"[If Parliament] may take from me one shilling in the pound, what security have I for the other nineteen?" ~ Richard Henry Lee
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"Why is the number of your squad 451?" asked the girl on the train, of the blond fireman in his smart uniform. His answer: "Because in Fahrenheit, that's the temperature at which the pages of books catch fire."
Yes, it's true, I just watched a 42-year-old movie, "Fahrenheit 451" and enjoyed it a lot. It falls short here and there, and isn't up to the high standard of "V for Vendetta", but for a film of that age, it's pretty darn good. It tells of a future society in England in which the reading of books is against the law, and in which fire departments no longer extinguish fires (since all buildings are fireproof) but set them instead--wherever books are found. The finding of books is aided by anonymous tattlers, who betray their neighbors by posting accusations in conveniently located snitch boxes. Today's IRS ' informer program compares.
Warning: spoilers coming up.
The biggest catch of Squad 451 was the house of a lady who kept not just a small edition of "1984" in her purse but a whole library of all manner of works, up in her attic behind a false wall. "Come in here, Montag," said the captain to the movie's hero, whom we met on the train, "this is a sight firemen may see only once in their lives." Hundreds of volumes, which all got thrown down to the hallway. Kerosene was squirted onto the heap, for all to be consumed. The lady owner, seeing what was about to happen, quoted Bishop Hugh Latimer to his fellow Protestant Nicholas Ridley, before she climbed on the heap and refused to move--dying as she had lived, surrounded by her books: "Be of good cheer, Master Ridley, and play the man, for we shall this day light such a candle in England as I trust by God's grace shall never be put out." That was in Oxford on October 16th, 1555 ; Papist Queen Mary had ordered them both burned alive at the stake. It's what governments do.
Suspend disbelief for a while, and the bland way the movie's setting is portrayed is shocking in its familiarity. Montag lives with his wife in a smartly furnished ranch house (no bookshelves, of course) whose centerpiece is the Wall Unit. This is a TV screen with a two-way capability; if the broadcaster selects you, a mike or camera is activated and you can find yourself on nationwide TV answering questions. The size and appearance of the Wall Unit is exactly like today's large plasma TV screens, four feet across and very thin. It's amazing that author Ray Bradbury should have guessed so accurately what the Boob Tube would look like, four decades on. It's also amazing to compare his switchable camera system to today's web cams on PCs, themselves rapidly heading for a merger with television. Sometimes, forecasters get it right.
This one got a few other things right, too. There is an eerily mechanical, detached air about the way people go about their lives. The captain of Squad 451 has his men search pedestrians in a park for hidden books, and finds a copy of a Dickens work in the clothing of a baby in her stroller--for all the world like a TSA search at Logan airport. He stops others: "Just a minute!" and pats them down. Nobody objects, nobody questions authority; this is all normal, a part of everyday life. Nobody is armed; their submission to authority is passive and unprotesting, for that's the way things are--they have been fully conditioned. Montag, our hero, is told a promotion is pending and asked if he is interested in moving to a bigger house; he replies that he and his wife had hoped only to have a second Wall Unit, that being the limit of their material aspirations.
Wall Units, with their mindless conveyance of the daily trivialities called "news" are how minds are controlled and are the substitute for books, which stimulate the reader to think for himself about a vast variety of views. And the broadcasters are exactly like today's anchor persons, give or take an accent or two. News of the most egregious violation of individual rights is brightly twittered away to the cameras just as if it concerned nothing more significant than a slight change in the weather.
Squad 451 is an equal-opportunity destroyer, with copies of Mein Kampf being tossed (by the uniformed book-burners) into the same fire as works by Salvador Dali, Tolstoy, Austen, Wordsworth, Twain, Jean-Paul Sartre . . . the point of the policy was not to suppress specific viewpoints, but to destroy all independent thinking and control what remained of the minds of the entire society, via the Wall Units--and yes, via the schools, in another brilliant insight by Bradbury, given that in mid-Century it was the height of heresy to question the sacred institution of government schools. The girl on the train was a teacher, and she loved children and made her classes fun. And so she was fired, and within days her own pupils had been turned against her, to run away at the sight of her. Brainwashing was taken very seriously, by the government of that society--which is never described or seen, but remains a silent, ubiquitous, overbearing presence.
Bradbury didn't get it all right, of course. Our own government conditions us not by banning all books, but by monopolizing education so as to maximize control over potential authors while minimizing the number of graduates able to read functionally--so that over the course of about a century it's become barely possible to find material that raises the central question of whether or not government should exist. Barely, but not wholly; the Internet has set the indoctrination back quite handily, with Strike The Root in the vanguard, and there is a small but wonderful array of hard-copy books still to be found in the same vein.
Book burning has not been done yet, or not in this country, and even banning books is a rare event; Lady Chatterley had a hard time of it--as has, more recently, Irwin Schiff's The Federal Mafia--but no others spring to mind. Irwin is fighting hard from his prison cell to prevent that "preliminary" injunction from becoming permanent; if he fails, the book will earn a place in history, as the first banned book of the new Millennium. It had to be, mind; it would never do for John Q to learn that the income tax is being enforced on the basis of statutes that do not exist. He might stop volunteering money, and then our masters would have to print more, and then somebody might Question Authority.
The few remaining persons of independent mind are shown in "Fahrenheit 451" to be circumnavigating the anti-book laws by memorizing their contents. So as not to break laws, they don't keep books physically. Instead, one person commits one book to memory, and later recites it to any interested to "read" by listening. Montag eventually sees the error of his ways and joins them; it's hilarious to see him being introduced around, to one "book" after another, as in "I'd like you to meet Machiavelli's 'The Prince'"--to whom he says "How do you do?" politely. In such a way it is shown that the mind of man can never be extinguished, even in the darkest days of repression.
I wonder: When the Government Era ends and a free society begins, will any books be burned? No, of course not . . . yet I dare say there could be an exception. Fuel is a scarce commodity, commanding a price, and there are many trash-burning generator stations around the country. What better than to collect unwanted books and convert them, for profit, into electricity? The ones I have in mind are the law books, whose volume has for decades been measured not in pages but in feet of shelf space occupied by even a single copy, even of Federal laws alone. Add in state and local statutes and ordinances, reckon that there are probably at least a few hundred copies of each, and you have a resource that could put a dent in OPEC for a day or two. Yes, one copy of each could be kept for historical and museum purposes, but otherwise it would be a pity to waste them.
Do rent the movie, and play it on your Wall Unit.