Archive for October 30th, 2011

Ladies and gentlemen, I have a grave announcement to make.  Incredible as it may seem, both the observations of science and the evidence of our eyes lead to the inescapable assumption that those strange beings who landed in the Jersey farmlands tonight are the vanguard of an invading army from the planet Mars.  –  Orson Welles

On this day in 1938, Orson Welles and the Mercury Theater on the Air broadcast “The War of the Worlds”, a radio play adapted from H.G. Wells’ then-40-year-old novel of the same name.  As you can hear for yourself, the play was cleverly structured so as to seem like news flashes were interrupting a music program; since the Mercury Theater had no sponsor (an atypical but not rare situation in 1938) it ran without commercials, thus lending a further air of verisimilitude.  I’m sure I don’t need to remind anyone of the result of this realistic approach:  many believed the story of a Martian invasion and, predictably, panicked.  It’s become sort of a joke in the intervening 73 years; oh-so-clever modern Americans read about the events of that night and laugh at those “credulous fools”, those innocent yokels of a simpler time, believing in stories of invaders from Mars…even though many of these cosmopolitan sophisticates believe in tales of the government hiding alien bodies and devices in New Mexico and fantastic yarns of large fractions of the teen girl population spirited off into “child sex slavery” without anyone noticing.

There were a number of factors contributing to the panic, the most prominent of which was anxiety over the possibility of war in Europe; Germany had annexed the Sudetenland only three weeks earlier, and many were skeptical of Chamberlain’s claim that his policy of appeasement would produce “peace for our time”.  Not every listener caught the part about the invaders being Martian; some assumed they were Germans using some new scientific weapon (the heat ray) and the familiar scourge of poison gas.  One of the actors playing a government official “advising the nation” imitated president Franklin Roosevelt’s voice, and the lack of commercials and scant reminders that the show was a fiction (after the initial announcement, the next one wasn’t until the 40-minute mark) combined to make it all seem more real.  In one small town in Washington State, a power-station fault during the broadcast blacked out both electricity and telephones, thus coincidentally simulating the effect of a Martian attack.

Furthermore, media historians believe that newspapers anxious to make their increasingly-popular competitor medium look bad may have exaggerated both the extent and the seriousness of the panic; though it is estimated that about 1.8 million listeners believed the story was true and 1.2 million of them were genuinely frightened by the broadcast, most of them did nothing more than jam the telephone lines of police departments and CBS affiliates and/or later file lawsuits against the network for “mental anguish” (in those saner days, judges dismissed all of the claims).  There were a few incidents (such as the New Jersey farmer who blasted a water tower with his shotgun after mistaking it for a Martian tripod machine), but they were the exception rather than the rule.

Still, the fact remains that the first impulse of about 20% of the people who heard the broadcast was to overreact and to demand that authorities “do something” rather than simply verifying the reports by the simple expedient of changing the channel or calling newspaper offices when they couldn’t get through to the police.  When faced with horrifying claims announced by perceived authorities, almost a third of listeners credulously accepted those claims as true without even trying to check them independently.  And that, I’m afraid, hasn’t changed; when faced with patently ridiculous assertions from “authorities” that large percentages of the female population are raped or beaten by men every year, or that the entire country is infested with human-sacrificing cultists, or that nomadic hordes of tens of thousands of prostitutes follow major sporting events, or that almost one in 80 American girls is a “child sex slave”, or that the average sex worker is 13 years old, the reaction of many Americans is to believe without question and to repeat the outlandish tales without the slightest attempt at verification.

As in 1938, many people are anxious about an economic depression and fearful of violent invaders; they are distrustful of technology, worried about foreign influences and have blind faith in the statements of “authorities”.  But unlike the Americans of 1938, modern people are not limited to a small number of limited, unidirectional sources of information; we have literally tens of thousands of sources at our command, and we can ourselves initiate requests for specific information from those sources rather than being forced to wait for those on the other end to make announcements.  The audience panicked by Mr. Welles’ hoax had at least some excuse; the much-larger audience panicked by the neofeminist/governmental/rescue industry hoax does not.  And though the fantasy they have accepted is perhaps not quite as implausible as that of a Martian invasion, it has swept the country for a decade rather than vanishing with the morning light.

One Year Ago Today

Deadbeats” are those men who make appointments with no intention of keeping them, and so deserve to be choked by the Black Smoke or incinerated by heat rays.

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