Egalitarianism taken to coercive extremes in attacks on excellence: Kurt Vonnegut’s story “Harrison Bergeron,” the 2019 Prometheus Hall of Fame winner

To highlight the Prometheus Awards’ four-decade history and make clear why each winner deserves recognition as anti-authoritarian or pro-freedom, the Libertarian Futurist Society is publishing an Appreciation series of all past award-winners.

Here is an Appreciation for Kurt Vonnegut’s story “Harrison Bergeron,” the 2019 Prometheus Hall of Fame winner for Best Classic Fiction.

By Michael Grossberg
The government’s Handicapper General enforces new constitutional amendments mandating that no one can be stupider, uglier, weaker, slower – or in any way better – than anyone else.

To enforce this authoritarian and radical egalitarian edict, perfectly capable people are forced to accept and wear various disabling devices that handicap their capabilities and basic humanity.

Leave it to the great American novelist Kurt Vonnegut Jr. to come up with such a classic cautionary fable about a dystopian future in the United States in which coercive egalitarianism – a close cousin of progressivism – is taken to such radical and inhuman extremes in a perverse authoritarian revolt against personal excellence.



First published in 1961 in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and later republished in several short-story collections, Vonnegut’s story “Harrison Bergeron” reflects the author’s distinctive blend of satire and mournful tragedy.

Today, when more state and local government school districts are abolishing their advanced classes and eliminating individual merit as the standard for admission or graduation, Vonnegut’s wry and imaginative tale seems all too prophetic –  a disturbing and sadly timely commentary on today’s negative trends.

Yet, the genius of Vonnegut lies in his vivid scenario revealing the true horrors that materialize when ruthless and unchecked government power, reinforced by an insidious prevailing ideology, literally destroys people’s talents and lives.

Some handicapping devices result in a grotesque denial of emotions and knowledge that leave parents unable to acknowledge or mourn their own son’s death.

Other handicapping devices limit a talented ballerina to the awkward moves of a clutz – or add such noise to a brilliant man’s ears that he finds it crippling and impossible to think.

The story is undeniably imaginative and funny, so much so that it was selected for inclusion in Humorous American Short Stories, a recent collection of classic works by such other American luminaries as Mark Twain, Washington Irving, Benjamin Franklin, O. Henry, Ring Lardner, Dorothy Parker and Philip Roth.

Yet, Vonnegut was serious through his humor, as all the best satirists are.

“Harrison Bergeron” exposes and mourns the chilling consequences of radical egalitarianism taken to inhuman, Orwellian and Kafkaesque extremes that denies individuality, diversity and the opportunity to excel.

Yet, excellence, individuality and diversity are good things, necessary aspects of being human and living in a civilized society. Moreover, these positive qualities and realities can co-exist, to at least some extent, with any modern culture that affirms some forms of equality – especially the equal liberty upheld as an attainable ideal by both classical liberalism and modern libertarianism.

After all, who could reasonably object to the natural social equality of modern America? It may seem a small thing and perhaps merely symbolic, but you often can’t tell how much money anyone makes or how wealthy they are, judging from the common khakis or blue jeans that most guys wear – or the cars that most people drive.

In fact, such ubiquitous and oft-overlooked signs of a benign socio-economic  culture is perfectly consistent with a free and healthy society that respects individual merit and individual differences – the true reality of diversity, despite the many warped misappropriations of that perfectly good concept.  Ultimately, any decent, reasonable person can and should champion a fully libertarian framework of respect for other people’s rights to live as they choose while respecting the equal rights of others to live peacefully as they choose- the very foundations of civility.

Yet, today, some people confuse and falsely equate such voluntary and cultural egalitarian attitudes – an everyday affirmation of the American social ideal and practice that “all men are created equal” – with more ominous and political tendencies of egalitarianism, historically and philosophically most associated with the authoritarian tendencies within various forms of collectivism, statism and progressivism.

In satirically challenging such dangerous, cruel and inhumane trends and by dramatizing a dystopia in which the natural diversity of people’s talents, tastes and abilities is suppressed and denied in “Harrison Bergeron,” Vonnegut underlines that the road to hell is often paved with good intentions. Some ideals, misconceived, misapplied or carried to extremes, are not really ideal at all.

Note: This is the first Prometheus Awards recognition for Kurt Vonnegut Jr. (1922-2007), hailed for his dark humor and commentary on American culture and politics.

Kurt Vonnegut in 1972 (Creative Commons license)

Vonnegut published 14 novels, five plays, five nonfiction works and three short story collections. His novels The Sirens of Titan (1959) and Cat’s Cradle (1963) were nominated for the Hugo Award for Best Novel.

An American soldier fighting in Europe during World War II, Vonnegut was captured by the Germans during the Battle of the Bulge and interned in Dresden, Germany, where he survived the Allied bombing of the city in an underground meat locker while imprisoned in a slaughterhouse. His experiences inspired his best-known and bestselling work, the anti-war sf novel Slaughterhouse-Five

(1969), later popularized even more via a 1970s feature film.

* Coming up soon: An appreciation of Poul Anderson’s story “Sam Hall,” the 2020 Prometheus Hall of Fame winner for Best Classic Fiction.

Read the introductory essay about the LFS’ 40th anniversary retrospective series of Appreciations of past Prometheus Awards winners, with an overview of the awards’ four-decade history.

* Other Prometheus winners: For a full list of winners – for the annual Best Novel and Best Classic Fiction (Hall of Fame) categories and occasional Special Awards – visit the recently updated and enhanced Prometheus Awards page on the LFS website.

* Read “The Libertarian History of Science Fiction,” an essay in the June 2020 issue of the international magazine Quillette that favorably highlights the Prometheus Awards, the Libertarian Futurist Society and the significant element of libertarian sf/fantasy in the modern genre.

* Join us! To help sustain the Prometheus Awards, join the Libertarian Futurist Society (LFS), a non-profit all-volunteer association of freedom-loving sf/fantasy fans . Libertarian futurists believe culture is as vital as politics (and often more fulfilling, positive and productive in the longer run) in spreading positive visions of the future and achieving universal individual rights and a better world (perhaps eventually, worlds) for all.

 

Published by

Michael Grossberg

Michael Grossberg, who founded the LFS in 1982 to help sustain the Prometheus Awards, has been an arts critic, speaker and award-winning journalist for five decades. Michael has won Ohio SPJ awards for Best Critic in Ohio and Best Arts Reporting (seven times). He's written for Reason, Libertarian Review and Backstage weekly; helped lead the American Theatre Critics Association for two decades; and has contributed to six books, including critical essays for the annual Best Plays Theatre Yearbook and an afterword for J. Neil Schulman's novel The Rainbow Cadenza. Among books he recommends from a libertarian-futurist perspective: Matt Ridley's The Rational Optimist & How Innovation Works, David Boaz's The Libertarian Mind and Steven Pinker's Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress.

One thought on “Egalitarianism taken to coercive extremes in attacks on excellence: Kurt Vonnegut’s story “Harrison Bergeron,” the 2019 Prometheus Hall of Fame winner”

  1. Great story. excellent article. Needless to say, “Harrison Bergeron” is being discussed quite a lot these days as any semblance of a meritocracy is pulverized into dust. I think Mike Judge took his cues from Vonnegut for “Idiocracy.”

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