Updated: Feb 6, 2019
Life imitates art as we race for the lowest common denominator
“The year was 2081, and everybody was finally equal.”
If you haven’t read Kurt Vonnegut’s little dystopian masterpiece, “Harrison Bergeron” read it. If you’ve read it, read it again. At 2000 words, it’s about a seven-minute read. And it explains much of what’s wrong with Western Civilization.
“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.”
How did the government achieve this equality? By law, George Bergeron, an above-average individual, toted a canvas bag containing 47 pounds of birdshot padlocked around his neck; this made him equal to those who lacked his physical prowess. And, lest he take unfair advantage of his superior intellect, George wore in his ear a “mental handicap radio” that emitted high-frequency shrieks every 20 seconds to addle his thinking. This put George on a par with his wife, Hazel, who had the intellectual fortitude of Forrest Gump.
All across society, the Handicapper General ensured equality by mandating impairments for the athletic, opaque glasses for the perceptive, and red rubber noses for the attractive. Musicians were tone-deaf, and stutterers worked as news anchors.
Of course, everybody followed the rules.
Everyone except Harrison, George and Hazel’s son, who will have none of it. When Harrison Bergeron publicly casts off his state-imposed handicaps, police reports warn that, “He is a genius and an athlete, is under-handicapped, and should be regarded as extremely dangerous."
Harrison becomes not only a criminal but an enemy of the state. Without observing the niceties of due process, the Handicapper General sentences him to summary execution, and equality is restored.
SCARIER THAN FICTION
Even the most passionate egalitarian can’t fail to miss the absurdity of Mr. Vonnegut’s farcical vision. But in the more nuanced world of our reality, our slide toward the same kind of cultural mediocrity is accelerating day by day.
In their recent book, The Coddling of the American Mind, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt expand the 2015 essay that became the most read article in the history of The Atlantic. The authors paint a truly frightening picture of how the proliferation of political correctness is transforming institutions of higher learning to institutions of collective lobotomy.
By now, most of us are familiar with the symptoms.
In the court of campus opinion, students and faculty alike can face censure a variety of thought and speech crimes. They can be guilty of microaggressions, irrespective of intent or objective impropriety, if any student interprets their words or expression as hostile or objectionable. Professors are required to announce trigger warnings before presenting any material that might cause any student emotional agitation. And campuses provide students with safe spaces to which they can retreat from any intellectual or emotional stimuli that might make them uncomfortable. Long lists of banned phrases and expressions ensure that never is heard an insensitive word.
The authors describe all this as vindictive protectiveness, which insulates students from pain and anxiety. By doing so, students emerge from the womb of academia as psychological cripples, unprepared to face a real world that will refuse to accommodate their fragile feelings.
THE FEEL-GOOD SCIENCE OF POLITICS
On a national level, the rise of socialist candidates in congress pushes us toward increasing government sponsorship of college education, employment, and medical care. These are wonderful goals that reflect a well-intentioned idealism to promote a more equal society. But they are untethered to economic and cultural reality. History provides too many examples of utopianism mutating into totalitarianism and patrician governments morphing into villainous dictatorships.
Many have pointed out the logical fallacy of conflating equality of opportunity with equality of outcome. A social safety-net only succeeds by helping the few who are unable to help themselves, not by actively discouraging personal responsibility. One glance at the many European countries plunged by socialist idealism into economic and social chaos should be enough to close the case for good.
If only that were so.
King Solomon says, The crucible is for silver and the refining pot for gold; but a man is tested according to his praise.
One way or another, refinement comes through trial by fire. Intellect and reason, craft and expertise, personal character and moral clarity – with respect to all of these, one universal rule applies: we reach our potential only through confronting and overcoming obstacles, by meeting and succeeding in the face of challenge.
A responsible government promotes equality by ensuring – as much as possible – an even playing field. Then it gets out of the way and allows the laws of meritocracy to drive the machinery of prosperity and success.