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Harrison Bergeron – A Cautionary Tale

There is little doubt that the two definitive novels that present New World Order-style scenarios are George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. The plot-lines, I should stress, are very different. Both novels, however, are decidedly grim, in terms of presenting a futuristic world, one in which the human population is utterly controlled, watched and monitored. There is, however, another – less well known – story that is most assuredly worth reading. Its title is Harrison Bergeron. Just like Orwell’s and Huxley’s novels, Harrison Bergeron – written by acclaimed author Kurt Vonnegut – is focused on a world very much different to that of today, but which could easily be looming large on the horizon.

Whereas 1984 and Brave New World are full-length novels, Harrison Bergeron is a short-story. It does not, however, lack anything when it comes to storytelling and getting across to the reader the disturbing nature of a possible world ahead. Vonnegut’s story is set in the latter years of the 21st century, and specifically in the United States. It is a United States that has been dumbed-down to just about the lowest level possible. Intelligence on the part of the general public is not just frowned upon; it is also carefully and ruthlessly regulated, and to the extent that the entire nation is almost non-functional. At least, compared to our world of today.

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Civil liberty, freedom of speech, and the Constitution of the United States are not what they were. In fact, they are virtually non-existent. The population is controlled and manipulated by the ominously named Office of the Handicapper General. It is the role of this particular agency to ensure that everyone is equal. In theory, that sounds fine: a body of people who live in a country without poverty, stigma, or problems. In the story, however, equality equates to a nation of dumbness. It is important to note, however, that this is not the fault of the public at all. In fact, quite the opposite: it is all down to the Handicapper General.

Those who are born with high levels of intelligence are implanted with radio devices that lessen their intelligence and ensure that their otherwise high IQs are kept in check. That means lowering their intelligence via mind-numbing technology. People considered overly sexually attractive are made to wear masks. Those who exhibit strength and athleticism are made to haul around heavy weights, effectively preventing them from utilizing their natural abilities. After decades of generation after generation being dumbed-down to the lowest levels possible, the people of the United States are little more than cattle. Enter Harrison Bergeron of Vonnegut’s story of the same name.

He is a teenager who is very tall, athletic and who possesses an extremely high IQ: all the things that the United States of 2081 is vehemently against. When Harrison is arrested by the Stormtroopers of the mind-numbing regime – for being a potential threat to the enforced order of idiocy – his parents George and Hazel, who are carefully kept in check by the Handicapper General’s technology, have no real understanding of what is going on. Instead, they are content to do nothing but watch television in their befuddled states.

1995 film version of Harrison Bergeron starring Sean Astin

1995 film version of Harrison Bergeron starring Sean Astin

Harrison realizes there is something very wrong about late 21st century society. As a result, he decides to do something about it: he invades a television station, removes all of his own handicaps – as well as those of a group of musicians and a ballerina who are performing on what passes for TV-based entertainment. At first, the music is played badly and the dancing is practically non-existent – thanks to the heavy weights that the dancers are forced to haul around.

When, however, Harrison removes their handicaps, and proclaims that he can overthrow the oppressive regime, there is a sudden change in the mental faculties of the group. That is, until the Handicapper General – one Diana Moon Glampers – clearly realizing that the potentially millions of people watching the show may be thinking of removing their very own handicapping technology, arrives at the studio and shoots and kills Harrison. The story ends with Harrison’s parents barely understanding what has happened to their son as they watch the show, only retaining a vague sense that something tragic happened on-screen.

Harrison Bergeron is a chilling story that – taking into consideration the clear and current dumbing-down of society that is afoot right now – could become all too plausible in the decades ahead. Let us hope that millions of real Harrison Bergerons will resist such a terrible change, should it ever come to pass.

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  • BW

    Nick, one has to wonder, eh ? Every time I hear about genetic manipulation and tinkering with people’s brains, I shudder. There is doubtlessly much good in terms of curing illness with those technologies — but they could also lead to scenarios like the one described above … Drone Nation.

  • Jim

    It seems to me that the dumbing-down of America (can’t speak for the rest of the world) is happening quite voluntarily — thanks to multiple causes like commercial entertainment obsessions, poor education, the seductions of cyber-reality, religious fundamentalism, and the prevalence of conspiracy theories. No need for genetic experimentation; the conformity of lazy minds will continue to drag the species down.