Thursday, October 27, 2011

Fundamental Errors of Fahrenheit 451

Ray Bradbury’s novel Fahrenheit 451 has been labeled as a classic by many people because of its uncanny incite and relevance to the present day. A number of scholars have also suggested that his social commentary is eerily accurate and prophetically predicted the advancement of technology and its effects on mankind. They say that with the advent of technology and media in our everyday lives, individuals engage in mindless activities, deliberately ignore war and other important aspects of society, choosing to be willingly ignorant.  I have mixed feelings about claims like this. On one hand, I agree that Bradbury is a talented individual and has insightful ideas. On the other hand, I still insist that Fahrenheit 451 has been incorrectly translated into today’s society. Futuristic technological advancements suggested in 451 are not far off from the present day, but the de facto censorship of books and ideas of media and war are outrageous, and the effects of technology of human behavior are exaggerated.
            The ideological difference between Bradbury’s dystopian future and reality is the idea of society’s free will. In Fahrenheit 451, the culture is dominated by endless amounts of entertainment to keep the brain dead civilians preoccupied and “happy”. Censorship is the key in keeping order. Bradbury is quick to point the finger at people for creating a horribly ignorant culture. Beatty, the fire chief speaking as Bradbury, says in the book “It didn’t come from the government down” (Bradbury 58). According to Jack Zipes, “[Bradbury] implies that the people, i.e., the masses, have brought this upon themselves and almost deserve to be blown up” (Zipes, 1). Bradbury’s claim is ridiculous in present day America. The people have a lot less power and insignificant influence compared to the 1940s and 50s. Even the counterculture movements in the 60s hardly had any significance: Vietnam War was the longest American War (at the time); civil rights for minorities are still a major issue. And foreign wars and racism are reflected from the government down! But some still insist that the people choose to live the mindless lifestyle and conform. As Rafeeq O. McGiveron states in his essay “Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451”, the main character Montag “is not possessed by ‘an insanity of mindlessness.’ On the contrary, Montag has ‘a conscience and a curiosity ...’” (McGiveron 1). Montag represents the society in Fahrenheit 451; McGiveron is implying that even within the conforming society, the people in it are actually willing to think and observe. Although it is proven through Asch conformity experiments that conformity can affect anyone, Bradbury is indicating that people willingly became ignorant and deserve to be punished for it. Zipes goes on to say that Bradbury’s idea is an “elitist notion” and he did not “differentiate between social classes and their vested interests in America” (Zipes 1).When an individual wants to improve the life of many lower class Americans, he is labeled a socialist or communist. When an individual wants to limit the size of the Federal government and stop unnecessary imperialism, he is labeled an anarchist or isolationist. When an individual wants to liberate society from the grasps of mindlessness and censorship, he is shut down by the media controlled by the upper class who have their own differing interests. The truth is a lot of social order and censorships are put into place by the higher ups while the masses have passively accepted them, not the other way around. Who oppresses minorities? Who hands out marriage licenses (or withholds them)? Who makes it legal to spy on fellow citizens? And who are the ones who facilitate the mass exploitation of these ideas? The masses are hardly to blame for this type of behavior and are in no need to be punished.
            Media and technology are the catalysts for change in the modern age. It is an important aspect of society, greatly affects our lifestyle, and is responsible for the mass exploitation of ideas. In Fahrenheit 451, Bradbury depicts flat screen TVs and reality shows (“The Parlor Families”), headphone ear buds (“Seashell Radio”), and Bluetooth technology: “small green metal object… It listens. If you put it in your ear… hear and analyze… without danger,” (Bradbury 90). He is eerily accurate indeed! Bradbury also depicts a society strongly influenced by media. In another piece by McGiveron, he agrees saying that “controllers of mass communication and other producers of entertainment exploit the public's desire for easy gratification by disseminating only mindless escapism, which the exploited willingly consume to the exclusion of independent thought” (1). It is very hard to disagree with this, because it is very true. Fluffed up shows that suspend reality and do not engage the audiences exist. But it wasn’t very hard for Bradbury to predict, mindless entertainment has been around for ages. And media is hard to trust these days especially with the monopolization of information. (Thank you Telecommunications Act of 1996!) Scholars often fail to take into account the overwhelming positives of technology. Unfortunately, technology is used for mass exploitation of bad ideas (Why is torture such a popular public opinion?); it can bring around good ideas as well. There are a lot of accurate and informational programs on the air (Al Jazeera, Charlie Rose, Tavis Smiley, public radio). And now with the advent of the internet information is available to anyone on the planet. The internet is still young, and the digital natives are yet to reach any significant political circles so there is a lot of potential for knowledgeable, informed, and active posterity. The Arab Spring is a great example of how technology and media can make positive political change for the better. Young men and women in Northern Africa and the Middle East used social networking sites and technology to communicate and revolt. WikiLeaks is a powerful symbol of how individuals can use technology to threaten tyrants. When powerful governments use media to control people and flood the airwaves with sensationalism, human resiliency kicks in and fights back with truth. At one time only the intellectuals had the power to counteract media suffocation but the beauty of technology today is anybody can have information and ability to avoid the brain dead society. More and more people around the world have to opportunity to learn at higher levels; according to the Flynn Effect, people are getting smarter all the time. With knowledge so readily available to us in the present, it would be impossible for our society to willingly slip into the ignorance that Bradbury predicted.
            War is the background of Fahrenheit 451. The people in the book are willingly ignorant of the war going around them. Beatty again preaches “If you don't want a man unhappy politically, don't give him two sides to a question to worry him; give him one. Better yet, give him none. Let him forget there is such a thing as war,” (Bradbury 61). Bradbury wrote Fahrenheit 451in times of the Cold War and Korean War and after WWII. Bradbury must be really upset that society would allow this to happen over and over. Zipes mentions “there is a suggestion at the end of the novel that the American society is largely responsible for the wars and destruction brought upon itself,” (Zipes 1). Bradbury is, again, quick to point the finger at society for allowing this to happen. To some extent, in the War on Terror, and in Afghanistan, society was not immersed fully and just sat passively. The people may have “forget there is such a thing as war.” But the American government often intentionally withholds military action from the public, keeping them unwillingly ignorant! For example the American government secretly operated the 1953 Iranian coup d'état, Bay of Pigs Invasion, 1973 Chilean coup d'état, 1976 Argentine coup d'état, Iran–Contra affair, and many others. These undeclared wars would result in obvious outrage from the public. The government knows that the people would not willingly allow these wars. The fact is people do care. And if there is a draft, people care even more. Bradbury is also considered part of the Greatest Generation and continues to insist that all other generations are inferior and less politically active. In reality, war is controlled by the upper class and purposely keeps the people out of it and ignorant. If society was really as capable of making significant changes as much as Bradbury and friends, they would choose not to go to war.
            There are lots of aspects in Fahrenheit 451 that are consistent with today. The media is a controlling force. War is always in the background. But humans are resilient and remain true to values and traditions even with the rapid change of technology. Society and the people do not have the power capable of creating vast changes, and we will not allow ourselves to slip into conformity and ignorance. Fahrenheit 451 forces the reader to think about ideas and possibilities, but most of them are too farfetched for reality.

