Dystopian societies are no fun. The clothes are drab. The TV shows are all reruns. And that whole having-no-rights thing is a real pain in the neck.
Utopias are where it's at. So, how about a place where everyone is equal? A place where no one is better than everyone else, and everyone has the same opportunities for fun, happiness, and success? Our bags are packed, and we want to go to there. We'll send you a postcard.
Well, not so fast. In "Harrison Bergeron" Kurt Vonnegut wonders if equality is all it's cracked up to be. The basic idea is this: It's the year 2081 and everyone is equal. Great! But what happens when one person tries to rise above the rest? Let's just say, it's not pretty.
"Harrison Bergeron" was first published in Fantasy and Science Fiction Magazine in 1961, with Civil Rights in full swing and the radical '60s just beginning. Issues of equality and fairness were on a lot of people's minds, and this story struck a nerve. It's been hailed as both "a prime example of where the ills of socialism could lead"—but also, weirdly, "not a satire on leftist policies, but, more accurately, a satire on the irrational fears of socialism" (source).
In other words, it's either an attack on socialism, or a satire of attacks on socialism. So, which is it?
Socialism is a system of government in which the government controls a nation's means of production in order to create a society without huge inequalities. Some people love it. Plenty of people hate it. You've probably heard it tossed around in various election cycles—and not always accurately.
Want a real-world example? In the U.S. 2008 and 2012 election cycles, people were all agitated about the role of the government in health insurance. Many believed that the government had a crucial role to play in ensuring that everyone was on a level playing field when it came to fair and affordable access to health insurance and health care. Many others thought that the Affordable Care Act was a slippery step towards socialism, in which individuals' health care decisions would be made by large governmental organizations.
What would Vonnegut think? Well, we can't say for sure. However you slice it, this is complicated stuff when both sides of the political fence claim that "Harrison Bergeron" supports their side of the issue. You'll have to read it and decide for yourself.
Having trouble tracking down a sci-fi mag from the '60s? Don't worry. "Harrison Bergeron" is widely available in Vonnegut's short-story collection Welcome To the Monkey House. It's worth the investment, as we're sure you'll be craving even more Vonnegut after reading "Harrison." In fact, it's barely eight pages long. Why aren't you reading it right now? You'll be talking about it for much, much longer than the time it takes to read.
Why Should I Care?
It's time to face a cold, hard fact: somewhere in the world there is somebody who is better than you. In fact, there's probably someone in your school better than you. Okay, maybe not in everything, but definitely in something you really care about: football, video games, calculus, fashion, scrapbooking.
Totally frustrating, right? You try your best, but someone is still better. If only they weren't so awesome—then you'd be number one!
We've all had these kinds of selfish thoughts. If Perfect McSuperface wasn't around, we could be football captain, head of the debate team, or leader of the decoupage squad. The only real solution we can offer is work harder and stop measuring yourself against other people.
But what if the law was to make everyone else worse? To bring everyone down to the same level? We'd all be on an equal playing field. Dancers would all be clumsy; singers would all be tone deaf; math whizzes would all be... well, not math whizzes. That's the kind of world "Harrison Bergeron" imagines, and it's not a pretty one.
On second thought, we're happy being understudy in the school play.