October 22, 2009
Word Count: 1607
The Price of Equality
It would be both a mistake and truly a disservice to all college students if you were to eliminate Kurt Vonnegut’s short story “Harrison Bergeron” from your text Making Literature Matter. “Harrison Bergeron” is a valuable story with underlying themes that are still very much relevant in today’s society. Vonnegut’s story is a cautionary tale that warns Americans of the dangers of creating a truly equalitarian society in which its citizens sacrifice their individuality and freedom to the government in order to create a place where all men are created equal. As we read “Harrison Bergeron” we learn that equality does not create the utopia most people would expect but instead creates a society of mindless zombies who are handicapped and mutilated by the government all in the name of balance. The constant search for equality detailed in “Harrison Bergeron” is prevalent in today’s society as we search for new ways to equalize and create balance between individuals, races, socioeconomic classes and genders but we learn that this balance comes at a price.
The search for equality in “Harrison Bergeron” can be related to various issues in today’s society such as public health care and same-sex marriage.. As a society America prides itself on being a place where all men are created equal but are all men truly created equal? Or does the “Constitution only formally recognize equality for most citizens” (Merritt)? All citizens must abide by the same laws but not all citizens are afforded the same rights or opportunities. All men are created equal but healthcare is only for people who can afford private insurance. The passing of Proposition 8 asserts that marriage is only recognized as a union between a man and a woman but according to Chief Justice Ronald George, “same-sex couples still have the right to domestic partnerships resembling marriage” (“Setback for Equality”) but these domestic partnerships are a façade created by the government and do not hold the same value as traditional marriages. The government is downplaying the injustices placed upon same-sex couples by affording them a union that resembles marriage. America claims to be a place of constant evolution and growth but it still cannot redefine its principles to meet the changing needs of a modern society. Prohibiting same-sex marriage and refusing medical care to individuals is denying citizens of their human rights, which puts us in a position that is far from that utopian dream where all men are created equal.
Unlike American society, Bergeron’s society prides itself on equality on all levels and at all costs. At first glance Harrison Bergeron’s world seems like a utopian society based on equality and balance but as we read we begin to see that this balance is not organic. In an attempt to create a society where “everybody was finally equal [not only] equal before God and the law. [But] they were equal in every which way” (Vonnegut 1513) citizens are mutilated and handicapped if they possess any superior traits. Handicaps and mutilations are imposed in order to garner equality between individuals on all levels, both in terms of their inherent abilities and talents as well as the laws that govern them. The use of the word finally in the preceding quote suggests a solution has been discovered to cure the existing inequalities between individuals by creating a society where all people are equal. This idea of finding a solution to the inequalities that exist between people can be directly related to issues in today’s society. Obama’s public health care reform will attempt to make health care available to all people at an affordable price thereby attempting to level the imbalance between socioeconomic classes in America. Still, America should approach this fantasy of an equalitarian society with caution because in Beregeron’s fictional society this attempt to equalize all people is not the perfect solution it appears to be on the surface because “some things about living still weren’t right” (Vonnegut 1513). This notion that some things in this society still were not right serves as a caution to the reader that a place where all men are created equal is not as perfect as it may seem. This is the first hint given to the reader that appearances may be deceiving and there is a price to pay for this so-called balance in Bergeron’s fictional society as well as today’s society.
In the name of equality citizens in Vonnegut’s fictional society sacrifice their individuality and freedom to become robotic followers of the Handicapper General. In a way the citizens in this fictional society have lost their humanity, some being forced to place radio transmitters in their ears to hinder their above average intelligence and others like Harrison Bergeron are forced to have “scrap metal hung all over him [making him look] like a “walking junk yard” (Vonnegut 1515). People like Harrison no longer seem human but are more like robots, who attach foreign objects to their body to disguise their humanity, in an attempt by the government to uphold the façade of balance and equality. Much like the citizens in Bergeron’s fictional society individuals sacrifice some of their freedoms in today’s society at the hands of the government but on a far less extreme basis. It seems that today’s society is allowing the government to regulate almost all aspects of their lives even who they are allowed to marry thanks to the passing of Proposition 8. Readers must analyze the way in which Vonnegut uses his characters and their subsequent handicaps to caution readers about the damaging effects that a truly equalitarian society would have on individuals.
