October 4, 2023

The Descent into Hell: "A Sound of Different Drummers" (1957)

"Books are the treasured wealth of the world and the fit inheritance of generations and nations." 
―Henry David Thoreau, Walden


In the future, people live in a high-tech world of domed cities, governed by a World Union, where crime has been eliminated and lifespans lengthened, and computer analysts and tranquilizers to take care of any concerns you might have. Books have been banned in this future world, as independent thought is seen as a source of trouble. “Readers,” those found possessing books, are considered guilty of treason and executed by teams of "Bookmen," who then take the confiscated books to the "library," where technical and instructional books are catalogued and all others are destroyed.

Gordon Miller (Sterling Hayden), one of the Bookmen, finds himself attracted to the new librarian, a young woman named Susan (Diana Lynn). Gordon tries to flirt with her; her response is polite but cautious. He accidentally discovers Susan hiding a book in her clothes, a capital offense—but there is something about her that fascinates him; he has never met anyone like her, and despite his revulsion at her crime, he beings to see her whenever he can.

Gordon's partner and best friend Ben (John Ireland) disapproves of Gordon’s relationship with a Reader. "I don’t want you to make a mistake," Ben tells him. When Gordon challenges Ben on his beliefs, asking him if he ever thinks about anything, Ben replies, "What is there to think about? I don’t want to think. I hate Readers."

Occasionally, Gordon talks with his "analyst," a computerized voice meant to serve as an escape valve; computers replaced human analysts when it was discovered people censored their thoughts on the couch. Gordon tells the analyst (voice of Paul Lambert) about his relationship with Susan, and when he mentions that Susan is a Reader, the analyst repeats over and over that "Readers commit crimes of treason to be punished by death." When Gordon asks him why reading is a crime, the analyst replies that "My answers are scientifically accurate. There is no deviation from the truth."

Despite this, and with Ben growing more suspicious, Gordon continues to see Susan and reads everybook he can lay his hands on. He is torn about the conflict between what he has been taught as a Bookman, and what he learns from being around Susan, and warns her that it is dangerous to be involved with a Bookman; she says life would be worse without him, and he realizes that he loves her. They make plans to marry as soon as their application is approved by the Department of Genetics.

Finally, Susan finally brings him to a secret meeting of Readers. There, he meets their leader, Howard Ellis (David Opatoshu). They talk about the importance of books, and how extraordinary individualism is. When Gordon asks Ellis how things got the way they did, Ellis can only say that it’s complicated, but that they’ve wound up with a society where the individual is the criminal. He then quotes a passage from Walden, by Henry David Thoreau: "If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away." We are not criminals, he tells Gordon, just people who hear different drummers. Susan knew this when she brought him here, but she knew he’d say the right thing at the right time. Gordon wonders how this ruthlessness makes them any different from the Union.

Later, we see Ellis reviewing a plan for Gordon and Susan to escape to one of the free colonies in South America. Things are getting too dangerous for them to remain here; look at how long it’s taken for the Department of Genetics to act on their application. Ellis and the others won’t be accompanying them in the escape, though—he explains that to get out is to give up the fight, and their movement won’t continue to grow.

   Sterling Hayden and Diana Lynn
Meanwhile, Ben complains that Gordon misses regular appointments and doesn’t go on Bookman calls anymore; instead, he talks about thoughts and ideas. He warns Gordon that things are getting too dangerous, and that he should give it up before it is too late. When another call comes in for them, Ben forces Gordon to accompany him. Arriving at the scene, Gordon is horrified to find that the accused are George and Mildred, his surrogate parents. He refuses to take part in their execution, and instead flees the scene, vowing to kill Ben for what he has done.

Gordon goes to get Susan so they can flee, but it’s too late; her apartment is surrounded by Bookmen, led by Ben. Gordon fights them to give Susan time to escape, and kills two of them before he’s seized and taken away.

In court, Gordon is charged with treason and murder. The prosecutor (Paul Lambert) tells him that his life has been spared in hopes that he will cooperate in uncovering what is obviously a widespread plot to the subvert and overthrow the Union, and asks him to provide the names of the others in the plot and the details of how he was to escape. In return, he will be free to live a normal life, doing less sensitive work. Gordon refuses to respond, and is returned to his cell.

