Ray Bradbury: Spreading Distrust
August 24, 2015 9:29 AM   Subscribe

Given that Ray Bradbury's novella The Fireman (which would eventually become Fahrenheit 451) was written in response to the McCarthy HUAC hearings, it might not be a surprise to learn that the FBI kept a file on him. The contents of that file have been released under the FOIA, and shows that the FBI apparently held a dim view of science fiction, since it could "frighten the people into a state of paralysis or psychological incompetence bordering on hysteria which would make it very possible to conduct a Third World War in which the American people would seriously believe could not be won..." [emphasis mine]. (via).
posted by CheeseDigestsAll (32 comments total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
 
Fuck tha police, er, FBI...
posted by twsf at 9:40 AM on August 24, 2015 [2 favorites]


good thing science fiction prevented a WWIII, because at a point after the mid-50s it wouldn't really be about winning, it would be about not letting the other side win.
posted by lmfsilva at 9:40 AM on August 24, 2015 [2 favorites]


Apparently the FBI also employed science fiction writers.
posted by GuyZero at 9:44 AM on August 24, 2015 [4 favorites]


"He noted that individuals such as BRADBURY have reached a large audience through their writings which are generally published in paper backed volumes in large quantities."

The file is full of language like this. Was there actually a thing in the 1950s where FBI agents, or maybe bureaucrats in general, had to talk like The Onion publisher T. Herman Zwiebel?
posted by Naberius at 9:45 AM on August 24, 2015 [20 favorites]


Give people too many sheets of carbon paper and too much mimeograph fluid and this is what happens.
posted by 1adam12 at 9:49 AM on August 24, 2015 [5 favorites]


It's difficult at this point to overestimate the ugliness of Hoover's FBI. I began to write "short of kidnapping and murder", but then realized I should qualify that as "programs of kidnapping and murder" because I can fully believe an isolated kidnapping and murder here and there, and then I thought, you know, if I have to qualify a statement to account for how much kidnapping and murder I would find unlikely, then, well, it doesn't really matter. Almost nothing from Hoover and his FBI would surprise me at this point.

Honestly, it's to the FBI's credit, as an institution and its men and women, that it's as well-regarded as it is. Partly that's because Americans have never wanted to know about Hoover's abuses of power and so although it's been a drip drip of revelations over the decades, it's mostly attached to the man and not the institution he built and ran as a fiefdom until his death. But in many respects even today FBI culture is Hoover culture and so it's really quite amazing that the worst of its abuses mostly ended with Hoover, which I do believe is the case. I think there are some historically contingent reasons for this, but I think it's also a function of how much the men and women of the institution actually do revere the rule of law and democratic values as an end unto themselves and not useful only insomuch as they further the "order" half of "law and order", which I think was Hoover's perspective.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 9:50 AM on August 24, 2015 [14 favorites]


Then there's the time in 1972 Philip K. Dick wrote a letter to the FBI claiming that fellow science fiction writer Thomas M. Disch's book Camp Concentration included coded information that an anti-American organization had tried to get Dick to include in one of his novels.
posted by larrybob at 9:57 AM on August 24, 2015 [5 favorites]


The ability of the US populace to erase from memory (or ignore so it never is remembered) many of its own worst abuses of power and populace should never be underestimated.
posted by hippybear at 10:10 AM on August 24, 2015 [5 favorites]


Years ago, after reading about the excesses of McCarthy, I blurted out to a friend - "how did the country not just completely crack up?"

"What do you think the 60s were?" He asked back.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:12 AM on August 24, 2015 [5 favorites]


When I read these things, I'm always thinking that it's not so much nefarious as a bureaucracy doing stuff to justify its own existence. The old banality-of-evil thing.

Of course there were FBI agents spending lots of time verifying that, yes, there are "writings which are generally published in paper backed volumes in large quantities." An FBI employee was actually tasked to manage another employee that would investigate that, and that employee took the time dictate that yet another employee, a typist, and that typist handed it off to yet another employee to copy it, archive it, store it, etc, etc. And even today, there are FBI employees tasked to manage all of these pointless records.

Today, the FBI has an $8 billion budget and 35,000 employees. The budget is nearly 10x the size it was in the 1960s, but there are only twice as many actual agents out there fighting crime. And all of that despite crime rates that have fallen enormously in the last 30 years.

Governments grow because they do pointless shit like follow Ray Bradbury around, and constantly ask for more money to continue doing pointless shit because scary reasons.

