Wednesday, July 18, 2012

An Angry Champion

An Angry Champion

“Imagination…  its limits are only those of the mind itself.”  
“Every man can and must search for his own dignity.”Rod Serling

Please Understand Me, the blog devoted to information about the Kiersey Temperament sorter, recently ran a short essay on one of my all-time heroes, Rod Serling. Best known for his eerie black and white episodes of The Twilight Zone on 1960s television, Serling had a long creative life marked by friction with the powers that be both within television and the corporate boardrooms without which even then sought to control America’s communication systems.

Scary, Troubling Stuff

I had always loved the Twilight Zone as a kid. In all honesty, some of those episodes scared the bejezus out of me. I remember in particular the episode about the howling man, locked in a prison cell in a monastery in Europe, proclaiming his misery and the cruelty of his incarceration. The intimidating abbot of the monastery warned the visiting business man from America that this was a mere ruse, that the pitiful figure in the cell was actually Lucifer, the devil himself, and under no circumstances should he open the door of the cell.

Predictably, the American is moved by the protestations of the prisoner and ultimately opens the cell to allow for his escape. As the prisoner moves down the hallway to the open doorway to a balcony at its end, his appearance changes. The horns appear, the scepter comes to his hand, his cape unfurls. All the while the businessman is forced into a supplicant posture on the floor by an unseen force. By the time the now-transformed howling man reaches the window, Lucifer is ready to fly off into the night sky. Neither he nor the frightened eight year old boy from rural Central Florida watching that show would sleep that night. I also knew by the end of the episode that, like the well-intentioned businessman, I would have foolishly let the howling man out as well. My Dad was right: good intentions do on occasion pave the road to Hell, sometimes quite literally.

By the time I had reached junior high, it had become clear to me that the Twilight Zone was not just about cheap frights. Serling’s pieces inevitably nudged me into consciousness, into recognizing that there was something deeper at work in each of these episodes. I found myself wondering what question he was really posing in each episode. What was the moral lesson I was not picking up on? What aspects of life in 1960s America was Serling prompting his viewers to consider, perhaps in ways we’d never thought about them before?

Of course, I had no way of putting into words the fact that I was also experiencing a boyhood crush on this clean cut, chain smoking, deep throated and extremely serious man whose dark features were accentuated by his inevitable dark suit, white shirt and tie. At that point in my life, I had no idea what any of those feelings even meant. I just knew that Serling titillated me in just about every way possible. And I also knew that at the end of each half hour show, I always needed some time alone to process what I’d just seen to try to make sense out of it.

A Troubled, Angry Young Man

What I did not know then was that Serling was widely seen as a trouble maker in both the New York of his young adulthood as well as the Hollywood of his exile. Serling had just come home from helping free the Philippines from the Japanese invaders in WWII. He arrived in an America brimming with unspoken tensions from segregation to the fascist-like censorship and repression of the McCarthy era  to the (Mutually Assured Destruction) MADness of the Cold War. He quickly became intent upon forcing Americans to look at things they did not want to see – the depravity of the recently concluded Holocaust, the fears of a coming computer age in which our technology would quickly outpace our ethics and the shallowness of an exploding suburban life which was touted as the American Dream. As Serling said, “I was bitter about everything and at loose ends when I got out of the service. I think I turned to writing to get it off my chest.”  

Not surprisingly, Serling’s energy for confrontation with America’s conscience made him a lightning rod in a television industry just coming into its own after the war. “Corporate sponsors quickly became squeamish about his penchant for the unorthodox and the unnerving. While Serling had a lot to say, they wanted to edit it or censor certain things, for they were paying for it. They didn’t want anyone to say anything that might offend, and lose the audience, for sponsors and advertisers want eyeballs for their brands and products: not thoughtful and controversial explorations of the human mind and condition.”  (“An Angry Champion,”

Serling had come to be known as television’s “Angry Young Man” even as his television productions on first Playhouse live television theater and later his serial recorded Twilight Zone episodes shot to the top of American viewer ratings.

Tired of seeing his scripts butchered in manners that removed any political statements, ethnic identities, and even the Chrysler Building being removed from a script sponsored by Ford, the frustrated, angered Serling decided that the only way to avoid such artistic interference was to create his own show.

In an interview with Mike Wallace, Serling confessed, “I don’t want to fight anymore. I don’t want to have to battle sponsors and agencies. I don’t want to have to push for something that I want and have to settle for second best. I don’t want to have to compromise all the time, which in essence is what a television writer does if he wants to put on controversial themes.”Wikipedia

It is tempting to see figures like Serling as just being angry young men. In such simplistic visions, the anger is inevitably seen as the problem of the one who is angry. That allows the outsider to ascribe the problem entirely to the angry man without any consideration of why the man might be angry. It’s also a particularly effective way of avoiding any responsibility for the aspects of the situation that gave rise to the anger, particularly if one happens to be complicit in the situation.

This aspect of Serling’s embattled life reminds me of the way that women who had become conscienticized during the consciousness raising days of the early women’s liberation movement were routinely dismissed as “angry feminists” as if that somehow explained everything. I often ask my students when we study this period  how one is supposed to respond when they come to realize the extent to which they have been treated as less than human and the degree to which their own acquiescence to - if not willing participation in - that dehumanization permitted that indignity to continue?  It’s a bit like the sadistic parent who spanks their child and then shrieks, “Now, don’t cry or I’ll really give you something to cry about!”

