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"Fahrenheit 451" and the Media

Celebrating the first Mid York Library Regional Read, I presented this talk September 21, 2004, at Jervis Library in Rome, NY.




For those who are not familiar with the book, here is a summary1 and a list of characters2. In "Fahrenheit 451", Bradbury gives society a dope-slap that, 50 years later, is just beginning to have an effect.

Bradbury's call to attention applies to individuals, media, and society because individuals, media, and society are superimposed. Remember, "Media" is not equivalent to the "Press". In the media -- and its subset, the press -- society has a recursive tool it doesn't know how to use -- or it doesn't care to use. In the book, society misuses the media mirror:

  • The chase for Montag is broadcast.
  • Just to get a snappy ending they fake a capture.
In real life, society also misuses the mirror:
  • The chase for O.J. Simpson is broadcast (or equivalent hyper-attention is paid to Scott Peterson, Kobe Bryant, Michael Jackson, Janet Jackson. The media circus goes all the way back to 1954 and Joseph McCarthy.)
  • For snappy action Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9-11" changes context and CBS' Dan Rather defends documents essentially as fake but accurate.

"451" is only peripherally about censorship

Another way of looking at censorship is, "Who put you in charge?" Because someone mentions God in a certain way does not oblige you either to accept/reject God or be offended.

If you choose to be offended, why should that be actionable? Don't clutter the court, and, instead, state your case clearly in writing. Make your point of view available to common sense as "This is what I believe to be true and here's why." To explain what is wrong and why is a public service.

What is not a public service?

  • Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9-11" manipulated fact.
  • Dan Rather, whose "60 Minutes" piece on George Bush's National Guard service was supported with fake but ostensibly accurate information.
  • "Bush lied about WMD" and "Kerry flip-flops" are cant repeated so much they have been elevated to the status of urban myths.
Each of these messages, shouted, conveys not explanation, but self-defeat.

Events helped form culture since "451" appeared in 1953

  • Army-McCarthy Hearings, 1954. First Washington media Circus.
  • Nixon had a "secret plan" to end the war and he lied about bombing Cambodia.
  • Nixon's press secretary, Ron Ziegler said "This is the operative statement. The others are inoperative." when what he meant was, "We lied." The new generation began to ask why.
  • Jim Jones,and more than 900 members his The People's Temple full Gospel Church committed suicide drinking cyanide-laced Kool-Aid or were murdered in Jonestown, Guyana, in 1978.
  • Before this onslaught, the previous generation of teachers, when asked why, said "because I told you so" and rapped you on the knuckles with a ruler. In the 1960s, the face of such current affairs, "I told you so" was no longer an acceptable answer.
  • New generation of teachers, driven to teach by draft, without mastery of intuitive art of teaching. Worse, these educationists teach new teachers, administer schools, and set standards.

Could 451's fog happen to us today?

Let's do an experiment -- Where does your vision end? Move your fingers in your line of sight to see. Around the peripheral areas and optic nerves vision disappears silently. Like vision, your brain can fog with words. When the fog rolls in, you never see it coming. Now you understand. Now you don't.

What might be the science behind the fog? According to Nobel laureate Roger Sperry and Michael Gazzaniga, the brain has two halves that operate independently and are specialized. How do we decide which half of the brain ends up taking over responsibility for doing specific tasks? One half doesn't say "I want to do this" and the other say, "No, I want to do it". One half says "I don't want to do this at all," and the other side says either "Well, all right, I'll do it." If both halves don't want to do it you simply fog out.

If that fog can happen, are we -- and society -- at risk and unaware?

Take a flashlight into a room. Point it towards a corner. It appears lit. Point it elsewhere. That place appears lit. On leaving the room, could you conclude that the room was lit?

We can mistakenly assume that the whole room is "lit" because it seems to be so wherever we look. The same rash assumption can be made about awareness throughout the world. Because you see it somewhere shuldn't make people complacently believe it is everywhere all of the time.

