Back to school with Harrison Bergeron

School is back in session. For students throughout Maine, that means sports, homework, and, yes, reading assignments. Some of those books will be a slog to get through — I still don’t get “Catcher in the Rye” — while others will stick with them through the years.

One such story is “Harrison Bergeron” by Kurt Vonnegut. Set in a dystopian future America, an obsession with “equality” has torn society asunder by making everyone equally inept. Government enforces the farce through euphemistic “handicaps.” Intelligence is actively undermined by annoying sounds, beauty hidden behind grotesque masks, and strength burdened by weights.

It is an absurd scene. In its climax, the 7-foot-tall, handsome, strong, genius 14 year old named Harrison Bergeron bursts into a TV studio. He calls on viewers to throw off their handicaps, finds a beautiful girl, rips off her hideous mask, and kisses her.

Then the government official in charge of enforcing the perverted “equality” laws — the “Handicapper General” — enters the scene and kills Harrison with a 10-gauge shotgun. So then people returned to their everyday lives, not giving it another thought.

The tale is effective — and memorable — because it is so shockingly strange. That can’t happen in ruggedly individualist America, can it?

Unfortunately, while the government may not be shooting people for deviating from its established norms, social pressure is today edging us closer to the world created by Vonnegut and enforcing — in the words of George Orwell — goodthink.

A statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, Virginia. Reuters | Jonathan Ernst

A major sports network removed an announcer from a University of Virginia football game. Because his name was “Robert Lee,” like the Confederate general. We better be careful; if you search through the white pages, you’ll find a lot of guys named “Jeff Davis.” A secessionist movement might spontaneously spring up around them at any moment. Better make sure we keep them all north of the Mason-Dixon Line.

Or, out in Colorado at a state university, our very own “Handicappers General” styling themselves the “Social Justice Collective Weekly” suggested veterans of America’s armed forces should be banned from four-year colleges. Trade schools might be OK, but those who served are affiliated with “extremist right-wing groups,” which must be suppressed to “provide a safe space for all students.” As long as “all students” does not include individuals for whom “trigger” is associated with firearms rather than words.

There is also a movement afoot to pressure Boy Scouts of America troops to admit girls. Never mind the existence of the co-ed Venturing program, the continued exclusivity of the Girl Scouts, or academic literature showing positive outcomes associated with single-sex educational experiences. The modifier “boy” should be removed — or retained merely as a vestigial appendage — and a 100-year-plus tradition shunted aside because there are some young women interested in participating.

These examples would probably have been seen as an outlandish farce a la Harrison Bergeron 50 years ago. But they are unfortunately all quite real in the here and now.

As students head back into class, maybe they will read Vonnegut’s classic and pick up some of the lessons it can offer. People are different; not everyone shares the same talents or attributes. Individuals generally do not get to choose their name or number of X chromosomes in their genome. Our military is an all-volunteer force, so that is a choice, but the perspectives offered by service can be eminently valuable.In short, American equality isn’t about making everyone the same.

Rather than hammering down those who stand out — like male Eagle Scouts named “Thomas Jackson” attending a four-year university after a stint in the Marine Corps — and trying to remove what makes them unique, we should celebrate differences. It is about playing to our strengths, be they innate or experiential, and using them to achieve great things.

Michael Cianchette

About Michael Cianchette

Michael Cianchette was the chief counsel to Gov. Paul LePage from 2012-2013 and deputy counsel from 2011-2012. A Navy reservist, he was deployed to Afghanistan from 2013-2014 as a trainer and adviser to the Afghan National Police. He is an alumnus of the Leadership Maine program and holds a BA in economics and political science from Boston College along with a JD and an MBA from Suffolk University. He works as in-house counsel and financial manager for a number of affiliated companies in southern Maine.