In Ray Bradbury’s understanding, the government might very well be wicked and evil, but it would always follow the lead of the Masses and become their tool, rather than the other way around.
I’ve been reading the works of Ray Bradbury since grade school. Probably like many of my generation, I was introduced to him through the short story, “All Summer in a Day,” a science-fiction tale set on Venus. One little girl who remembers seeing the sun before living on the storm-swept second planet from the sun describes its wonder and beauty to her classmates. They disbelieve her, they mock her, and they lock her in a closet. Even to my grade-school mind, the meaning of the story was clear. The people (Demos) hate individuals, hate individual thought, and they (well, it) will do anything to prevent the truth from disrupting their most cherished beliefs. It’s not uncommon theme in science fiction, and we see similar tales told in the works of Aldous Huxley and George Orwell. Even the more recent Harry Potter series expresses such a worldview, and one finds it in strong doses in the works of Tolkien and Lewis. Bradbury is not alone in this among Americans, and much of Stephen King’s early work—such as his first novel, Carrie—reveals the intense and destructive energies of society as a whole, and in the people in particular. Nathaniel Hawthorne in “Earth’s Holocaust” and Shirley Jackson in “The Lottery” offer similar assessments of the Masses.
Bradbury’s view articulated my own fears, especially given my particular circumstances at home, back in the late 1970s. From “All Summer in a Day,” I devoured Bradbury’s short stories as found in The Illustrated Man, The October Country, and other compilations. Then, sometime in middle school, I read Fahrenheit 451 and The Martian Chronicles. To say that Bradbury overwhelmed me in those novels would be the understatement of my life. The poetry of his language and the clarity of his thoughts utterly and fundamentally and profoundly shaped my own view of the world, especially in social and political terms.
Yet, I was troubled. I had grown up in an actively libertarian family with Barry Goldwater as a kind of household god. What Goldwater had taught, however, was that the danger came from the government. What Bradbury taught, though, stated rather bluntly that danger came from the Masses and that the government, naturally inept and unwieldy, only coopted and hi-jacked (rather incompetently) the longings of the mob.
In Fahrenheit 451, Fire-chief Beatty and the protagonist, Guy Montag, play a dangerous game of cat and mouse as they discuss exactly why, when, and how the burning of books and the censorship of ideas became the norm. In a rather long passage—well worth quoting—Beatty, though the antagonist of the story, puts Bradbury’s fears into their most articulate form.
Now let’s take up the minorities in our civilization, shall we? 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. The people in this book, this play, this TV serial are not meant to represent any actual painters, cartographers, mechanics anywhere. The bigger your market, Montag, the less you handle controversy, remember that! All the minor minor minorities with their navels to be kept clean. Authors, full of evil thoughts, lock up your typewriters. They did. Magazines became a nice blend of vanilla tapioca. Books, so the damned snobbish critics said, were dishwater. No wonder books stopped selling, the critics said. But the public, knowing what it wanted, spinning happily, let the comic books survive. And the three-dimensional sex magazines, of course. There you have it, Montag. 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.
And what did the Masses hate the most? The young genius who thinks independently and must be put in his place.
Surely you remember the boy in your own school class who was exceptionally ‘bright,’ did most of the reciting and answering while the others sat like so many leaden idols, hating him. And wasn’t it this bright boy you selected for beatings and tortures after hours? Of course, it was. We must all be alike. Not everyone born free and equal, as the Constitution says, but everyone made equal. Each man the image of every other; then all are happy, for there are no mountains to make them cower, to judge themselves against.
Again, what matters so critically with these passages is that the tyranny comes from the demands of the Masses, not from the central government. In Bradbury’s understanding, the government might very well be wicked and evil, but it would always follow the lead of the Masses and become their tool, rather than the other way around.
Throughout his career, Bradbury spoke bravely and openly against “political correctness,” recognizing it for the evil and the tyranny it is. In 1953, it was against Joseph McCarthy. “Whether or not my ideas on censorship via the fire department will be old hat by this time next week, I dare not predict,” he wrote, but “when the wind is right, a faint odor of kerosene is exhaled from Senator McCarthy.” In the early 1990s, in Chronicles magazine, he stated: “Someone said to me recently, aren’t you afraid? No, I said, I never react in fear; I react in anger. As with graffiti, you must counterattack within the moment, not a day, a month, or a year later. All the politically correct terrorists must be driven back into the stands. There is no place for them in the open field of democratic ballplaying.”
In this dread year of our Lord, 2020, we have seen Killing Fields’ style public confessionals, policemen and politicians betraying their oaths to their respective communities, the wide-spread destruction of property, the killing of innocents, threats with the guillotine, and the tearing down of public monuments. Whether Bradbury is correct in assessing the government as a lesser danger than the mob, this much is certain: The mob hates dissent, hates liberty, hates individuality, hates personhood, hates God, and hates truth. Yes, there are traitors in our midst, more domestic than foreign.
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The featured image is courtesy of Pixabay and has been brightened for clarity.