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.The story featured the Bergeron family: George, Hazel, and their fourteen-year-old son, Harrison. As we meet them they learn from the TV news that Harrison has just become a fugitive from justice having "...just escaped from jail, where he had been held on suspicion of plotting to overthrow the government." The TV continued, "He is a genius and an athlete, is under–handicapped, and should be regarded as extremely dangerous."
Vonnegut's story struck a nerve or two in the collective consciousness. Over forty years later the term "Handicapper General" and the character of Harrison Bergeron appear from time to time in political discourse. There was even a TV movie in 1995.
But when I read the story in Welcome to the Monkey House I was struck by the device used to insure that Harrison's father George did not stray too far above the mean, the mental handicap radio in his ear. As Vonnegut described it,
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.A variety of sounds were used. Vonnegut mentions a buzzer, somebody hitting a milk bottle with a ball peen hammer, a twenty-one-gun salute, a siren, the shriek of a door being torn from its hinges, the sound of an automobile collision. Well, you get the picture.
It finally dawned on me the other day that without the 211th, 212th, and 213th Amendments, or the efforts of a Handicapper General, we now have similar devices in wide circulation. Citizens, especially our young people, are wearing them voluntarily, often listening to sounds not far removed from the government broadcasts of 2081.