We become the grave diggers

But Serling had a good reason for being angry. Having seen some of the worst aspects of human behavior during WWII and coming home to an America in denial about any number of social tensions preparing to explode one decade later, Serling was angry about America’s dedication to playing an ill-timed game of The Emperor’s New Clothes. Serling feared that the teachable moment about the recent world war with its machine-like dispatch of 12 million souls in a Holocaust and its safely distanced off-site detonation of two atomic blasts with their mass slaughter of 125,000 souls could be lost. He said,

All the Dachaus must remain standing. The Dachaus, the Belsens, the Buchenwalds, the Auschwitzes -all of them. They must remain standing because they are a monument to a moment in time when some men decided to turn the earth into a graveyard, into it they shoveled all of their reason, their logic, their knowledge, but worst of all their conscience. And the moment we forget this, the moment we cease to be haunted by its remembrance, then we become the grave diggers.” 

It was an anger born less out of a judgment of human shortcomings than a desire to actively confront those shortcomings, to make America the place of which its own ideals of liberty and justice for all spoke. It was an anger born out of a love for humanity beginning at home but ultimately stretching to include the whole world. His friend, the late Gene Roddenberry put it well: “No one could know Serling, or view or read his work, without recognizing his deep affection for humanity … and his determination to enlarge our horizons by giving us a better understanding of ourselves.” And Serling was clear that it was precisely the combination of forcing ourselves to look at our most desperate problems with a sense of responsibility for confronting our social ills that offered a way to insure that human societies never again become their own grave diggers.

The dilemma of the Idealist Champion

The  Aha! moment in reading the Serling article for me came with the revelation that we shared the same MBTI temperament, ENFP (Extraverted, iNtuitive, Feeling, Perceiving) and Keirsey type, Idealist Champion. Here is some of the description from the Keirsey site:

Like the other Idealists, Champions are rather rare, say three or four percent of the population, but even more than the others they consider intense emotional experiences as being vital to a full life. Champions have a wide range and variety of emotions, and a great passion for novelty. They see life as an exciting drama, pregnant with possibilities for both good and evil, and they want to experience all the meaningful events and fascinating people in the world. The most outgoing of the Idealists, Champions often can't wait to tell others of their extraordinary experiences… Champions often speak (or write) in the hope of revealing some truth about human experience, or of motivating others with their powerful convictions. (N.B. -Perhaps like this blog and my Facebook site?) Their strong drive to speak out on issues and events, along with their boundless enthusiasm and natural talent with language, makes them the most vivacious and inspiring of all the types. (N.B. – It also makes them social lightning rods)

Fiercely individualistic, Champions strive toward a kind of personal authenticity…At the same time, Champions have outstanding intuitive powers and can tell what is going on inside of others, reading hidden emotions and giving special significance to words or actions. In fact, Champions are constantly scanning the social environment, and no intriguing character or silent motive is likely to escape their attention. Far more than the other Idealists, Champions are keen and probing observers of the people around them, and are capable of intense concentration on another individual. Their attention is rarely passive or casual. On the contrary, Champions tend to be extra sensitive and alert, always ready for emergencies, always on the lookout for what's possible.

Champions are good with people and usually have a wide range of personal relationships... Champions are positive, exuberant people, and often their confidence in the goodness of life and of human nature makes good things happen. (emphases and parentheticals mine)

Here lies the dilemma of the Idealist Champion. On the one hand, Champions want to save the world. Literally. All of it, starting with the plight of the most vulnerable. Indeed, we feel we have no other choice. To do that, Champions, whose big picture iNtuition is dominant, MUST confront the ills of the world with little or no anesthesia. We feel driven to continually call our fellow human beings to their own highest potential, bringing the reality of our common settlement for mediocrity with all of its injustices into stark contrast with the ideals we say we believe and the potential for humane societies those ideals promise. In short, we must reveal the very real Twilight Zone existing all around us all the time that we so readily see and which the world has so studiously ignored. And we must not let people close their eyes when we do.

On the other hand, Champions are also Feelers. We want people to like us. We crave relationship. And we want to be both recognized and valued for our hard work and taken seriously when we complete that work, no matter how disturbing it might be. We want what rarely occurs - to be simultaneously welcomed by those whose dreams we have disturbed– something we do with little effort and much skill - and affirmed by those from whom we have taken away the last vestiges of the luxury of naîveté they had previously enjoyed. Little wonder we frequently find ourselves conflicted, confused and disappointed.

While I hardly place my own life on the same scale as the all-too-brief life of Serling, (he died at 51), his biography does provide no small amount of affirmation if not inspiration. If I take nothing else away from this revealing essay on Rod Serling, it is the comfort of knowing there are other Champion Idealists in the world who have known the same kind of rejection, sometimes even loathing and deep disillusionment, that I have at times experienced in my own life. While that makes the predictable responses from a world the Champion would selflessly and often sacrificially serve no less painful, it does make that often solitary path seem a bit less lonely.

Perhaps most importantly, Serling’s history reveals something essential to those of us among this tiny fraction of human beings who would call humanity to its highest potentials as a people: the anger we often exhibit is rarely borne out of control issues, out of self-serving, out of fearful insecurities or the mere desires to have our own way. The anger is rarely just about ourselves, even in the inevitability of our darkest moments of despair and cynicism. We aren’t just angry men and women. And while it’s an easy out to simply dismiss us as such, it’s also dishonest and simplistic.

The anger that one sees in the Idealist Champion more likely arises from the broken hearts of those who find the avoidable suffering of any living being intolerable. It erupts unbidden from the vision of a human potential which is unlimited when consciously and intentionally pursued but frequently unrealized, unsought and avoided. Most of all, it springs from an almost endless hopefulness about humanity that, while frequently disappointed, is never fully extinguished.   

The world rarely values its Idealist Champions but it always needs them, if for no other reason than to periodically remind us, in the wisdom of Rod Serling,  that “Every man can and must search for his own dignity” and that when it comes to “imagination…  its limits are only those of the mind itself.”  

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

 If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.
Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes. ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

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