Every level of society can contribute to the fog

In 451, Granger's fictitious book is titled "Fingers in the Glove" -- Individuals, media and society are similarly intertwined. Problems can persist only when the other parts are complacent.

Most of the public is unaware of the difference between the media and the press. Comedy Central's "The Daily Show" is entertainment, not news. Presidential candidate John Kerry went there, but it was for exposure, not news.

Larger media plays to the emotions and individual parts of the press revert to being just media when responsibilities are overlooked:

  • Teasers like "Will there be enough water? -- News at Eleven" aren't designed to inform.
  • Pundits who conjecture, "If taxes keep rising at the same rate..." presuppose unlikely conditions for dramatic effect.
Political campaigns use media to fog your intelligence into submission and then appeal emotionally to FUD - fear, uncertainty and doubt.

Press is like a magnifying lens that both clarifies and distorts.

Press does not represent the public, but helps continuously improve the maps of reality each of us holds. The press is a subset of media operates that operates by, "If your mother says she loves you, check it out.

An obstacle to the press is the fear that clarity will be perceived as bias:


Highly reactive, electronic media -- TV, radio and the internet -- creates a media echo chamber

No one in a Dark Age knows they are in one.

We are left trying to sort out intent to deceive, ignorance, and casual "care less" it-doesn≠t-matter attitudes. 451 didn't explain how society got into its fix in the first place. In real life, that's for us to figure out. As Pogo reminded us, "We Have Met the Enemy and He Is Us"

Victims and perpetrators are all one and might include:

  • Couch potatoes, the easily swayed, the undecideds,
  • Simplists -- including active Moore-ons, Move-ons,
  • Teachers who tolerate mediocrity and worse.
  • Dogmatists -- accept the so-called wisdom of others at face value -- "The Bible says" , when, rather than to close the mind, the Bible is opening it. So, too, the Koran, [Al Baqara 2:30] makes you responsible for Earth.
Things that apparently used to be obvious don't seem so any more. The fog has settled.

Is current society as "Dark" as 451 projects?

Is real society affected like the characters in 451.
  • Do we rewrite history like 451' Ben Franklin created a fire department to burn books? History in different periods and different cultures is interpreted selectively.
  • Do we respond in ways that aren't sensible and not recognize it?
  • Do we, like Bowles, vote for candidates because of looks?
It is not that this person is conscious and that person is not. It is that you are conscious when you are and when you are not, you're no better than Homer Simpson -- a simple thinker who sees things at face value. Homer would never concede better judgment to anyone.

Like Homer, we're conscious only when we're conscious and do foolish things when we are not. How else could the state education department conclude that, in an essay, a three sentence conclusion worth more than a two-sentence conclusion when it considers computer-analysis of school English essays.

  • Attorney General John Ashcroft considers that it is important to protect the American flag even if it means destroying the Constitution the flag is suppoed to represent.
  • Campaign tyranny of meaningless clichés - "Bush lied about WMD", "Kerry flip-flops."
  • Rathergate -- fake but accurate
  • John Kerry tells voters that unemployment grows while George Bush tells the same group that employment grows yet neither will state the fact that both grow because population is growing.
  • president Clinton trys to equivocate by parsing what the meaning of 'is' is.
  • Michael Moore ("Fahrenheit 9-11") ignores or misrepresents the truth, prefers innuendo to fact, edits with poetic license rather than accuracy, and strips existing news footage of its context to make events and real people say what he wants, even if they don't." -- Scott Simon
For these things to have credibility, people have to be satisfied with simple, insufficient answers and naïve enough to accept them. -- The fog rolls in.

Where are we?

A generation of teachers, media, and others are:
  • Unhappy -- like Mildred
  • Belligerent -- like Captain Beatty
  • Cowardly -- like Faber
  • Simplistic -- like Bowles
  • Desperate to escape -- like Beatty
  • Lashing out -- like Montag
  • Resigned -- like Granger
Defensively they take their frustration out on others while they dare not face the mirror. Are people absent a skill set?

