Ray Bradbury (born 1923) foresaw with clairvoyance the socio-political phenomenon that goes by the name of political correctness. His 1953 dystopia, Fahrenheit 451 attests Bradbury’s prognosticative perspicacity. Most readers know the general situation that Fahrenheit 451 depicts, one with a resemblance to other items in the category of dystopian fictions such as H. G. Wells’ The Holy Terror or George Orwell’s 1984.
Decades of cold war between hostile polities have assimilated the formerly classically liberal societies to the model of their totalitarian rivals until all societies exhibit the characteristics of an ideological dictatorship founded in strict repression of any dissent from the proverbial Party Line. The regime of Fahrenheit 451 manipulates the citizenry more subtly than the one in 1984, but with an equal brutality held in spring-loaded reserve. Almost everyone has employment; life for those who are not wage earners, such as the protagonist’s wife, consists in interminable sweetish diversion – like the daily interactive soap opera broadcasts, which audiences view on wall-screens that project a larger than life image into the drawing room.
While the least of science fiction’s generic merits lies in specific technical prognostication, one must nevertheless in the case of Fahrenheit 451 accredit Bradbury with remarkable foresight. The television screen threatened the written word – hence also the faculty of objective assessment – from the time of the earliest video broadcasts; the “boob tube” also began tearing down culture, especially literate culture, from the first flourish of commercial programming in the years just after World War Two. Bradbury, who began his career as a contributor to pulp-fiction monthlies and as writer of radio-scripts, understood early the intellectually impoverishing effect of television in comparison with literature and radio. Words-with-pictures added up to much less than the radiophonic formula of pictures-without-words, which, while not purely literate, yet required the exercise of imagination. Words on their own, even when printed on perishable pulp-stock, be it Planet Stories or Galaxy, stood higher on the intellectual ladder than radio-drama or a television serial. Words provoke imagination and foster independence from stock images.
Bradbury, a man of letters, grasped with admirable certitude the fundamental relation of literacy and literature to the civilized order. The written word functions impersonally and abstractly: it mediates non-resentful relations between individuals and helps the individual to understand whether the institutions of his society are fulfilling or distorting their mission. The written word supports objectivity, criticism, and analysis: it enlarges and depends awareness and thus supports the civic order of the modern republics, as they came to be at the end of the Nineteenth Century. Literacy is a presupposition of the free circulation of values in the modern market. The spoken word, on the other hand, is, as it has been immemorially, personal, agonistic, and emotional. The theoreticians of orality and literacy associate the spoken word with primitive society, with tribalism, and with shame-culture – or frankly with the crudity of political propaganda. In a modern context, as Bradbury sees it, any lapse from cultivated literacy in a critical, cue-giving nucleus of the educated population represents a lapse from civilization, a deterioration of the social scene, and an instance of decline towards new savagery.
Big-screen, high-definition television sets therefore do not a civilization make, either in our actual world or Bradbury’s prophetic representation of it from fifty years ago. Conformity, on the other hand, television is good at establishing, and along with conformity all the bullying totems the taboos that hedge in thought and discussion and so disarm the society from taking critical stock of itself or judging the leadership or its policies rationally. The dictatorship of Fahrenheit 451 is a confidently self-regulating one that insures its continuity through the methodic inculcation of regressive taboos and infantile totems that render people no longer capable of examining or doubting what the state tells them. Our own political correctness is a system of regressive taboos and infantile totems that bludgeons people, by state-reinforced priggishness, into self-betraying cowardice and insipidity. With its readiness to denounce by hurling epithets, pandemic intolerance maintains obedience as effectively as a police force with automatic weapons. The fear and envy of small people who compensate for their feelings of inferiority by banding together are what drive and sustain dictatorial conformism. The state seizes on that fear and that envy and harnesses them cynically to its own schemes to secure and increase its power. The elites are driven as much by fear and envy as the masses; they enjoy leveling things out, which is for them a supremely moral experience, but they are more culpable than the masses because they know what they are destroying.
In this way the society in Fahrenheit 451 strikes one as more plausible today than its Orwellian alternative or indeed as having already been partially (and more than partially) realized in Europe and North America. Political correctness, whether it is in Bradbury’s imagined dictatorship or in our own therapeutic nanny state, permeates the society through the channels of commercial mediation that the state has co-opted.
