First published in The Imaginative Conservative December 21st, 2022. It may be of interest to CR readers as well.
Kurt Vonnegut’s “Harrison Bergeron” is a cautionary tale about the horror of totalitarianism. It matters little from which camp the horror originates: Left, Right, Democrat, or Republican. Horror is horror. As the Left and, increasingly, the Right continue to turn their backs on all things sacred, they are left only with themselves.
In October of 1960, C. Wright Mills published an essay in the New Left Review, a freshly launched British journal. Mills titled the essay, “Letter to the New Left”. Though published for a British audience, the essay also caught American leftists’ attention.
In the essay, Mills outlines the function of the New Left by juxtaposing it with the Right: The Right, among other things, means — what you are doing, celebrating society as it is, a going concern. Left means, or ought to mean, just the opposite. It means: structural criticism and reportage and theories of society, which at some point or another are focused politically as demands and programmes. These criticisms, demands, theories, programmes are guided morally by the humanist and secular ideals of Western civilization — above all, reason and freedom and justice.
To be “Left” means to connect up cultural with political criticism, and both with demands and programmes. And it means all this inside every country of the world. Simply put, Mills was promoting critical theory activism at the global level to usher in a utopian New World Order. The essay went as far as to adopt the charge of utopianism leveled at the New Left by many of its opponents.
We are frequently accused of being “utopian” — in our criticisms and in our proposals; and along with this, of basing our hopes for a New Left politics “merely on reason,” or more concretely, upon the intelligentsia in its broadest sense.
But must we not ask: what now is really meant by utopian? And: Is not our utopianism a major source of our strength? […] In this sense, both in its criticisms and in its proposals, our work is necessarily structural — and so, for us, just now — utopian.
Wright Mills died in 1962, a year and a half after penning his influential essay. Today, Mills’ utopianism is alive and well. The question becomes, “Is utopia working out according to Mills’ vision?”
That was Then, This is Now The New Left of the 1960s is the Progressive of the 2020s. Mills’ desire to connect critical theory activism to culture and politics has become a reality. Today, cultural and political criticisms are one and the same in that they promote similar demands and programs, just as Mills envisioned.
In one example of this phenomenon, gender theory has bled out of higher education and into the public school systems. It has infiltrated the highest levels of politics as well.
Earlier this year, The Los Angeles Unified School District adopted a curriculum encouraging teachers to work toward the “breakdown of the gender binary.” Teachers are to encourage students to experiment with gender pronouns such as “they,” “ze,” and “tree” and to adopt “trans-affirming” programming. The curriculum is designed to make classrooms “queer all school year.”
In the meantime, during a recent meeting of the United States Senate Judiciary Committee in Washington, Berkely Law Professor Khiara Bridges and Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) got tangled up in an argument on whether or not men can get pregnant.
When Bridges testified about the harm that abortion bans could bring to “people with a capacity for pregnancy,” Hawley asked whether she meant “women.” Bridges shot back with “trans men and non-binary people” are also capable of pregnancy. Hawley countered by asking whether abortion remained a “women’s rights issue”.
These are two examples among many that illustrate how the Left connects culture to politics, not only through criticism and theory but through demands and programs. C. Wright Mills drew the New Leftist map. Progressives are following it. But do they know where the map leads?
Left Equals Right Progressive demands and programs inevitably lead to totalitarian ends. And they’re not alone in their utopian dreaming. Some so-called moderates, such as the twelve Republican senators who recently voted for the “Respect for Marriage Act,” bolster the Progressive position.
The twelve Republican senators who voted to advance the “Respect for Marriage Act” have, inadvertently or not, betrayed their constituents who maintain, and rightly so, that the act of marriage is a sacred bond before it is a civil contract, that God transcends man, and that America’s Founding Documents were framed in the Judeo-Christian worldview.
To undermine these traditions, Progressives continue to push radical programs such as gender theory. In doing so, they press their counterparts into seemingly moderate compromises such as the “Respect for Marriage Act.” These kinds of compromises are anything but moderate. They undermine the traditional religious moral authority and, in doing so, strengthen the Progressive status as a secular religion.
