Today, looking around our great yet troubled country, one can’t help but feel the suppressing force of cancel culture. Watch what you say, keep your thoughts to yourself, and be careful who you talk openly to. And for goodness’ sake, don’t convey appreciation for the great works of the past, whether they be historical (Jefferson or Hamilton), philosophical (Aurelius or Rand), literary (Twain or Orwell), economic (Friedman or von Mises) or scientific (Darwin or Columbus). Such carelessness may land you out of a job, expelled from university, rejected from the neighborhood book club, and vilified on social media.
For the few of us that subscribe to this prudent path yet suffer from a genetic flaw that creates an innate resistance to today’s cancel culture and woke police, we can take solace in a handful of literary masterpieces from the 20th century. At the top stands George Orwell’s 1984 (1949). And there is the prescient Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler (1940), who introduced his observations on intellectual and political tyranny.
As great as those two works are, there is a third that serves as the supreme combination of adventurous storytelling, political commentary, and contemporary relevance. It was written in the early 1950s by its author in the basement of the UCLA library on a public typewriter. A dime bought 30 minutes of typewriter time, and the author ended up investing 98 dimes to produce the original manuscript.
The $9.80 book is Ray Bradbury’s 1953 classic, Fahrenheit 451. If you’ve never read it, do yourself a favor and invest the time to do so. If it’s been a while since you read it, revisiting the story in 2021 will provide a stunning and new perspective for these tumultuous times. The story should bother you, as it pertains to crucially important subjects worth being bothered about.
The story revolves around Gus Montag, a fireman in a future society where the job of firemen is not to save homes from burning, but instead to burn books and the structures (and at times, the people) hiding them. The tools of the trade are vehicles and hoses loaded with kerosine and igniters (451 degrees Fahrenheit is the temperature at which paper burns). The fireman’s credo was best summarized by Montag: “It’s fine work. Monday burn Millay, Wednesday Whitman, Friday Faulkner, burn ‘em to ashes, then burn the ashes. That’s our official slogan.”
The fireman’s rules were simple and sequential: answer the alarm quickly, start the fire swiftly, burn everything, report back to the firehouse, and then be alert for other alarms. Books are viewed as loaded guns that must be destroyed to protect people from thinking.
The government and its minions, including the firemen, get to play the censors, judges, and executioners. Instead of being born free and equal under the Constitution, the aim of the police state is now to make everyone equal.
On its surface, Fahrenheit 451 is a dramatic story about how the individual and his free will overcomes oppression in society and government. That alone would make the book must-read. But there are other, just as impactful, themes in Bradbury’s tale. Consider a few ‘hows’:
- How media and government feed viewers/citizens shallow content to sedate the mind of the individual. In the book, parlor rooms in homes consist of giant floor-to-ceiling walls covered by video screens that play constant, hollow programming. Sports are offered up as a sedative to keep the masses happy and quiet. Everyone is conditioned to watch and listen, to the point where they stop talking to one another and thinking for themselves. Bradbury was foreshadowing today’s reality shows and giant LED 4k TVs that lower the viewer’s and society’s collective consciousness.
- How superficial materialism and ‘keeping up with Joneses’ are unfulfilling and demoralizing to the human spirit. Montag’s wife, Mildred, pines for a fourth wall of TVs in their parlor room, even though it would require a third of Montag’s annual pay. Her addiction to the drivel and her desire for yet another screen does not buy her happiness; she tries (unsuccessfully) to commit suicide by consuming a bottle of sleeping pills.
- How government and technology conspire to create an oppressive surveillance state. Family members are encouraged to rat one another out if books are present, akin to bias reporting tools on today’s university campuses for non-sanctioned views and thoughts. The hound is a technological innovation in the book that tracks and kills its prey, mainly individuals marked for elimination by the state. The hound of today can be found in drones, artificial intelligence, and tracking technology. As Montag’s boss and nemesis said, “Any man’s insane who thinks he can fool the government and us.”
- How the education system is utilized to eradicate thought and debate and replace it with conscripted indoctrination. In the book, school curriculum is shortened, academic discipline is relaxed, and subjects such as philosophy and history are dropped. Children are removed from their home environment as early as possible in life, so that they can develop in the controlled state-sanctioned environment of the public school. Content focuses exclusively on teaching how to press buttons and pulling switches, never on how to think. Looking around at our public education system and colleges today, you get the feeling academia stole the playbook from Bradbury’s world.
- How the ‘tyranny of the majority’ will drive an open society without protections for the minority into an oppressive one. Fahrenheit 451 reminds us that calcification to the majority (or, for that matter, the ability of the minority to stamp out thought) is an enemy of truth, the individual, and reason. Today, it is what we call ‘cancel culture,’ except it is now a majority of the minority of elites who decide for the masses what is truth and reason.
- How society is broken down into two categories: those who build and those who burn. Montag lived in a society where the makers (builder/thinker/doer) were dulled and overcome by the takers (bureaucrat/thought police/administrator). Today’s administrative state in government, the academic complex, and key special interests are steadily subsuming those who create, enable, and serve free enterprise and value creation. Might we be much closer to Montag’s time than we realize?
Although Bradbury wrote Fahrenheit 451 for America in the 1950s, he succeeded in providing us a piercing reminder of the need to safeguard freedoms in 2021. A wise character in the book, Faber, listed three essential reasons why books are important. First, quality books present imperfections and blemishes that mimic life, at times making books feared. Second, good books extract leisure time to induce the reader to think. And third, great books inspire and catalyze action.
Fahrenheit 451 scores on all three of Faber’s essential reasons. We should be grateful that Ray Bradbury invested 98 dimes in the UCLA library basement and his time to express his passion for literature and individual freedom. The rate of return on that investment is incalculable.