Bradbury’s Prophecy

Earlier this year I read Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (1953) with a sense of quiet unease. The book, if you haven’t read it (and you really should!) depicts a life where books are banned. While there are pockets of people who keep a library, their neighbours are quick to report on them and a fireman’s job in this dystopia is to burn the stash.

When reading it, I couldn’t help but see comparisons with our own conservative government and those who reign globally. I’m sure it’s hardly a surprise that I vote left. In Canada, provincial power governs such things as health care and education, and so they have a lot of power when elected. And despite the signed declaration that, if elected, the conservatives would not dismantle health care, it came as no surprise that less than a year after taking power they cut funding to both health care and education. The party and the premiere have openly stated that universities are “outdated” models, and that they want to return the education system back to the basics: reading, writing, and arithmetic. Their education mandate is to remove all “liberal-agenda” from the curriculum. And by “liberal,” they mean the capacity to reason and question; critical analysis, scientific reasoning, sociopolitical consciousness = these are all seen as “liberal agendas.” Or, to state it simply, we have a government that actively refutes climate change and LTBQ+ rights. They have spread a propaganda campaign where public sector workers (health care providers and education workers) are greedily stealing money from the “real” hard-working Albertans. Or, in other words, we have a legally elected fascist government who is acting to further dumb down the population. And I’m sure that statement is true of a lot of states and nations.

So, of course, I couldn’t help seeing specters in Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. But, it was an image that I scoffed at. It was the start of 2020, and the future seemed bright. I was uneasy with the state of the world, but blindly optimistic that things don’t happen like they do in a book.

And then the pandemic hit.

And we’ve seen governments not only struggle to cope (justifiably so), we’ve also seen leaders who have outright denied there’s a problem, or acknowledge the problem but then staunchly ignore the advice of medical professionals (and science in general). But while it’s easy to blame this incredible mismanagement on incompetent leaders, it’s important to remember that we, the public, put them there.

“Remember, the firemen are rarely necessary. The public itself stopped reading of its accord.”

Bradbury, p. 87

Re-reading that phrase now, I feel nauseated.

Could this pandemic have been avoided? Doubtful. Given the ease of international travel, a sickness of some sort was bound to spread sooner or later. Could things have been handled better? To give the benefit of the doubt, no one was prepared for the scale of this event.

But. Do we live in a world where – even today – people are doing all that they can to take the pandemic seriously? We have anti-vaxxers and science-deniers who are insistent that this is a government conspiracy to enforce vaccination – or that the pandemic was caused by science and medicine in the first place. We have news outlets who give equal voice to the opinions of Karen on the street as they do to the expert in the field. There are those who gather(ed) in large groups despite all warnings not to do so. We have governments who toed the line with declaring an emergency for fear of harming the economy. And those who use the pandemic to continue pushing through their own right-wing agendas.

In Alberta: contracts with doctors and other medical professionals were ripped up and then “put on hold until the pandemic is over” (read: made redundant after this emergency is all over); just this weekend the party suspended environmental reporting (reporting of contaminants in air, land, and water) for reasons that I don’t quite understand but are somehow pandemic related; 25,000 education workers were laid off just days before the premiere found $7.5 billion in the budget to fund the oil pipeline; university funding was cut despite the fact that this also includes cuts to a team who are right now working on a cure.

Public health continues to come last, despite all that is occurring. But more aggravating, disheartening, and, indeed, terrifying, is seeing corrupt officials using a global pandemic to continue dismantling public services.

And, I am absolutely confident that, despite everything, the voting public will continue to put these parties in power.

Given the year+ prediction for when a vaccine may be found (if at all; after all, the common cold still doesn’t have a cure), it is likely that societal structures may dramatically shift. But, will we see the end of late capitalism, into a more socialist, utopian reality? Or will we be like Bradbury’s bibliophiles: hiding, on the run, condemned for being different from the rest of society because of our love of questioning; reasoning; critically analyzing?

There was a silly damn bird called a phoenix back before Christ, every few hundred years he built a pyre and burnt himself up. He must have been first cousin to Man. But every time he burnt himself up he sprang out of the ashes, he got himself born all over again. And it looks like we’re doing the same thing, over and over, but we’ve got one damn thing the phoenix never had. We know the damn silly thing we just did. We know all the damn silly thing we’ve done for a thousand years and as long as we know that and always have it around where we can see it, someday we’ll stop making the goddamn funeral pyres and jumping in the middle of them. We pick up a few more people that remember every generation.

Bradbury, p. 163

That’s Bradbury’s way of saying “history repeats itself.” But, while Bradbury aims on a (tongue-in-cheek?) optimistic note, right now I’m feeling less confident of the resilience of humanity.

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