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Revisit Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451

Jeff Riggenbach
Campaign For Liberty
Friday, August 27, 2010

[Transcribed from the Libertarian Tradition podcast episode “Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.”]

Ray Bradbury celebrated his 90th birthday this past Sunday. He was born August 22, 1920 in Waukegan, Illinois, a medium-sized town of around 20,000 people about midway between Chicago and Milwaukee on the western shore of Lake Michigan. Bradbury has depicted Waukegan fondly, even idyllically, in his fiction, most notably in his 1957 novel Dandelion Wine — even though the Waukegan conjured up in that book, which is set in 1928, is a bit larger than the Waukegan Bradbury was born into in 1920. The town’s population grew by more than 50 percent during the ’20s. By the beginning of the Great Depression, there were more than 33,000 people who called Waukegan home. The Bradbury family was not to be among these people for much longer, however.

They had already spent a year in Tucson, Arizona in the ’20s, for reasons having to do with Ray’s father’s employment. Tucson was where Ray attended first grade. And in school year 1932/33, when Ray was 12, they were back in Tucson again. Then, after a few months cleaning up loose ends in Waukegan, not long before Ray’s 14th birthday, they moved to Los Angeles, where they remained. Ray Bradbury himself is there to this day. It was in Los Angeles that he went through high school and in Los Angeles that he launched his extremely successful career as a fiction writer.

It is common to hear Ray Bradbury described as a “science-fiction writer,” but this is misleading at best. Only a minority of Bradbury’s total production is science fiction by any normal standard, and at least half of it is straightforward realistic fiction like Dandelion Wine. The fact is, however, that Bradbury’s second, third, and fourth books, his first three books to come to widespread attention — The Martian Chronicles (1950), The Illustrated Man (1951), and Fahrenheit 451 (1953) — were works of science fiction, or, at least, were widely believed to be. Bradbury was typecast early, you might say. He came to fame as a “science-fiction writer,” and a “science-fiction writer” he will therefore forever remain.

For our purposes here, on the other hand, Bradbury’s most important book is undeniably the third of those titles I just listed: Fahrenheit 451, his short novel about censorship, one of the most influential libertarian novels of the 20th century, first published nearly 60 years ago. And of all Ray Bradbury’s books, Fahrenheit 451 is probably the one most entitled to be called “science fiction.”

It describes an American society of the indeterminate but probably fairly near future in which possession of books is illegal. In an emergency — if, for example, an individual is found to be in possession of a sizable collection of books — the local fire department is summoned. The firemen arrive on a truck, dressed in fire-resistant clothing and carrying hoses. But their hoses pump, not water, but kerosene, which they use to drench the illegal collection of books they’ve been called to take care of, along with the rest of the house in which they’re stored. Then they set the whole sodden mess afire and watch it burn to the ground.

Actually, not all books are illegal in Bradbury’s America of the probably fairly near future. Or so, at least, it would appear. For when Guy Montag, the young fireman who is the main character of Fahrenheit 451, poses a question to his colleagues at the local firehouse — “In the old days, before homes were completely fireproofed,” he asks them, “didn’t firemen prevent fires rather than stoke them up and get them going?” — they answer him by consulting “their rule books, which also contained brief histories of the Firemen of America.”

According to these rule books, the Firemen of America was “established [in] 1790, to burn English-influenced books in the Colonies.” The “First Fireman,” according to the rule books, was Benjamin Franklin. Like all state-sponsored official history, this relies on a certain level of ignorance in its readers if it is to have its full intended effect. The firemen reading the rule books should be unaware, for example, that by 1790 “the Colonies” had been politically independent from England for seven years, and that Benjamin Franklin, in 1790, was 84 years old and on his deathbed. It would help if the firemen reading these rule books were also unaware that Franklin really was a pioneer fireman, though it was in the 1730s not the 1790s, and he was, of course, the kind of fireman who puts fires out and prevents them rather than the kind who stokes fires and gets them going. Of course, in a society whose government banned the possession of any books that taught any contrary, revisionist history, such a level of ignorance might be fairly easy to maintain in the general population.

It might be argued that people don’t have to have books, necessarily, to stave off such ignorance. They could get correct information about history from other media. And this is true. Today, for example, people can get such information from the Internet, and we haven’t even reached the future yet. There is no Internet in Fahrenheit 451. There is only television. In fact, television is very close to omnipresent. But it is a kind of television that could exist only with the assistance of computer technology.

A typical middle-class home in the world of Fahrenheit 451 has an entire room devoted to TV, with the images being received on huge screens that cover three or four of the walls in that room. In some programs, the viewer is given a small part, addressed by name by the other characters, and assigned a few lines to speak. But never is any actual information of any lasting importance conveyed to the viewer.

Bradbury never makes it perfectly clear whether the utter mindlessness of television in the world of Fahrenheit 451 is a result of government censorship or an outcome of market processes. It unquestionably might be the latter. One of his characters, a retired English professor and secret lover of books named Faber, speaks contemptuously of “the solid unmoving cattle of the majority,” and it is, of course, majorities that markets serve best. “Remember,” Faber tells Montag at one point, “the firemen are rarely necessary. The public itself stopped reading of its own accord. You firemen provide a circus now and then at which buildings are set off and crowds gather for the pretty blaze, but it’s a small sideshow indeed, and hardly necessary to keep things in line.”

