Blog: Dreaming Alive
by greggechols

Slavery and Kurt Vonnegut's "Harrison Bergeron"

A "science fiction" short story from 1961 paints a picture of our existence as workers and citizens, no matter where you are on the food chain of corporate workers.

Date:   5/1/2007 5:20:25 AM   ( 13 y ) ... viewed 3030 times

It’s funny how after all these years we still imagine ourselves to be free of slavery in this country. We imagine that when Lincoln “freed” the slaves that everything was taken care of. Then, we imagined that when “equal rights” came about for people of all color in the 1960’s, everything was taken care of. Yet, now, in 2007, the very same spirit that supported slavery when this country was founded in 1776 is still present in this country, and many others.

How do such attitudes and beliefs continue to exist after all of these years? After the pain and struggle our Mothers and Grandmothers suffered through the Civil Rights movement, do you think it possible we would still have slavery in this country? I do not care whether you are black or white, brown or yellow, ignorant or educated, slavery still exists in the United States of America, and other countries, worldwide.

Slavery exists because it has been the nature of mankind to find other humans of lesser means to handle chores for them they otherwise wouldn’t want to do. Ever eaten at a restaurant? Do you go into a kitchen to get the food yourself? No. You have a server assist you, a waiter or waitress. You, by means of paying them a tip, are in a “superior” position to them. They may not be your “slave,” but if they go screwing up their order, they’re going to go home empty-handed from you.

Do you choose to drive your garbage down to the city dump each week? No. You pay the city to do it, and some poor ol’ chap has to drive that nasty garbage truck all around town, because you don’t want to. Hell, I am sure not driving that thing, either. Get somebody else!

Now these examples aren’t what you’d imagine as involving “slavery.” But what about the undocumented 65-year-old woman from El Salvador who you hire for whatever $$$ a week to look after your child and tend to your house? How about the young Mexican girl brought illegally into this country who now spends her days working two jobs, both “under the table”—with the threat of deportation if she doesn’t work each and every day, one day off a week?

Aha, you say: this guy is taking us on a ride in support of illegal workers and undocumented aliens. Well, maybe. But I’m also saying that you, Mister Green Jeans in the accounting office at the Los Angeles Times; well, you are as much as me waiting tables on your butt at the Delfina Hotel, or the Mexican girl on the overnight cleaning crew at that same hotel (which is outsourced, by the way, to one of these slavemongers).

You have probably, as a corporate employee, given away all of your power as a man or woman in order to “fit in” with the corporate world, hating every moment of it, and only doing it because “society” says you must! You must hold a decent job, support your family, and do the right thing. So you sit there in your cubicle with a migraine headache all day, your body overweight and miserable, and go through the motions as you’ve done every day for 12 years, “hoping” for tomorrow for retirement to come so you can get out of that hellhole.

But you’re not a slave!

I look at today’s “International Workers Day” and the celebration planned downtown and recall my attitude at work about 15 months ago. I was working as a waiter in the restaurant at the Sheraton Delfina Hotel here in Santa Monica, totally depressed. A very good man working as a chef was getting his butt reamed by his supervisors because his gorgeous long hair was too long: he had to cut it off. I had a goatee upon hiring and had to shave that off, because it wasn’t corporate. A day or two after our friend with the hair was reprimanded, another cook got his butt reamed because of talking too loud. Then, I got in trouble again because I was leaning against the hostess podium in the restaurant, and then, well, I guess I’m a bad employee, because then I was in trouble for putting lemons in the customer’s drinks, because it wasn’t our policy. Heaven help us if the customer asked for them!

Now, admittedly, this is all chicken crap stuff. But it’s not exactly the most freedom-filled experience! I bit my tongue and wrote down a few things, keeping my cool. But the point is this: we are all imprisoned within the workforce here in this country, which means we’re all imprisoned, period. And it’s like that all over the workd, Communist Russia in 1917 included.

I wrote these notes down during my days of feeling like I was back in prison again (check my website, for more on that):

1/7  10 p.m.

Work is like prison.

