As income gaps grow ever wider in the United States, conservatives regularly turn to a Kurt Vonnegut short story to defend inequality. But does “Harrison Bergeron” really say what they claim it does?
I begin with a nod to Jonathan Chait of New York Magazine, who notes how the right has been using the story:
[T]he impulse to justify existing patterns of income distribution is powerful. Kevin Williamson reiterates the hoary case in National Review. Much of Williamson’s essay is dedicated to the straw man argument that liberals propose “eradicating” inequality, as opposed to the actual liberal position, which is to ameliorate it slightly while still accepting not only significant inequality but more of it than nearly any other advanced economy. Still, Williamson hits the familiar pro-inequality points. There’s the ritual mention of “Harrison Bergeron,” the Vonnegut short story about a dystopian society in which a “Handicapper General” levels down the smart, beautiful, and otherwise fortunate. There’s the likewise mandatory reduction of inequality to the fact that very short people can’t become basketball stars. And of course there are the paeans to the inescapable natural sources of inequality.
Here’s Chait’s conclusion:
[W]hen conservative intellectuals do make inequality the text (as opposed to the subtext), they have a taste for framing the question in absolutist terms. The work of Ayn Rand is of course their favorite, but “Harrison Bergeron” runs a distant second. (Previous right-wing references to this story include this, this, this, this, this, and innumerable others.) Yet this story tells us nothing about actually existing liberal policies on inequality. The story describes an anti-inequality crusade so extreme it bears not the slightest resemblance to the actual United States. Vonnegut himself was a socialist, which might clue you in to the fact that he did not see this particular story as evidence that rampant egalitarianism had overtaken American government. If conservatives want to construct a persuasive defense of inequality, they need to locate their egalitarian dystopia not in old novels but in the world around them.
I disagree only with Chait’s complaint about people turning to “old novels.” Literature provides explanatory insight and emotional wisdom, and one can choose both nuanced argument and powerful stories. In fact, to examine “Harrison Bergeron” closely is to liberate it from rightwing ideology.
The story is set in 2081 and the “all men are created equal” clause in The Declaration of Independence has been interpreted to mean that no one can stand out:
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.
When George and Hazel’s extraordinary son, Harrison, is taken away from them, their governmentally-imposed handicaps prevent them from mourning their loss:
It was tragic, all right, but George and Hazel couldn’t think about it very hard. Hazel had a perfectly average intelligence, which meant she couldn’t think about anything except in short bursts. And George, while his intelligence was way above normal, had a little mental handicap radio in his ear. He was required by law to wear it at all times. It was tuned to a government transmitter. Every twenty seconds or so, the transmitter would send out some sharp noise to keep people like George from taking unfair advantage of their brains.
Their mediocre lives are suddenly interrupted, however, when Harrison appears on a televised dance show that they are watching. He is weighted down so that he can’t outsoar the other dancers, but that doesn’t stop him. His first step is to divest himself of all that is holding him down:
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! Everybody must do what I say at once!” He stamped his foot and the studio shook.
“Even as I stand here” he bellowed, “crippled, hobbled, sickened – I am a greater ruler than any man who ever lived! Now watch me become what I can become!”
Harrison tore the straps of his handicap harness like wet tissue paper, tore straps guaranteed to support five thousand pounds.
After one of the female dancers accepts his invitation to dance, they put on a performance for the ages:
Harrison placed his big hands on the girl’s tiny waist, letting her sense the weightlessness that would soon be hers.
And then, in an explosion of joy and grace, into the air they sprang!
Not only were the laws of the land abandoned, but the law of gravity and the laws of motion as well.
They reeled, whirled, swiveled, flounced, capered, gamboled, and spun.
They leaped like deer on the moon.
The studio ceiling was thirty feet high, but each leap brought the dancers nearer to it.
It became their obvious intention to kiss the ceiling. They kissed it.
And then, neutralizing gravity with love and pure will, they remained suspended in air inches below the ceiling, and they kissed each other for a long, long time.
What follows is a scene that today’s right wing interprets as an allegory of excessive governmental regulation:
It was then that Diana Moon Glampers, the Handicapper General, came into the studio with a double-barreled ten-gauge shotgun. She fired twice, and the Emperor and the Empress were dead before they hit the floor.
Diana Moon Glampers loaded the gun again. She aimed it at the musicians and told them they had ten seconds to get their handicaps back on.
It was then that the Bergerons’ television tube burned out.
Several things are worth noting.
First of all, this is a more complex story than Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged or The Fountainhead. Entrepreneur John Gault and radical architect Howard Roark are presented without irony—so much so that they function as unintentional self-parodies. Vonnegut, by contrast, has some reservations about Harrison. As a rebellious artist himself, he recognizes certain megalomaniac tendencies. Would we really want our self-righteous artists becoming emperors and taking over the world? Unlike Rand, Vonnegut is not writing a simplistic parable.
But more significantly, does the rightwing really embrace paradigm-busting artists? Vonnegut is going after group-think, with physical constraints functioning as metaphors for what Blake called “mind-forged manacles,” and conservatives are not immune to such groupthink. Indeed, writing his story in 1961, Vonnegut was going after the very 1950s conformity that many current conservatives want to return to. That’s why “Harrison Bergeron” was embraced by the 1960s counter-culture movement, who were rebelling against what they saw as America’s sheep-like corporate culture. (Bergeron is derived from the French word for shepherd.)
Business conservatives like to see themselves as daring entrepreneurs, but in fact they almost always hedge their bets. The “risky” financial behavior that brought down the world economic system in 2008 technically wasn’t all that risky, at least for Wall Street financiers. After all, they had the government there to bail them out. Even in main street businesses, slow and steady is valued more than daring and innovative.
When it comes down to it, who is more supportive of daring artistic exploration like Harrison’s, liberals or conservatives? Who wants to levy taxes so that schools can offer music, art and drama? Who are the real champions of a liberal arts education that prods students to think outside the box and to question authority?
Those who loudly oppose “big gummint” are not really against government intervention—they just want government to support them and not other people.
Attacks on government safety net programs ignore how people work. In his famous hierarchy of needs, Abraham Maslow argues that we cannot self actualize until we have addressed our fundamental needs. In other words, if you really want people to soar, you first make sure they have access to basic necessities, such as food, shelter and medicine. Poverty shackles people far more than government regulation.
To use “Harrison Bergeron” as an argument for lower taxes, fewer business regulations, and elimination of basic social services is to ignore the foundation of truly creative thinking. Harrison can touch the sky because he lives in a world that supports orchestras and dance troupes and art for the masses (via television). If, in the story, his art is neutered the moment it starts causing people to start thinking for themselves—well, that sounds more like something that the Reagan-era National Endowment for the Arts would do, not liberals.
So here’s a way to read “Harrison Bergeron” in a way that does justice to Harrison’s liberating dance: ask yourself what it would take, not to bring everyone down to the same level, but to release their true potential. Insuring that everyone has access to health care is a good start.
Added note: Jason Blake in the University of Ljubljana English Department sent me the following quotation about John Ralston Saul, along with a link. Jason says that Saul has been going on about “real capitalists” since the mid-90s:
Capitalists, as opposed to managers, take risks, and with their own money. They expose themselves to the market and to competition. Managerialism has marginalized these real capitalists, JRS argues. But this view of capitalists is fictional, perhaps one of JRS’s “positive myths.”