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Across The World And In All Cultures

Across the world and in all cultures, the enduring pursuit of equality in life seems timeless and people have always been trying to achieve equality in every shape and form. In the essay, “Harrison Bergeron”, Kurt Vonnegut Jr. uses irony to expose the ridiculous idea that people can ever be made truly equal and to illustrate how a totalitarian government might eliminate what many call diversity in the name of "equality." Set in 2081, the characters of Harrison Bergeron all have to wear handicaps in order to make one another feel equal. The meaning of “equal” leaves much to be desired. To substantiate this, this paper will draw upon William Carlos Williams’s, “Item” to show that when forced “equality” is achieved at the cost of freedom and individuality, there is both sacrifice and loss.

Equality is thought not to be composed of one thing, but rather a combination of several aspects in “Harrison Bergeron” by Kurt Vonnegut Jr.. "Harrison Bergeron" tackles the theme of equality in a unique way. Rather than suggesting that all people should be equal, it imagines a world where the United States governments has forced citizens to be equal by means of cruel handicaps. For example, a handicap radio is forced on anyone considered beautiful and heavy bags full of bird shots are forced on anyone considered strong. All these rules are enforced by the “211th, 212th and 213th Amendments to the Constitution” and the unceasing vigilance of agents of the United States Handicapper General (Vonnegut 1). However this also implicates that equality is not actually achieved because the Handicapper General is evidently not restricted in the same manner. In fact the Handicapper General, which seems to the represent the government, controls the life of the of the citizens. Even though the community depicts their people as equals, the people are deprived of their everyday abilities and held captive to the government. Overall, Vonnegut describes the risks of concentrating on fake equality instead of celebrating their differences that make them unique and themselves.

In the poem, “Item” by William Carlos Williams, an individual is being depicted as an objectified item, who is getting depersonalized both through the use of language and imagery, during a time era that is clearly described as War. Through the use of imagery, the author can create images or pictures in the reader’s mind, that resembles something that they have seen before. The author uses imagery throughout the poem to help explain, or exaggerate a moment to help the reader understand what is really happening at that time. A strong imagery moment in this poem is when the author writes, “This, with a face like a mashed blood-orange”, which leads up to the the authors “War! War!”(Williams 6). Starting off the poem with two strong rhetorical devices, such as imagery and a simile, shows what kind of writer the author is, as well as what type of poem the reader will be getting themselves into. The poem describes a time where (still finishing; end with topic of authority)

The poem, “Item” deals with issues of authority as well as oppression, similar to “Harrison Bergeron”. Authority is oppressive and all-encompassing in Vonnegut’s short story. Any type of military duty, loyalty, or seen parental guidance has been obliterated by the totalitarian regime. At the beginning of the story, the narrator mentions that Harrison is taken away from home by the “H-G men,” and while his parents find his imprisonment tragic, they can do nothing about it. Not only does the authority control the whereabouts of all its citizens, but it also suppresses or redirects their thinking. George who possess above-average intelligence has a tiny transmitter from the government which zaps him with sounds and shocks as soon as his thinking is out of line with the government regulations. The Handicapper General’s destruction of Harrison at the end of the story demonstrates just how extreme the the government’s power is in the year 2081. While Harrison was able to escape and remove his handicap and preach his message his for a brief moment, even if it was just short lived. Since the authorities cannot keep him imprisoned, they kill him to regain control and Harrison’s own parents reactions prove how corrupt the government is, and how bad that have ruined the minds of their citizens. To tie this authoritative subject in with Williams poem, “Item”, the setting of the poem is during a time of war. The government is in control of their citizens, and as the poem describes, is made up of men. The women of this poem are seen as an objectified item, who are depersonalized. The author never describes the women, or the subject as, “she” or “her”, simply as a “this”. The oppressive nature of this poem is similar to Vonnegut’s “Harrison Bergeron” when the author writes, “broken shoes War! War! stumbling for dread at the young men who with their gun-butts shove her” (Williams 10-15). Oppression is at the root of many of the most serious, enduring conflicts in the world today, and there is no denying the issues that we hide behind every move made throughout everyone’s lives.

