Harrison Bergeron by Kurt Vonnegut (1961)
Tuesday’s Tale of Science Fiction September 11, 2018
How does a democracy die? Do democracies die with a military force of boots on the streets? Or revolutions? Or do people end up being hoodwinked and surrendering with a whimper? This blog doesn’t do politics but this week’s short story by Kurt Vonnegut has opened the door to thoughts and questions about authoritarianism, fascism, human rights and equality, and connects us to today’s erosion of democratic norms in the political system. Vonnegut knew about mass gullibility and maybe we are seeing some of that today. Journalist Bill Moyers called our current era Trump and the Dark Age of Unreason.
Vonnegut’s opening paragraph of Harrison Bergeron is a stunning one.
‘THE YEAR WAS 2081, and everybody was finally equal. They weren’t only equal before God and the law. They were equal every which way. Nobody was smarter than anybody else. Nobody was better looking than anybody else. Nobody was stronger or quicker than anybody else. All this equality was due to the 211th, 212th, and 213th Amendments to the Constitution, and to the unceasing vigilance of agents of the United States Handicapper General.’
For this kind of ‘equality’ to be reality, people cannot be their natural selves and must wear heavy devices on their bodies that handicap them. For example, ballet dancers cannot use their natural grace and beauty, so they are required to wear weights and masks to make all the ballerinas equally clumsy and hide their individual faces.
The story focuses on a U.S. government controlling the lives of individuals, even the potential of individuals. Free thought, free expression, truth, and the hunger for power and defiance are elements. It’s a timely story for 2018 in our hot political climate where free speech and a free press are being attacked (the demise of a free press is one of the first warning signs that democracy is dying). The New Yorker Magazine in March of this year featured Exposed, Trump with no clothes, as the American Emperor. Many saw this as a reference to Hans Christian Anderson’s tale The Emperor’s New Clothes, where fear of the emperor keeps people from speaking the truth.
Research today suggests that democracies around the world may be at serious risk of decline. Reading Harrison Bergeron is an irresistible dive into a world that will make you shudder.
‘Clanking, clownish, and huge, Harrison stood in the center of the studio. The knob of the uprooted studio door was still in his hand. Ballerinas, technicians, musicians, and announcers cowered on their knees before him, expecting to die. “I am the Emperor!” cried Harrison. “Do you hear? I am the Emperor!’
How would a government enforce such an absurd and extreme equality? Would the government look like Russia or other totalitarian nations that suppress human creativity, free speech, and personal expression? Why would a government even want to do this? Who has the courage to rebel? Vonnegut answers all these questions in his 1961 story of Harrison Bergeron.
What do you think? Do leave a comment!
Read the short story Harrison Bergeron in the year 2081 (20-minute read) here at Archive.org
Listen to the audio on You Tube (13 minutes):
Kurt Vonnegut is most famous for his Slaughterhouse-Five, published in 1969—the Vietnam war, racial unrest, and cultural and social upheaval.
“That Time in 1969 When Kurt Vonnegut Accurately Profiled Donald Trump”
by Seth Shellhouse. At Medium.com:
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2 responses to “2081, Vonnegut’s Timely Satirical, Dystopian Science Fiction”
This story contains one of my all-time favorite fictional character names – that of the United States Handicapper General, Diana Moon Glampers(!)
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Striking name, yes, I agree. Isn’t it interesting that she doesn’t have to wear any handicap devices in her role as the General.
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