Unconsciousness can contribute to the fog.

Unconsciousness is tricky to nail down for the same reason the man looking for an "argument" in Monty Python's Argument Clinic couldn't nail down the Arguer as to whether they were, in fact, arguing. As soon as you draw attention to unconsciousness, you have jump-started consciousness. When you draw attention to it, the potential for consciousness reappears to rationalize away previous behavior. Nevertheless, consciousness can be absent and you can only resort to the paper trail to prove it.

Richard Mitchell, in "Less Than Words Can Say", explains "People all around you are offering inanity, and you are ready to seize it, like any well-behaved American consumer dutifully swallowing the best advertised pill. You are, in a certain sense, unconscious." [Pg. 5.]

He adds, "Language is the medium in which we are conscious. The speechless beasts are aware, but they are not conscious. To be conscious is to 'know with' something, and a language of some sort is the device with which we know. More precisely, it is the device with which we can know. We don't have . We can, if we please, speak of general insight into the knowledge of a discipline and forgo knowing."

Considerable campaign and commercial rhetoric is designed to stop consciousness. "I'm not a doctor, but I play one on TV", so you can put down your defenses and trust me. The actor assumes authority he hasn't earned. The scriptwriters have the actor tell you something as if it were fact, in the hope you won't check it out. It is an attempt to disarm viewers just when they should become more alert. You can almost hear the speaker say, "It's not that I don't respect you, it is that I'm drawing your conclusion for you so you'll have more time to watch TV. I know I'm right and, besides, the end justifies the means." This noise is everywhere -- Tim Robbins, Bruce Springsteen, Michael Moore. "I'm a celebrity and I endorse..." whomever. While it applies to any celebrity, Alice Cooper advised, "If you're listening to a rock star in order to get your information on who to vote for, you're a bigger moron than they are."

The everpresent rationaliation used to justify things even when they are mistaken -- an appeal to a "higher good" that is really a lower bad. Accuracy in intent is the Michael Moore, "Fahrenheit 9-11" defense, but it is really moral relativism and "the end justifies the means" rolled into a fog -- clichés that turn off the brain. Not righteousness, it's "wrongteousness" in sheeps clothing.

Because one responds to an environment doesn't mean that you think about it or can plan on the basis of it. When Jim Jones said God wants you to drink cyanide-laced Kool-Aid, those lost sheep weren't rational, planning thinkers. They weren't conscious.

If consciousness is at risk, how do we move away from the 451 scenario?

If you don't learn to think clearly, you are closer to stupidity than you need to be.

As Mitchell says, "If you cannot be the master of your language, you must be its slave. If you cannot examine your thoughts, you have no choice but to think them, however silly they may be."

Part of the problem is that schools teach "English", not "Tools of Thought". In the NYSED English Language Arts Standards, they don't mention: Developing Thought.

When Second Graders visit our newspaper, we explain to them why thinking is important:

    Us: Do you know why people lift weights?
  Kids: Yeah! To build strong muscles!
    Us: Yes! What is weightlifting for the brain?
  Kids: [Uncertainty.]
    Us: Reading, writing, and conversation.
  Kids: Ooh.
    Us: Why do you want to have a strong brain?
  Kids: [Inquiring looks.]
    Us: Because that is the only tool you've got to plan your very best future.

What you can't do to fight unconsciousness.

You can't argue with it. Arguing takes rationality. Kids don't always use it. Neither do adults.

For example, Former Iraqi Information Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf, known as Comical Ali did not give in to rationality, denying the Americans had invaded Baghdad even when the tanks were visible behind him.

People use the style of rationality to confuse. People can be confused by assuming its use by others.

What the press can do to fight unconsciousness.

