Stories and Storytellers: Resisting Anti-Intellectualism and Myopia

I recently finished blazing through Ray Bradbury’s classic novel, ‘Fahrenheit 451.’ It was the first time I had read it. When I was around 11 years old I watched the 1966 film version of the novel and most of my understanding of the book’s content was derived from this film, though poorly remembered in the past seventeen years or so, and from casual conversations about the novel with others who may or may not have read it. That, in itself, is a bit shameful: that many of us had not read the primary source, but spoke of it like we knew it well.

Ever since I watched that movie I have been addicted to collecting books. I have convinced myself at various points in my adult life that part of it is motivated by a desire to provide these books for friends and family — maybe bequeath them to my children or grandchildren after amassing a collection rivaling that of another character of Bradbury’s: William Stendahl. Alas, that is still a long way off. And, as long as I do periodically give one or two away, I sleep soundly.

While I work on this collection, I am drawn to other stories that offer a glimpse of a world devoid of curiosity and the desire for learning ideas, holding onto captivating — if at times confusing — philosophies: Denzel Washington’s Eli in the film, ‘Book of Eli,’ jealously guarding one of the last known Bibles; a similarly restricted Bible in Margaret Atwood’s ‘Handmaid’s Tale’; the aforementioned Stendahl being forced to witness the cremation of his own vast collection. Historically we also remember with ancient angst the burning of the Library of Alexandria. Turning then to only the last century, with awe and hope, we remember the work of the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives Section (MFAA) of the United States Army, who scoured European warzones to protect, preserve, and retrieve priceless works of art, on the Allied march to Berlin.

We have scores of stories, both fictitious and historical, which offer us guidance about the way the world treats art, imagination, curiosity, learning, and the simple pursuit of knowledge. The growing tendency toward anti-intellectual rhetoric harms us all. As we move into our third week under a president who seems to care little for anything but the most gaudy and gilded ghosts of the above ideas, these stories should provoke us to think carefully about the ideas we hold dear. We need to protect and preserve the art and ideas that already exist, and we need to get better at creating our own primary sources for future generations to study.

I also recently read Yonatan Zunger’s article, “Trial Balloon for a Coup?”, which has unfortunately allowed me to imagine a dystopian future with less hyperbole and speculation than I would like. It’s certainly not the end of the world, or even the end of life in the United States of America as we know it — not necessarily. But there is cause for some alarm. There are shifts in attitudes that have led to some white supremacists masking themselves as intellectuals while simultaneously disregarding facts.

Regardless of how the rest of this decade rolls on into the next, the election and presidency of Donald Trump will no doubt be a key event in an era future historians and storytellers will study. And what will they find? Will there be simply a range of overlapping and contradicting news articles that confuse the history students not yet born? Will we only offer bite-sized messages occasionally collated into a more coherent body of thought?

No. Plain and simple. Many are already writing substantive works about the way we are thinking now, the things we are predicting as a society, and the unease many of us feel. The ability to read and write is nearly universal in this country. Because of this, our history is being written by virtually everyone. It is probably the most democratic thing we can do. We can write about what happens to us, what we do, where we go and who we eat and drink with. The mundane things we do may be more important than any big thing we want to be a part of. And we might just stumble from the mundane into the monumental one day.

Maybe our grandchildren will ask us what life was like — the way many of us wonder what life was like before television or the Internet. What will we tell them? We are not all going to become renowned leaders of movements. But we already are the best observers of what is happening around us.

The tasks before us are many, but there are over 300 million of us. We will resist and labor and struggle to undo the injustices of the new administration. We will use megaphones, microphones, and telephones to amplify our voices and the voices of our friends who might have more on the line than we do.

We have also inherited much from previous generations: the treatises, novels, poetry, and diaries; the paintings, sculptures, sketches, and photographs. We can’t let this vast historical and cultural treasury be lost or devalued while those with myopic vision and small minds try to simplify or erase the nuance we know exists.

We thus have the incredible dual responsibility of telling the little pieces of our own stories, and holding on tightly to the pieces of the stories that came before us. So we protect what has already been contributed to our cultures. And then keep creating and contributing, ourselves. We don’t have to believe that our democracy is crumbling when we are democratically able to record our own history — and make it.

This moment, this epoch, this era is your story. The curious who will pop up in future generations are counting on you to tell your story, and to keep telling the stories from past generations. Remembering yesterday, and planning for tomorrow, you are both today’s stories and storytellers.