Bottom line: Left and Right are becoming indistinguishable. The Progressives are no longer merely radical. They do not dwell at the fringes of the political spectrum but are now at home with some of their so-called conservative counterparts in the New Middle. Welcome to utopia.
Enter Stage Right: Harrison Bergeron In 1961, a year after Mills’ essay, Kurt Vonnegut published the short story “Harrison Bergeron” in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. The story depicts a society in the year 2081 where everybody is “finally equal.” In Bergeron’s world, equality, which has been imposed by structural changes to society, is achieved through handicapping talented individuals. Mills’ theoretical utopia, in Vonnegut’s fictional reality, becomes dystopia.
The first paragraph of the story sets the stage.
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.
Wright Mills’ call for criticisms, demands, theories, and programs that “are guided morally by the humanist and secular ideals of Western civilization” has won the day in Vonnegut’s fictional world. Inequality has been eliminated. And, as we shall see, so has God.
In the story, equality is imposed by artificial means. Harrison’s father George Bergeron, who happens to be quite a bit more intelligent than his wife Hazel, has been equipped with a handicap radio in his ear. The radio blasts sharp noises at odd intervals to interrupt George’s thoughts.
Ballerinas, in another example, are, “burdened with sashweights and bags of birdshot” to equalize their dancing ability. They also are required to wear masks “so that no one, seeing a free and graceful gesture or a pretty face, would feel like something the cat drug in.”
Equality at last. But there are problems. Diana Moon Glampers, the Handicapper General in charge of enforcing equality, isn’t equal to everyone else. By the nature of her position, she is superior to the citizens she rules. She wields the sacred authority of secular law. The Handicapper General contradicts the very equality she enforces.
The reader is left to wonder what fate befalls those citizens who are below average in looks, physique, and/or brains. Can the Handicapper General handicap them “up” to average or is everybody else handicapped down to the lowest common denominator?
To further complicate things, nature refuses to cooperate. April is still the cruelest month. It still drives people crazy by not being spring. This is a small detail in the story, practically an aside, but it is important.
Equality is an abomination to nature. If a wolfpack has neither an alpha male nor an alpha female to lead, the result will be disarray and confusion. The pack will lose cohesion. Chaos will ensue. Individual wolves will wander until they find a new pack or die alone in the wild. Harrison Bergeron is the quintessential alpha male. The fourteen-year-old is the living, breathing embodiment of Nietzsche’s Übermensch, an Overman, a seven-foot-tall statue of the god-man Hercules come to life.
To equalize such a specimen as Harrison Bergeron, the Handicapper General’s office outdoes itself. “Nobody had ever worn heavier handicaps than Harrison Bergeron.” He wore so much scrap metal that he “looked like a walking junkyard.”
To equalize Harrison’s tremendous intellect, “instead of a little ear radio for a mental handicap, he wore a tremendous pair of earphones.” He is also made to wear eyeglasses with thick wavy lenses that make him half-blind and give “him whanging headaches besides.”
Finally, to equalize Harrison’s good looks, he is required to wear “at all times a red rubber ball for a nose, keep his eyebrows shaved off, and cover his even white teeth with black caps at snaggle-tooth random.” Behold the god-man: he is a clown.
In his posthumous book The Will to Power, Nietzsche wrote, “This world is the will to power—and nothing besides!” Nature, then, for Nietzsche, is the will to power. And, like nature, Harrison Bergeron refuses to cooperate with Diana Moon Glamper’s insidious scheme. He must break free. The god-man cannot endure playing the clown.
Hero vs. Antihero Harrison breaks out of jail where he is being held on suspicion to overthrow the government. He invades a state-owned television station from which a ballet is being broadcast. There he declares himself Emperor.
Harrison yells, “I am the Emperor! Do you hear? I am the Emperor! Everybody must do what I say at once!” In one fell swoop, he throws off the tyranny of the state. Is Harrison Bergeron a Christlike savior? Can he redeem the populace from the hell of imposed mediocrity?