And importantly the regime of Bradbury’s novel has banned books – that signal item of the abolished polity that more than anything else stands in the way of homogeneity in thought and deed. That basic gesture of banishment furnishes the story with its motivating conceit. Technical advances having rendered all buildings fireproof, fire departments now undertake the policy-mandated task of seeking out and incinerating bookish contraband. Guy Montag, the novel’s point-of-view character, finds his employment as a fireman. Bradbury’s carefully managed plot links Montag’s moral awakening to his acquisition of genuine, as opposed to mere functional, literacy after his encounter with Clarisse, a young woman who belongs to a secret underground of reader-dissidents.
Not unlike Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamazov, Fahrenheit 451 foregrounds its essential moral and philosophical argument by means of a conversation between its protagonist and a representative of the reigning order. In Dostoyevsky, this would be the famous colloquy of Christ and the Grand Inquisitor, who claims that happiness depends on keeping people enthralled by distractions and bereft of all doubts; in Bradbury, it is the exchange of Montag with his captain, who likes Montag but suspects him of dissident inclinations, perhaps even of having absconded from the crime scene with books missed by the inspectors. (The suspicion is accurate.) Bradbury establishes a context for Captain Beatty’s remarks that compels readers to trust them even though they hardly trust him.
At the root of scientifically managed utilitarian repression, Beatty says, lie both the powerful conformism and the yearning for the equalization of differences, which are inherent in any mass society. According to Beatty, the regime never imposed itself from the top down; but rather, it organized itself as a kind of groundswell and then demanded the codification of its preference: “The bigger your market, Montag, the less you handle controversy. All the minor minor minorities with their navels to be kept clean. Authors, full of evil thoughts, lock up your typewriters.” Everyone claimed immunity from offense, the criterion of offense being perception of a slight. Since everyone imagines himself to belong to some minority or other, “minority pressure” by countless special interests, “carried the trick” and “today, thanks to them, you can stay happy all the time.”
Beatty adds that, “There was no dictum, no declaration, no censorship, to start with,” but in time the extreme rigidity of conformism expressed itself in ironclad law. It expressed itself in the practical policy of immolating by fire that, which offended. “Fire is bright and fire is clean,” as Beatty says. So then: “Colored people don’t like Little Black Sambo. Burn it. White people don’t feel good about Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Burn it. Someone’s written a book on tobacco and cancer of the lungs? The cigarette people are weeping? Burn it… Burn all, burn everything.”
In Bradbury’s first book, The Martian Chronicles, a similar politically correct regime has gained power over society and hounds the intellectually and morally independent. Readers learn in the story called “Usher II” that a censorious North American government began, in the 1950s and 60s, to restrict literary and artistic expression for political purposes: “controlling books of cartoons and then detective books and, of course, films, one way or another, one group or another, political bias, religious prejudice, union pressures; there was always a minority afraid of something, and a great majority afraid of the dark, afraid of the future, afraid of the past, afraid of the present, afraid of themselves and shadows of themselves.” So says Mr. Stendahl, the story’s protagonist, who has defied the government ministry called “Moral Climates” by ignoring the strictures against imaginative literature to build, on Mars, a replica of Edgar Allan Poe’s House of Usher. The regime had declared, in effect, that imagination was escapism. Totalitarian governments frown on escape. The subject populace had to be confined within the limits of the imposed order and the phrase for this took the form of a typical dictatorial rhetoric.
As Stendahl explains: “Every man, they said, must face reality. Must face the Here and Now! Everything that was not so must go.” The “Moral Climates” investigator, Mr. Garrett, speaks like every commissar or bureaucrat, in tones of self-satisfied surety that his narrow vision of life is, not a mere part, but the inarguable whole. His mission, he tells Stendahl, is to put things “neat and tidy.” “Usher II” ends in a cruel joke on Garrett, who, having never read the books that he helped to destroy, understands none of the Poe-esque signs that indicate the nasty end that Stendahl has planned for him.
Elsewhere in The Martian Chronicles, in the story whose title is a line from Lord Byron, “And the Moon be still as Bright,” a complicated character named Jeff Spender, in a tense dialogue with his senior officer Captain Wilder, sketches the socio-cultural path by which society went from freedom to slavery. The first phase consisted in the destruction of long-standing symbols in the name of reason. A cult of the hard fact arose that stood in implacable hostility to metaphor and intuition. “That’s the mistake we made when Darwin showed up,” says Spender: “We embraced him and Huxley and Freud, all smiles. And then we discovered that Darwin and our religions didn’t mix.” As a result, when “we tried to budge Darwin and Huxley and Freud,” they refused to move, “so, like idiots, we tried knocking down religion.”