The prime mission of the press is to distill useful information from the sea of information to help you refine your mental map of reality to you can plan your best future.
Its job is to help you pierce the fog.
Its job is to help you want to pierce the fog.
Its job is to serve as part of the collective memory.
Its job is to help you recognize horse-hockey when you see it.
Its job is to help you think.
Its job is to help you hone your skills.
Do we do a good job? No. The press is often confused with the media Furthermore, some media wants to pass as the press. Media also confuses entertainment with reality.

Through the internet people can awaken the press. One individual can start an idea rolling that gathers enough substance to give CBS/the world a collective dope-slap to bring them back to consciousness.

What you can do to fight unconsciousness.

  1. If we are going to eradicate stupidity and ignorance -- the fog -- we first have to identify it when we see it. Anyone can have an opinion, but you don't have to know anything to have one.
  2. An education that does not teach clear, coherent writing cannot provide our world with thoughtful adults; it gives us instead, at the best, clever children of all ages." Mitchell, Richard, "Less than Words Can Say", Pg. 40.
  3. We have to understand why. "The proper business of writing is to stay put on the page so that we can look at it later. Writing  freezes the work of the mind into a permanent and public form. It is the mind and memory of mankind in such a form that we can pass it around to one another and even hand it on to our unimaginably remote descendants." Mitchell, Richard, "Less than Words Can Say", Pg. 39.
  4. Jacob Bronowski -- Know magic when you see it. Magic is trying to command the world and particularly the opinions of other people by some formula which is other than the truth.
         Magic has no place in planning your future -- whether from scientists, priests, politicians or educators. For instance, "God said, ..." whatever. Every thing that God said about community and civilization that is sensible to do can be explained in non-religious terms -- there is a "why" behind the "what". And if there isn't, defend yourself.
  5. Degrees don't make good teachers. Good teachers sometimes have degrees. We have to break the loop of mediocrity. [There seems no one to blame for failure. 3rd grade teachers, their principals, their training college, their certifiers, the college, the high school, the middle school, and right back to the third grade.]
  6. What is your first line of defense against irrationality? Socrates knew -- the question. You have to turn the intellect against itself.
  7. Protect yourself. You have good people with nasty habits and nasty people with good habits. They only way to tell the difference is when they act and you are untrained to defend yourself. You don't even know you have to and neither do your teachers.
         Most people don't use rationality because they don't know it and don't know they don't know it. Then you have to defend against it by as much force as is necessary. You cannot be taken in by the sophistry of relativism. "Oh, their culture is different." Sorry. Civilization implies a minimal set of rules. If people don't live by them, there is neither community nor civilization.
  8. In 451, fire is either subjugation or liberation. You get to decide. Encourage the spark of knowledge and understanding.

Final lessons

Mitchell reminds us, "In his writing, then, we can judge of at least two things in a man -- his ability to think and his intention to do so, his maturity."

"Man's advantage is his ability to recognize when he has made a mistake." -- the possibility one just might be wrong. Democracy codifies the humility that there may be a better way of doing things.

Montag hopes reading will help him understand the mistakes the rest of the world hate his country for its narcissistic hedonism. It could be that we're wrong, that they're wrong, or we're both wrong. It is always a question whether you are part of the problem or part of the solution. Scott Simon wondered whether "those who urge people to see Moore's film are informing or contaminating the debate. I see more [Senator Joe] McCarthy than [Edward R.] Murrow in the work of Michael Moore. No matter how hot a blowtorch burns, it doesn't shed much light."

If 451 degrees Fahrenheit is the temperature at which paper begins to burn, our job is to keep the temperature well below that, so that those carrying blowtorches never have a chance to succeed; so that nobody can never use our own principles to overcome our better nature.

We are in a race towards civilization and there is no guarantee civilization will win. WE don't know how much degradation society can tolerate before there might be a sudden, cataclysmic failure. Tolerance for such events seems to have been higher in the past because there was natural dampening in the communication system that, with the advent of high speed interactivity, has probably been removed.