Every Emperor needs an Empress and, after ripping away the last of his handicaps, Harrison calls for one of the ballerinas to claim the title. It doesn’t take long for a ballerina to arise, “swaying like a willow.” Harrison plucks away her handicaps, removes her mask, and finds her “blindingly beautiful.” One might say she is like a statue of Helen of Troy come to life.
Harrison takes his new empress by the hand and says, “Now – shall we show the people the meaning of the word dance?” He promises the musicians they will be made “barons and dukes and earls” if they play their best. It takes the musicians a bit to shake off the cobwebs of enforced mediocrity, but soon enough, at Harrison’s prodding (he yanks two of them from their chairs and brandishes them like batons as he sings what he wants them to play), they are playing as they should.
The Emperor and the Empress begin to dance. And, oh, how they dance! They synchronize their heartbeats with the music and, “in an explosion of joy and grace, into the air they sprang!” They transcend “the law of gravity and the laws of motion” as they leap thirty feet high in the air. They overcome “gravity with love and pure will.” The moment they kiss the ceiling together, Harrison Bergeron and the ballerina overcome nature herself.
The moment doesn’t last. Diana Moon Glampers storms into the room with a double barrel ten-gauge shotgun. She points the weapon at the ceiling and empties both barrels. The Emperor and Empress are dead before they hit the floor. They are unable to overcome death. There is no God to resurrect them.
The Handicapper General reloads the shotgun, aims at the band, and tells them to put their handicaps back on quickly. They do as they are commanded, just as they did when Emperor Harrison threatened to toss them about like batons. One totalitarian regime is as good as another as long as you get to go home at night.
The New Middle Vonnegut’s “Harrison Bergeron” is a cautionary tale about the horror of totalitarianism. It matters little from which camp the horror originates, Left, Right, Democrat, or Republican. Horror is horror.
Are the citizens of Vonnegut’s fictional world better off for having witnessed human excellence in the form of Harrison and the ballerina? Not really. Should it have lasted, the emperor’s regime would have differed little from the Handicapper General’s. Both were oppressive. More importantly, both left no room for God. One regime would replace God with Man, the other the State.
Instead of abandoning religious terminology, however, totalitarians tend to adopt it. Terms such as “Christian fascist” or “Christian communist” are in line with C. Wright Mills’ call to connect culture—in this case religion—with political criticism. They remove religion from its own category – that of the sacred – and place it under the secular umbrella of the cultural-political. The recent rise of “Christian nationalism” and post-Vatican II “liberation theology” can be seen as the cultural-political results of these connections.
The New Middle is neither fascist nor Marxist. It is both. For many, the “Respect for Marriage Act” is seen as an acceptable compromise for Republicans because the country, wearied from years of battle over more controversial topics like gender and critical race theories, sees little harm in conflating sacred marriage and secular civil union. The compromise is seen as either inconsequential or, ironically, morally superior (this can only happen when the secular becomes sacred).
And, both in their way, fascists and Marxists seek “excellence,” whether manifested through an individual such as Harrison Bergeron or in the mass when cast as the ideal of equality (which means conformity) among individuals.
In an already crowded cultural-political playing field, making room for the New Middle requires the elimination of tradition. Western tradition—from Socrates to Jesus to the Constitution of the United States—was built on faith in the transcendent. The Left has long sought to eliminate the transcendent from the cultural-political equation. Some on the Right are slowly but surely doing the same.
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who experienced totalitarianism up close and personal, said it best in his 1983 acceptance of the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion:
It was Dostoevsky, once again, who drew from the French Revolution and its seeming hatred of the Church the lesson that ‘revolution must necessarily begin with atheism.’ That is absolutely true.
Harrison Bergeron and Diana Moon Glampers were both advocates of cultural-political revolution. Neither of their schemes holds a place for a transcendent God that is forever above human authority.
As the Left and, increasingly, the Right continue to turn their backs on all things sacred, they are left only with themselves. These soul-damaged men and women seek to build a utopia out of a broken world. They are doomed to fail. But at what cost?
Wright Mills’ utopian dreams are bearing new fruits under the stewardship of the New Middle. This kind of fruit, however, is bitter. In the end, it poisons those who would eat of it. It’s the same fruit that got us thrown out of the Garden in the first place.
The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility.