on LGBTQIA or sexuality hoping it will go away, but as long as LGBTQIA people live, their thoughts live, and they exist, and they cannot be erased by an edict. DeSantis and his supporters are narrow-minded, short-sighted, unaware of their own cowardice.

In 1959, it was Serling who showed the cowardice of “the totalitarian state”, but in 2022 it is our job to do so. To ban books, to ban people, to ban voting, to ban history is a cowardly act, not a strong one. It is the sign of weakness.  Just as early Christians burned the Talmud and other books that challenged their faith, just as Hitler and his party banned books that challenged his worldview, this showed not a strength but a weakness, a lack of courage in debate and thought.

A little reminder from Serling this morning. If your faith or politics tells you that you must ban books and learning of things that don’t fit your worldview, you have revealed yourself as a coward, one who knows deep down, that it is fear that guides you.

About the Author
Michael E. Harvey is a Reform Rabbi, ordained by the Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion in 2015. After leading multiple congregations across the United States, Mike proudly served as a hospital chaplain at IU Health during the height of COVID-19. Mike is passionate about social justice, interfaith cooperation, and bringing deep Jewish learning to the lay public. He has followed these passions in serving his communities, including founding and directing interfaith councils and sitting on multiple boards, locally and nationally. In 2022, Mike wrote and published his first book, Let’s Talk: A Rabbi Speaks to Christians, which became an Amazon Bestseller. Mike's current projects include finishing his second book, and completing his doctorate degree at Spertus Institute of Jewish Learning and Leadership. His new book "From the Gospels to the Gas Chambers: How Christian Scripture Inspires a Pattern of Genocide" is in production and is in need of a publisher.
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