Citizens of this fictional society are programmed to believe that laws and handicaps must exist in order to prevent them from being “back in the dark ages again, with everyone competing against everyone else…[causing society] to fall apart” (Vonnegut 1514). The reference to competition between individuals seems to suggest that inequality between individuals will lead to the downfall of society. In reality competition among individuals presents an opportunity for societal change and growth which allows inequalities to be leveled. Press Secretary Robert Gibbs has commented on the issue of public healthcare stating, "The president continues to believe that increasing choice and competition through additional options for people to get health insurance is tremendously important," (Lightman, Talev and Douglas). This danger associated with competition can be directly correlated to today’s public healthcare debate and the attempt to neutralize competition between socioeconomic classes. In today’s society “‘one's ability to pursue happiness (and by implication, health and well-being)" can be restricted to one's ability, or one's family's ability, to pay [for healthcare] or to go bankrupt” (Preskorn). President Obama’s public healthcare reform will attempt to alleviate competition among socioeconomic classes by providing affordable medical coverage to all individuals thereby eliminating some of the competition among classes in hopes of preventing a return to a time when inequality reigned.
Still, in the story equality does not necessarily garner happiness or passivity and is challenged by young Harrison Bergeron. Harrison is described as “a genius and an athlete [who] is under-handicapped and should be regarded as extremely dangerous’ (Vonnegut 1515). Harrison is considered a threat to society and a danger because he possesses qualities that make him superior to his peers, both physically and mentally. Harrison is imprisoned because of his above average qualities but manages to escape and make an appearance on a television show. Harrison proclaims himself an Emperor insisting “everybody must do what [he says] at once! ” (Vonnegut 1516). Harrison removes his handicaps and asserts “even as I stand here--- crippled, hobbled and sickened--- I am a greater ruler than any man who ever lived! Now watch me become what I can become!” (Vonnegut 1516). Harrison claiming to be an Emperor symbolizes his rejection of the government that has handicapped and imprisoned him while asserting his desire to become something greater than what the government can create. He no longer is willing to be less than human and is asserting his humanity. Italicizing the word can conveys Harrison’s ability to control who he is and what he will become in the future. He asserts his individuality as he claims he will be a greater ruler than any man because he is now in control of his own destiny. This idea of reclaiming control of one’s own destiny can be directly related to the issue of same-sex marriage in today’s society. The government is controlling every aspect of its citizen’s lives even dictating whom a person is allowed to marry which is reminiscent of Bergeron’s fictional society presenting the potential risk of rebellion and societal unrest which have already been demonstrating on some level by protesters in response to the passing Proposition 8. If the government does not find some balanced solution to issues of inequality that exist today America may be at risk for the potentially dangerous implications a truly equalitarian society presents.
Equality among individuals is a dream that Americans will continue to chase for years to come but is the price we pay for equality really worth the potentially dangerous repercussions? “Harrison Bergeron” provides readers with a model of a truly equalitarian society that is far from the notion of utopia that Americans dream about while dealing with issues that are still relevant in today’s society such as the loss of freedom and individuality as a result of an authoritarian government. “Harrison Bergeron” makes readers question their idea of utopia while raising issues that are still prevalent today and is a valuable piece of literature that should remain in your publication for years to come.
"A Setback for Equality :[Editorial]. " New York Times 27 May 2009, Late Edition (East Coast): ProQuest National Newspapers Core, ProQuest. Web. 26 Oct. 2009.
Jones Merritt, Deborah. "Equality's Promise Remains Unkept." St. Lous Post-Dispatch 15 March 1992: 3B. Web. 26 Oct 2009. <http://docs..newsbank.com/s/InfoWeb/aggdocs/NewsBank/0EB04D965C851D0A/0E3AE6D456BCD2D5?p_multi=SLDB>.
Lightman, David, Margaret Talev, and William Douglas. "Obama seeks to break deadlock." Miami Herald 9 September 2009: 1A. Web. 26 Oct 2009. <http://docs.newsbank.com/s/InfoWeb/aggdocs/NewsBank/12873E3A19C10868/0E3AE6D456BCD2D5?p_multi=NYTB>.
Preskorn, Barbara. "Healthcare is a right, not privilege." Lamar Ledger 3 September 2009: n. pag. Web. 26 Oct 2009. <http://docs.newsbank.com/s/InfoWeb/aggdocs/NewsBank/12A82FB600A8C708/0E3AE6D456BCD2D5?p_multi=LMRB>.
Vonnegut, Kurt. “Harrison Bergeron”. ." Making Literature Matter. Eds. John Clifford and John Schilb. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2009. 1512-1517.