Ray Bradbury Saw the PC Lunacy Coming

ray-bradbury.jpgRay Bradbury, born in 1920, a fearless defender of the imagination and scathing critic of political correctness long before the term was even invented, died on June 5th, 2012. His last published piece was a brief autobiographical essay in The New Yorker (June 4, 2012) called, ironically, “Take Me Home,” in which he describes his boyhood fascination with fantasy and adventure tales and the desire they inspired in him to fly away into the unknown ancient cities of Mars.

Though Bradbury often said his aim was above all to entertain himself
and his readers, his work nonetheless has been of interest to both
political and social critics. Among his enormous output of stories, novels, plays, film scripts, and
even lyrics for musical versions of his work, the most famous is
probably his prescient novel Fahrenheit 451 — the temperature at which
book paper bursts into flames. An expansion of a story called “The
Pedestrian,” the novel is set in a future America in which books are
burned because they may cause unhappiness and dissent. The theme is not
a new one, but what makes Bradbury’s treatment of it compelling to this
day is his understanding that it doesn’t take an authoritarian
government to impose such restrictions on the public.

Fahrenheit 451 was published in 1953 and made by Francois Truffaut
into a film in 1966. It is set in a society in which television rules
people’s emotional lives and books are prohibited. The job of Firemen
is to ferret out and burn any that are found. The logic of this society
is explained by the fire chief to the rebellious protagonist:

“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. . . . 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, . .

“You must understand that our civilization is so vast that we
can’t have our minorities upset and stirred. Ask yourself, 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? . .

“Colored people don’t like Little Black Sambo. Burn it. White people don’t feel good about Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Burn it. . .”

In early 2011, as so often happens, life imitated art. News of a
bowdlerized reprint of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn elicited an
outcry from librarians and others. Article after article ridiculed the
project, which aimed to salvage Twain’s classic for young readers by
replacing the offensive “N-word”–used over 200 times in the novel–with the word “slave.” And yet, ironically, these defenders of free
expression typically went to great lengths themselves to avoid using
the word “nigger,” and thus were not exactly beacons of light in the
fight for free speech and literary integrity.

What would Ray Bradbury have said about this controversy? Perhaps
he would have noted that few university professors these days defend
free expression on college campuses, where draconian “harassment”
policies have for years targeted potentially offensive speech, construed
as a form of action capable of causing great harm. Is life in
academe really become so hazardous that for their own safety professors
want explicit rules governing their every word and gesture? Have they,
and the students demanding regulatory action, given any serious thought
to precisely what life is like under regimes that curtail speech not
through suasion but through the threat of punishment and legal action?

And would Bradbury have laughed or groaned at the ever increasing
government interference in all areas of life that we see today, most
recently in New York Mayor Bloomberg’s proposed ban on soft drinks
larger than 16 ounces? Perhaps this “soft prohibition,” as it might be
called, will work out better than the earlier one aimed at alcoholic
drinks.

Again, life imitates art. The 1993 film Demolition Man, directed
by Marco Brambilla, was clearly based on Aldous Huxley’s dystopian
Brave New World, a novel that had considerable influence on the young
Bradbury, who called Huxley one of his heroes. Most of the film is set
in the year 2032, precisely one hundred years after Huxley’s book was
first published. Demolition Man extends Huxley’s satire of a
perfectly managed future to the point at which every aspect of life is
regulated. Nothing so crude as the telescreens in Orwell’s Nineteen
Eighty-Four
appears in the film. Rather, organically bioengineered
microchips are sewn into everyone’s skin, and these devices allow
people to be tracked wherever they are. Down in the dumps? Just go to a
“compu-chat” machine in the street for instant therapy and
encouragement, and anodyne expressions of “Be well!” Using offensive
language causes the omnipresent computers automatically to fine the
individual one or more credits and announce it publicly in a monotonous
computer voice.

When our 20th century policeman hero, played by Sylvester Stallone,
wakes from his cryogenic state, he reacts with amazement to this
unexpected future. And before long he inadvertently contravenes all the
norms of the perfect society, which is governed by one very simple
principle: whatever is not explicitly good for people is considered bad
and is therefore decreed illegal. The list includes alcohol, caffeine,
contact sports, meat, chocolate, anything spicy, gasoline, uneducational
toys, abortion–but also pregnancy if you don’t have a license–and, of
course, offensive language. Not only is reproduction state-controlled
and managed hygienically in laboratories, but, as a result of AIDS and
other epidemics, body contact has been proscribed. Sexual pleasure is
achieved through direct brain stimulation via matching headsets.

Writing Fahrenheit 451 in the period of McCarthyism, Ray Bradbury
stayed away from satire. Rather, he saw beyond the immediate issue of
political repression and to the much more subtle problem of cultural
repression. In the early years of television, he could already envision
a population preferring to interact with a television screen rather
than with one another, and, eager to avoid unpleasantness, opting for
comfort over imagination.

To underscore the point in Fahrenheit 451, Bradbury includes a scene
involving a former English professor named Faber, who had been thrown
out of work when the last liberal arts college had closed its doors
decades earlier due to sheer lack of students and patronage. Books had
to be destroyed, Faber explains to the protagonist, because they convey
the “texture” of life. They “show the pores in the face of life. The
comfortable people want only wax moon faces, poreless, hairless,
expressionless.” But by now, Faber explains, the firemen are rarely
necessary: “So few want to be rebels any more.”

In a similar vein, Aldous Huxley had written in Brave New World,:
“There isn’t any need for a civilized man to bear anything that’s
seriously unpleasant.” For Huxley there was no solution. For
Bradbury, in Fahrenheit 451, the solution was to escape from the doomed
city and become one of the Book People, an individual who memorizes a
book in order to keep the great works alive.

A curmudgeonly opponent of the Internet and its products, Bradbury
in 2011 finally gave in and allowed Simon and Schuster to make
Fahrenheit 451 available as an ebook.

—————-
Daphe Patai is a professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

Daphne Patai

Daphne Patai

Daphne Patai is professor emeritus in the Department of Languages, Literatures, and Cultures at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She is the author of, "What Price Utopia? Essays on Ideological Policing, Feminism, and Academic Affairs," among other books,

2 thoughts on “Ray Bradbury Saw the PC Lunacy Coming

  1. It can be so hard to fall into the trap of the naysayers. They come from all walks of life and are so very quick to judge about thgins they know not. That’s what I always remember. They don’t know what they’re talking about, because 1) they haven’t tried it themselves or 2) they did and failed; thus believing others will do the same. You will not if you believe, as you’ve learned. What inspires me to keep going is each little success I collect along the way. I have learned to celebrate the small thgins, and that helps a great deal. I rely heavily on the small successes. They help prepare for the big ones.

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