Right now we're searching for a societal equivalent to the canary in the coal mine. The canary may be how much the wall of television becomes as real to us as it was for Millie, how much we let schools run off the rails, or how much we swallow inanity.

In the end, only you can put yourself at the point of the sword. Only you can defend your future and that of your children. Only you can inoculate yourself against what Richard Mitchell calls the worm in the brain -- that looses the fog that endangers us all.


Assignment Questions

  1. Clarisse - Should schools create good citizens or thoughtful people? Is there a difference? Does there need to be?
  2. Fashion a lifeboat for this sea of uncertainty.
  3. In an interview, Ray Bradbury said he wrote the book not to predict the future but to prevent it. Was he successful? How can we succeed?
  4. What is there in 451 of transcendent value? How can we find purchase with that value to make a difference?
  5. Rambunctious, impetuous youth keeps asking "Are we there yet?" How will we know when we have protected our society from a 451-type future?
  6. In the fear, in the fog, which one would you be?
    Mildred -- Escape into drugs and fantasy
    Beatty -- Co-opted, unhappily making the best of it.
    Faber -- Aware but a coward
    Montag -- Coming out of the fog -- arguing with Beatty
    Montag -- Coming out of the fog -- violent, killing Beatty
    Montag -- Coming out of the fog -- carrying on the work.
    Granger -- Author -- not pedant -- with hope; secretary over time. Recruiter.
    Another alternative?
  7. Faber: The value of books lies in the detailed awareness of life it contains. What does "Fahrenheit 451" contain? What does it drive you to do about it?

Possible awareness of life from '451' Real-life similarity
Faber: The current state of society is due to the cowardice of people like himself.
Mildred: unaware, the living dead -- remembers nothing or, worse, the wrong things. Newspapers remember nothing.
Granger: committed to preserving literature during the current dark age. Dark ages don't have to be before the Renaissance.
Lack of interest in reading because of 1) competing forms of entertainment and mass of literature too overwhelming, and 2) objection of groups to things that offend them. Censor vs. censure
Culture of insubstantiality and unreality Reality TV
Local newspaper and local TV "news" content
"Participation" polls like American Idol and USA Today front page.
Montag: disdains what he does not understand.
Euphemisms: Montag loves burning and seeing things "changed" = destroyed. Political euphemisms
Mildred: hidden melancholy that she refuses to consciously accept that causes her to commit suicide. (S20)
Beatty: Books are subversive lies about people who never actually lived -- Ben Franklin burning British books. Rewriting history: History from a point of view.
TV stands between Montag and his wife.
Montag: Realizes that books are a tangible representation of someone's entire life and work. (S25)
Public's demand for uncontroversial, easy pleasure causes printed matter to be diluted -- comics, trade journals & sex magazines. (S26) Homoginization.
Censorship started with the people.
People not born equal but made equal. Political stance
Clichés: "Fire is bright, fire is clean. Not true but turned into a meme. Bush lied about WMD -- a commercial sound bite.
Montag: Not books, but the meaning they contain.
Faber: People need quality information, leisure to digest it, and freedom to act on what they learn. (S29)
Montag: Acknowledges own ignorance. Equates to self-awareness.
Bowles: Voted for President based on physical appearance and superficial qualities.
Faber: When can one focus on pleasure? If no war and all is right with the world.
Montag: Suspicious of Faber. Develop independent thought. Context in --- we evaluate.
Beatty: Choices not made him truly happy. (S35) Not truly alive.
The sun burns time
Those who don't build must burn -- it's as old as history and juvenile delinquents. (P89) Media. Talk shows. Unexamined opinion.
Mistakes (P104) Van Gogh did many versions of the Potato-eaters before doing the one he wanted.
President Bush & aggressive press.
Granger: When people change even a small part of the world thoughtfully and deliberately, they leave behind enough of their souls to enable people to mourn them properly. Latimer -- Lady -- Montag
You can drag this book from the dustbin of history to make a difference.