For three weeks Gordon undergoes further interrogation. When he refuses to talk, the Bookmen can only conclude that he must be sick. His analyst tells him that he's denying the most basic instinct in man—survival; when Gordon says he’d then be left alone, the analyst assures him that "I am your friend. I am the only one who loves you."

Finally, Ellis himself visits. He assures Gordon that Susan is safe, but tells him that the court still wants to know the names. He even suggests that Gordon give them the names; twelve more deaths won’t make any more difference. When Gordon again refuses, Ellis tells him what he really wants: Gordon’s martyrdom. The death of a Bookman will strike a great blow for the movement. It will expose a crack, a fissure, in the Union that will continue to grow. It could, in fact, bring down the State altogether.

Gordon spurns this role as well, refusing to serve as their martyr. It’s not that he’s changed his mind; he’ll die before he gives up the names of the others. But it will be for his reasons, not theirs. And his reason is a simple one: he can’t stomach the killing any longer. He’s killed too many people already, for no good reason, and he refuses to take responsibility for one more death. It’s as simple as that.

As a defeated Ellis leaves, another prisoner is thrown in the cell with him—Ben. Gordon expresses shock, but Ben tells him, "Those books. When you were caught, I didn’t want you to know more than me. I read them, Gordon. I read them, I read them! I understand now, Gordon. I understand!"

Vowing that the Union will eventually lose, Gordon finally accepts his martyrdom, as he and Ben are executed.


"A Sound of Different Drummers" aired October, 3, 1957, on Playhouse 90, CBS’s prestige dramatic anthology series. The listing in TV Guide read, "In a totalitarian state of the future, Gordon Miller is a young officer who has the task of suppressing illegal international activity," a curious (not to say somewhat deceptive) description to say the least.

If you go through the Internet searching for "A Sound of Different Drummers," I can promise you that 9 times out of 10—no, make that 999 times out of 1,000—it'll be in regard to Ray Bradbury's plagiarism lawsuit against Robert Alan Aurthur for borrowing too heavily from Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451*. Let this be the thousandth, then: a look at the episode itself. For regardless of whether or not Aurther plagiarized Bradbury’s story, "A Sound of Different Drummers" tells a disturbing story of a nightmare world where everything is perfect—as long as you don’t rock the boat.

*If you want to read about that aspect of the story, you can start with Stephen Bowie's excellent writeup here

This isn’t the first time we’ve seen Robert Alan Aurthur’s name here; he was also responsible for the 1955 Producers' Showcase adaptation of Arthur Koestler’s "Darkness at Noon." In fact, looking at the body of Aurthur’s work, many of his stories deal with injustice of various kinds, particularly race relations (A Man is Ten Feet Tall and The Lost Man, both starring Sidney Poitier, and Shadows, directed by John Cassavetes), so it’s easy to understand how stories such as "Darkness at Noon"" and "A Sound of Different Drummers" appealed to him.

Starring as the conflicted Bookman Gordon Miller was Sterling Hayden, who gives a performance so intense and yet repressed that he appears capable of bursting at any moment. Diana Lynn, a frequent star on Playhouse 90, plays Gordon’s love interest Susan, and John Ireland is properly menacing as Gordon’s partner Ben Hammond. Playing the leader of the Readers (and the secret trial judge) is David Opatoshu, who’s something of a regular in this series; we last saw him in the Outer Limits episode "A Feasibility Study," and before that he appeared in Star Trek’s "A Taste of Armageddon." Rounding out a compelling cast is Paul Lambert in an intriguing dual role, as both the prosecutor and the voice of the analyst.* The evocative, melancholy incidental music was by the prolific Fred Steiner (Perry Mason, The Bullwinkle Show).

*A side thought: Charlton Heston tells the story of how, in the movie The Ten Commandments, he convinced director Cecil B. DeMille that he should also play the voice of God in the scene with Moses and the burning bush, using the rationale that "any man hears the voice of God from inside himself." Is there something similar at work here, with the Union assuming the role of man’s analyst—his confidante, his only friend, his God?

