Archive for Oct, 2018

I’m often told how I should be appreciative of my freedoms and liberties, my forefathers supposedly fought for a world where we could live in relative harmony and peaceful coexistence regardless of our thoughts and opinions. And in some respects, I am. I recognise that the privileges I possess aren’t necessarily afforded to a large section of the population. The Banned Books Festival – that was held in many libraries a couple of weeks ago – should be a celebration of that, it was good chance for most us of ‘Millenialls’ to reflect towards a time when freedom of expression was simply just a dream. But what happens, when the cherished values of liberty and tolerance are under siege without you even knowing it? What happens when our freedoms are being stealthily eroded because of “convenience” and luxuries? This is a future that I’m beginning to envisage and I’m not sure whether I should feel scared, helpless or both.

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Are there any recently published novels which could be banned in the near future?

I’ve spoken many times about the lack of freedom of speech and the relationship between liberty, extremist politics and political correctness. But I feel as if this problem is expanding beyond people like Trump and issues like Brexit. This is not just about “having enough of the experts” or “fake news”, its about destroying the creative space that helps to heal divisions and build compromises. Instead, we are entering a digital world, where information is not delivered, but shoved in your face with a ferocity that doesn’t allow the mind to rest, reflect or rationalise. The public’s reactions have always been the supreme force in a political sphere, but it seems that our social institutions are now more concerned with gathering the mood of that nation as opposed to the genuine needs of it. Social media has a large part to play for this, but I feel as if we need to take responsibility as a society for this dangerous path. Difficult questions are often asked of us and we have failed to restrain ourselves from choosing the simple answer.

Interestingly, this pattern is not new. Authors, writers and poets have possessed the same fears as we do now, only 50 years ago. As part of National Libraries Week, I feel it is only fair that we touch upon some of the authors have provoked and inspired us, despite writing in such dangerous conditions.

One novelist – Ray Bradbury, highlighted themes of paranoia and freedom in his book: Fahrenheit 451. It wasn’t perceived as a ground breaking piece of creative writing at the same time, although it has now been revered as an important piece of prophetic fiction. It was not radical in what it proposed, but extreme in the vision that it had outlined. Bradbury created a world where the reading and possession of fictional books were forbidden throughout America. Only technical and statistical books were allowed to be read, and even then there were special restrictions. The book has been coined for envisioning a world where books were banned, but I perceive it as a novel demonstrating the end of ‘humanities’ and the censorship of creative writing itself.

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This novel was published during a tumultuous time for American geopolitics, the Cold War was at its peak and both Soviet and Anglo-American forces were consistently demonstrating their military might, either through the testing of Nuclear Weapons as the US did in Nevada 1953, or when China shelled Taiwan just a year later. A sense of fear and panic had infected the American people and this contributed to a fundamental altering of American society. Because of the paranoia during daily life, American institutions protected themselves against ideologies that were deemed to be sympathetic to the ‘communist cause’ or principles that undermined American solidarity. A common method was for educational bodies to censor material that was classed as harmful, the State of Georgia created its first literature censorship board in early 1953. It proved to be a very active and busy commission – (despite lacking a clear definition of was defined as ‘obscene’) given that it by April 1960, distributors had agreed to pull more than 119 publications from sale to avoid such actions or lawsuits from the commission.

Although it is clear that it must have been very challenging and proactive for Bradbury to publish such a controversial book during this period, what really interested me were the different coping mechanisms that American citizens used to deal with the paranoia and narrowing of american culture. This is most evident during an airing in 1953 of the once popular sitcom I Love Lucy, which garned a viewership of 71%, higher than the 67% of President Eisenhower’s inauguration which was televised the following day. Of course it must remembered this is during an era where there was no Internet, Cable TV, video games or smartphones; to attract such a percentage may have been unprecedented but it wouldn’t be an absolute shock given the limited means for entertainment. However, the fact that it surpassed the inauguration of the higher position in political office is a surprise. Perhaps one could argue that the escapism and distraction that a popular sitcom could offer is seen by many as being more worthy than engaging in political affairs, no matter if the event is actually there to build national solidarity. Bradbury touches upon these new cultural processes – as I will discuss later -, but it is worth mentioning that these cultural changes are not to dissimilar to the way that celebrity culture of the 21st century has replaced the concern and awareness of present day domestic civil affairs.

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How have sitcoms managed to maintain their positions on Prime Time TV?

Most dystopian novels today resort to an Orwellian conception of society, where the government has a firm and rigid control over all institutions and enforces this hold on society through a methodology of fear and punishment. Fahrenheit 451 represents an earlier trend for sci-fi authors to represent a totalitarian system that is enforced by the people themselves as opposed to the government directly. Huxley was a chief architect of this idea, which was expressed in his novel Brave New World (another a banned book). These sort of books conceive of a notion where pleasure can be used as a form of tyranny, especially when human emotions can constrain people to think or act in a particular way.

