"Remember, 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 . . ."
“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 the book. Serenity, Montag. Peace, Montag. Take your fight outside. Better yet, into the incinerator. . . Burn all, burn everything. Fire is bright and fire is clean.”
These are the words of Fire Captain Beatty to his questioning fireman Guy Montag in Fahrenheit 451. Ray Bradbury’s 1953 classic critiques a society that thrives on hedonism and obliterates thinking. My first reading of it, 50 years ago when “Tricky Dick” Nixon sat in the White House, gave me the chills at the thought of what could be the future. This second reading, during flim-flam man Donald J. Trump’s administration, gives me hope in these current politically amoral days, much of which resembles Bradbury’s predictions. I am encouraged because the author writes about those who reject communal amnesia and remember their past.
Bradbury writes of “non-combustible data”; I think of the Internet. He writes of 24-hour robot bank tellers; I think of ATMs (automated teller machines). Most importantly, he writes of a society where wall-sized televisions and other distractions stop people from reading; I think of wall-mounted flat-screen televisions and social media networks.
Fire Captain Beatty continues lecturing the wayward fireman Montag:
“You can’t build a house without nails and wood. If you don’t want a house built, hide the nails and wood. 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. If the government is inefficient, top-heavy and tax-mad, better it be all those than that people worry over it. Peace, Montag. 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.
“Cram them full of non-combustible data, chock them so damn full of ‘facts’ they feel stuffed, but absolutely ‘brilliant’ with information. Then they’ll feel they’re thinking, they’ll get a sense of motion without moving. And they’ll be happy, because facts of that sort don’t change. Don’t give them any slippery stuff like philosophy or sociology to tie things up with. That way lies melancholy. Any man who can take a TV wall apart and put it back together again, and most men can, nowadays, is happier than any man who tries to slide rule, measure, and equate the universe, which just won’t be measured or equated without making man feel bestial and lonely. I know, I’ve tried it; to hell with it.
“So bring on your clubs and parties, your acrobats and magicians, your daredevils, jet cars, motorcycle helicopters, your sex and heroin, more of everything to do with automatic reflex. If the drama is bad, if the film says nothing, if the play is hollow, sting me with Theremin, loudly. I’ll think I’m responding to the play, when it’s only a tactile reaction to vibration. But I don’t care. I just like solid entertainment.”
“. . .the books say nothing. Nothing you can teach or believe. They’re about nonexistent people, figments of imagination, if they’re fiction. And if they’re nonfiction, it’s worse, one professor calling another an idiot, one philosopher screaming down another’s gullet. All of them running about, putting out the stars and extinguishing the sun. You come away lost.”
Montag meets Faber, a one-time college professor, in his pursuit of truth. Faber tells him:
“The whole culture’s shot through. The skeleton needs melting and reshaping. Good God, it isn’t as simple as picking up a book you laid down half a century ago. Remember, 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. So few want to be rebels anymore. And out of those few, most, like myself, scare easily."
Few want to be rebels. Of those few, most scare easily. Now, a bully sits in the White House.
The House of Representatives impeached Republican President Trump, but the GOP-dominated Senate acquitted him of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress on February 5, 2020. Only one Republican senator, Mitt Romney, voted contrary to party lines and earned Trump’s press conference comment: “Keep him.” Romney could keep his position, not true for two impeachment witnesses who testified against the President. Trump fired Ukraine expert, Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman and U.S. Ambassador to the European Union, Gordon Sondland. Trump said that Vindman was “very insubordinate."
Faber, the academic, continues to describe his state of the union:
“. . . I came to class at the start of the new semester and found only one student to sign up for Drama from Aeschylus to O’Neill. You see? How like a beautiful statue of ice it was, melting in the sun. I remember the newspapers dying like huge moths. No one wanted them back. No one missed them. And then 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.”
On February 14, 2020, the Trump administration announced a proposed budget that would cut funds from the Stars and Stripes military newspaper. Half of the newspaper’s budget comes from the Pentagon. Elaine McCusker, Pentagon Comptroller, said: “We have essentially decided that coming into the modern age, newspapers are probably not the best way we communicate any longer.” Stars and Stripes, a morale booster and journalism training ground, has been a “balanced and objective source of information,” not characteristics favored by this government. Two of my editors began their careers at Stars and Stripes.
Granger, one of those who memorizes books to pass down to future generations, says: “. . . We’re remembering (books). That’s where we’ll win out in the long run. And some day we’ll remember so much that we’ll build the biggest goddam steamshovel in history and dig the biggest grave of all time and shove war in and cover it up.”
War and so much more.
We’ll win in the long run.