You can’t talk too loud. You have to stand up straight. The Bosses are always checking on you. Your co-workers are always telling on you. You can’t wear your hair long. You can’t have facial hair. You have to eat at a certain time or you are disciplined. If you do anything wrong, you are disciplined. And all the Bosses are just like cops. %¤#&!§-s.

1/7  10:30 p.m. –

The worker is doomed

to his miserable gloom

His punishment in life

and must stay in his room.

The people are tired

of being ruled by liars

so we retreat out the door

and leave this country ever more.

The worker is tired

of being beaten each day.

Go here

Go there

Not there

Not now

He must accept work as his fate

This job he must hate

Because it is his prison

His prison of life.

So, I now move into the juice of my story, and that is a very, very classic piece written by Kurt Vonnegut way back when. I first saw this essay published in the Wall Street Journal in the early 1990’s, and it shocked me—not only because I read it in the Journal, but because how “right on” it was, and is. Working on a Ph.D. in depth psychology, specifically on consciousness and levels of altered states, I find this to be the most accurate depiction of our current psychological state of mind as individuals in a “free” society. Check it out, it’s entitled Harrison Bergeron, and ladies and gentlemen, take note—it was written in 1961, just before many began to “wake up.” Are you waking up now?

Harrison Bergeron, 1961, by Kurt Vonnegut

THE YEAR WAS 2081, and everybody was finally equal. They weren’t only equal before God and the law. They were equal every which way. Nobody was smarter than anybody else. Nobody was better looking than anybody else. Nobody was stronger or quicker than anybody else. All this equality was due to the 211th, 212th, and 213th Amendments to the Constitution, and to the unceasing vigilance of agents of the United States Handicapper General.

Some things about living still weren’t quite right, though. April, for instance, still drove people crazy by not being springtime. And it was in that clammy month that the H-G men took George and Hazel Bergeron’s fourteen-year-old son, Harrison, away.

It was tragic, all right, but George and Hazel couldn’t think about it very hard. Hazel had a perfectly average intelligence, which meant she couldn’t think about anything except in short bursts. And George, while his intelligence was way above normal, had a little mental handicap radio in his ear. He was required by law to wear it at all times. It was tuned to a government transmitter. Every twenty seconds or so, the transmitter would send out some sharp noise to keep people like George from taking unfair advantage of their brains.

George and Hazel were watching television. There were tears on Hazel’s cheeks, but she’d forgotten for the moment what they were about.

On the television screen were ballerinas.

A buzzer sounded in George’s head. His thoughts fled in panic, like bandits from a burglar alarm.

“That was a real pretty dance, that dance they just did,” said Hazel.  

“Huh?” said George.

“That dance – it was nice,” said Hazel.

“Yup,” said George. He tried to think a little about the ballerinas. They weren’t really very good – no better than anybody else would have been, anyway. They were burdened with sashweights and bags of birdshot, and their faces were masked, so that no one, seeing a free and graceful gesture or a pretty face, would feel like something the cat drug in. George was toying with the vague notion that maybe dancers shouldn’t be handicapped. But he didn’t get very far with it before another noise in his ear radio scattered his thoughts.

George winced. So did two out of the eight ballerinas.

Hazel saw him wince. Having no mental handicap herself she had to ask George what the latest sound had been.

“Sounded like somebody hitting a milk bottle with a ball peen hammer,” said George.

“I’d think it would be real interesting, hearing all the different sounds,” said Hazel, a little envious. “All the things they think up.”  

“Um,” said George.

“Only, if I was Handicapper General, you know what I would do?” said Hazel. Hazel, as a matter of fact, bore a strong resemblance to the Handicapper General, a woman named Diana Moon Glampers. “If I was Diana Moon Glampers,” said Hazel, “I’d have chimes on Sunday – just chimes. Kind of in honor of religion.”

“I could think, if it was just chimes,” said George.

“Well – maybe make ‘em real loud,” said Hazel. “I think I’d make a good Handicapper General.”

“Good as anybody else,” said George.

“Who knows better’n I do what normal is?” said Hazel.

“Right,” said George. He began to think glimmeringly about his abnormal son who was now in jail, about Harrison, but a twenty-one-gun salute in his head stopped that.