One particular excerpt highlights this theme when a character (Beatty) explains the reason for the prohibition of books and the purpose this serves for the human spirit.

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. So! A book is a loaded gun in the house next door. Burn it. Take the shot from the weapon. Breach man’s mind. Who knows who might be the target of the well?read man? Me?

The ‘book’ is conceived as a weapon that only emphasizes the divisive elements of human nature; arguably people are naturally paranoid towards each other as part of the tribal element of ourselves. So although this ‘Race towards the top’, that is so often spoken about today – is considered to be a natural contributor towards societal inequality, Beatty claims this can be reversed if can just remove the objects and resources that encourage the competition between ourselves. Although the character argues that is a progressive measure because it creates a sense of unity and solidarity, it is ultimately regressive because it is creates a nation of people that are ignorant to their true reality. Judgment is an essential part of human evolution and innovation, although it is often used in an unfairly discriminatory fashion, it can protect us from making fundamentally bad decisions either as an individual or as a society. It is the reason why we have elections, why football clubs buy and sell certain players or why listen to different genres of music. These choices help to establish any sense of democracy that exists in the world, but by choosing to ban books or libraries as method of censoring judgment, we simply eliminate our freedom.

Currently, social media and the internet provides us with a dopamine-esque hit to keep us satisfied with our current lives, but in Fahrenheit 451 an important use is made of the Household TV parlour and the influence it plays on keeping the characters occupied and distracted.

Maybe the books can get us half out of the cave. They just might stop us from making the same damn insane mistakes! I don’t hear those idiot bastards in your parlour talking about it.

God, Millie, don’t you see? An hour a day, two hours, with these books, and maybe…”

The telephone rang. Mildred snatched the phone.

“Ann!” She laughed. “Yes, the White Clown’s on tonight!”

Considering how important the ‘sitcom’ was as a staple of American entertainment during Ray Bradbury’s age, its quite radical for him to make such a mockery of the system itself. But the satire does have some interesting comparisons about our culture today. People do have the tendency to seclude themselves on the internet as a sort of bubble to protect themselves from the harsh realities of the world. But increasingly, we are witnessing stagnating levels of literacy in children and their overall intellect because of the dependency on technology to facilitate our mental process;

The converter attachment, which had cost them one hundred dollars, automatically supplied her name whenever the announcer addressed his anonymous audience, leaving a blank where the proper syllables could be filled in.

A special spot? wavex? scrambler also caused his televised image, in the area immediately about his lips, to mouth the vowels and consonants beautifully.

The way in which the Fahrenheit 451’s TV parlour integrates personal identity with entertainment, is eerily reminiscent of how Facebook, Google and other social media companies utilise information to personalise advertisement as well as to push and pull certain political/social material that is deemed inappropriate for particular audiences. The TV Parlour’s advanced grasp of phonetics and linguistics is also prophetic in the way in which technology now operates as a teacher and guide to support children in their comprehension of literacy further reinforcing our reliance on technology.

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An image from the 1966 movie adaptation of Fahrenheit 451 (Depicting the Tv Parlour). Has anything really changed?

The novel also emphasises that the idiocy of society operates so well because it provides an opportunity for citizens to feel as if they are intelligent.

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 damned 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..

Objective information for these citizens is manner of security, the process of problem solving as well as creating innovative solutions is dangerous to these people because it encourages their minds to wander in unknown waters. The methodology of challenging oneself to think critically and to place yourself to think ‘out of the box’ threatens their sense of identity; subjects like philosophy and sociology are greatly concerned with the fluid nature of ethics, principles and values. If these issues are not a concrete element of a persons life it could provide a fleeting nature to their moral code. In some respects this corresponds to a modern day perspective which asserts that liberalism is too open, thus allowing extremist ideas to be tolerated. It’s easy to imagine a world where the fear of liberalism can exacerbate in to a full-scale authoritarian attitude to culture and recreational activities.

The entire novel isn’t just doom and gloom, it does highlight some interesting ways in which we perceive books and the lessons that could be offered for the future. A character in the novel stresses the subtle importance of reading that people could easily

“The same infinite detail and awareness could be projected through the radios and televisors, but are not. No, no, it’s not books at all you’re looking for! Take it where you can find it, in old phonograph records, old motion pictures, and in old friends; look for it in nature and look for it in yourself. Books were only one type of receptacle where we stored a lot of things we were afraid we might forget. There is nothing magical in them at all. The magic is only in what books say, how they stitched the patches of the universe together into one garment for us.”

