George Pyle: Utah government’s effort to dodge controversy echoes ‘Fahrenheit 451′

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Capitol building in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2023.

“If you don’t want a house built, hide the nails and wood. If you don’t want a man unhappy politically, don’t give him two sides to a question to worry him; give him one. Better yet, give him none.”

— “Fahrenheit 451″

One of the benefits of a liberal arts education is that being well-read can help you avoid a supremely embarrassing moment such as the one recently suffered by the head of Utah’s Department of Government Operations.

Specifically, if you have read Ray Bradbury’s 1953 novel “Fahrenheit 451,” you are less likely to find yourself spouting nonsense that so closely echoes the speech of Fire Captain Beatty as he explains to rebellious fireman Guy Montag just why it became necessary to create a society that burns all the books.

(Necessary, and easy, according to the story, as most people had already stopped reading books in favor of watching TV.)

Government Operations Director Marvin Dodge recently tried to explain to The Salt Lake Tribune why he ordered his PR staff to remove what normal people saw as a boiler-plate social media post marking Pride Month.

The more Dodge went on about it, the more he sounded like Beatty.

Please don’t think we are targeting LGBTQ+ folks, Dodge said, or any other particular group. From now on, the department won’t issue supportive tweets or Facebook posts for any holiday or occasion. Not Christmas. Not Pioneer Day. None of them.

It just ticks people off, he explained, and that’s not the purpose of a taxpayer-supported agency like his.

Had Dodge been familiar with Bradbury’s novel — written in a flurry of anti-McCarthy fervor on a coin-operated typewriter in the basement of the UCLA library — he might have at least understood that Beatty is the villain. An incredibly well-spoken villain, with the eloquence that rises from certainty, but the villain of the piece nevertheless.

Consider these passages from Captain Beatty and from Director Dodge. The similarity is uncanny. Almost as if it were deliberate.

Beatty: “Coloured people don’t like ‘Little Black Sambo’. Burn it. White people don’t feel good about ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’. Burn it. Someone’s written a book on tobacco and cancer of the lungs? The cigarette people are weeping? Burn the book.”

Dodge: “It seems these days, no matter what gets posted, somebody has a burr in their saddle, … and we shouldn’t go out of our way to irritate people.”

Beatty: “Don’t step on the toes of the dog-lovers, the cat-lovers, doctors, lawyers, merchants, chiefs, Mormons, Baptists, Unitarians, second-generation Chinese, Swedes, Italians, Germans, Texans, Brooklynites, Irishmen, people from Oregon or Mexico.”

Dodge: “So if we celebrate Christmas, and post Christmas things, then we irritate the atheists. If we talk about Pioneer Day, we irritate the anti-Mormon people. Obviously, there’s a lot of conversation around gay pride and that irritates the conservatives.”

That last sentence is certainly true. More so than many of us would have thought possible only a few months ago.

There was some reason to hope that Pride celebrations were no longer a political hot potato, no longer the kind of thing that a hard-working bureaucrat would want to dodge. That the fact that, for example, marriage equality was so quickly assimilated into the culture meant that Happy Pride Month was no more remarkable than Happy Memorial Day.

But now at least one highly placed government official has decided that every holiday offends someone. So, like the firemen of “Fahrenheit 451″ he has to burn them all.

It was just a few weeks ago that the Utah Transit Authority was pressured by members of the Utah Legislature to remove from its fleet a bus decorated with messages designed to be supportive of the agency’s LGBTQ employees. (And to help that seriously short-staffed operation widen its recruiting net by demonstrating its openness to hiring people from that community.)

Then the U.S. Supreme Court used a totally cooked-up set of circumstances to rule that a Colorado web designer couldn’t be required to create a web page for a same-sex wedding.

The anti-gay backlash is serious and real and is the wind beneath the wings of fascist Republicans such as Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis and leaders in Texas, South Dakota and Arkansas who are undoing the last century of social progress on everything from personal and sexual freedoms to child labor to book-burning.

Being familiar with literature such as “Fahrenheit 451″ will help all of us realize how tenuous our civilization truly is. Which is why public education is under attack in so many places.

George Pyle, reading The New York Times at The Rose Establishment.

George Pyle, Opinion Editor of The Salt Lake Tribune, should admit that he did not read the original “Fahrenheit 451″ until about five years ago. Though he did see the 1966 Francois Truffaut movie version many times. The two versions are different in many ways, but the fire captain’s speech is the scary highlight of each.