“The year was 2081, and everybody was finally equal.

I was in middle school when I first read that line. Though I was not much of a reader in 1978, this assigned short story caught my attention. Equality sounded good to my 14 year old mind, but we were already pretty much equal, weren’t we? What would be left to achieve by 2081? Slavery had already been abolished, women were voting since 1920, and the civil rights act was signed two weeks before I was born. 2081 was a whole century away, what would make everybody finally equal?

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.

Suddenly, total equality had no appeal.

The story assigned to me was Kurt Vonnegut’s 1961 dystopian science-fiction “Harrison Bergeron.” My heart sank as he described the once talented ballerinas weighed down by bags of birdshot to “equalize” their grace. Their faces were masked to cover their natural beauty which had previously set them apart from those less fortunate in looks.

The setting was the living room of George and Hazel Bergeron. Hazel reminded me a bit of Edith Bunker, not too bright but sweet and sympathetic. George was endowed with above average intelligence which was now labeled as a “mental handicap.” Under penalty of law, George was subject to wearing a government issued transmitter in which sharp bursts of noise would go off in his head every twenty seconds to keep him from “taking unfair advantage of his brain.”

My fourteen year old mind had never before conceived such a notion that persons more graceful, beautiful, or intelligent could be considered as disrupting the equality we sought for our future. It was frightening to think that a person’s God-given talent, facial features, or hard-earned skills could be subject to such punishment, but this story introduced a new theme that continues to fascinate me: dystopia.

It wasn’t until I had fallen from my own sought after future Utopia that I realized how prophetic and therapuetic such dystopian novels and films were for me.

The title of “Harrison Bergeron” never registered, but I kept recalling this short story from 8th grade where the goal of equality didn’t make everything better but worse. A classic dystopian theme. Meanwhile, as I wrestled with my own failed goal of being part of the perfect “new world” envisioned by Jehovah’s Witnesses, I stumbled upon another book which I’d been assigned to read in high school, but never got around to: George Orwell’s “1984.” After being disfellowshipped from the high control organization of the Watchtower Society, Orwell’s novel was eerily familiar and enlightening. From then on, I read Aldous Huxley’s “Brave new World” and enjoyed films like “Logan’s Run,” “Pleasantville,” “The Truman Show,” and “The Village,” all of which depict themes of well-intentioned, but contrived unity or perfection which ultimately reveal a loss of individual freedom. Years went by and I kept recalling this short story my English teacher had us read about the future and ballerinas in chains. Finally, a Google search gave me the title of “Harrison Bergeron” and I was able to revisit what had captured my teenage imagination.

Harrison was fourteen like me. I suppose that is why it was assigned to us in eighth grade. Like his father George, Harrison was also of above average intelligence. He’s first introduced to the reader upon his escape 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.”

Dangerous. Yes, like anyone else in history born for the task to awaken the sheep out of their slumber, Harrison becomes the object of such warnings: “If you see this boy, do not – I repeat, do not – try to reason with him.”

With every weight clinking and clanging off his body, and heavy earphones ensuring distraction and headaches, Harrison manages to storm into the television studio which is being live streamed into the home of George and Hazel and everyone else in this society held captive under the authority of the Handicapper General.

Harrison dares to declare, “I am the Emperor! Do you hear? I am the Emperor! Everybody must do what I say at
once!” Because a bold and brassy candidate is exactly what is needed when the masses have become fearful sheep only fit to be cogs in the wheel of a heartless, government-run society.

Even more shocking, our fourteen year old hero addresses his listening audience with an invitation to rise up.

“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!”

And with that, the clown-nosed, hardware handicapped, Harrison stripped himself of the impediments placed upon him in the name of “equality” and made manifest to the world what his own word had announced. He stood there as the man his Creator had made him to be! Full of youthful strength, ambition, and free speech which could no longer be controlled through an ear transmitter dictating the government’s mandates of obedience through constant distraction and conformity. His thoughts were his own. And that is what made Harrison so dangerous in the first place.

With the selection of an Empress from the group of ballerinas, Harrison and his unmasked and gracefully beautiful partner showed the world how to dance. For a brief moment, we have hope that the freedom of this young couple will inspire the oppressed and slumbering masses, but alas, like every maverick in history, from Jesus Christ to Martin Luther King, jr., their example becomes a threat to those who define their power and identity by the sheep they manage to control.

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.

The year was 2081, and everybody was finally equal.

Those who dared to speak were silenced. Those who won fairly, had their victories stolen. It was no longer acceptable to be different in intelligence, talent, or looks, for we had learned these things divide. So the people were lulled into a message of total equality seeking not to divide but unify. They learned to be ashamed of their personalities and gifts. They questioned their bodies and the differences assigned at birth, and they turned on eachother for not covering their faces or inspiring others to hope.

Keep yourself in God’s love, Julie