Spender’s peroration is worth quoting in full:
We succeeded pretty well. We lost our faith and went around wondering what life was for. If art was no more than a frustrated outflinging of desire, if religion was no more than self-delusion, what good was life? Faith had always given us answers to all things. But it went down the drain with Freud and Darwin. We were and still are a lost people.
Spender himself has made a number of critical errors, embracing the violence and cynicism of the very order that he has come to understand; but his insights, appreciated by Wilder, become the core of hope in the larger arc of Bradbury’s tragic narrative. The villains of The Martian Chronicles – Spender calls them “professional cynics” – are secretly frightened, utterly dogmatic, resentment-driven power mongers who seize on the worst human traits to bring themselves into positions of control. Garrett of “Moral Climates” is a commissar; Sam Parkhill, one of Spender’s crewmates, and one of the few recurring characters in Bradbury’s story-cycle, is a specimen subject of the brave new order’s manipulative style. Parkhill is a man of little education, no taste or refinement, and massive resentment. He uses the delicate remains of Martian architecture for target-practice until Wilder catches him and knocks his teeth out; he is jealous of anything that he perceives as superior to him in any way. He requires and welcomes the economic and intellectual leveling that the regime sees as its most effective tool of social control.
We discern a similar background in Fahrenheit 451. Bradbury has returned in the later book to hints and cues in the earlier book, expanding and illustrating them. Beatty tells Montag frankly that the regime’s success stems from its ability to get people to hate one another. Goading people to feel offended is central to the regime’s technique of social manipulation. This is because the person who perceives a slight perceives also a difference; and for such a person that difference is invariably an inequality that, in the subject’s deformed understanding, demotes him intolerably below another. Under the principle, “we must all be alike,” the great clamoring aggregate-majority insisted that, “each man [should be] the image of every other.” The governing elites had to step in to address the crisis. Intellectual differences particularly rankled because, unlike material differences, they resist leveling. What to do? Look for the signs of the thinking man and persecute those who display them. “A book is like a loaded gun in the house next door” and “who knows who might be the target of a well read man?”
Beatty lets on that Clarisse McClellan’s transgression – she has been mysteriously run over and killed by a hit-and-run driver – was that, “She didn’t want to know how and thing was done, but why,” and “that can be embarrassing.”
Utility makes people happy, not philosophy. So, in Beatty’s estimation, “the poor girl’s better off dead.” And what does the self-stultifying mass want in substitution for anything that, activating a brain cell, might plunge it into unhappiness? “Give the people contests they win by remembering the words to more popular songs or the names of state capitals or how much corn Iowa grew last year.” Give them “the three-dimensional sex magazines… comics, good old confession, or trade journals.”
Firemen, Beatty says, “stand against the small tide of those who want to make everyone unhappy with conflicting theory and thought.” Beatty is as frightening as Dostoyevsky’s Inquisitor or Orwell’s O’Brien in his long final rationalizing speech to Winston Smith. Beatty sounds like Lenin on the artists, whom he called le merde of the people, toxic and fit only for elimination. In addition to Dostoyevsky and Orwell, Bradbury probably also had in mind his fellow science fiction writer Cyril M. Kornbluth, whose “Marching Morons,” published a year before Fahrenheit 451, depicts a mentally stultified society kept from boiling over by the anesthesia of freely available pornography, simplified game shows, and the exploitation of hatred against difference.
In his Intelligent Person’s Guide to Modern Culture, Roger Scruton distinguishes between imagination and fantasy. Imagination, expressing itself as art, permits us as open-minded subjects to encounter “a world of real, vulnerable, and living people… where we, like they, are on trial.” Art judges the existing social arrangements, validating them where the analysis finds reason and condemning them where it does not. Art might arouse passions, but “the passions suffered in the theatre,” for example, are nevertheless “guided by a sense of reality.” If The Moor of Venice solicited our sympathy for its characters, our feelings about them would yet be “responses to imagined situations” that “do not precede their object.” The sympathy with which we respond to those “situations” is precisely, as Scruton writes, “critical.”
Criticism being one of the higher faculties, “the vision of man’s higher nature is conserved by art.” It is obvious why totalitarian regimes seek repression of art. What they really want to suppress is the critical faculty and, with it, the intellectual and moral self-sufficiency of their subjects.