At the helm for the broadcast was the young (27) John Frankenheimer, considered the premier director of live television; between 1954 and 1960, he directed 152 live dramas, an average of about one every two weeks, and he was responsible for directing 27 of the 133 episodes of Playhouse 90, the most of any director. He’d go on to direct such political thrillers as The Manchurian Candidate and Seven Days in May.

John Frankenheimer
Through the years, Frankenheimer had become known for his dynamic and creative style, both of which can be seen here. As an example, the sets for "Different Drummers" are open, without back walls [(nothing to keep the Union out?) and shrouded in darkness; in a particularly effective touch, images from the videophone calls are projected against the darkness, appearing to float in midair. And as for Frankenheimer’s dynamic directing style, Hayden, the newcomer to live television, freely admitted to being scared. "Frankenheimer loved to move the camera so fast. . . I went into one set to do a scene and there were no cameras! Then around the corner, like an old San Francisco fire truck, comes the camera on a dolly. And a guy comes along, puts up a light, and BANG, we go."

"A Sound of Different Drummers" received generally favorable reviews from both critics and viewers (excepting Ray Bradbury, of course). Hayden received what he described as "among my first good notices," while The New York Times TV critic Jack Gould called it "the boldest and most stimulating" play of the season, an "intellectually compelling narrative", and "a powerful drama protesting the disease of conformity"; and the Hackensack Record found it "a stimulating plea for intellectual freedom." A dissenting view came from Mary Wood, the radio and television critic for the Cincinnati Post, who found the play "engrossing, if far-fetched," and added that Aurthur might have made more of an impact had he "made his imaginary society more believable." However, a viewer in Buckingham, Pennsylvania, writing to the Philadelphia Inquirer, countered that "We are in that rut NOW! Anyone with different ideas is frowned upon and made to feel like a pariah. All we need to make it complete is to dress in uniforms and live under a glass dome, like waxed flowers."

What I find interesting in perusing these contemporary reviews is the use of words like "intellectual" and "intellectual freedom," as if we’re talking about some specialized type of freedom, separate from and distinguishable from other types of freedom. And I think this is part of the point that Aurthur is trying to make. As one character asks of the Readers early on, "Why do you want to change things? We have everything so perfect." Early on, Gordon asks Susan rhetorically, "Who am I to tear up perfection? Look, we have World Union. There’s not a man living who remembers war. We have no crime: no crimes of passion because tranquilizers and analysts have wiped them out; no crimes for gain because everyone over there has what he wants or needs materially."

But, Susan corrects him, "There is one crime."

"There should be one crime," Gordon replies, "because the only people who can shake this world we live in are sick people with sick ideas. Now where do they get these ideas? They get them from books. Can you imagine what kind of world this would be if everyone read books? Why, we’d end up with a bunch of psychotics running around with destructive, non-conformist ideas." It isn’t that he wants to kill them, but "If a few psychotics have to die for the common good, then I have to do it in spite of the fact that I don’t like it."

In other words, Susan, says, the end justifies the means.

Yes, Gordon replies. "That’s a good phrase. I’ll have to remember it."

You might think we’d wizened up since then, but have we? After all, we embraced the Patriot Act because it promised us safety from terrorists, and what’s a little inconvenience in comparison to that? And when businesses were shut down during the Covid scare, when people were ordered to mask up and those in hospitals and care facilities were isolated from their friends and loved ones, we were reminded that it was only a little disruption, and it was for the common good, and what’s a little discomfort like wearing a mask when it comes to saving lives? Except when it comes to the loss of freedom, nothing is insignificant.

So was Mary Wood being short-sighted in calling Aurthur’s world "far-fetched"? Such critiques were common when it came to stories presenting such gloomy dystopian futures. Possibly she was speaking for the many Americans for whom the prospect of such a totalitarian state was unthinkable.

Perhaps, then, it’s not an issue of being short-sighted so much as it is an indication of how much and how quickly things have changed in the past decade or so.