There are 100,000 employees of the Department of Agriculture, on top of the hundreds of thousands of state agricultural employees. Yet only about 300,000 farms account for about 80 percent of the nation's agricultural products. Everyone would be way better off if half of those employees were out pulling weeds and the other half were just inspecting meat.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 10:17 AM on August 24, 2015 [6 favorites]


Thank goodness weirdo conservatives with a distrust for leftist writers are no longer trying to destroy science fiction.
posted by maxsparber at 10:28 AM on August 24, 2015 [23 favorites]


There are 100,000 employees of the Department of Agriculture

Signs you might be having a Paranoid Style libertarian fever-dream: the 2015 Department of Agriculture seems like a salient analogy for HUAC
posted by RogerB at 10:32 AM on August 24, 2015 [5 favorites]


Thanks RogerB, new band name (Libertarian Fever Dream) and album title (Paranoid Style!).
posted by evilDoug at 10:38 AM on August 24, 2015


Been done, I'm afraid
posted by RogerB at 10:41 AM on August 24, 2015


The ability of the US populace to erase from memory (or ignore so it never is remembered) many of its own worst abuses of power and populace should never be underestimated.
hippybear

I think the mistake you're making is that the population didn't erase these events from their memory, they just don't care. Even reminding people by bringing these up will only be generally met with shrugs, or very possibly expressions of approval of what Hoover was doing, "to protect America".
posted by Sangermaine at 10:51 AM on August 24, 2015 [1 favorite]


Pretty sure that the "don't care" is fully covered by the "ignore it" part... because how much easier is it to ignore something that you don't even care about?
posted by hippybear at 10:52 AM on August 24, 2015


There are 100,000 employees of the Department of Agriculture.

There you go channeling Rush Limbaugh again. About 40,000 of those work for the Forest Service managing 200 million acres of national forests, maintaining thousands of miles of roads and trails, thousands of campgrounds, safety and rescue, and oh, yeah, putting out forest fires.

Another 10,000 are involved in inspecting plants and animals at the borders. Another 10,000 are involved in inspecting food production in the U.S.

2000 administer the SNAP food stamp program.

About 5,000 work for the Farm Service Bureau assisting the more than 2 million farms in the U.S.

Others work in rural development, resource conservation, foreign agriculture assistance, pest control research, food and nutrition standards and many more.

Which should be pulling weeds? Maybe the few doling out farm subsidies, but the real the enemy isn't those workers doing their jobs, it is your local congressman.
posted by JackFlash at 11:03 AM on August 24, 2015 [27 favorites]


That's alright, RogerB, I'll just go all 90's and use Paranoid Stylee! Or was that 80's? Damn being a USian is a bitch when it comes to remembering the past.
posted by evilDoug at 11:04 AM on August 24, 2015 [2 favorites]


OPPA PARANOID STYLE

...

(shhh, everyone quiet, I think they're listening to us)
posted by lmfsilva at 11:30 AM on August 24, 2015


I clipped an op-ed column by Bradbury from the late 1970s titled "Book Burnng Without Stiking a Match" (sadly not available on-line), where he argued that the message of Fahrenheit 451 was not the danger of government censorship itself but of a cultural shift from print to video creating a non-thinking non-literate (easily controlled) monoculture. I was somewhat shocked and disappointed, and he continued that message for the rest of his life ("There are worse crimes than burning books. One of them is not reading them." "You don't have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.") He did, in some ways, age into a relatively boring curmudgeon, but I have to wonder if he started to emphasize that just to get the Feds to stop bothering him.

I'm still not sure if the Internet has disproven or reinforced his point there, as seemingly limitless sources of information allow people to build their own echo chambers (and high-speed service allows video to replace text).
posted by oneswellfoop at 12:17 PM on August 24, 2015 [2 favorites]


Fuck tha police, er, FBI...

Fuck me, Ray Bradbury
posted by Johnny Wallflower at 12:19 PM on August 24, 2015 [1 favorite]


The file is full of language like this. Was there actually a thing in the 1950s where FBI agents, or maybe bureaucrats in general, had to talk like The Onion publisher T. Herman Zwiebel?

In the 50s, paperbacks were largely the province of pulp / genre fiction, stocked by bus stations, drug stores, and newsstands. It wasn't until the mid-50s, with the opening of City Lights in SF that a brick-and-mortar bookstore stocked a large number of them, with substantial literary fiction / nonfiction / poetry paperback publishing not getting underway until the 1960s. I can easily see an square, white collar FBI agent not being familiar with paperbacks, or seeing them as a novelty.
posted by ryanshepard at 12:42 PM on August 24, 2015 [1 favorite]


But notice the use of "paper backed volumes", in place of "paperbacks" or "paperback books". It is similar to people who do not use any contractions when they talk. It is not odd at first, but slowly you begin to notice it, and eventually you fear you may be dealing with a robot or space alien.
posted by benito.strauss at 1:22 PM on August 24, 2015 [3 favorites]


