“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."
-- Harrison Bergeron, Kurt Vonnegut (1961)
Truth may be catching up with science fiction. I have a feeling I'm going to hate it when it does.
The lines quoted above are the opening sentences from a futuristic short story titled Harrison Bergeron written by Kurt Vonnegut fifty years ago. The story's protagonist, named in the title, is a young fellow who has legitimate claim to the label “Renaissance man.” Harrison excels both mentally and physically, so far above average he can't even see average from where he's situated.
But is Harrison celebrated in Vonnegut's America of the future? Far from it. In the name of fostering “equality” in absolutely everything, including personal attributes and abilities, the U.S. government's Handicapper General burdens even ballerinas “with sashweights and bags of birdshot, and their faces [are] masked, so that no one, seeing a free and graceful gesture or a pretty face, would feel like something the cat drug in.”
Because Harrison is both a genius and an athlete, nobody had ever borne heavier handicaps. Vonnegut describes Harrison's appearance as a combination of “Halloween and hardware.”
“Instead of a little ear radio for a mental handicap, he wore a tremendous pair of earphones, and spectacles with thick wavy lenses. The spectacles were intended to make him not only half blind, but to give him whanging headaches besides. Scrap metal was hung all over him. Ordinarily, there was a certain symmetry, a military neatness to the handicaps issued to strong people, but Harrison looked like a walking junkyard. In the race of life, Harrison carried three hundred pounds. And to offset his good looks, the H-G men required that he 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.”
In short, Vonnegut's America in 2081 is a nation of affirmative action squared. Not only are the handicapped enabled (e.g., all television announcers have a speech impediment), the enabled, like Harrison, are handicapped. Thus, everyone is rendered equally mediocre, and it's all done by and through government action.
Harrison and his plight came to mind as I read an op-ed piece in the Sunday, August 28th, New York Times. Written by an economics professor at the University of Texas at Austin, the editorial posed this question: “Why not offer legal protections to the ugly, as we do with racial, ethnic and religious minorities, women and handicapped individuals?” (NOTE TO THE READER: Here's a link to the article so you'll know I'm not making this up.)
Professor Hamermesh claims to have demonstrated the disadvantages of ugliness in 20 years of research. His catalog of disadvantages includes:
- earning less money;
- marrying a lesser-earning, less attractive spouse; and
- getting worse deals on mortgages.
The professor characterizes the effect ugliness has on earning power as “not small.” In support of this observation, he cites a single study that “showed that an American worker who was among the bottom one-seventh in looks, as assessed by randomly chosen observers, earned 10 to 15 percent less per year than a similar worker whose looks were assessed in the top one-third — a lifetime difference, in a typical case, of about $230,000.”
The professor concludes the ugly suffer these disadvantages due to the prejudice of others. Accordingly, the remedy for this “injustice” (and he simply assumes there MUST be a remedy) could and should be treating ugliness like a physical or mental disability. In his opinion, this could be easily achieved by amending laws that are already on the books. “Ugliness could be protected generally in the United States by small extensions of the Americans With Disabilities Act. Ugly people could be allowed to seek help from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and other agencies in overcoming the effects of discrimination. We could even have affirmative-action programs for the ugly.”
Implementation would appear to present an insurmountable hurdle to the professor's identification of a new protected class. How ugly must a person be to qualify? Who determines and defines “ugly”? How is it measured? Will we have degrees of ugly? For instance, would someone who is hideous be awarded more benefits than, say, someone who is merely homely?
Perhaps the DMV's new facial recognition technology could be pressed into service to identify the truly ugly. If an applicant's face registers as canine rather than human, we've got a winner!
How valuable would the “affirmative action” awarded to the ugly have to be to make it worth anyone's while to march into the local EEOC office and declare their own ugliness before God and the government? If a potential benefit recipient is too embarrassed to even approach the EEOC, could a friend or relative apply on their behalf? I can hear the phone calls now.
SON: My mother is soooooo ugly.
EEOC CLERK: How ugly is she?
SON: She's so ugly, she . . .