Taibbi on Bradbury: How Fahrenheit 451 remains relevant and resonant today as a cautionary tale of lost liberty

By Michael Grossberg

Ray Bradbury envisioned in his classic novel Fahrenheit 451 a dystopian future of censorship and destruction of literature – a paradoxically chilling world in which firemen paradoxically don’t put out fires but set them to burn books.

However haunting in its literary power, Bradbury’s dystopian vision sadly may not be as widely referenced in popular culture these days as George Orwell’s widely quoted 1984 and Animal Farm or Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged or perhaps even Kurt Vonnegut’s satirical story “Harrison Bergeron.”

All of the above works have been inducted into the Prometheus Hall of Fame over the decades. Yet, not all are equally remembered and applauded as still-resonant cautionary tales with vital lessons that still should be heeded in the 21st century.

That’s why it’s a pleasure to report that Matt Taibbi, a prominent journalist and independent-minded columnist, has referenced Bradbury’s novel and poignant themes in a recent essay posted on his Racket News platform.

A former Rolling Stone contributing editor who now publishes both investigative reporting and incisive commentary via his Racket News platform, Taibbi has written a timely column titled: “Maintain Your Brain: A few thoughts on the arrival of a new Fahrenheit 451 future.”

“The loss of capacity for memory or real experience is what makes people susceptible to the work of cartoon pseudo-intellectuals…. who seem really to think nothing good or interesting happened until last week,” Taibbi writes.

“The profound negativity of these WEF-style technocrats about all human experience until now reminds me of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, whose dystopian characters feared books because “They show the pores of the face of life.”’

“We’re entering a stage of history where, like the underground resistance in Bradbury’s book, we’ll have to build some consciousness as a movement to save the human mind,” Taibbi writes.

“Because thinking for oneself has already been denounced as a forbidden or transgressive activity in so many different places (from campuses to newsrooms and beyond), it’s probably already true that membership in certain heterodox online communities is enough to put a person on lists of undesirables.”

What makes Taibbi especially exciting, insightful and sometimes surprising to read is that he considers himself a man of the class-conscious and more intellectual left – albeit a writer who often goes against and sees through today’s cruder progressive and partisan trends.

While also focusing regularly on the abuses of large corporations as they interface with government, Taibbi generally maintains an admirable civil-libertarian respect for a free press, free speech, and the right of dissent.

Even more admirably, Taibbi combines his respect for the First Amendment and other Bill of Rights, due process and civil liberties issues with a fierce respect for sticking to the facts and facing reality – no matter how strong seem the tribal or partisan pressures he and others face to conform to currently fashionable beliefs and delusions.

Moreover, Taibbi often frames his concerns through media criticism, exposing biases and outright falsehoods promulgated by many once-widely-respected mainstream media.

For instance, here’s how he begins his column:

“After a self-inflicted wound led to Twitter/X stepping on my personal account, I started to worry over what looked like the removal of multiple lanes from the Information Superhighway. Wikipedia rules tightened. Google search results seemed like the digital equivalent of a magician forcing cards on consumers. In my case, content would often not even reach people who’d registered as social media followers just to receive those alerts.”

“I was convinced the issue was political,” Taibbi writes.

“There was clear evidence of damage to the left and right independents from companies like NewsGuard, or the ideologically-driven algorithms behind Google or Amazon ad programs, to deduce the game was rigged to give unearned market advantages to corporate players.”

What Taibbi says next in his essay often reads as a non-fiction version, in real and recent American life and culture, of much of what Bradbury was warning about (besides outright censorship) in his prescient 1953 novel – specifically, the dumbing-down of popular culture and the related decline in reading.

“Now I think differently. After spending months talking to people in tech, I realize the problem is broader and more unnerving. On top of the political chicanery, sites like Twitter and TikTok don’t want you leaving. They want you scrolling endlessly, so you’ll see ads, ads, and more ads. The scariest speech I heard came from a tech developer describing how TikTok reduced the online experience to a binary mental state: you’re either watching or deciding, Next. That’s it: your brain is just a switch. Forget following links or connecting with other users….

“Generations ago it wasn’t uncommon for educated people to memorize chunks of The Iliad, building up their minds by forcing them to do all the rewarding work associated with real reading: assembling images, keeping track of plot and character structure, juggling themes and challenging ideas even as you carried the story along.

“Then came mass media. Newspapers shortened attention span, movies arrived and did visual assembly for you, TV mastered mental junk food, MTV replaced story with montages of interesting nonsensical images, then finally the Internet came and made it possible to endlessly follow your own random impulses instead of anyone else’s schedule or plot.”

Taibbi’s concern, and regret, echoes mine and other libertarians and classical liberals – and reflect our common yearning for a renewed era of liberty and literacy.

After, don’t both history and philosophy demonstrate that both are deeply interrelated? Without one, it’s that much harder to sustain the other.

Prometheus, the light bringer (Creative Commons license)

* Check out Taibbi’s full column.

* Read the Prometheus Blog’s appreciation essay-review of Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, a 1984 co-winner of the Prometheus Hall of Fame along with Orwell’s 1984.

IF YOU WANT TO KNOW MORE ABOUT THE PROMETHEUS AWARDS:

* Prometheus winners: For the full list of Prometheus winners, finalists and nominees – including the annual Best Novel and Best Classic Fiction (Hall of Fame) categories and occasional Special Awards – visit the enhanced Prometheus Awards page on the LFS website, which now includes convenient links to all published essay-reviews in our Appreciation series explaining why each of more than 100 past winners since 1979 fits the awards’ distinctive dual focus.

* Read “The Libertarian History of Science Fiction,”an essay in the international magazine Quillette that favorably highlights the Prometheus Awards, the Libertarian Futurist Society and the significant element of libertarian sf/fantasy in the evolution of the modern genre.

Watch videos of past Prometheus Awards ceremonies (including the recent 2023 ceremony with inspiring and amusing speeches by Prometheus-winning authors Dave Freer and Sarah Hoyt),Libertarian Futurist Society panel discussions with noted sf authors and leading libertarian writers, and other LFS programs on the Prometheus Blog’s Video page.

* Check out the Libertarian Futurist Society’s Facebook page  for comments, updates and links to Prometheus Blog posts.

Join us! To help sustain the Prometheus Awards and support a cultural and literary strategy to appreciate and honor freedom-loving fiction,  jointhe Libertarian Futurist Society, a non-profit all-volunteer association of freedom-loving sf/fantasy fans.

Libertarian futurists believe that culture matters! We understand that the arts and literature can be vital in envisioning a freer and better future – and in some ways can be even more powerful than politics in the long run, by better visions of the future, innovation, peace, prosperity, positive social change, and mutual respect for each other’s rights, individuality and human dignity.

 

 

Published by

Michael Grossberg

Michael Grossberg, who founded the LFS in 1982 to help sustain the Prometheus Awards, has been an arts critic, speaker and award-winning journalist for five decades. Michael has won Ohio SPJ awards for Best Critic in Ohio and Best Arts Reporting (seven times). He's written for Reason, Libertarian Review and Backstage weekly; helped lead the American Theatre Critics Association for two decades; and has contributed to six books, including critical essays for the annual Best Plays Theatre Yearbook and an afterword for J. Neil Schulman's novel The Rainbow Cadenza. Among books he recommends from a libertarian-futurist perspective: Matt Ridley's The Rational Optimist & How Innovation Works, David Boaz's The Libertarian Mind and Steven Pinker's Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress.

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