Laughing at Them, Not With Them

Home 2009 Archive Laughing at Them, Not With Them

Paul Smith


Note: This essay is one of the first place winners of the 2009 Walter F. Spara Writing Competition.

On November 16th, 1965, William F. Buckley’s influential conservative rag, National Review, reprinted the Kurt Vonnegut short story, “Harrison Bergeron,” as a prime example of where the ills of socialism could lead, and in 2007, John J. Miller, in a National Review article, named the story as one of the best pieces of conservative science-fiction ever written. These folks seem to have entirely missed the joke. “Harrison Bergeron” is the story of a dystopian-future America where equality is forced on the populace through a myriad of authoritarian laws which curb everything from beauty, intelligence and physical prowess in absurd and humorous ways, and how the titular character attempts to break free from these restrictions only to meet his ultimate demise. Many have suggested the story is a warning about the dangers of socialist and communist policies. The evidence suggests to me that “Harrison Bergeron” was not lampooning the ills of socialism as the pages of National Review would have one believe, but rather lampooning people like William F. Buckley. I submit that when considering Vonnegut was himself an admitted socialist, and combining this perspective while reading the text of his story, along with placing it in the context of the Cold War-era in which it was written, one cannot help but come to conclusion that “Harrison Bergeron” is not a satire on leftist policies, but, more accurately, a satire on the irrational fears of socialism.

Kurt Vonnegut never had any qualms about admitting and referencing his socialist tendencies and leftist political ideology throughout his works and deeds. He served as president for the American Humanist Association (a human rights organization dedicated to the ethical treatment of all people) and was a card-carrying member of the American Civil Liberties Union, whose stated mission is “to defend and preserve the individual rights and liberties guaranteed to every person in [America].” He named characters in his books after famous socialist leaders such as Eugene Debs Hartke in Hocus Pocus after Eugene Debs (a union leader and labor advocate who ran twice for president on the Socialist Party ticket) and Leon Trotsky Trout in Galapagos after Leon Trotsky (a Russian revolutionary and Marxist theorist). He endorsed the concept of income redistribution in God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater and championed the plight of striking workers in Jailbird. In fact, he was so far to the left, he once wrote in a non-fiction essay of George W. Bush, that, “The only difference between Hitler and Bush is that Hitler was elected.” So, why then, would someone so clearly identified with leftist politics write a short story decrying and ridiculing the very ideology he himself so vehemently supported? The answer, in my opinion, is: he would not.

When one reads “Harrison Bergeron” in the context of Vonnegut’s political leanings, the immediate question comes to mind: is Vonnegut really coming out against equality? A casual reading of the short story does seem to denote a satirizing of either extreme egalitarianism or socialist and communist policies. But considering Vonnegut was a supporter of such policies then one could perhaps safely assume he was familiar with the specifics of the framework and ideology behind the policies. And one could also assume that if Vonnegut was trying to criticize socialism, he would then at least accurately portray the basics of socialist theory. However, at one point in “Harrison Bergeron,” Hazel (Harrison’s mother) suggests the TV news anchor deserves a raise for his feeble efforts at broadcasting. Her statement makes clear that in this dystopian vision of the future, everything is forcibly made equal except people’s wages. Yet someone familiar with socialist or leftist ideologies would know that the very foundation for which every political platform rests concerns the economic structure. Income redistribution is the first and most important tenet of socialist and communist systems. So, for Vonnegut to exclude this concept from a lurid future where everything is equal, suggests to me the omission was intentional and telling. I would submit that Vonnegut failed to include income redistribution because the average American at the time of his writing this story was vastly uninformed about such a concept.

One should keep in mind that “Harrison Bergeron” was written during the heart of the Cold War, that era in the American Zeitgeist where students were ducking under their desks to shield themselves from the potential nuclear blasts of the “pinko commie Ruskies.” The fear of communism and socialism was an engrained part of American culture at the time, but comprehension of such policies was quite low and of the propaganda variety. What most people knew of communism and socialism, they learned from five minute newsreels. They were led to believe it was something only the nuclear-armed Russians and Chinese did, and that it would turn everyone into soulless clones with no individuality (regardless of the fact that America had income redistribution with its progressive tax plan along with many other socialist policies including Medicare and Social Security).

Suffice to say, Vonnegut, being well educated and having a devilish sense of humor, did not subscribe to the fear-mongering depiction of socialism and communism, and, in my opinion, sought to satirize what he saw as this irrational characterization and demonization of the policies which he himself admired. The best satire will usually take some societal truth and heighten it to the absurd; and “Harrison Bergeron” seems to spin the American misinformation of communism and socialism to the utmost comic preposterousness.

There are even moments in the story when this absurdity is raised to levels of sheer physical impossibility. For instance, it is suggested that in the quest for equality the seasons have somehow been eliminated; Vonnegut writes that springtime no longer occurs. And at the end of the story, when Harrison breaks free of his forced handicaps, grabs a ballerina and starts to dance, they begin to float into the air, defying the laws of physics. I feel these impossible moments were placed in the story to illustrate the utter ridiculousness of it all, to demonstrate that Vonnegut has created a scenario outside the realm of possibility. And in doing so, he suggests this vision of the future based on the irrational fears of socialism and communism is not a probable outcome.

Also worthy of note, during the story’s conclusion, once the titular “hero” has become free, he immediately declares himself ruler, saying, “I am the Emperor! Everybody must do what I say at once!”

This suggests to me that Vonnegut saw the true intention of those living under a capitalist system was not the strive for healthy competition, but the aim to conquer all, that behind every high school basketball player is the longing to be Michael Jordan, behind every “mom n’ pop” store is the desire to become Wal-Mart. He seems to suggest the hypocrisy of the American ideal of freedom, intimating that inside each one is a little imperialist waiting to claw its way to the surface at the first opportunity.

No doubt the debate about the true intentions of Vonnegut’s story will continue, as it does for nearly every author’s work. However, I, for one, am uncomfortable with the fact that “Harrison Bergeron” has been hijacked by the right-wing as a fitting illustration to help perpetuate their disinformation campaign. Whether one believes in socialist policies or not, surely one must concede that Vonnegut, being a lifelong proponent of such ideas, most likely did not set out to ridicule them. And while Vonnegut himself never came out publically to set the record straight, I cannot help but think he had that November 16th, 1965 issue of National Review framed and hung on his wall, and would occasionally glance up from his typewriter to look at it and laugh. Whatever can be said about Vonnegut, he always got the joke.