I wonder how many readers remember John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice, that scholarly paean to egalitarianism and institutionalized envy, from 1971. How would one dramatize, in visual and auditory concretes, its high-blown, insidious principles?
I recently watched a little gem of a cinematic parable about a Rawlsian dystopia, 2081, which depicts a society in which “everyone is equal.” The film, made under the aegis of the Moving Picture Institute, produced by Thor Halvorssen and written and directed by Chandler Tuttle (based on a Kurt Vonnegut story, “Harrison Bergeron”) is exactly that, a parable, not meant to be taken literally, because the purpose of a parable is impart profound and lasting lessons.
In 2081, the exceptionally skilled, beautiful, strong, and intellectually endowed are “made equal” with their averagely endowed fellow men by means of a variety of restraining agents – weights, masks, and taser-like devices that interrupt thought and impede movement. Anyone tested by the state and deemed to be above average in any respect is required by law to be fitted with one or more of these restraints or “equalizers.” The penalty for removing them is imprisonment.
George Bergeron’s son Harrison was arrested and imprisoned for six years for refusing to wear the agents and for “blatantly removing them in public.” He escapes from prison and appears in a concert hall that is staging Tchaikovsky’s “Sleeping Beauty” ballet live in a national broadcast. The ballerinas are also arrested by weights that make their movements clumsy. Harrison announces to the audience that he has placed a bomb beneath the hall. He declares, among other things, that he is “an exception to the accepted,” and that he “was not created equal,” and proceeds to shed all the devices that burden his body, including a yoke fitted over his shoulders and neck.
That is his statement of freedom. He may be mad or perfectly lucid. He does not wish to continue living in a world of “fairness” and “original positions.” That is for the viewer to judge. He then invites a volunteer to do the same. One of the ballerinas rises and discards her weights, as well. (Forgive the plot-spoilers here, they are necessary to making a point.)
In the meantime, SWAT teams of the United States Handicapper General surround the hall, disable the bomb (it is unclear whether it was a real bomb, I don’t think so, but that is mere conjecture), and prepare to capture or kill the “public threat.” The authorities order the broadcast stopped, but Harrison Bergeron has a device that overrides the kill signal and rebroadcasts the program (shades of John Galt’s broadcast in Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged). As Harrison Bergeron and the ballerina perform with total freedom of movement to a doleful composition and for a dumbstruck audience (many members of which are also wearing restraints), the SWAT teams move into the hall itself.
An expressionless, silent woman who is in charge of the operation takes a gun and kills Harrison Bergeson and the ballerina. The action is televised without her knowledge and one of the last things one sees is her slightly startled face staring into the camera. That is what Harrison wanted the nation to see – the vapid face of evil. End of broadcast. The extraordinary has been eliminated. Please stand by.
George (also loaded down with restraints), has watched all this in the comfort of his living room, while his dimly conforming and nattering wife, Hazel, played convincingly by Julie Hagerty (who wears none, because there is nothing extraordinary or exceptional about her), is oblivious to the events on the television screen. She is washing dishes with her back turned to the screen and misses the whole broadcast and a last glimpse of her son, the running water serving as her own sound-obliterating handicapping device.
When George begins to think of the abduction of his son from their home years before, and begins to respond to the broadcast and the heroism of his son, his memory is disrupted by his ear piece. HIs wife asks him why he is looking so upset; he can only reply that he saw something “sad.” He cannot remember what. He shuffles out of the living room to oblivion, because he will not remove the things that hold him down.
The film is only twenty-five minutes long, but it packs a punch as terrible as Michael Radford’s gritty, nearly two-hour long Nineteen Eighty-Four. The production values are as good as any $20 million budget blockbuster’s. As a parable on the price of silence and the fate of those who prefer security and passivity over independence and freedom, it is one of the best films I have ever seen.
2081 is A Theory of Justice, illustrated. It is philosophy in motion.