The 1950s dramas that we’ve looked at are, without exception, products of Cold War thinking. A few of them, such as "Darkness at Noon" and "1984," are identifiably set during the Cold War, but all of them, no matter when they take place, are influenced by it.

Another thing: none of them actually feature any fighting to speak of; the war, if there was one, has already been fought and lost. Totalitarianism is no longer a threat but a reality, and so these stories, as well as being excellent vehicles for drama, are cautionary tales, warnings about the future that could happen if we’re not careful.

The San Bernardino County Sun called   
"Different Drummers" "strange and thrilling"   
Don’t assume that they’re all part of some great right-wing propaganda effort, though, for there’s another Cold War theme running through many of these stories: a theme that, although it’s seldom voiced in the scripts, must be acknowledged in order to fully appreciate the context in which a story such as "A Sound of Different Drummers" was written: McCarthyism, what Aurthur referred to as the "dark days of democracy," days in which "nobody spoke up because his head could come off for this kind of talk." An era in which people were questioned about every association they’ve ever had, every organization they’ve ever belonged to, every person they’ve ever talked to, until the questioners could find a flaw in the façade, a weapon which they could use against the accused like a battering ram, until their reputation lies in tatters on the ground, and with it any semblance of whether or not the accusations were actually true.

Think of the questioning Gordon undergoes in front of the court, and later with Ellis. They make it all sound so reasonable. All he has to do is give them the names of the others in the cell. His own guilt will be wiped away—expunged from the record—and he and Susan will be free to go, with no ramifications. (Set aside the implausibility in this offer; I don’t think Gordon believes it for one second.) I’m positive anyone watching this at the time of broadcast would have instantly recognized this tactic from McCarthy and his House Un-American Activities Committee hearings. They might also have remembered the fate of the so-called Hollywood Ten: movie producers, directors, and screenwriters who appeared before HUAC, refused to answer questions or name names, and wound up serving time for contempt of Congress, after which they were blacklisted.

Just tell us the names of your fellow Readers. They would have called it being a "Friendly Witness."

Interestingly, and I wonder how much of this made it into his performance, Sterling Hayden had appeared before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1951, owing to his brief membership in the Communist Party following the war, and became a Friendly Witness himself. It was a decision that Hayden regretted for the rest of his life. "If I have any excuse, and it's not a good reason," he told journalist Gerald Perry, "the FBI made it clear to me that if I became an 'Unfriendly Witness' I could damn well forget the custody of my children. I didn't want to go to jail, that was the other thing. The FBI office promised that my testimony was confidential. And they were very pleasant. So I spilled my guts out, and the months went by, and I was on some shit-ass picture, and I got a subpoena. The next thing I knew I was flying to Washington to testify. The worst day of my life. They knew it already, and there is the savage irony.” He was one of the most prominent namers of names in the industry; in his 1963 autobiography, he wrote, "I don't think you have the foggiest notion of the contempt I have had for myself since the day I did that thing."

During a 1958 round-table discussion on television drama, Aurthur cited "the collaboration between writers and actors" as an essential part of what makes for good television writing. "[A] great deal of changing goes on, and it is vitally important, because the whole intent of a production is to extend the original meaning of the script. . . It means simply taking the meaning and bringing it to life." It seems inconceivable, at least to me, that Hayden didn’t influence how that scene played out, beyond acting out the lines on the screen, as if it were a do-over for him. As, maybe, it was.


The Smith Act of 1940 made it a crime to belong to an organization that advocated violent overthrow of the United States government. It was a law, that in the words of historian Larry Tye, outlawed "the advocacy of ideas rather than the commission of misdeeds." He cites the case of Junius Scales, an Army veteran who became a leader of the American Communist Party and was sentenced to six years in federal prison in 1954, not for his involvement in any plot but simply for being a member of an organization which advocated violence. (A description that would apply to several organizations in this day and age.) He was, writes Tye, "the only American ever imprisoned for merely belong to the Communist Party as opposed to participating in a violent or subversive activity"; it was, in fact, a longer sentence than anyone had ever received for actually committing an act of political violence or subversion. Later, the FBI would confirm that Scales’ real crime had been his refusal to name names of other former or present party members.