This shows that reading a book in and of itself is not the answer to a more intelligent society. It is the patterns, arguments and languages that formulate the beauty of a book. Knowledge can be gained anywhere in any format, but books force people to develop a level of patience to understand the meaning behind the words and the way in which they are organised. To simply believe that novels could themselves could raise the intellect of a nation is to reinforce the myth that facts are essential to the educational upbringing of any child. It reminds me of how people often claim that learning History is only about remembering the dates and times of when important people behaved in important events, but this ignores the “why” of how certain situations arise and the different patterns that could affect the probability of these events occurring. The emphasis on memory in school exams if often used as a criticism of the current UK national curriculum, and it is interesting to see a similar concern voiced in a novel from 70 years ago.

In one section of the novel, a character attempts to get around the prohibition of books by reading a novel and attempting remember all the chapters inside of it, instead of withholding the book permanently in one’s possession. This is not simply about preserving the knowledge within the book but about developing a sense of personal responsibility.

Remember, Caesar, thou art mortal.’ Most of us can’t rush around, talking to everyone, know all the cities of the world, we haven’t time, money or that
many friends. The things you’re looking for, Montag, are in the world, but the only way the average chap will ever see ninety-nine per cent of them is in a book. Don’t ask for guarantees. And don’t look to be saved in any one thing, person, machine, or library. Do your own bit of saving, and if you drown, at least die knowing you were headed for shore.

As the quote implies, one can not simply rest on an assumption that your information will be given to you in a fair and accurate manner. Bradbury was commenting on his own period, but he inadvertently prophesied a future era where we would also need to be responsible for ourselves. During the 1950s Print Media operated in fast and hectic urbanized environments, nothing much has changed in comparison today’s society. The rush for information has led to journalists and news agencies providing simplistic information that is often vulnerable to manipulation and propaganda, the rise of social media has only increased the likelihood for this to happen. Therefore one must take it upon themselves to research for their own knowledge and understanding and not to simply rely upon other people. Although, people have other responsibilities and it may be difficult to achieve a higher level of understanding that we often expect of ourselves, we should at least make the attempt. If we fail, than perhaps another person could adopt a similar approach but in an improved way, which at least will not leave our actions in vain.

It might be clear now to understand how Bradbury’s novel was deemed radical enough to be banned in some literary educational circles in the United States; it advocates a culture that can think independently and critically. It also protests against the superficial nature of digital entertainment that so often distracts us from the truth. I think it’s also important to touch upon a running theme throughout the book which is the decline of intellectualism and the erosion of academia. It is often said that a key symptom of the totalitarian system is the censure and removal of intellectual discussion and debate, this was witnessed during the Nazi era and the Chinese Revolution of 1949, with the closing of universities, banning of books and the execution of intellectuals. Fahrenheit 451 alludes to a similar sort of action

” The old man admitted to being a retired English professor who had been thrown out upon the world forty years ago when the last liberal arts college shut for lack of students and patronage.”

But what I found particularly interesting was that towards the end of the novel, the government issues a televised program to seize a suspected (but not convicted) criminal.

“Police suggest entire population in the Elm Terrace area do as follows: Everyone in every house in every street open a front or rear door or look from the windows. The fugitive cannot escape if everyone in the next minute looks from his house. Ready! “

It is often said that the first step of a totalitarian state is the use of paramilitary forces or to encourage the public to engage activities that would often be reserved for law enforcement agencies. Despite the claims by many that we live in a fascistic society, the missing elements are those paramilitary forces that wreaked so much havoc in the early twentieth century, however it could be argued we are indeed moving in that direction. There has been resurgence of militant far-right and far-left groups that occasionally clashed during protest marches and demonstrations but dangerously, we have seen them congregate online and harass members on social media for displaying opinions contrary to their own. They operate with a sort of mob mentality by barraging online users with death threats and comments to incite violence. Twitter, Facebook and Google have implemented measures to clamp down on hate speech, but this has only endangered free speech and forced those hate groups to operate unnoticed in darker parts of the web. It is well known, that governments across the world use a divide-and-conquer approach to weaken the unity and solidarity of the people, so it would not be a surprise if the government were to take a lackadaisical approach to these extremist groups in order for them to flourish and cause discontent within society. The quote above from the book might seem like a far-fetched future reality but it captures the way in which a government can mobilize its citizens for unsavory purposes.

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Different era, same mob?

If Libraries week and Banned book Week is to commemorate the material that challenges us, develops us and creates us, then Fahrenheit 451 is a good example of a book that can be provocative yet educational. During one of my recent university seminars, we discussed the Italian Renaissance and it’s impact upon society, it revitalized the cultural world of the Italian city states by discussing and teaching the importance of the classical ideas from the Roman and Greek Era. I feel that if we are to protect the intellectual world of the Anglo-sphere we need not to glorify our past – as the populists often tempt us towards – but to remember, cherish and protect the freedoms we currently possess, as our ancestors did not have the luck or entitlement to operate in such radical circles.

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