First I want to state that I am not against equality, respect, and acceptance. I have been a Special Education teacher for over 20 years and I am my students biggest cheerleader, advocate and supporter. When the American Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Individual with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) were created over 30 years ago they became part of the Civil Rights Law. These laws I support to the core of my being.
Kurt Vonnegut wrote Harrison Bergeron in 1961, as a satirical and dystopian science fiction short story that was first published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.
Kurt Vonnegut's goal of the story was to demonstrate the dangers of governmental control and ignorance through showing what true equality is and what it could lead to in our society. This is evident in conversations I have had with people on hot topics like bee hive collapse and the Boy Scouts decision to allow homesexual males into the ranks.
Kurt Vonnegut demonstrates in his story, and it has been echoed in Suzanne Collin's The Hunger Games, themes of freedom, civil rights, the American dream and the media influence. He shows through exaggeration of a futuristic dystopia the opposition between strength and weakness and knowledge and ignorance. Harrison Bergeron was written over forty-eight years ago but the themes are still present in today's society. It can be seen in current writers like Suzanne Collins and movies like World War Z.
The Lack of Freedom-
The main theme in "Harrison Bergeron" is the lack of freedom. The United States was founded and established on this highly valued ideal. The first 10 Amendments, also known as the Bill of Rights, were written to establish this core theme.
The Bill of Rights:
Amendment 1: Protects freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and freedom of the press, as well as the right to assemble and petition the government.
Amendment 2: Protects the right to bear arms (weapons.)
Amendment 3: Prohibits the forced quartering of soldiers during peacetime
Amendment 4: Prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures and sets out requirements for search warrants based on probable cause.
Amendment 5: Sets out rules for indictment by grand jury and eminent domain, protects the right to due process, and prohibits self-incrimination and double jeopardy.
Amendment 6: Protects the right to a fair and speedy public trial by jury, including the rights to be notified of the accusations, to confront the accuser, to obtain witnesses and to retain counsel.
Amendment 7: Provides for the right to trial by jury in certain civil cases, according to common law.
Amendment 8: Prohibits excessive fines and excessive bail, as well as cruel and unusual punishment.
Amendment 9: Protects rights not enumerated in the constitution.
Amendment 10: Limits the powers of the federal government to those delegated to it by the Constitution
There are 17 more Amendments that were written after the first 10 which shows the growth of the United States.
In Harrison Bergeron's world, people cannot choose what they want to take part in or what they are good at because if a person is above average in anything, even in appearance, they are handicapped as a result. The Dancers in the story are weighted down with lead shot and have to wear masks. Harrison Bergeron strives for these freedoms by escaping from jail, removing his "handicaps" and attempting to influence others around him. The loss of freedom in American is slowly occurring now with the many ordinances and laws being implemented today. Watch the news and listen to how many laws are being discussed and ask yourself, "is this law to benefit humanity or an individual group?"
The Loss of Civil Rights
The loss of Civil Rights is ironic in Harrison Bergeron. The Civil Rights Movement is one of the core points in American History. It started with the Amendment 13,14 and 15 which were written between 1865 and 1869.
Amendment 13: Abolishes slavery and involuntary servitude, except as punishment for a crime.
Amendment 14: Defines citizenship, contains the Privileges or Immunities Clause, the Due Process Clause, the Equal Protection Clause, and deals with post-Civil War issues.
Amendment 15: Prohibits the denial of suffrage based on race, color, or previous condition of servitude.
We are also the only Nation in the World that has the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Individual with Disabilities Education Act.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was signed into law on July 26, 1990, by President George H.W. Bush. The ADA is one of America's most comprehensive pieces of civil rights legislation that prohibits discrimination and guarantees that people with disabilities have the same opportunities as everyone else to participate in the mainstream of American life.
The Individual with Disabilities Education Act is a civil rights law that allows children to access free and appropriate education. This means, regardless of disabilities, a child can go to school free.
In Harrison Bergeron, there is no longer civil rights because everyone is suppose to be made completely equal, by the government's standards. Basically, this leaves them without any rights to anything, even their own natural abilities. The slow stripping away of our own civil liberties is going on now, but in the name of safety. After September 11, 2001, the US. Patriot Act was created in the name of protection. Currently, 44+ states have adopted the Standard Core Curriculum material.
One of the core beliefs in America is the American Dream. We have people flock to America for the American Dream. We are the only Nation that doesn't have an established social norm cast system or hierarchy that prevents people from changing their social or economic status. Kurt Vonnegut, the author of Harrison Bergeron, reveals in the theme the importance of maintaining the American dream and the ability to move up in the society or achieve personal success through the characters' inability to change their own economic or social status. Each person in the story either possess "average" or handicapped intelligence, so even if people could utilize their talents to their fullest potential, they still wouldn't possess the knowledge required for social mobility.
Contrast of Strength vs Weakness
In Harrison Bergeron, the contrast between strength and weakness is one of the strongest resemblance between today's America and the dystopic view the author has created. Every strong person in this story, whether it is physical strength, mental or aesthetic, is disabled to prevent the weak from being harmed. However, the person being disabled is also harmed because of the loss of their individual talent.
A couple of weeks ago I overheard on the local radio a person attempt to justify the increase in taxes for the wealthy. He complained that the wealthy do not need multiple yachts and should pay more since it wasn't fair that he had to pay 30% of taxes. The radio host was brilliant. He compared this person envy of the wealthy vs a person's jealousy.
According to Webster's Dictionary:
Envy: (noun) resentful awareness of another's advantage.
Jealous: (adjective) suspicious of a rival or of one believed to enjoy an advantage.
The demands for the wealthy to "pay their fair share" stems from envy from others who see themselves as weak. In our society we have people who perceive themselves as being weak, so the strong successful are punished. In this case, the increase of taxes.
Kurt Vonnegut used the subtle changes in society 48 years ago to satirize America through the opposition of knowledge and power versus suppression and ignorance. Harrison Bergeron is Kurt Vonnegut's attempt to warn against the government's increase of authority and power, even something trivial or masked as "safety" the population becomes more ignorant.
The more knowledge the government acquires, like the current IRS Scandal, and doesn't share with the public, the more impossible it becomes for Americans to think and act. When Harrison defies society by demonstrating his abilities and speaks out about freedom, obstacles are set up to prevent his success.
The continue growth of ingnorance and "political correctness" is painfully illustrated in the last scene of Harrison Bergeron. Hazel, Harrison's mother has been watching the whole attempt at rebellion on television as a dance performance. Hazel watches her son die in front of her on live television and never gains an ounce of understanding as to what just happened to her son or society.
Kurt Vonnegut in this harsh demonstration, is calling the readers to act upon what might normally not affect us before we loose control. Kurt Vonnegut encourages appreciation of differences within humanity because failure to appreciate uniqueness could lead to actual equality and world without competition, dreams or mobility.
In previous posts I have called parents to action regarding their children's education. We are often highly criticized for being "helicopter parents" or "deviant parents." To avoid a Harrison Bergeron society we need to take the first step as parents and speak up about our children's education.