So much of what happens in "Different Drummers" sounds as if it could have been taken from today’s headlines; the lines spoken are too familiar to us. And has been the case so, so many times, it is driven by the fear which the ruling elite have for anyone who dares to think differently, to challenge authority, to question the status quo. And that, along with everything we’ve seen so far, got me to thinking.

My college logic is a little worn, but I think I recall enough of it to propose the following: if the McCarthy era was the obvious source for the background atmosphere through which these stories are to be understood, and if we are finding them applicable to our day and time, then it would be reasonable to conclude that we are entering, have entered, a second McCarthy era, where one lives in fear from the ramifications of anything he or she might have said, might be saying, or might be thinking of saying. In short, you can’t say what you want. You’ll be labeled a racist, a Nazi, a hater; you’ll be accused of using the wrong pronouns. And then you’ll be shunned by polite society, and anything of merit that you might have said or done in the past will simply be forgotten. You’ll find yourself removed from the picture, just as the Soviets used to do in the case of party functionaries who’d fallen into disgrace or disfavor. Only now it's even easier than it was then; you don’t require any special photograph editing skills, only a finger to press a button on a computer, and it’s all over.

Anyone who doubts the existence of a new McCarthy era has only to look at the number of people who’ve been cancelled in the last few years: shamed in their professions, ostracized by their colleagues, fired by their employer, canceled by their bank, silenced by social media, dropped by their friends.

Back then, it was called "Blacklisting." Today, it’s called "Cancel Culture." Back then, the dreaded word was "Communist." Today, it’s "homophobe," "climate denier," "anti-vaxxer," "Christian."


So in addition to banning books and blacklisting, what else is on the agenda for Aurthur’s far-fetched government of tomorrow?

At one point Gordon marvels at how Susan is like nobody he’s ever known. For instance, at their first meeting, he mentions how his partner had told him about her beautiful smile. "People don’t smile much, do they?" he says. "That’s a dangerous statement," she replies. When he asks her what makes it dangerous, she answers, "If you say that people don’t smile, you might conclude that people aren’t happy." And that simply wouldn’t do in a prefect society, would it?

Later, while enjoying a picnic outside the domed city (nature itself being a revelation to Gordon), Susan notes how they have such different ways of looking at things. Gordon views the domed city as perfect, safe, secure. To Susan, however, it’s a prison, where the people are kept in ignorance. "In the old days people were afraid of the dark, she says. Nowadays we live in darkness so we’re afraid of the light."

How, he wonders, did she come to be like this, to have these thoughts that are so different, so unlike any he’s ever heard before? She begins to tell him about her childhood, an unusual one it that she spent it with her parents, something that is strictly forbidden today. "The Union didn’t catch up with us until I was eight."

"No wonder you’re different," Gordon says, mirroring the accepted attitude. "That’s a pretty unhealthy start. Before the Union took over the raising of infants all neuroses in children were caused by parents. It’s a scientific fact. A child raised by parents has to grow up disturbed."

But, she asks, didn’t he ever want to know who his parents were? At first, he dismisses such thoughts as idle curiosity, but then he corrects himself. "I would like to find them. But that comes under the heading Treasonous Thoughts." He thinks back to the old couple he killed for being Readers. "They could have been my mother and father. Every time I go on a raid, I could kill them and not know it. I look in the faces of people and wonder. Are these my parents? Do I have siblings? Do they think about me, do they love me? I’ve killed over 100 people. Could have been my parents, my sister, my brother? It’s like killing myself."

I suppose that’s a pretty far-fetched idea, that the Union should raise all infants. And yet today we see increasing arguments about the role that parents should play in the lives of their children. Liberal activists accuse parents of spreading hate and ignorance, teaching their children the "wrong" ideas, of preventing them from getting a “complete education.” In some states, minor children might be able to get an abortion without telling their parents. School districts seek to block parents from knowing "whether their child identifies as a different gender in the classroom," and organizations provide schools with training and materials on how to secretly transition students. Teachers’ unions fight to prevent parents from having input in the school curriculum; the late educator John Goodlad once said that "Parents do not own their children. They have no ‘natural right’ to control their education fully." The President claims that “school children don’t belong to parents 'when they’re in the classroom.'" Meanwhile, federal agencies move to remove words like "mother" and "father" from childcare laws. 