“Boy!” said Hazel, “that was a doozy, wasn’t it?”

It was such a doozy that George was white and trembling and tears stood on the rims of his red eyes. Two of the eight ballerinas had collapsed to the studio floor, were holding their temples.

“All of a sudden you look so tired,” said Hazel. “Why don’t you stretch out on the sofa, so’s you can rest your handicap bag on the pillows, honeybunch.” She was referring to the forty-seven pounds of birdshot in canvas bag, which was padlocked around George’s neck. “Go on and rest the bag for a little while,” she said. “I don’t care if you’re not equal to me for a while.”

George weighed the bag with his hands. “I don’t mind it,” he said. “I don’t notice it any more. It’s just a part of me. 

“You been so tired lately – kind of wore out,” said Hazel. “If there was just some way we could make a little hole in the bottom of the bag, and just take out a few of them lead balls. Just a few.” 

“Two years in prison and two thousand dollars fine for every ball I took out,” said George. “I don’t call that a bargain.”

“If you could just take a few out when you came home from work,” said Hazel. “I mean – you don’t compete with anybody around here. You just set around.” 


“If I tried to get away with it,” said George, “then other people’d get away with it and pretty soon we’d be right back to the dark ages again, with everybody competing against everybody else. You wouldn’t like that, would you?” 

“I’d hate it,” said Hazel. 


“There you are,” said George. “The minute people start cheating on laws, what do you think happens to society?”

If Hazel hadn’t been able to come up with an answer to this question, George couldn’t have supplied one. A siren was going off in his head. 

“Reckon it’d fall all apart,” said Hazel.

“What would?” said George blankly.

“Society,” said Hazel uncertainly. “Wasn’t that what you just said?”  

“Who knows?” said George.  

The television program was suddenly interrupted for a news bulletin. It wasn’t clear at first as to what the bulletin was about, since the announcer, like all announcers, had a serious speech impediment. For about half a minute, and in a state of high excitement, the announcer tried to say, “Ladies and gentlemen – ”  


He finally gave up, handed the bulletin to a ballerina to read.  


“That’s all right –” Hazel said of the announcer, “he tried. That’s the big thing. He tried to do the best he could with what God gave him. He should get a nice raise for trying so hard.”  

“Ladies and gentlemen” said the ballerina, reading the bulletin. She must have been extraordinarily beautiful, because the mask she wore was hideous. And it was easy to see that she was the strongest and most graceful of all the dancers, for her handicap bags were as big as those worn by two-hundred-pound men. 


And she had to apologize at once for her voice, which was a very unfair voice for a woman to use. Her voice was a warm, luminous, timeless melody. “Excuse me – ” she said, and she began again, making her voice absolutely uncompetitive.  


“Harrison Bergeron, age fourteen,” she said in a grackle squawk, “has just escaped from jail, where he was held on suspicion of plotting to overthrow the government. He is a genius and an athlete, is under–handicapped, and should be regarded as extremely dangerous.” 


A police photograph of Harrison Bergeron was flashed on the screen – upside down, then sideways, upside down again, then right side up. The picture showed the full length of Harrison against a background calibrated in feet and inches. He was exactly seven feet tall.  

The rest of Harrison’s appearance was Halloween and hardware. Nobody had ever worn heavier handicaps. He had outgrown hindrances faster than the H–G men could think them up. Instead of a little ear radio for a mental handicap, he wore a tremendous pair of earphones, and spectacles with thick wavy lenses. The spectacles were intended to make him not only half blind, but to give him whanging headaches besides.  


Scrap metal was hung all over him. Ordinarily, there was a certain symmetry, a military neatness to the handicaps issued to strong people, but Harrison looked like a walking junkyard. In the race of life, Harrison carried three hundred pounds. 


And to offset his good looks, the H–G men required that he wear at all times a red rubber ball for a nose, keep his eyebrows shaved off, and cover his even white teeth with black caps at snaggle–tooth random. 


“If you see this boy,” said the ballerina, “do not – I repeat, do not – try to reason with him.”

There was the shriek of a door being torn from its hinges.  

