If you have not yet read Fahrenheit 451 you should put it on your summer reading list. It is a dystopian tale written by Ray Bradbury in the early nineteen fifties. As with most classics it is still worthy of discussion today, and maybe even more so than back then. Bradbury managed to predict a number of pursuits that have almost become an addiction in today’s world long before such things had even been invented. The main idea of his masterful work is that books have been banned in the future world and firemen do not extinguish blazes, but instead burn any remaining volumes that they find. It is all supposedly done to make people feel better along with providing them with mind altering drugs and a daily diet of numbing entertainment.
The main character is a man named Montag who is quite a rockstar when it comes to carrying out his book destruction duties, at least until he begins to question the the process of turning the masses into unquestioning sheep. Ultimately his desire to find the truth becomes his compass.
The book itself is extraordinary and it translates well to film. The first effort was a movie from the nineteen sixties, and most recently HBO took a turn bringing the story to life. The latest offering changes many aspects of the original story, but not the main idea. It shows us an America that has endured a second Civil War in which millions of people died. Books are now contraband and Montag is one of the best at eliminating them. The HBO version is visually stunning particularly in its portrayal of the masses being instantly gratified by watching the firemen in action and tweeting comments as their work unfolds. It is a frightening look into what might happen when the members of a society are no longer able to accept differing ideas. To the victor belong the spoils, and that can result in a total refusal to allow critical thinking of any kind.
I found myself drawing so many parallels with our present day environment that seems to only grow worse. There is a kind of group think within the dominant political parties that actually worries me greatly. Even at universities that used to be centers for open discussion, certain people and ideas are denied a platform. It is so different from when I was at the University of Houston, and part of the excitement was being able to hear every possible kind of belief. Nothing was considered too out of bounds and we were taught to weigh philosophies heavily and ask relevant questions before accepting theories. Now people are judged by public opinion, often without any facts to back up the arguments. It truly worries me that we shut down public debate even before it has happened. How are we to know what different platforms actually are if we never find out about them?
There is a wave of concern that is being voiced by those courageous enough to point out that our political discourse has gone very wrong. We are asked to choose sides and give one hundred per cent agreement or bear the consequences. The militancy that both ultra progressives and ultra conservatives demonstrate is more and more becoming the norm, crowding out those of us in the middle. Few of us have been willing to hold out for individualism and truth rather than blindly accepting the noise of the crowd. It doesn’t take a grand leap to imagine a schism in our country growing so bad that violence ensues.
I suspect that some of my historical heroes would be deemed losers in today’s atmosphere. Imagine Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. insisting on peaceful demonstrations or Republicans providing the needed votes for Lyndon Johnson to get the Civil Rights Act passed in Congress. We are no longer willing to give credit when it is due if the person is not in tune with our way of thinking on every issue. Today’s feminists refuse to consider a conservative woman who is pro life as a success even if she holds a powerful position. They certainly scoff at a woman who chooses to stay home to raise her children. When a conservative like John McCain valiantly votes in the name of honor, he is spurned as being wishy washy if his stance is not in tandem with the president and some mysterious base. We see so much hatefulness coming from all quarters, and we wonder why our teens are turning to violence to solve their problems.
Fahrenheit 451 asks us to imagine taking our anger just a few steps forward until we answer all of our problems by preventing freedom of thought. It is a world in which sadness and disagreements are not allowed in the ridiculous hope that if we simply avoid confrontations and free speech we will all be happier. Instead I maintain that such a world imprisons us. We should all push back at any attempts to treat us like mindless children. We need to be wary of electronic hypnotizers that are stealing away our individualism.
I used to tell my students that the most priceless thing in their lives was education and the freedom to learn about anything that interested them. It is true that the first thing that autocrats do is kill the educators and destroy the books of which they do not approve. That is the exact opposite of how a free nation should be. Over time I have read painfully horrific books so that I might better understand even the minds of evil. I plowed through Mein Kampf because I wanted to see for myself just how twisted Adolf Hitler’s mind actually was. I find the exercise of reading and seriously studying all forms of thought to be an important exercise. I find that I rarely am able to align myself totally with anyone because I am a free spirit, and I love that being that way is still allowed. Nonetheless, I see signs that being so are often misunderstood, and I have had my share of ugly criticism, Still, I will fight for my right to my own thoughts and I will continue to do so for others as well, even those with whom I vehemently disagree.
I sometimes wonder if we have become too prone to victimization. It seems that almost everyone has something to complain about rather than focusing on progress and all that is good. If we are continuously seeing half full glasses we change, and not for the better. It’s time for real dialogue, and lots of research and reading. We should beware of soundbites and slogans and ideas that bully us. There is no greater right than the ability to read and discuss even difficult tracts. We should be eager to hear from everyone, even when the words disturb us, perhaps even more so in such cases. We cannot allow ourselves to be drugged by the opium of mass media and entertainment. Like Montag we will find ourselves when we open our minds.