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News-Sentinel.com Your Town. Your Voice.

On the way to 451

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.The Associated Press
Wednesday, March 08, 2017 08:30 am

I wonder if any of those rioting-mob students at Middlebury College have read "Fahrenheit 451." If they have, I wonder if they understood it enough to become frightened and run for the nearest safe space? Maybe they decided to burn it.The scariest part about Ray Bradbury's dystopian look at a near-future America is that the extreme censorship described did not originate from the iron fist of an oppressive government. The citizens in the novel  were not deprived of the world's great literature because a repressive government suddenly decided to start banning books. The people themselves chose that deprivation.

First, Bradbury speculates, technology made mass communications possible, which was of necessity broader and less specific than the written word; people got used to being entertained instead of being challenged to think.

Then, "minorities and special interest groups" — everybody from tobacco producers to wheat farmers to dog owners to biker nuns — started complaining about negative things that were said and written about them. So people gave up books — which merely upset everybody by chronicling depressing things then disagreeing with each other about their meaning — for comics and trade journals and wall-to-wall television.

Only then did government officials realize the advantage in censorship for them and institute the practice of firemen burning books.

Bradbury is describing people who have cut themselves off from all knowledge. They are not connected to the past and what that can teach them. They do not connect with each other, preferring the mindless vapidity of mass entertainment. They don't even like to think about themselves. They live mindless, hedonistic lives of instant gratification and random violence. They are completely creatures of the moment. They do not want to even hear ideas they might disagree with.

They're a little like the students of Middlebury College.

They're not the only campus snowflakes to shout down a speaker who might express ideas they don't want to hear, just the latest and, so far, most thug-like. They not only stopped social Scientist Charles Murray from speaking — both at the original forum and a back-up site — but they chased him down and sent a professor with him to the hospital.

The scene Murray describes is surreal:

I had expected that they would shout expletives at us but no more. So I was nonplussed when I realized that a big man with a sign was standing right in front of us and wasn’t going to let us pass. I instinctively thought, we’ll go around him. But that wasn’t possible. We’d just get blocked by the others who were joining him. So we walked straight into him, one of our security guys pushed him aside, and that’s the way it went from then on: Allison and Bill each holding one of my elbows, the three of us plowing ahead, the security guys clearing our way, and lots of pushing and shoving from all sides.

I didn’t see it happen, but someone grabbed Allison’s hair just as someone else shoved her from another direction, damaging muscles, tendons, and fascia in her neck. I was stumbling because of the shoving. If it hadn’t been for Allison and Bill keeping hold of me and the security guards pulling people off me, I would have been pushed to the ground. That much is sure. What would have happened after that I don’t know, but I do recall thinking that being on the ground was a really bad idea, and I should try really hard to avoid that. Unlike Allison, I wasn’t actually hurt at all.

The three of us got to the car, with the security guards keeping protesters away while we closed and locked the doors. Then we found that the evening wasn’t over. So many protesters surrounded the car, banging on the sides and the windows and rocking the car, climbing onto the hood, that Bill had to inch forward lest he run over them. At the time, I wouldn’t have objected. Bill must have a longer time horizon than I do.

Intolerance of opposing ideas is nothing new on American campuses. But we seem to be at a critical moment when the intensity of the mobs (and that's what they have become) is threatening the very foundation of free speech. We might soon long for the days, Rich Lowry writes, when college students "were merely childish and close-minded. If campus protests of speech begin to more routinely slide into violence, Middlebury will be remembered as a watershed."

Political correctness has been a phenomenon on campuses since the 1980s, but now has become much more feral. The root of the phenomenon is the idea that unwelcome speech is tantamount to a physical threat against offended listeners. If this is true, it follows that dissenting speech needs to be shunned (in safe spaces) and attacked (in protests). Shutting down a speaker and literally running him off campus is, from this warped perspective, an entirely justifiable defensive action.

It's pretty clear from what the students are saying that they haven't even read any of Murray's works. So they really have no clue about what he thinks. They are opposing what they think he believes. They are against the ideas they have been told he has.

Such people, I would suggest, would feel perfectly at home in the world of "Fahrenheit 451." In fact, they seem to be working hard to bring that world about. "You'll burn all the books with those dangerous ideas so I can just go on entertaining myself without fear of interruption? Groovy. Here, take mine. Nasty things anyway"


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