People ask me when I was introduced to politics, and I could say it was the first time I read a Chomsky screed, or it was this … case, or whatever, but I would say it was the first time I entered a playground.
— Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine, on Moyers & Company, when asked if he ever heard the N-word growing up
Last Friday night, my boyfriend and I were arguing about Ray Bradbury in Target.
Well, “arguing” might be a strong word. It was more like a vigorous debate. And during such debates, my normally socially inhibited self suddenly forgets that other Target shoppers can hear the argumentative overtones of our conversation and my exasperated denunciations of “super old white dudes.”
Okay, I wasn’t straight up denouncing old white dudes. My grandpa was one, and so were some of my favorite authors. What it was, was this:
Ray Bradbury. My boyfriend recently finished both The Martian Chronicles and Fahrenheit 451. I myself haven’t read Fahrenheit 451 since ninth grade, and I didn’t like it. Paul says I should give it another try. I agree with this assessment.
What I didn’t agree with was Paul’s summary of Bradbury’s position (the position, not the summary) on so-called “minority voices.” Bradbury felt — and this was part of where Fahrenheit came from — that art should be free from the meddling and censorship of people who felt offended or took issue with any part of the artist’s work. Specifically, he brings up, there were a couple instances when he was written to and chastised(?) for not having greater minority representation in The Martian Chronicles. “No strong female characters,” a woman wrote. “No African-American characters,” an African-American wrote.
Apparently, this really pissed Bradbury off. I mean, I’m with him up to the censorship point. But lumping these “minority voices” in with whitewashed school editions and straight-up book banners makes Bradbury look like the asshole. Venturing into both the wrong side and the logical conclusion of the artistic expression debate: “Leave my work the f*** alone, even if I’m a racist old bastard perpetuating white male hegemony.”
For the record, I don’t really think Bradbury is a racist old bastard. What bothers me isn’t the fact that his casts were so white, or his heroes so male. It isn’t his demand for artistic freedom, or his morality in Fahrenheit (which I think can be read and appreciated from a lot of different angles, all over the political spectrum). What bothers me is his entitlement to complain so profusely about “minority voices.” It’s his position as a sci-fi writer of great repute, great success, who feels affronted by a few non-influential minority group representatives who, lacking the power to effect widespread change on a culture that overwhelmingly fails to represent them, had the gall to voice their concerns to him in ultimately ineffectual written missives.
I don’t know how passionate or how enduring a cause this is in Bradbury’s life, so I don’t know how much to hold it against him (though if this 1996 Playboy interview is any indication, it stuck with him for decades). I’ve read other letters he’s written, including this one to a teenage fan, and he actually seems like an entirely charming and funny guy. So I want to like him, very much.
What this all, also, gets into is the wider issue of minority representation in media and culture– almost an “affirmative action” of sorts, most recently embodied in the criticisms around HBO’s new series “Girls” (which quickly evolved/devolved into a debate about hipster racism). In a society and culture machine still dominated by whites, do white artists have a responsibility to represent minority voices? If they don’t, are they entitled to complain incessantly that people are telling them they do? If they are, is there a way they can do it without sounding like an asshole?
Sci-Fi Side Note: Been watching the Alien franchise for the first time. My favorite is Alien, Ridley Scott’s 1979 original. It’s for a lot of reasons– including the fact that its closest competitor, James Cameron’s Aliens sequel, is essentially the same plot with more people, more explosions and a little girl instead of a cat– but I especially love how the last three people in Alien to survive are the two women and the black guy. Ripley, of course, being a particularly kick-ass white lady. Ostensible white male hero (Dallas, no less) is murdered in the middle of the pack. Hurray for defied expectations.
So in conclusion:
Can I still like Fahrenheit 451?
Can I still like Ferris Bueller? (John Hughes was apparently some kind of hardcore Reaganite conservative.)
Does it make a big difference what the intent of the work was — if it can be received differently? If the creator’s political views actually were not expressed, intentionally or unintentionally, in the work?
All in all Ray Bradbury is and will continue to be an old white dude– hanging in strong at 91. Enjoy his books, enjoy him; just don’t hafta agree with everything he says.
Bradbury: Even more depressing is that I foresaw political correctness 43 years ago.
Playboy: In Fahrenheit 451, too?
B: Yes. [At one point, another character,] the fire chief, describes how the minorities, one by one, shut the mouths and minds of the public, suggesting a precedent: The Jews hated Fagin and Shylock – burn them both, or at least never mention them. The blacks didn’t like N***** Jim floating on Huck’s raft with him – burn, or at least hide, him. Women’s libbers hated Jane Austen as an awfully inconvenient woman in a dreadfully old-fashioned time – off with her head! Family-values groups detested Oscar Wilde – back in the closet, Oscar! Communists hated the bourgeoisie – shoot them! An on and on it goes. So whereas back then I wrote about the tyranny of the majority, today I’d combine that with the tyranny of the minorities. These days, you have to be careful of both. They both want to control you. The first group, by making you do the same thing over and over again. The second group is indicated by the letters I get from the Vassar girls who want me to put more women’s lib in The Martian Chronicles, or from blacks who want more black people in Dandelion Wine.
P: Do you respond to them?
B: I say to both bunches, Whether you’re a majority or minority, bug off! To hell with anybody who wants to tell me what to write. Their society breaks down into subsections of minorities who then, in effect, burn books by banning them. All this political correctness that’s rampant on campuses is b.s. You can’t fool around with the dangerous notion of telling a university what to teach and what not to. If you don’t like the curriculum, go to another school. Faculty members who toe the same line are sanctimonious nincompoops! It’s time to stop the trend. Whenever it appears, you should yell, “Idiot!” and back them down. In the same vein, we should immediately bar all quotas, which politicize the process through lowered admission standards that accept less-qualified students. The terrible result is the priceless chance lost by all.