Questions for Ray Bradbury

  • Granger's title "The Fingers in the Glove" indicates that individuals and society are inextricably entwined -- the problems of one are the problems of the other. Was it your intent to convey that you can't solve the problems of one without addressing the other?
  • It's taken 50 years, but 451 seems to be gaining some traction, kicking society in the shin to get its attention. Why do you think it has taken so long?
  • Contrary to the cover notes, your book seems less about censorship (which is certainly a growing problem) and more about the lack of individual and societal self-awareness, which is a greater problem. The book leaves the reader to his own devices about how to address the latter problem. What other books would you recommend to readers to help them take the next step?
  • Our society seems to be able to tolerate stupidity at an alarming rate and able to move forward in spite of it. In the same way they used to bring canaries into mines -- they'd die from gas before it became dangerous -- does society have canaries to give advance warning before a 451-like collapse will occur? If so, what do you think they are?
  • Our publisher just gave a talk on "Fahrenheit 451" in which he said, "If you don't learn to think clearly, you are closer to stupidity than you need to be." New York State English Language Standards do not say that the first purpose of language education is to develop clear thought. Is that significant?
  • Have you ever read Richard Mitchell's "Less Than Words Can Say"?

1 451 Book Summary [Courtesy - Sparknotes]
Core motif - Fog of the mind and society

In "Fahrenheit 451" a fireman, Guy Montag, lives in a society where people "do not read books, enjoy nature, spend time by themselves, think independently, or have meaningful conversations." Censorship started with the people. Books were banned in the first place because:

  • Competing forms of entertainment
  • Overwhelming material
  • Most important -- special interest groups and "minorities" objected to books that offended them. Led to homogenization.
They abandoned books for "hollow, frenetic entertainment and instant gratification." Popular interests diluted to comic books, trade journals and sex magazines.

The history as taught was manufactured to support a cultural point of view. Memes abound: "Fire is bright and fire is clean" is not true but memorized ritual. Ben Franklin's contributions, for instance, were fictionalized.

"Montag, like everyone else disdains what he does not understand" -- or could understand. Self-regulated learners, like Clarisse, are dangerous social outcasts. People are confused, frustrated and overwhelmed by the complexity of books because they aren't necessarily true.

Professor Faber contends to Montag that the "value of books lies in the detailed awareness of life they contain" but that people need the leisure to read them and the freedom to act on their ideas. Montag's boss, Captain Beatty, shows the contradictions in books contending literature is morbid and dangerously complex. Montag makes a breakthorough when he becomes suspicious of Faber for which Faber praises his independent thought.

2 Characters in "Fahrenheit 451"

Guy Montag
Called "Rash, inarticulate, self-obsessed, and too easily swayed."
Montag's wife, Mildred
small-minded and childish, lacking in desire, consumed by TV. Very little is in her mind that has not been put there by TV. Seems unconscious of her melancholy and unaware of her own suicide attempt.
Left school because it was mindless and routine. Yet she is a well-taught exuberant youth, reminds Montag of candlelight (illuminating), a clock (sense of time), and a mirror (self-reference and feedback).
Captain Beatty
Uses literature to criticize literature - negative feedback looping.
Professor Faber
believes the current state of society is due to the cowardice of people like himself [what about their own limitations?] Faber told Montag earlier that he doesn't talk about things, but the meaning of things -- levels and recursion.
Bowles & Peiffer
Voted for last presidential election based on looks and other superficial qualities [might have been Swift Vets or National Guard.]
Author of book, "Fingers in the Glove: the proper relationship between the individual and society."


A sentence on page 83 speaks to the value of myths lost. Sisyphus is a myth whose value seems to have been lost.

Word for the day: Pecksniff A canting hypocrite, who speaks homilies of morality, does the most heartless things "as a duty to society," and forgives wrong-doing in nobody but himself. (Dickens: Martin Chuzzlewit.)


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This page was last updated: Thursday, September 23, 2004 at 9:53:52 AM
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