Screams and barking cries of consternation came from the television set. The photograph of Harrison Bergeron on the screen jumped again and again, as though dancing to the tune of an earthquake.  


George Bergeron correctly identified the earthquake, and well he might have – for many was the time his own home had danced to the same crashing tune. “My God –” said George, “that must be Harrison!” 


The realization was blasted from his mind instantly by the sound of an automobile collision in his head.  


When George could open his eyes again, the photograph of Harrison was gone. A living, breathing Harrison filled the screen.  

Clanking, clownish, and huge, Harrison stood in the center of the studio. The knob of the uprooted studio door was still in his hand. Ballerinas, technicians, musicians, and announcers cowered on their knees before him, expecting to die. 


“I am the Emperor!” cried Harrison. “Do you hear? I am the Emperor! Everybody must do what I say at once!” He stamped his foot and the studio shook. 


“Even as I stand here –” he bellowed, “crippled, hobbled, sickened – I am a greater ruler than any man who ever lived! Now watch me become what I can become!”  

Harrison tore the straps of his handicap harness like wet tissue paper, tore straps guaranteed to support five thousand pounds.

Harrison’s scrap–iron handicaps crashed to the floor. 


Harrison thrust his thumbs under the bar of the padlock that secured his head harness. The bar snapped like celery. Harrison smashed his headphones and spectacles against the wall. 


He flung away his rubber–ball nose, revealed a man that would have awed Thor, the god of thunder.  

“I shall now select my Empress!” he said, looking down on the cowering people. “Let the first woman who dares rise to her feet claim her mate and her throne!”  

A moment passed, and then a ballerina arose, swaying like a willow.


Harrison plucked the mental handicap from her ear, snapped off her physical handicaps with marvelous delicacy. Last of all, he removed her mask.

She was blindingly beautiful.


“Now” said Harrison, taking her hand, “shall we show the people the meaning of the word dance? Music!” he commanded.  

The musicians scrambled back into their chairs, and Harrison stripped them of their handicaps, too. “Play your best,” he told them, “and I’ll make you barons and dukes and earls.”

 The music began. It was normal at first – cheap, silly, false. But Harrison snatched two musicians from their chairs, waved them like batons as he sang the music as he wanted it played. He slammed them back into their chairs.  

The music began again and was much improved.  

Harrison and his Empress merely listened to the music for a while – listened gravely, as though synchronizing their heartbeats with it. 

They shifted their weights to their toes.


Harrison placed his big hands on the girl’s tiny waist, letting her sense the weightlessness that would soon be hers.

And then, in an explosion of joy and grace, into the air they sprang!

Not only were the laws of the land abandoned, but the law of gravity and the laws of motion as well.

They reeled, whirled, swiveled, flounced, capered, gamboled, and spun.

They leaped like deer on the moon.

The studio ceiling was thirty feet high, but each leap brought the dancers nearer to it. It became their obvious intention to kiss the ceiling.

They kissed it.

And then, neutralizing gravity with love and pure will, they remained suspended in air inches below the ceiling, and they kissed each other for a long, long time.


It was then that Diana Moon Glampers, the Handicapper General, came into the studio with a double-barreled ten-gauge shotgun. She fired twice, and the Emperor and the Empress were dead before they hit the floor.  

Diana Moon Glampers loaded the gun again. She aimed it at the musicians and told them they had ten seconds to get their handicaps back on.


It was then that the Bergerons’ television tube burned out.  

Hazel turned to comment about the blackout to George.  

But George had gone out into the kitchen for a can of beer.

George came back in with the beer, paused while a handicap signal shook him up. And then he sat down again. “You been crying?” he said to Hazel.

“Yup,” she said,

“What about?” he said.

“I forget,” she said. “Something real sad on television.”

“What was it?” he said.

“It’s all kind of mixed up in my mind,” said Hazel.

“Forget sad things,” said George.

“I always do,” said Hazel.

“That’s my girl,” said George. He winced. There was the sound of a riveting gun in his head.

“Gee – I could tell that one was a doozy,” said Hazel.

“You can say that again,” said George.

“Gee –” said Hazel, “I could tell that one was a doozy.”








May you wake up, and soon!

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