I clipped an op-ed column by Bradbury from the late 1970s titled "Book Burnng Without Stiking a Match" (sadly not available on-line), where he argued that the message of Fahrenheit 451 was not the danger of government censorship itself but of a cultural shift from print to video creating a non-thinking non-literate (easily controlled) monoculture.
oneswellfoop

My hope is that Bradbury wouldn't succumb to pressure like that. I think it's plausible that he began to see the Monoculture around him, and realized that it could stop people from asking the simplest questions about their own Gov't, and that stood out as a bigger risk.
posted by shenkerism at 1:57 PM on August 24, 2015


I clipped an op-ed column by Bradbury from the late 1970s titled "Book Burnng Without Stiking a Match" (sadly not available on-line), where he argued that the message of Fahrenheit 451 was not the danger of government censorship itself but of a cultural shift from print to video creating a non-thinking non-literate (easily controlled) monoculture. I was somewhat shocked and disappointed, and he continued that message for the rest of his life ("There are worse crimes than burning books. One of them is not reading them." "You don't have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.") He did, in some ways, age into a relatively boring curmudgeon, but I have to wonder if he started to emphasize that just to get the Feds to stop bothering him.

I was a huge Bradbury fan when I was young, and he was pretty much the progenitor of cultural criticism couched in "soft" SF and always an incredible curmudgeon about technology and society. Fahrenheit 451 always struck me as containing both the "nobody reads anymore" critique and the censorship one but there's a sort of companion story - the "Fall of the House of Usher" one in The Martial Chronicles that makes the former more explicit.

Even better curmudgeonly Bradbury stories (as I remember them from years ago):

"The Murderer" - a man is confined to a psychiatric institution after he snaps one day and starts "murdering" all the (ubiquitous in the setting) distracting electronic devices in his life. One of the most prescient SF stories ever in its vision of communications technology and how people (now) would use it.

"The Concrete Mixer" - when I was a kid I thought this was the bleakest thing I'd ever read. A Martian invasion force approaches Earth with trepidation, assuming (because they have intercepted out media) that mankind will be ready to fight and pull no punches. Instead they are welcomed but slowly destroyed spiritually and culturally by capitalism and mass culture.
posted by atoxyl at 2:28 PM on August 24, 2015 [4 favorites]


I wonder if all his stuff is really as good as I remember but I always thought he was a great prose stylist. And while he was probably too heavy-handed to be "literary" he was really a genius of that classic short story technique of using a quotidian frame story as a window into a Big Issue. The other one that always got me as a kid was "The Garbage Collector" in which the title character comes home from work and tells his wife that he was just informed that he will be conscripted to haul away the dead in the event of nuclear war. Which is very similar to the more famous "The Highway" but stuck with me more.
posted by atoxyl at 2:47 PM on August 24, 2015 [1 favorite]


>There are 100,000 employees of the Department of Agriculture... Yet only about 300,000 >farms account for about 80 percent of the nation's agricultural products.

I work for the USDA. I help the nursery industry. That's 200,000 jobs in California alone. But never mind. Ray Bradbury hit a nerve with young adults, just the people the FBI were most worried about. The FBI was also excessively worried about the lyrics to "Louie, Louie"
posted by acrasis at 3:49 PM on August 24, 2015 [2 favorites]


There you go channeling Rush Limbaugh again.

P.J. O'Rourke, actually, because...

the real the enemy isn't those workers doing their jobs, it is your local congressman.

... the Agriculture anecdote is lifted from his book Parliament of Whores.

So, yes, it's Congress. We agree on that.

Come to the dark side, young one...
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 9:06 PM on August 24, 2015


I don't think it's "your" local congressman. Thinking it's a class of democratically-elected leaders that cause all our problems is a recipe for fascism.

Not everyone runs for office with an eye to becoming a soulless powermonger. It's the culture there that does these things, a culture enabled by lobbying, by corruption, by cynicism. The culture sustains itself by indoctrinating others into its mindset, by requiring that they do so to remain in office. If they don't, well, maybe the next guy elected will be a better host organism.

Democracy works only if we put the effort into it, if we make it work. If it doesn't, the others generally require armed revolution to produce change, and it was only a fluke of situation that it worked for us the last time that happened.
posted by JHarris at 3:29 AM on August 25, 2015 [1 favorite]


Nobody's mentioned yet, but the first three pages of the document name him as ROY BRADBURY. All that effort, and they can't even get his name right?
posted by vibratory manner of working at 11:02 AM on August 25, 2015 [1 favorite]


Slate picked up the story and quoted somebody with my name.
posted by maxsparber at 12:35 PM on August 25, 2015 [2 favorites]


Are you or have you ever been a member of the hipster movement?
posted by clavdivs at 5:35 PM on August 25, 2015


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