Monday, April 16, 2007

McCarthy and Bradbury should have had coffee...

This past Sunday the Fayetteville Public Library showed Good Night, and Good Luck as part of the Big Read.  This film, which told the story of journalist Edward R. Murrow's fight against the oppression of the McCarthy anti-communist witch-hunts of the 1950's, showed America at a time when civil liberties were forgotten, left was definitely the wrong direction, and people were taken to trial on a rumor.
America under the fervent guide of McCarthy was simmering in a culture of fear; the perfect condition for oppression to squeeze into a choke-hold.  Grown-up Americans feared being thought of as unpatriotic the way they feared being thought of as unpopular in high school.  Their social standing, livelihood, and future employment prospects could be jeopardized if others thought they were a Communist, un-American.  They feared being different.
To form the perfect dystopia, fear must be fostered, and individualism squashed.  As Murrow put it, "If none of us had ever read a dangerous book or had a friend who was different or never joined an organization that advocates change we'd be just the kind of people Joe McCarthy wants."
Just as individualism and original thought were discouraged during this precarious time, those things were likewise discouraged in Fahrenheit 451.  People did not sit on porches and talk or congregate without arousing suspicion.  Civil human interaction was frowned upon because like-minded people will find each other, and they will talk, and they will be joined by other like-minded people, and they will talk, and as they talk they will question.  They will question the government, the system, and society in general.  They will discover that something is amiss, and then talking becomes planning.  This does not work in a dystopia.  These sorts of people will not be content to be automatons who let the firemen or McCarthy protect them.
At the beginning of every hostile takeover in history, whether it was the French Revolution, the cultural revolution in China, Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge or Stalin's pre-cursor to the Gulag, the first people persecuted are the educated, and then the artists.  These people question.  During the McCarthy era, writers and artists were often under heavy suspicion, and sometimes jailed because (for example) twenty years previous they may have dated someone who may have had a relative who may or may not have gone to the wrong sort of political meeting.  The outcasts and the persecuted in Fahrenheit 451 were those who were educated; those who retained the history of society before insipid entertainment trained it to be nearly mindless.

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This event is part of The Big Read, an initiative of the National Endowment for the Arts in partnership with the Institute of Museum and Library Services and Arts Midwest.