Saturday, July 22, 2023

"'Harrison Bergeron,' by Kurt Vonnegut and its relationship to the Kennedy Assassination, Trump, and digital censorship"

We've mentioned this story a few times. Even though I read it years ago, and have re-read it since, I can never remember the title. I always remember the story itself because it was the first time I came across  a certain approach to equality/inequality. But not the title.

Here's a post from 2018 where we use it as the outro, after which we'll visit the headline article:

....And here's Vonnegut's 1961 short story "HARRISON BERGERON" via the Internet Archive:
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....MORE

And from Matt Taibbi's Racket News, June 18:

Transcript: Discussion of "Harrison Bergeron," by Kurt Vonnegut
Walter Kirn and Matt Taibbi on the 1961 story and its relationship to the Kennedy Assassination, Trump, and digital censorship 

From “America This Week,” the free transcript of this week’s story discussion. This week, “Harrison Bergeron” by the great Kurt Vonnegut:

Matt Taibbi: This week’s story is Harrison Bergeron, by Kurt Vonnegut, which has a lot of predictive power about a couple of things in modern society.

Vonnegut was always one of my favorites. I liked him as a kid, among other things, because he was easy to read. The paragraphs were small and separated. He drew pictures that were funny. He openly didn’t take literature seriously. He had a great sense of humor, and the message was, I always thought gentle, humanistic, encouraging, and optimistic, and the stories were great. But his short stories are not something that I ever really got into. So, this was interesting for me. What are your thoughts about Kurt Vonnegut?

Walter Kirn: I mean, to reintroduce him to maybe younger listeners or to people who weren’t fans, Kurt Vonnegut is an American novelist whose major works were produced in the sixties and seventies and the eighties to some extent, who was a World War II veteran, whose formative experience in life was being on the ground at the firebombing of Dresden in World War II. And so he experienced war at a level of horrific industrial incineration that was unique. And he came back to the United States. He’s originally from Indiana. He was from a commercial family in Indianapolis. They had a department or maybe a hardware store chain.

He went to work in upstate New York, maybe for General Electric or some big post-war company. And in this way he was like Joseph Heller. Heller and Vonnegut lived in some ways parallel lives. They both came back from terrifying experiences in World War II to try to join normie corporate America in the fifties. And they in some ways failed to bond and became satirical novelists whose target was what we might call the organization. The person who doesn’t ask questions whose identity is subsumed by some absurd either army or company or social scene. And for me, Vonnegut, you say he had a sense of humor. He almost had nothing but a sense of humor.

Matt Taibbi: I was going to say, he was also less vicious than Joseph Heller was in his caricatures.

Walter Kirn: Yes, and that probably has to do with temperament, but also may have to do with the fact that Kurt Vonnegut’s World War II was approximately 10,000 times more horrifying than Heller's. He saw a major European city reduced to rubble and its population to body parts and scavenging animals almost, in the wake of this. And he was held prisoner there. In any case, his greatest book is probably his account of that bombing interspliced with a weird science fiction story called Slaughterhouse-Five....
Matt Taibbi: With a character named Montana Wildhack. I always thought that was a great name.

Walter Kirn: Montana Wildhack. So in Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut takes a character who was a fellow soldier of his, who he names Billy Pilgrim, who’s an American everyman. A simple, innocent American everyman. And in the spliced part of the novel, he imagines Billy Pilgrim becoming “unstuck in time” and becoming a zoo creature on another planet.

Matt Taibbi: Tralfamadore, that’s the name of the planet.

Walter Kirn: On a planet called Tralfamadore, where he’s caged with a porn star, an incredibly well-endowed porn star named Montana Wildhack. And the extra-terrestrials watch them cavort in the cage. And we understand this fantasy, high absurd Swiftian cartoon drama as the necessary psychic escape from the horrors of the Dresden bombing. He, in the book, enacts a psychic break in which the horrors of reality are poised against the weirdness of this notion that you can move around “unstuck in time” to other planets and become a zoo animal for the entertainment of other beings and so on.....