Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury

Today I'm taking a look back at one of the classics of old science-fiction, Fahrenheit 451. I first read this book when I was fourteen years old as assigned reading for school. I thought it was pretty good, but I personally liked Ender's Game better between the two. Years later I was actually surprised to find out that I had gotten Bradbury's main thrust that so many people miss. What most people remember about this book is that it's about burning books. The title after all takes its name from the flash point of paper, the temperature at which paper would ignite from surrounding heat alone. (Apparently this isn't strictly true because chemistry, but that's a different debate entirely.) And the main character, Guy Montag, is one of the firemen now responsible for burning the prohibited books, which seem to be every book. While censorship is definitely part of the book, to say that Fahrenheit 451 is only about burning books misses another major argument.

The plot of Fahrenheit 451 follows Guy Montag as he begins to question his work and the society he's living in, especially after his wife Mildred overdoses on sleeping medication and doesn't remember why. Montag realizes that he's never had a conversation with his wife for years and that's partly because she spends almost all her waking hours in the television parlor, surrounded by three television walls, or with earbud radios in. Despite spending all of her time plugged into media Mildred can't even tell Guy what the plot of the stories she's been watching are, much less express an opinion on something beyond the media she consumes. Guy realizes that he is isolated from everyone and his life is devoid of meaning and begins to wonder if maybe he can find that missing meaning in books. So there is this large theme about trying to find meaning in life while society and the government encourages people not to think and just enjoy themselves.

There is a point where the character Captain Beatty makes an exposition dump/argument about how the world got to the point that they're burning books, and I'm on the fence about whether the argument doesn't hold any water or is even more valid today. Beatty states that the censorship of books began with an elimination of things that people found offensive, such as Little Black Sambo. Gradually more and more things were deemed offensive to people's sensibilities and so more and more things were censored, banned, or eliminated. Alongside this was the reduction in time available for people to actually enjoy media, leading to abridged editions, summaries, condensations, and eventually media becoming so superficial and bland as to be utterly meaningless. With society left with media that doesn't challenge them or make them uncomfortable, they can just spend all their time being happy and not stopping to think about something beyond themselves. A society of perpetual distraction.

On the one hand Bradbury, through Beatty and other characters, makes a valid point. Eliminating things that make us uncomfortable can be counter-productive because when we're made uncomfortable it can make us think about things in a new way or challenge preexisting ideas. But at the same time, there are legitimate reasons to be uncomfortable with the example of racial depictions of non-white people. For example, people should not be performing in blackface and you should feel uncomfortable even with historical examples because blackface was the creation and reinforcement of racial stereotypes of African-Americans as inferiors and a perpetuation of the dehumanization of African-Americans. The same goes for countless other racial and ethnic stereotypes which exist to create an image of inferiority and reinforce the idea that blacks, American Indians, Jews, or Anabaptists are somehow less than human and worthy of contempt and violence.

In an era where political correctness is derided as being overly sensitive, it's all too apparent we need it more than ever because of the overt racism espoused by public figures and endorsed by at least a chunk of the population. Especially when the people who deride political correctness and want to bring back the racial stereotypes are exactly the sort of people who would use racial caricatures to justify their mistreatment of other people. But I suppose those would be the sorts of people who wouldn't feel uncomfortable and wouldn't be challenged to think outside their preexisting worldviews. I guess my point is that there are good reasons to be uncomfortable with ideas like Sambo and while we shouldn't ban it, we shouldn't present it without having a conversation about it either.

And inevitably in our current era an examination of Fahrenheit 451 would not be complete without talking about the current state of media. If Bradbury's critique of media as superficial and intellectually unfulfilling was accurate in 1953, someone will inevitably say that it's more valid now. We have so much reality television, as well as programs that are aggregations of clips from other media that commentate on it. Not to mention the countless big-budget superhero, sci-fi, or action movies that get churned out in seemingly endless franchises by Hollywood. Where is the intellectually fulfilling media? people might ask. And with the saturation of media out there it can be hard to find it. But I think it's there. People are still producing documentaries about important topics. People are still writing or creating media that's meaningful beyond its entertainment value.

Besides which, people often forget that things that are considered ''great literature'' today were often derided in their own time. Dickens was dismissed as popular literature pandering to the common denominator. Moby Dick was panned by critics when it was first published (although how fair that was is a matter of debate). ''Great literature'' is always a matter of debate and what may be popular today may not survive to tomorrow, while what may be ignored today may remain relevant twenty or fifty years from now. And even what people think as ''great literature'' will vary from person to person. So to say that we're no longer creating things of value is far too premature.

Overall this book serves as a good jumping-off point for debates and it raises some very good questions with no easy answers. It's definitely worth taking a read and doing a little thinking on your own.

- Kalpar

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