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“Harrison Bergeron” offers vigorous political and social criticisms of both America in general and the America of the 1960s. The political system depicted in Vonnegut’s story is distinctly American and founded on the principles of egalitarianism, which holds that people should be equal in every way. Equality is a beloved principle enshrined in America’s Declaration of Independence in the phrase “All men are created equal,” but Vonnegut describes how even an idea as established as egalitarianism can be perverted when enforced by an authoritarian government. If the goal of equality were to be taken to a hypothetical extreme, it could be decided that people must be forced to be equal to one another in their appearance, behavior, and achievements, leaving no room for creativity, talent, or individuality.
Another way that "Harrison Bergeron" can be interpreted as a direct critique of totalitarianism is to view it through the lens of events that were current when it was published in 1961. In the 1960s, America was engaged with the Soviet Union in the Cold War and had recently struggled through the McCarthy era, when suspected communists were accused and blacklisted from artistic, literary, and political communities. The futuristic American society of “Harrison Bergeron” operates on similarly repressive principles. Like the accused communists of the McCarthy era, anyone not conforming to society’s accepted standards is sought out and punished. “Harrison Bergeron,” then, suggests that state-mandated “equality” is not equality at all, but rather a means by which the government is able to control and suppress individuality.
Some modern readers have interpreted the dystopia depicted in “Harrison Bergeron” as a preview of what might happen to America if such trends as psychiatric drugs are allowed to proliferate. The characters in Vonnegut’s story are passive, unthinking, and calm. Although the means of achieving this mental state are externally applied to the body, rather than internally applied to the mind, some readers draw a parallel between the noises that destroy George’s ability to think and the drugs that make modern Americans tranquil and detached. These critics argue that the characters in “Harrison Bergeron,” who lack all passion, intelligence, and creative ability, should be interpreted as a warning about what happens to the members of a society that prizes calm happiness above artistry or intelligence.