As we saw in "The Children’s Story," there’s a thin line between educating and brainwashing, one that seems to get more and more faint every day. The Native American activist Wilma Mankiller said "Whoever controls the education of our children controls the future." Don’t think that the government and the education industry doesn’t know that. And as for those parents old-fashioned enough to think that they, and not the schools, know what’s best for their children, "If the older generation cannot get accustomed to us, we shall take their children away from them and rear them as needful."

That last quote came from Hitler, by the way.


"I hardly know an intellectual man, even, who is so broad and truly liberal that you can think aloud in his society." 
―Henry David Thoreau

One of the things about revolutionaries is that you; can seldom trust them to remain true to their ideals once they’ve achieved their goals. To underline this, Gordon quotes Friedrich Nietzsche in one scene, that "Liberal institutions straightaway cease from being liberal the moment they are soundly established. Once this is obtained, no more grievous and more thorough enemy of freedom exists than liberal institutions."*

*The actual quote, from Twilight of the Idols, reads, "Liberal institutions cease to be liberal as soon as they are attained: later on, there are no worse and no more thorough injurers of freedom than liberal institutions." Nietzsche continues, "One knows, indeed, what their ways bring: they undermine the will to power; they level mountain and valley, and call that morality; they make men small, cowardly, and hedonistic—every time it is the herd animal that triumphs with them. Liberalism: in other words, herd-animalization."

Gordon discovers the truth of this in his initial meeting with the other members of the Readers cell. After Ellis explains the group’s philosophy, talking about how extraordinary individualism is, he tells Gordon, "We think of ourselves not as criminals, but simply as people who hear different drummers. We’d like you to be with us, Gordon."

"Then there’d be no turning back," Gordon replies.

"Can you turn back now?" Ellis asks.

After Gordon tells Ellis he’s with them, Ellis then reveals that, had Gordon said no, Ellis would have had to have Gordon shot. "We have to be a little ruthless too, Gordon."

"How does that make you any different from them?" Gordon asks.

"That’s one of those vast complications we’ll discuss later," Ellis says.

From a purely tactical viewpoint, this makes perfect sense. In wartime, maintaining the integrity of such an organization’s security is paramount; the success of its mission and the very lives of its members depends on it. For Gordon, however, it exposes another side of the Readers: a willingness to use tactics similar to those of the State.

Ellis’s "complications" become yet more complicated after Ellis has been revealed as chief judge of the court. Yes, Ellis tells Gordon, Susan is safe—but the court still wants those names. "Gordon, they’re very frightened men, don’t you understand that? A society so rigid that when it goes, it goes smash. You confound them, Gordon, you confuse them. Tiny cracks. They must let you talk or kill you."

Despondent and worn out, Gordon bluntly asks Ellis what he should do. Ellis gives him one option: you can answer their questions. Gordon is shocked by Ellis’s attitude, but Ellis provides him with a rationalization: "If you talk, twelve people will die, but they would eventually die anyway. What would they be? Victims of cruelty, certainly not the first and maybe not the last." And when Gordon wearily points out that as a Bookman he’s already killed over a hundred people, Ellis replies, "Twelve more. What difference would it make?"

Has Ellis been a wolf in sheep’s clothing all along, trying to trick Gordon by giving him “permission” to name names? Or does he have something else in mind? Having presented Gordon with an option he must have known Gordon would never accept, could never accept, he offers an alternative: accepting death. But not just any death—his death will be an act of martyrdom, a death that means something. "Your death will widen the crack maybe just enough that it will smash it. And when it falls, I will be there. Susan will be there. The twelve you don’t name will be there. If not us our children. Gordon, if you die silent, you will be the first the people will hear. I promise you that. They’ll hear of the bookman reader who died for his ideals."