And why did the public itself stop reading of its own accord? Because so many of the individuals who made up that public wanted to avoid ever being offended by reading anything they didn’t already believe. And most of the rest wanted to avoid having to think at all — they wanted to avoid difficult decisions, the strain of trying to focus their minds on ideas that could plausibly be looked at and understood in more than one way.

Another of Bradbury’s characters, a fire chief named Beatty, explains the part about being offended in a key conversation that takes place about a third of the way into the novel. “Let’s take up the minorities in our civilization, shall we?” Beatty says to Montag.

Bigger the population, the more minorities. Don’t step on the toes of 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. The people in this book, this play, this TV serial are not meant to represent any actual painters, cartographers, mechanics anywhere. The bigger your market, Montag, the less you handle controversy, remember that! … Magazines became a nice blend of vanilla tapioca. Books, so the damned snobbish critics said, were dishwater. No wonder books stopped selling, the critics said. … There you have it, Montag. It didn’t come from the Government down. There was no dictum, no declaration, no censorship, to start with, no! Technology, mass exploitation, and minority pressure carried the trick, thank God. Today, thanks to them, you can stay happy all the time.

“Ask yourself,” Beatty says to Montag, “What do we want in this country, above all? People want to be happy, isn’t that right? Haven’t you heard it all your life? I want to be happy, people say.” According to Beatty, one part of what has to be done to make people happy is to make them feel equal to everybody else. “Surely,” he says to Montag,

you remember the boy in your own school class who was exceptionally “bright,” did most of the reciting and answering while the others sat like so many leaden idols, hating him. And wasn’t it this bright boy you selected for beatings and tortures after hours? Of course it was. We must all be alike. Not everyone born free and equal, as the Constitution says, but everyone made equal. Each man the image of every other; then all are happy, for there are no mountains to make them cower, to judge themselves against.

“Why did the public itself stop reading of its own accord? Because so many of the individuals who made up that public wanted to avoid ever being offended by reading anything they didn’t already believe.”

Keeping people happy, Beatty tells Montag, also requires that you avoid confusing them or expecting them to judge between competing ideas. “If you don’t want a man unhappy politically, don’t give him two sides to a question to worry him,” Beatty tells Montag, “give him one. Better yet, give him none. … If the Government is inefficient, top-heavy, and tax-mad, better it be all those than that people worry over it.”

In the space of a crucial week, Montag himself opts to worry instead of being mindlessly happy. He has been vaguely aware for a while now that, despite the government’s best efforts on his behalf, he is not, in fact, happy. His wife drifts mindlessly through her nights and days in a haze induced either by sleeping pills or by radio and TV. She no longer has anything to say to her husband, who has become, at best, an afterthought in her life.

Montag has been stealing the occasional book from the clandestine libraries he is assigned to burn. By the time of the beginning of Fahrenheit 451, he has accumulated maybe 20 of these books and has stuffed them into a hiding place he has devised behind an air-conditioning grill in the ceiling of his suburban house. He has tentatively decided to take a look at these books, see for himself what they contain, why they’re illegal.

Then one night on his way home from work, he meets a 16-year-old girl on the street. It turns out she’s his next-door neighbor, a girl who likes taking walks in the evening, a girl with a startlingly different way of looking at things and the world — a girl who, perhaps unwittingly, encourages Montag’s growing determination to rebel, if only in a small way, against the system that, at least through his employment, sustains him. Within a week of meeting the 16-year-old Clarisse, Montag has murdered his fire chief and destroyed his station’s expensive, high-tech Mechanical Hound. He has left his wife, gone on the lam, and joined an underground organization of men and women, each of whom has committed one or more books to memory, awaiting the day when it will once again be legal to print, sell, and read such things.

Fahrenheit 451 has become one of the most influential libertarian novels of the past century, in large part through the efforts of schoolteachers in both public and private institutions of learning. Virtually anyone who has gone through 7th, 8th, and 9th grades in this country in the past 40 years has likely been assigned Fahrenheit 451 in an English class. When I was in 7th, 8th, and 9th grades myself only a few years earlier, between 1958 and 1961, Fahrenheit 451 was not yet part of the official curriculum; instead, it was one of those books students were likely to be seen carrying around with them, in some sort of cheap, mass-market paperback edition, to read on their own time, for pleasure.

The fact that students liked it was, of course, one of the reasons it became part of the official curriculum. Here was a book you didn’t have to struggle to get kids to read. Also it was a book that would raise the hackles of few, if any parents; there was no sex in it at all, and only a few hells and damns by way of so-called bad language.

On top of all that, for a libertarian novel it was really fairly kind in its depiction of the state. It absolves the state of blame for starting the war on books. It acknowledges that powerful impulses toward mindless conformity and suppression of deviation exist in the population itself — that, on a deep level, many, many people want to be “protected” by the state from the risk of being offended and from the necessity of thinking for themselves.

And so it is that a large segment of our population knows this book because it was assigned in school. For many, it is probably one of the few good things school ever did for them. The downside of the situation is that millions of these people, probably the majority of them, have not looked at Bradbury’s remarkable little novel for years, since they were 13 or 14 years old.

It’s worth another look.

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