One of the great things about the charter school that my kids go to is that they are reading the true classics of literature, and as they read these classics I get a chance to re-read them along with my kids.
My eighth grader is reading “Fahrenheit 451” by Ray Bradbury. If you haven’t read that in a while, a quick reminder of the plot: it takes place in a dystopian future where people have stopped reading books and indeed hate books so much that they encourage firemen to burn all the books.
Bradbury wrote “Fahrenheit 451” in 1951, and he was alarmed by the new technology of the time, television. He describes a dystopian future where people watch videos on wall-sized screens (!), drive fast cars for thrills and therefore don’t have the attention span to sit and read a book. People are also offended at the things in books, which inevitably insult one group or another with their provocative plots. Later in life, Bradbury, a traditional conservative, lamented the spread of political correctness and cancel culture, which he said were signs that his book was coming true before his eyes.
Bradbury correctly perceived that this kind of society would create a vast void in peoples’ lives, and that suicide would increase as people saw their lives had no meaning. People would be so concerned about their own lives and buying the latest gadgets that they would stop having children and would mostly ignore the children they had. He predicted that young people would become more violent and strike out against society with nihilistic rage. But Bradbury pointed out that this would take place while society kept up appearances. For most people, life would apparently go on as normal. There would be elections, and people would go to work and perform their jobs and of course spend their time being entertained by the wall-sized video screens. And, eerily, Bradbury’s world takes place while there is a massive war being fought, a war that does not affect most of the populace’s everyday lives. Meanwhile, the news would never report the truth about the world around them, constantly inventing pleasant story lines to keep the populace happy.
In the end, Bradbury’s dystopian future is the fault of human beings who stop caring about the important things in life: tradition, family, learning, liberty, fulfilling human potential. Most importantly, they stop caring about Truth. And because people have become mediocre and apathetic in every way, they allow society to fall apart around them. Without giving away the ending, you can imagine that the denouement is sad and violent, with a small reason for hope for the future but mostly a warning lament.
We are living in Bradbury’s nightmare right now, and the sheep-like response to COVID-19 by the populace is further evidence that we are moving closer to his sad climax every day.
Most readers will, I hope, be aware that the left is constantly looking for new books to ban. There have even been calls from leftist intellectuals for book burnings. But I believe that Bradbury was mostly concerned about societal trends he saw around him (and continued to see after he wrote his book in 1951 until he died in 2012). There are several large themes in “Fahrenheit 451” that apply today and, frankly, are frightening.
1)Lack of concern about personal liberty. The firemen in “Fahrenheit 451” burst into peoples’ homes and begin searching for books without warrants and without concern for civil liberties. Bradbury writes in his novel that the desire to ban books did not come from a government decree but instead from a societal demand for change from the people themselves. We are seeing this play out today with the completely panicked and unscientific response to the COVID-19 pandemic. People are told they can’t go to church, can’t run a business, can’t travel, can’t eat out, can’t leave their own homes and can’t even exercise unless they do so in a way approved by the chattering classes. In some cases, the government is persecuting the people, but, sad to say, the vast majority of the fear-mongering and authoritarian control is coming from the people themselves. They follow people around insisting they wear masks, and they report people having barbeques in their own backyards. It is the people — driven to hysteria by fake news and ignorance and fear — who are the real oppressors. And they are insisting that their local governments institute totalitarian mandates on other people because of their own ignorance and fear, just as the people in “Fahrenheit 451” did to their own neighbors.
2)The rise of political correctness and cancel culture. In “Fahrenheit 451,” Bradbury explains that people began to insist that books be burned because of “minorities.” He mentions “the dog-lovers, the cat-lovers, doctors, lawyers, merchants, chiefs, Mormons, Baptists, Unitarians, second-generation Chinese, Swedes, Italians, Germans, Texans, Brooklynites, Irishmen, people from Oregon or Mexico.” What he is talking about here is the overwhelming need that people feel to be protected from any views with which they disagree. This has been a problem throughout human history, but American society had developed in the 20th century to the point where controversial viewpoints were accepted, for the most part. This is changing. Comics regularly lament the fact that you can’t joke about anything anymore. Nobody has a sense of humor. A majority of people now believe that speech should be banned that they disagree with. We are seeing our society being taken over by busy bodies and authoritarians who want to control everything we say and do.
3)Addiction to social media and fake news. In “Fahrenheit 451,” most of the people are vapid sheep who spend their time watching their wall-sized televisions, worrying about money and status and ingesting huge quantities of fake news and other drivel. They have stopped caring about the things that make us all human. Sound familiar?
4)Suicide and violence on the increase. Bradbury describes a world where peoples’ lives have become empty and meaningless. The wife of the main character (Mildred) tries to kill herself early in the book, but is so pathetic that she refuses to acknowledge it or deal with her sadness. Meanwhile, young people respond by becoming increasingly violent — for no apparent reason. Sadly, we are seeing that play out in front of us today. Suicide was already at record levels in 2019, but the pandemic has caused a further jump in depression and anxiety. Meanwhile, young people, stuck at home during lockdowns, rushed into the streets to riot and loot over the summer. Of course the characters in “Fahrenheit 451” take a long list of drugs to deal with their depression. Today, drug addiction is one of our biggest problems, much bigger, long-lasting and harmful than the coronavirus panic.
I will end by referencing another dystopian novel, “Animal Farm” by George Orwell. As readers may recall, this is the parable of a farm where the animals take over and install a totalitarian government. The villains of the story are the pigs, who start out pretending to care about equality but end up caring only about their own comfort. The pigs famously say, “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” And as the pigs dine with the men near the end of the novelette, the other animals in the farm cannot tell the difference between the pigs and the men.
During our current pandemic, we have seen that most politicians are more equal than the proletarians they pretend to care about. Gavin Newsom, the execrable governor of California, has imposed a series of rules on the subjects of his state, but of course he does not follow the rules himself. Recently he was caught dining with his friends and family in the fanciest of restaurants — without a mask and without a care in the world for all of the tyranny he has unleashed on his state. He is just like the pigs in “Animal Farm.”