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Here it is useful to consider the wisdom of the always profound Ray Bradbury. Most of us remember his most famous novel, “Fahrenheit 451,” as the story of a society in which the job of “firemen” is to burn any books that might be discovered. But, as Bradbury himself noted on more than one occasion, to read this as simply a cautionary tale against censorship is to miss the point.
In Bradbury’s telling, the book burning didn’t originate from above. It was what we nowadays refer to as a grass-roots movement. And the movement wasn’t to ban unpopular ideas. It was to ban complex ideas. Books were the enemy because books were difficult, and deep, and had the terrible property of changing people’s minds. People didn’t want their minds changed. They didn’t want their beliefs challenged. They wanted not complexity but simplicity.
Therein lies the problem. Few ideas of genuine value can fit on a bumper sticker, or in a sound bite or blog post or even an opinion column. Some ideas really do need to be argued for thousands and thousands of words. To the extent that we find arguments of that length no longer interesting, we are already in Bradbury’s world, the books merrily burning away, all in the cause of keeping ideas simple.
This is the greatest challenge facing your generation. Yes, there is an economy that must be repaired; yes, there is an educational system that must be revitalized; yes, there are enemies abroad who must be defeated.
But none of these achievements will matter unless you also make war upon my generation’s celebration of the slogan and the applause line.
Simplicity is the enemy of serious thought, and serious thought is what this world desperately needs. And if we Americans find ourselves unable or unwilling to take the time to think deeply, then some wiser, more serious, more reflective culture will supersede ours. And our defeat will be entirely deserved.
Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg View columnist and a professor of law at Yale University.
The Opinion section is produced by the Editorial Department to foster discussion about key issues. The Editorial Board represents the institutional voice of the Star Tribune and operates independently of the newsroom.