In the music video, “This is America”, Childish Gambino’s movements and motives are divisive, explosive, and embodies reality. The song and dancing mimics joy, but brutalizes the viewer with the imagery. This idea connects thematically to William Carlos Williams’s poem, “Item”, with the subject of authority and brutality. In the church scene of the music video, just as in the earlier scenes, Glover is self-assured and brash. He kills multiple people (including the choir) and afterwards continues to dance and mug for the camera, seemingly without a care in the world. On a literal level, it is hard to make sense of this juxtaposition of violence and dance. But it may just be as simple to say that Glover’s character is intended as a representation of America. As such, it is not Glover (or Black men) doing the killing. It is not even white men. Rather, it is the country itself. It is America, with its racist history and contemporary disinterest in black lives, that takes the lives of black people, even innocent, church-going black people, and continues to smile and dance as though the violence was unworthy of notice. Where as in, William Carlos Williams’s poem, the violence, particularly towards women, is the strong image depicted in this poem. When the author writes, “broken shoes War! War! stumbling for dread at the young men who with their gun-butts shove her”, it shows a sense of abusive power and authority (Williams 10-15). This ties along with this music video “This is America” because Childish Gambino tackles similarly heady themes, from gun violence to the history of Jim Crow and the treatment of Black Lives Matter protesters. One of the most inescapable points in the video is the destabilizing consequences of police brutality, which is shown directly in the poem by Williams as well.

This poem connects thematically to “Harrison Bergeron” through the messages that are shown through the imagery described in each stanza. In “Harrison Bergeron” everyone is seen as equal compared to one another, but in the poem, “Item”, everyone is equal through the war, not one person is higher than the other. The author of the short story, Kurt Vonnegut Jr., leads the reader to question whether the characters in “Harrison Bergeron” are truly equal. They are only equal in the sense that they are all equally repressed by a cruel, manipulative regime that does not understand the value and importance of diversity. Human beings, of their very nature, are unequal in their respective talents, abilities and intellectual capabilities. Yet in the dystopian society of “Harrison Bergeron”, the government sees differences between humans as a bad thing, artificially constructed and imposed by the strong upon the weak. If the differences between use are environmental, not innate, then that means that the environment must be changed. In Williams’s poem, “Item”, everyone is equal through the war, and not one person is higher than the other. The authority in this poem is one of dominance and higher class. There is a clear distinguishable difference in character between the authoritative forces, and the subject of this poem. The author explains the women as, “clutching her thick ragged coat a piece of hate broken shoes War! War!” (Williams 7-11). The description of this woman is describing a homeless person, when sadly a war is going on. The oppressive nature of this poem comes into play when they totally ignore the need from the women who literally “stumbling for dread” right at their feet (Williams 12). Oppressive governments like the one described in the poem helps to understand why it is impossible to deny the imperfection of the world today; poverty, violence, lack of education, and the general overwhelming deficiency of basic daily necessities are among some of the most troubling issues on the agenda. By carefully selecting our critical lens, we can gather that there are many aspects of today’s issues where we can focus our attention and begin the quest for solutions to these pervasive problems.

In conclusion, both William Carlos Williams’s, “Item” and Kurt Vonnegut Jr.’s “Harrisons Bergeron”, showed that when forced “equality” is achieved at the cost of freedom and individuality, there was both sacrifice and loss. Authority is oppressive and all-encompassing in Vonnegut’s short story. Oppression is at the root of many of the most serious, enduring conflicts in the world today, and there is no denying the issues that we hide behind every move made throughout everyone’s lives.

Freelance Writer

I’m a freelance writer with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism from Boston University. My work has been featured in publications like the L.A. Times, U.S. News and World Report, Farther Finance, Teen Vogue, Grammarly, The Startup, Mashable, Insider, Forbes, Writer (formerly Qordoba), MarketWatch, CNBC, and USA Today, among others.