Fifty-four years later, Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 still rings true, perhaps even more so today, in this atmosphere of political correctness and criticism of freedom of speech.
I can remember clearly that back in high school, Guy Montag's story was one of my favorite books--I can recall being intrigued by Clarisse McClellan and appalled at the shallow, entertainment-driven society, and thrilled and anxious as Montag attempted to run to freedom. I don't recall how many times I ended up reading the novel, but each time, I felt the exact same way. Clarisse felt like a friend, and Montag seemed like so many lost, wandering souls just trying to understand life.
This past week, I reread the novel for the first time since I was in high school, and once again, I felt all the same things--horrified at the Mechanical Hound and troubled by Millie and her silly girlfriends, and mournful for the society as a whole as they faced intellectual, physical, and spiritual obliteration. When I first read it, Al Gore hadn't yet invented the Internet (jk), and there was no Reality TV--there was barely MTV when I first read it, to be honest! And of course, when Bradbury first wrote it in 1953, TV was in its nascent stages.
One of the most fascinating characters is Captain Beatty--in many ways, he's an archetype, not unlike 1984's O'Brien, or Brave New World's Mustapha Mond. While he's a brutal enforcer of the status quo, he has a knowledge of the past, though with an evil, self-serving twist. What makes Beatty particularly interesting to me is just how much he captures the zeitgeist of the 21st century. In his epic speech to Montag, he says:
Sound familiar? Doesn't this sound so much like much of what passes for culture these days? Back in the 70's, when the news and entertainment departments at the networks merged, news became a show, one more piece of entertainment, but now for an audience with a shrinking attention span. The killing of the fake Montag toward the end of the book is, in a real way, a prefiguring of so-called "fake news," manufactured for ratings by the thrill. Don't think too much--just watch, enjoy, buy the advertised products, and don't ask questions.
That attitude over the last few decades has spoiled us an an American culture, made us lazy and attention-seeking and eternally unsatisfied with what is simple and deep. Part of that isn't our fault, because media outlets and apps have bombarded us now for ages, weakening our resistance. At the same time, of course, they may have sold it, but we bought it. But what has that done to us but made us overly sensitive "snowflakes"? We have become so used to being able to curate our own news, our own Tweets, our own shows on our own schedules that we live in our own separate bubbles--if someone dares to burst the bubble, we freak out.
Beatty's "solution" is harrowing:
Take a look at this explanation of "intersectional feminism" by Christina Hoff Sommers (it's about 8 minutes):
One of the issues she raises is that, within each group seeking justice and respect, the various groups within the group become more and more divided (see the video around 4:30), each vying for victim status. One can see, therefore, why Beatty's explanation of the solution makes a certain, twisted sense. Take away controversy, shut down speech, brand words as hate, and erase any bad feelings as a result. Condemn anyone who speaks these forbidden words as bigots, marginalize them, but then deny them victim status because of their pre-existing "privilege," and thus demonize them.
In 2004, author Natan Sharansky identified a "3D Test of Anti-Semitism," though I think it can be expanded beyond criticism and hatred of Israel, especially in this politically explosive environment. His 3Ds were: demonize, double-standard, delegitimize, which is exactly what is happening in our culture today. Anyone who violates the dictates of intersectionality is quickly demonized, subjected to a double standard, and then delegitimized, just as we saw with Professor Bret Weinstein earlier this year. Weinstein, a lifelong liberal, found himself in the crosshairs of the SJWs, who staged protests in his classes, attempted to trap him in his office, and ultimately attempted to brand him as a racist, alt-right Nazi, tainting his reputation forever.
But Captain Beatty and the society in Fahrenheit 451 don't put up with that. How to solve it?
But serenity at what cost? We all say the same things, love the same shows, hate the same politicians, refrain from saying anything that might possibly offend the victimized citizens of a hateful America, or watch out. Here we are in this age where we embrace diversity, yet we want sameness. No controversy, no challenge, no tears, no laughing at the "wrong" thing, and in some places, no applause (because that might trigger someone). There have even been calls at prestigious universities, such as Harvard Law School, to allow students to avoid learning about rape law, so that they don't have to be triggered.
In Bradbury's fictional society, no worries (and probably no law school):
When people are dumbed down in school and not given authentic history, when their lessons have been tailored to avoid anything triggering or controversial, then what's left? When people are babied and coddled and protected, then what else can be done but to give out the proverbial "participation trophy" at that point? This aspect of Beatty's speech rang especially true regarding today's society and culture. Knowing facts but not worrying about analyzing them. Watching the panoply of faces flow past on TV or the phone or whatever other mobile streaming device we have, without having to go into depth on any of it. We can read clickbait headlines on social media, troll total strangers, virtue signal to all our Facebook "friends" we don't actually know, and come out feeling ever so smart and informed, when in fact, we're not. We're so marketed to, so controlled by Google and Microsoft and Disney that reality is an impression, a passing thing, an opinion, but not reality.
At the start of the novel, Clarisse McClellan seems so odd to Montag, in part because she and her family engage in this strange activity called "conversation." But let's look around, right now. If you're in a public space as you read this, look at those around you. How many are absorbed in their phones? And it's not just kids, either! Adults have been sucked in just as much, now tragically proving Beatty's point.
But what if we didn't have to shut down speech? What if we learned to take in the world for what it is rather than trying to micromanage the culture? What if we could allow people to be themselves and to establish healthy relationships regardless of how nasty they might be? The optimist in me wants to believe that we don't have to devolve into a dystopic milquetoast conformity with no spice and no real individuality. I want to think that we can free ourselves from the tyranny of those who want to dictate speech and thought, though that will take some effort.
One thing that's important is to rethink our relationship with social media. I'm not saying get rid of it--as a consumer of social media, I can see that it has real value in sharing ideas or news or experiences, and it can authentically keep people connected. But the anonymity of social media, as many have pointed out, has contributed to the downfall of our culture and to our struggle to be ourselves, without fear. I think we must find a way to develop a healthy self confidence and to have faith in our gifts. That has to mandate, therefore, that we must allow others to do the same, even if they are very different from us.
Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 has been a brilliant prediction of our current culture, but it shouldn't signal an end. Rather, we should look at this novel in light of what our culture has become, and then work together to ensure that this trend is reversed so that people no longer have to live in fear that what they might say or even think will get them fired or punched or destroyed.
The video below is an ad from Coca-Cola, but it makes a great point about our addiction to mobile devices. Take a look and have a laugh, but you might also see where you fit in that picture, and see how you can strive to change.
Witty; cunning; crafty
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