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  • Writer's pictureJoe Pace

Favorite Fictional Characters, #348: Harrison Bergeron

High Slaughterhouse Five!

Kurt Vonnegut, among his other superpowers, is a master of the short story. His 1968 collection Welcome to the Monkey House might be finest expression of the art form in modern literature. A satirist, a historian, Vonnegut is also underrated as a science fiction author. Many of his works contain aspects of futurism and speculation as to humanity's development. My favorite of these, from Monkey House, is the short story Harrison Bergeon.

For those who don't recall the work, it's a brief glance at a future Earth (in the year 2081) that has achieved equality not through the ennobling of the least among us but through placing handicaps on those with above average talents. Strong people weighed down by sandbags, smart folk limited by noisome headbands, etc. Harrison Bergeron, an extraordinary teenage boy of exceptional physical and intellectual talent, is removed from his family by the omnipresent government and fitted with a variety of handicaps to reduce him to the acceptable baseline of mediocrity. He rebels against this, taking to the banal airwaves to sing, to dance, to declare himself be, briefly, free. The government (in the person of Handicapper General Diana Moon Glampers) kills him for his treason. To be a genius and an athlete is subversive in the new world order of enforced meaningless equality.

There's a surface interpretation here, one that excites the Randian objectivist apostles, who present the story as an example of government overreach and the degradation of regulations that attempt to level the playing field. There's a veneer of that, of celebration of excellence, and when I read this for the first time as a kid that's how I saw it too. It made no sense to me to achieve artificial equality by tearing down our elites. But Vonnegut's target here isn't bureaucracy, or even that false equality. He's skewering pop culture, consumerism, and complacency. He's also framing the competing Cold War ideologies of capitalism and communism as equally ludicrous when pursued to the extreme - Bergeron's gravity-defying denouement pokes fun at American exceptionalism, for instance.

We're not tearing down elites in this country, we're enriching them at a blistering pace. But we're defining elite based on wealth and not talent, on birth and not ability. The gap between the richest and the poorest has never been wider. Those who look to Harrison Bergeron as a cautionary tale should worry less about being fitted with sandbags and more about the boy's parents, sitting on the couch and watching their son's murder on live television with no ability to understand or respond. America isn't being leveled by some Handicapper General, it's being stupefied by reality TV and fake news. The entire country, trying to declare itself free, is being gunned down. And we're too desensitized to notice or care.

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