Fahrenheit 451 by the late Ray Bradbury has been a renowned classic for my entire life. Bradbury portrays a world where ideas are rigidly controlled. 451 profoundly shows the suppression of humanity that takes place in many communist countries. It is a warning against encroaching on the freedom of opinion and expression.
America is unique in the world. We have the freedom of ideas and speech explicitly protected in our founding documents (although it is not these which grant us those rights). The first amendment has come to protect so much more, as well. I have wondered about the stretching limit of the document, because it has been drawn out to protect things that are not speech under any conceivable circumstance.
But Fahrenheit 451, good as it is, isn’t the best warning for Western Societies. Bradbury was right that in communist nations ideas are rigidly controlled by government. Russia and China are perfect examples of dictatorial control over people’s thoughts, even today. In Russia, even after the break-up of the Soviet Union, people are still put in prison because their ideas are considered a menace by those who hold the reigns of power.
Bradbury was worried that ideas would become so controlled that everyone out of power would become somnolent zombies, never questioning their place in the new, statist caste. Essentially, much of humanity would be herded into place and anchored to the floor with strict control over their thoughts. This conforms quite well to Marx’s original vision for revolution (although he regarded the utopia as a little further along than this ‘necessary’ stage).
So, propaganda and the systematic destruction of all ideas challenging the statist will would become dominant, irresistible even. Fahrenheit 451 was first published in 1953, only seven years after Winston Churchill’s famous Iron Curtain speech. This is enough time for Churchill’s statements to be found true regarding the horror of communism which was expanding across the whole globe. The Cold War was in full swing, and it was by no means clear that the West would survive, even as the economic ideas of the left failed bitterly. The capital of material, land, and people seized by the left during the Second World War provided much needed fuel for the Bolshevik brand of totalitarianism. But after all that failed to bring about a workers’ paradise, after the most basic of all Marxian principles was found to ignore most of human nature, what should we now take away from Bradbury’s book?
As a prolific author, Bradbury was constantly surrounded by people who loved to read, especially in the 50s when literature was still a major industry. It’s unlikely he could conceive of a world where literature was a sort of backwater, a minor realm which held little consequence.
In truth, there are more people reading now than there were ten years ago, a nice benefit of the devices which have made reading sheik. Hollywood so rarely finds a new story, it is forced to look to the bestseller lists in order to put together new projects, encouraging greater readership. Yet, there is a huge section of the population that is truly incapable of reading because of how deeply they have immersed themselves in the other forms of entertainment. I am not saying there is something wrong with people who read infrequently, but if someone is mentally incapable of turning a few pages, if they don’t have the patience to peruse a single paragraph, how are they to think deeply about any meaningful decisions?
Where Bradbury thought that the mediocre entertainment of television would take over if books had been banned, the truth is that many people embrace it as a first-and-only source. He was right, in so far as totalitarian governments would suppress alternatives of every sort; ideological as well as administrative. In free societies, many people have abandoned the station which they are obligated to watch, if they expect to pass freedom on to future generations. Whereas overexposure to television produces viewers incapable of functioning independently, overexposure to books rarely produces anything but deeper pondering on a wider range.
Free speech is assaulted indirectly though. Since we don’t ban books in the United States, books are carefully approached by those on the left. It’s the statists that worry what we somnolent subjects might do if we got some alternative ideas into our heads. So, on college campuses you have ‘free speech’ zones. If your opinions don’t match the leftist ideal, then you are ill-informed. Once you point out that you’ve read a rather significant variety of books, the inevitable response is that you haven’t read the right books. After reading the ‘right books’ and disagreeing with them, you’re found to be mentally inferior, incapable of seeing the genius of top-down statism.
We can pretend this shell game goes both ways, and in some cases it might. I find it interesting that Bradbury’s warning against the segregation of ideas has come to fruition, but not in the brutish and direct manner he described. If anything, the sanitized world of prosperity sans humanity of Fahrenheit 451 is an even better depiction of modern political correctness than it is of communism.
You’re not allowed to say certain things, or else you’ll become a pariah and everyone who is ‘cultured’ will stick their fingers in their ears and chant you out of existence. Political correctness is a way of silencing uncomfortable statements because we don’t want to face those underlying discomforts. Not to over-saturate with Andrew Klavan, but here’s another.
And then there’s a diagnosis by Mark Steyn (yes, him again) diagnosing the shell-game of multiculturalism. The clip is quite illumination and funny to boot.
The problem as the clips point out quite handily is that the leftist vision of the world simply fails in many respects. Rather than change ideologies, the left embraces absolute unreality in order to prop itself up. It can do this because young people generally embrace the state as a solution to problems, and then eventually drift away when they discover that such solutions are pathetic at best, sometimes horrific.
Books are not burned in our streets (not to effect, anyhow), but you’re condemned in many institutions if you dare to peruse certain publications or even consider an alternative to the critical-theory-obsessed deconstruction of society. Any view which depends upon the absolute suppression of alternatives and entirely avoids ever facing intellectual challenge, not to mention real-world testing, is simply not fit to guide a people. What demented passengers would board an airliner that has never once been tested? Would they really expect to wind up at their destination safe and sound? Should the sleekness of the paint job assure them of the safeness of this design which has repeatedly failed in the past, has never worked, and indeed has cost an enormous amount of lives in the process?
I wander a lot on this one, but that’s fine. Been working a lot lately. Hope to be back in swing soon.