Bradbury, Ray. Fahrenheit 451. New York: Del Ray Books, 1991. Print.

Zipes, Jack. "Mass Degradation of Humanity and Massive Contradictions in Bradbury's Vision of America in Fahrenheit 451." No Place Else: Explorations in Utopian and Dystopian Fiction. Ed. Eric S. Rabkin, Martin H. Greenberg, and Joseph D. Olander. Southern Illinois University Press, 1983. 182-198. Rpt. in Contemporary Literary Criticism. Ed. Deborah A. Stanley. Vol. 98. Detroit: Gale Research, 1997. Literature Resource Center. Web. 1 Sep. 2011.

McGiveron, Rafeeq O. "Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451." Explicator 54.3 (Spring 1996): 177-180. Rpt. in Contemporary Literary Criticism. Ed. Jeffrey W. Hunter. Vol. 235. Detroit: Gale, 2007. Literature Resource Center. Web. 1 Sep. 2011.

McGiveron, Rafeeq O. "What 'Carried the Trick'? Mass Exploitation and the Decline of Thought in Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451." Extrapolation37.3 (Fall 1996): 245-256. Rpt. in Contemporary Literary Criticism. Ed. Jeffrey W. Hunter. Vol. 235. Detroit: Gale, 2007. Literature Resource Center. Web. 1 Sep. 2011.