The other day, Ted Cruz made a feeble attempt to dunk on socialist presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. He and Ben Shapiro were riffing on Twitter about a letter Sanders wrote to the MLB commissioner decrying its plan to downsize minor league teams.
Taking Shapiro’s already absurd caricature of Sanders’ statements one step further, Cruz joked that the league should order the faster pitchers to all pitch slower, alluding to Kurt Vonnegut’s short story Harrison Bergeron.
It’s a funny little tale about a dystopian future in which a totalitarian state enforces absolute equality of ability. The villain is Handicapper General Diana Moon Glampers, a bureaucrat whose job is to assign handicaps to everyone. Those who are exceptionally strong or quick have to have bags of birdshot around their necks to hold them down. If you’re incredibly smart, you have to wear a radio device in your ear that plays annoying sounds to distract you. Beautiful people are made to look less attractive through various disfiguring accessories.
On its face, the story appears to be an on-the-nose anti-communist fable. However, given that Vonnegut was both a satirist and a leftist, the most obvious interpretation isn’t the correct one.
It’s ironic that Cruz would invoke Vonnegut’s name in an attempt to skewer Sanders given that the author’s politics were identical. Like Sanders, Vonnegut’s idol was the Socialist politician Eugene V. Debs.
In God Bless You Dr. Kevorkian, Vonnegut ventures into the afterlife to interview famous people, including his “personal hero” Debs:
I thanked him for words of his, which I quote again and again in lectures: “As long as there is a lower class, I am in it. As long as there is a criminal element, I am of it. As long as there is a soul in prison, I am not free.”
He asked me how those words were received here on Earth in America nowadays. I said they were ridiculed. “People snicker and snort,” I said. He asked what our fastest growing industry was. “The building of prisons,” I said.
In his memoir Man Without A Country, Vonnegut draws a parallel between Debs’ Canton Ohio Speech and Christ’s Sermon on the Mount.
Doesn’t anything socialistic make you want to throw up? Like great public schools, or health insurance for all?
When you get out of bed each morning, with the roosters crowing, wouldn’t you like to say. “As long as there is a lower class, I am in it. As long as there is a criminal element, I am of it. As long as there is a soul in prison, I am not free.”
How about Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, the Beatitudes?
Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the Earth.
Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.
And so on.
Not exactly planks in a Republican platform. Not exactly George W Bush, Dick Cheney, or Donald Rumsfeld stuff.
Vonnegut considered conservatism antithetical to humanist principles. Though he never, to my knowledge, made any comments on Cruz specifically, the American Humanist Association, of which he was the president until his death, once made Ted Cruz the honorary president as an April Fool’s joke.
Harrison Bergeron is best understood not as a critique of socialism but rather a farce of how reactionaries like Cruz view it.
It’s not altogether surprising that people whose idea of fine literature is the hamfisted pro-capitalist morality plays of Ayn Rand can only view the story in its most literal sense.
This year, the Libertarian Futurist Society inducted the story into its Hall of Fame. In a release, they write “Harrison Bergeron exposes and mourns the chilling authoritarian consequences of radical egalitarianism taken to an inhuman and Orwellian extreme that denies individuality, diversity and the opportunity to excel.”
The late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia invoked the story along with a smattering of other literary allusions, including Kafka, Animal Farm and Alice in Wonderland in his dissenting opinion on PGA Tour vs. Martin, a case that involved a club’s refusal to provide a cart to a golfer with a disability.
When it was cited in another civil case shortly before Vonnegut died, the author actually had the opportunity to weigh in on it and his response was telling.
In 2005, parents in the Shawnee Mission School District (SMSD) in Kansas sued the state over caps on local property taxes designed to promote education equity. Under the state’s education financing scheme, all primary instructional expenses are meant to come from the state’s budget, but districts are allowed to raise some funds locally for “extra expenses,” which is known as a “local option budget (LOB).”
Lifting the LOB cap would exacerbate inter-district inequality by kicking off an arms race, whereby resources—in particular the most qualified teachers— would flow to the rich districts.
In this perverse analogy SMSD is Harrison Bergeron, handicapped for its excellence. However, according to a judgment issued by the Kansas State Supreme Court a decade later, it’s still doing extremely well despite its ostensible handicaps. It’s one of the top three wealthiest districts in the state. More than 80 percent of its teachers hold master’s degrees or higher, while in 2014 every single student in the district was equipped with a MacBook Air.
When reached for comment, Vonnegut said that Harrison Bergeron is “about intelligence and talent, and wealth is not a demonstration of either one.”
“Kansas is apparently handicapping schoolchildren, no matter how gifted and talented, with lousy educations if their parents are poor.”
Vonnegut shows a socialist sense of positive freedom—being empowered to act—rather than the libertarian concept, which is mere freedom from interference. To him, the Handicappers General in this analogy are those working to keep poor schools underfunded, thereby preventing the students from achieving their full potential.
I’m reminded of a famous quote by the socialist biologist Stephen J. Gould. He said that people were always asking him about Albert Einstein’s brain. “I am, somehow, less interested in the weight and convolutions of Einstein’s brain than in the near certainty that people of equal talent have lived and died in cotton fields and sweatshops.”
The totalitarian enforced equality of Harrison Bergeron is purposefully absurd, but we’re living in an actual dystopia where mediocrities like Ted Cruz and Ben Shapiro get to attend Ivy League schools and ascend to the heights of power, while much greater minds are out there toiling away in anonymity with 47-pound bags of birdshot around their necks called poverty.