Little green folly On October 30, 1938, Martians did not invade Earth. As they often don’t. Perhaps because they’re happy where they are, perhaps because we’re not as great as we think, or perhaps because they’re extinct microbes or never existed at all.

If it’s the latter, they have lots of company. Including all the people who panicked over the famous, or infamous, CBS “Mercury Theatre on the Air” broadcast starring Orson Welles.

It’s a story we’ve all heard and, in many cases including mine, believed. The show was in grittily realistic format and crucially didn’t have a lot of commercial breaks (for young people I should explain that before the Internet we used to endure periodic interruptions in whatever loud inane thing we were watching or listening to for some generally loud inane pitch for a product we didn’t need; now of course they pop up during it which is called “progress”).

So even though the legal department insisted on changing the names of a lot of actual institutions and buildings to thinly veiled substitutes, an idiot could have believed Martians were invading and panicked without checking first. And the urban legend is that many idiots did. But it’s not true.

It’s curious, therefore, that so many people believed and still believe they did. Now the obvious explanation is that we like to believe many of our fellows are such fools they will run screaming from a radio broadcast. But why would that be a comforting thought, especially given that they might run straight into a voting booth? Perhaps it is because, knowing humanity is prone to folly and that includes us, we can feel smug that at least we’re not quite as stupid as those people streaming screaming through the streets.

Until we look out our own window, or on the Internet, and find that they aren’t there and never were. Then we realize the fool is, as so often, in the mirror.

Especially as in the aftermath of this nonexistent panic, a real one did happen, with people denouncing CBS and calling for heavy regulation. And Orson Welles became more famous than I’ve ever been able to understand.

So maybe the Martians haven’t invaded because they don’t want the management of such a pack of fools. Or maybe they’re as bad as we are, and panicked at false rumours of panic at false rumors of an invasion from the Earth.

UncategorizedJohn Robson