It is equally obvious, in Scruton’s argument, why totalitarian regimes encourage strictly controlled types of fantasy. For fantasy, as Scruton reminds us, aims “to provide a surrogate for [that] which the subject craves.” Scruton categorizes the “fantasy object” as “an unreal object of actual desire, condemned to unreality by the mental prohibition that also summons it.” Fantasy so defined communicates promiscuously with resentment. This is because resentment operates by making another person’s status or experience or possession a theme for the subject, a kernel of appropriative desire. Such frustrated desire is automatically thwarted, as soon as it appears, by a sense of inferiority that places the object of interest beyond any possibility of acquisition. “Fantasy covets the gross, the explicit, the no-holds-barred display of the unobtainable; and in the crisis of display the unobtainable is vicariously obtained.” Scruton offers the example of pornography, noting that, “modern society abounds in fantasy objects, since the realistic image, in photograph, cinema and TV screen, offers surrogate fulfillment to all our forbidden desires, thereby permitting them.”
What has this to do with the power agenda of the ruling elites? As Faber, the secret dissident, tells Montag in Fahrenheit 451: “The Fireman are rarely necessary. The public itself stopped reading of its own accord… People are having fun.” Faber means real reading and the cultivated intellect, the judging spirit that is the glory of a truly literate society. Plenty of kitsch reading remains, to supplement the wall-to-wall video broadcasts. Faber says to Montag: “The Government, seeing how advantageous it was to have people reading only about passionate lips and the fist in the stomach, circled the situation with your fire-eaters.” It is the old panem-et-circenses formula of the Roman Empire, distracting the restless plebeians by welfare handouts and titillating displays on stage or in the arena. Bradbury has failed in one small matter, but one can hardly blame him: he did not sufficiently imagine how large a role sexualization and pornography would play in stultifying civic conscience and serving the aims of power.
In Fahrenheit 451 it is merely a case of ladies romances, of “passionate lips,” of the tough-guy “fist in the stomach,” and, at the extreme, of “three-dimensional sex magazines.” In our own actual modern western society it is a pervasive explicit pornography of every imaginable body-part in continual conjunction with every other and of a popular cinema devoted to unrelieved grossness, on the one hand, and brutality without conscience on the other.
But there are other types of pornography: the pornography of simulated achievement for non-achievers, of simulated celebrity for non-entities, and of a false equality that ceaselessly assures the masses that resentment is a more certain badge of virtue than accomplishment. As Scruton argues, “fantasy replaces the real, resistant, objective world with a pliant surrogate.” Whereas “life in the actual world is difficult and embarrassing” because it entails “our confrontation with other people who, by their very existence, make demands that we may be unwilling to meet”; in fantasy, the subject deals only with a kind of “private property” that he can “dispose according to [his] will.” In fantasy, the ego evades the real limits in negotiation with which healthy people come to terms with their abilities and find their way into adulthood. Significantly, the masses of Fahrenheit 451 are infantilized and selfish, unable to cope with reality and so condemned to the sentimental, second-hand reality-surrogate of degraded entertainments.
Beatty’s refrain of “Burn it” in Fahrenheit 451 indicates another element of Bradbury’s carefully constructed parable. Political correctness involves, as we have seen, a new primitivism of purpose-designed mandates and injunctions of a ritual type. It corresponds to something tribal and pre-civilized, which Bradbury rightly opposes to the literate and literary – one might say to the Scriptural – imagination. We see in political correctness a type of Puritanism, to which every difference is both foreign and intolerable and cries out for the swiftest and fullest purgation. In that context, an individual harboring his own judgment must seem to the right-thinking majority to be either a witch or a warlock. As such he or she falls subject to extreme sanction as undertaken by all those who adhere to the dogmatic order of things. Fahrenheit 451 indeed proffers the reader many counterparts of the Salem witches, from Clarisse McClellan, bumped off by the authorities for her intellectual vivacity, to the stalwart martyr of an old woman who refuses to leave her library; the latter burns with her books when the firemen unleash their flame throwers.
Bradbury tells a story about Fahrenheit 451, a book that has been constantly in print in countless editions since its first publication, that illustrates the accuracy of the novel’s social diagnosis. Casually thumbing a copy twenty years after he had written it, Bradbury noticed that editors had been dumbing down the text and that schoolbook anthologists had been bowdlerizing the prose – precisely under the principle that the tale should not offend anyone. Bradbury took immediate legal action to restore some of the words that I have quoted in the present consideration.