Feb 182011
Vonnegut Wooden Nickel

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“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.”

In the opening of the classic 1961 short story “Harrison Bergeron,” novelist Kurt Vonnegut depicted a future in which people who had been born superior in some way over “average” people could not use those gifts to take “unfair” advantage. The strong lugged handicapping weights, the beautiful wore hideous masks and the clever were not permitted to think for stretches longer than 20 seconds or so. “A little mental handicap radio” transmitted earsplitting sounds such as a buzzer, a 21-gun salute or a ball-peen hammer striking a milk bottle. In response, “thoughts fled in panic, like bandits from a burglar alarm.”

Gun-toting government agents enforced the legislated baseline of mediocrity. When dull but well-meaning Hazel suggests that her husband, George, remove a few lead balls from his “handicap bag,” he reminds her of the fines and why he mustn’t disobey anyway: “‘If I tried to get away with it,’ said George, ‘then other people’d get away with it and pretty soon we’d be right back in the dark ages again, with everybody competing against everybody else. You wouldn’t like that, would you?’” No, she wouldn’t.

The must-have standards in the real 2081 will likely differ from Vonnegut’s unhappy tale, but the desire to achieve them may be uncomfortably similar. Our society, too, seems to be transfixed by the goal of reaching an average—one that is “above average.” With cosmetic surgery, we sculpt our bodies to create an ideal of attractiveness. Athletes dip into the medicine cabinet to pump up muscles and speed. Is it any wonder that recent headlines bark about the possibility of taking pills to boost brainpower?

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