But, as Gordon knows, it’s much easier to talk up the nobility of martyrdom when you’re not the one doing the dying. Yes, he’ll remain silent, ensuring his death. "But not for your reasons. Not because of hope or because of faith. I just can’t kill anymore. I can’t be responsible for twelve more people dying," he tells Ellis. "You want me to believe my death will be something normal, You talk about ideals. You talk about people knowing. You want it to seem big and normal that I’d die for ideals. Howard, there’s nothing big and noble about a man dying. I’ve seen over a hundred people die. A man dies alone, in the dark." It’s as simple as that; I just can’t kill any more.

Not, however, before Gordon asks Ellis one final question. "You used the word ruthless," he says, thinking back to when Ellis was prepared to have him killed if he hadn’t joined the Readers. "What does happen, Howard, when you are soundly established?"

"I don’t know, Gordon," Ellis replies quietly. 


So what, exactly, was Ellis’s game there? Is he hero or villain, freedom fighter or strongman-in-waiting? I suppose it doesn’t matter in the end, at least not in "A Sound of Different Drummers." Gordon’s story ends, with his and Ben’s executions, and our story ends with them.

One could, however, speculate that Ellis intentionally set up Gordon: studied his records and found where he was vulnerable, made sure Ben introduced him to Susan, had him recruited into the Readers, arranged for his arrest, made himself chief judge at the trial, manipulated Gordon into being the martyr that the movement desperately needed in order to grow. That’s Machiavellian to the nth degree, and I'm almost ashamed I could think of something that cynical, but it’s undeniable that Gordon was more useful to him dead than alive. Yes, it’s true that Ellis put together an escape plan for Gordon and Susan, and that could have been his way of warning Gordon that he was in trouble without blowing his own cover, but I wonder if Ellis was ever sincere about anything, including the entire Reader movement in the first place. For all we know, Ellis is just another politician, the flip side of the very coin minted by the World Union.

In a way, though, that uncertainty itself is the real weapon—the infiltration of organizations by officials of the government, the next-door neighbors and co-workers who may be on the spymaster’s payroll, question of who you can trust. That kind of mutual mistrust prevents people from getting together, from comparing notes, from taking action. As Gordon says, "They've broken us down so that alone we're afraid. Alone we’re helpless. You know, I hope we can exist because we’re always in groups, we're never alone. The great crimes of history can only have been committed by groups. Whether they're people hiding under hoods or with swastikas on the arms or wearing Bookmen’s uniforms."

Or governments isolating us from our loved ones, ordering us to hide our identities behind masks, making us suspect those standing next to us, living next door, people we though were our friends?

You might remember, for instance, the story from a while back about the FBI supposedly attempting to infiltrate traditional Catholic organizations under the pretense of them being extremist groups? Or the Covid-snitches who ratted out those who violated the lockdown rules, who might—horrors—have invited some friends over without having them separated by the proper distance. "Get vaccinated for others," they said; "It’s for the common good."

I keep coming back to Mary Wood’s review in the Cincinnati Post and her comments about Aurthur’s "far-fetched" world, a world in which ;so many things have come true. Would she have found my theory about Ellis a far-fetched one? Would anyone, viewing "A Sound of Different Drummers" back in 1957, have attributed to him such devious motives? 

I’ll allow as to how I can be pretty cynical when it comes to that, but I can’t imagine that this would be any more implausible than, say, undermining the stability of a country for personal and political gain. Let’s suppose—just for the sake of argument, you understand—that a candidate for high office started a movement, one that eventually came to comprise millions of his followers, so popular that it was known just by its initials.

Now, suppose he were to find his poll numbers down, his fundraising running low, his leadership challenged by others in the party: wouldn’t it be in his best interests to suggest that he and his followers were so dangerous to the establishment that they were being targeted? It would help if some of those followers were arrested, too; that way they’d become the perfect martyrs, much more valuable than if they were mere voters. Even if he was indicted himself, he’d gain publicity, he’d galvanize his supporters, he could even raise money off it. If I were him, I’d make damn sure that’s what happened. Even if I had to make it happen myself.

Just my imagination, of course. And as I said, I’m cynical. But then, admit it—so are you.

And if we’ve become that much more cynical since 1957, if circumstances have manipulated us to feel that way—well, really, whose fault is that? TV   

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