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Kurt Vonnegut's story opens with this telling sentence, "The year was 2081, and everybody was finally equal." In this year of 2081, the culture values "equality" so much that people have become so complaisant that they agree to oppressive measures in the name of equality. When, for instance, Hazel suggests that George removes the forty-seven pound handicapbag, he strongly demurs,
"If I tried to get away with it,....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."
In the world of "Harrison Bergeron" being competitive is wrong; mediocrity is acceptable and lauded. When an announcer on the television is unable to even say "Ladies and gentlemen--" Hazel comments,
"That's all right--...he tried. That's the big thing. he tried to do the best he could with what God gave him."
In this twenty-first century, this phrase is echoed repeatedly by parents and teachers alike. Often anyone who wants to be on small town football teams are allowed to be; there are no "try-outs" because these would make those not chosen "feel bad." In sports, especially with the younger children, everyone on the team gets a trophy, no matter whether he or she never played in any of the games. Students are awarded Certificates of Participation so they feel equal to others. Everyone "tried."
Vonnegut's worries came in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement, a movement for equality that had to be enacted by the force of the federal government in some states. With this exertion of Federal force, fears that the federal government would in some way propose schemes that would enforce equality of outcome entered the mind of Vonnegut and many others. Thus, Affirmative Action can be viewed as such a type of forced equality as certain people are given scholarships or extra points on entrance exams for law and medical schools or government jobs, for instance, to even the "playing field." Business firms were give quotas in the 1970s on hiring that they had to comply with, and many municipal employers such as Police and Fire Departments have been compelled by the federal government to hire in compliance with Affirmative Action, even when their town contains no minorities. These departments, then, must recruit from another township so that they can meet federal stipulations or risk discrimination charges.
The Federal Education bill of No Child Left Behind is also a type of forced mediocrity as ultimately children at the higher end are held back in achievement so that others can "catch up."
Ironically, when Federal Communications Commission, Newton Minow, delivered an attack on television five months before ‘‘Harrison Bergeron’’ was published, he called television "a vast wasteland'' of destructive or meaningless programs. The plethora of reality and talk shows underscores this statement about meaningless programs. Many videos and movies are perceived as counter-culture and damaging to ethical values, too.
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