Ray Bradbury’s conservative mind
In Ray Bradbury’s story “The Smile,” a post-apocalyptic community ritualistically gathers to burn books and other remnants of civilization. “It has to do with hate,” explains a vandal obliviously fixing to destroy the Mona Lisa. “Hate for everything in the past.”
The beauty of science fiction is that it enables writers to say the nastiest things about the present so long as they pretend to be talking about the future.
Ray Bradbury’s six hundred or so short stories display more interest in preservation than progress. He was a conservative in the most literal sense of the word.
When conservatives claim Bradbury by citing him calling Bill Clinton a “s—head” or observing in 2010 that there is “too much government today,” they display a short-sighted view not only of Bradbury but of conservatism—as if it amounted to naming the right villains or supporting a set of policies.
Sure, America’s most popular short-story writer was a Fox News-watching, Coors-drinking, Tea Partier who believed Ronald Reagan the twentieth century’s greatest president. But who cares what politicians got his vote? What matters is how he wrote.
Russell Kirk, a vocal admirer of Bradbury, regarded the “preservation of the ancient moral traditions of humanity” as the essence of conservatism. As he wrote in The Conservative Mind, “Conservatives respect the wisdom of their ancestors… they are dubious of wholesale alteration.” Readers can find an aesthetic expression of those sentiments in “To the Chicago Abyss” or “Mars Is Heaven.”
Bradbury’s stories reflected a preservationist mindset even (especially?) when he supported liberal causes. His political views evolved. His literary conservatism, which transcended party and politics, remained firm. He celebrated small-town America, endless summer vacations, nonconformists daring to run afoul of the state, and grandparents as the best time machines. His oeuvre is at once apolitical and conservative.
Bradbury was more specifically a certain species of conservative: a throwback. To be a product of the past rather than the present provides an anthropological advantage. You aren’t a captive to the age in which you live. The out-of-time visitor spots trends present-dwellers are blind to. Where the meliorist sees the silver lining, the curmudgeon sees the cloud.
In Bradbury’s fiction, the future isn’t so bright you have to wear shades. My favorite Bradbury story is “The Murderer,” in which a technophobe is deemed insane for waging war on cell phones, fax machines, car radios, and other distracting technological incursions on a human existence. “The first victim, or one of the first, was my telephone,” the murderer confesses. “Murder most foul. I shoved it in the kitchen Insinkerator! Stopped the disposal unit in mid-swallow. Poor thing strangled to death. After that I shot the television set!”
“And what happened next?” the murderer’s interrogator asks of his crusade. “Silence happened next. God, it was beautiful.”
Sixty years later, with big-screens glaring everywhere and stranger cell-phone conversations invading our ears, who doesn’t sympathize with “the murderer”?
People read Tweets, not books. They let the television raise their children. They play Madden 13, not football. They have sex with the internet rather than ask real women on dates. Progress isn’t.
There is a Luddite quality to progress. Technology has confined childhood to an indoor prison, transformed books into antiquarian curios, and made socializing something we do in front of screens. Like the Luddites, progressives remain oblivious to their destruction. If one were to ask Neil Ludd in the midst of destroying a stocking frame what he was doing, he’d likely say: progress.
The storyteller lived as he wrote.
Bradbury never learned to drive. He regarded videogames as a pastime for losers. When I corresponded with him for my book Blue Collar Intellectuals, his responses coming through his daughter’s email account relieved me. The man who regarded the computer as a fancy typewriter couldn’t have had a gmail account, right?
The classic example of Bradbury’s atavism came when he won an Aviation-Space Writers award in 1968. The honoree informed the group that he couldn’t make it to Cape Canaveral in time to accept: the author of The Martian Chronicles didn’t venture into planes, let alone rockets.
Bradbury’s gravestone will indicate his birth as August 22, 1920. But he was an old soul belonging to an even earlier age. America not only lost an author last week. The New America lost the perspective of the Old Republic. The future suffers from the loss of its past.