If you have been following along with this three-part series about reading and literacy as reflected by dystopian novels, we have already established a couple points. I recommend you go back and read those posts (here and here).
But if you want the TL/DR, I established that Orwell and 1984, although the go-to expression of our current political dystopia (i.e. ‘This is Orwellian’), fails to adequately reflect our predicament, fundamentally because we are not propagandized and then cannibalized by our government, we choose our own ignorance through a lack of reading. I then established this choice is a more accurate reflection of A Brave New World as seen by the delightfully oversimplified choice of Soma or Shakespeare. We chose Soma.
However, this still fails to explain the impact of this choice. We don’t read. We bring close pleasures and delights even when it comes to ‘information.’ But how does that lead to any sort of dystopia or political turmoil? How can ignorance and decadence create parallel realities to the world predicted in 1984 and A Brave New World?
For that answer, this post turns to a third dystopian novel about literacy and censorship, Fahrenheit 451. The least referenced of the three, but maybe the closest reflection of what we have seen in America in the last year or longer.
The crux of 451 is what a government is able to do when its citizenry shuns reading for entertainment. The short answer: Whatever the fuck it wants. And beyond the freedom of action, they receive support from the people as long as those people receive a steady diet of daily amusements.
In a way, it is the merging of 1984 and A Brave New World. The government affectations of 1984, where it grows in power because of the lack of accountability, and the plight of the citizen, as they busy themselves in a world of ever-increasing speed and business, making their lives seem full, when in reality they couldn’t be emptier.
In the world of 451 there is a rise of suicides, school violence by children, wars have turned into drive-by-bombings, and books have become all but extinct, deemed too biased and argumentative and, quite frankly, uncomfortable.
The parallels to our own world abound. And the connection between a country that doesn’t read and one that has civil unrest becomes clearer. 451 makes the case that as the world became faster, came a desire to make things simpler, which often means shorter. I believe Captain Beatty (the nemesis of the story) invented SparkNotes when he said, “Many were those whose sole knowledge of Hamlet… was a one-page digest in a book that claimed: now at least you can read all the classics; keep up with your neighbors.”
And as things shortened due to speed, there were inevitably subjects that didn’t make the cut. “Life is immediate, the job counts, pleasure lies all about after work. Why learn anything save pressing buttons, pulling switches, fitting nuts and bolts?”
Concurrently, there was population growth, causing more minority opinions that created disagreement and conflict. People became afraid of offending and disagreeing. And because the world was becoming more streamlined towards function and entertainment, was everything else really all that worth it? Should I really read that book and gain that knowledge and make my neat world so much messier while eating up so much time doing one small thing?
Beatty put a finer point on it, one that jabs at Orwell, “There you have it… 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.”
Thank God… he says. Why? Because Beatty is the man in power. And being in power gets a lot easier when this is the recipe for cooking.
The world created by Bradbury in 451 is the end phenomena of a lack of reading and a search for meaning in pleasure- a government that can sell anything. He is thanking God because he did not need to go to the lengths of establishing an Orwellian Ministry of Truth. His constituency was already drinking the Soma. And now, through the power of suggestion aimed at the highly suggestible he can get them to accept anything. In the book this includes who to vote for and wars to support and lies about the origins of government.
But it doesn’t have to be that.
It could be lies about where a President was born, about attempts from the opposing minority party to hinder your majority party, claims of fraud in an election. The possibilities are endless.
But it is made possible by a lack of learning. An educated electorate would not stand for it.
There is one thing however, that 451 got wrong. In its dystopian future, citizens are useless. They sit at home intaking meaningless forms of entertainment on their interactive televisions (which are called parlor walls because the screens are entire walls in a room formerly used for conversation). They are prone to suggestion about where to look and where not to look, but always in a passive sense, keeping them from looking behind the curtain to see the not so great and powerful Oz.
What it did not predict was the weaponizing of that ignorance. Using their constituencies lack of understanding and lemming-like fervor to sic them on the opposing side, something our politicians on both sides do incredibly well, but, given our recent past, was taken to new heights when a group of illiterate followers of MAGA stormed the Capitol.
There is one scene in 451 that shows people capable of working together like this in Bradbury’s world as well, and it feels the closest to what the world feels like today. As Montag, a man newly exposed to books and on the run from the government who hunts him because of his literacy, runs towards a river that will whisk him away to safety. His hunters try one last ditch effort to catch him. They speak through televisions and radios; those means of entertainment. And they tell everyone to, for just a moment, look outside at the count of ten. As they count down, people everyone obediently walk to their doors or windows and peer out at once in an attempt to identify and capture the man who read too much.
From this series…
Part 1: Are We Living In An Orwellian State? 
Part 2: The Choice: Shakespeare Or Soma [A Brave New World]
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