What Would Harrison Bergeron Do? by Alec Cizak

I’m pleased today to welcome author Alec Cizak to the site. Also the editor of fiction journal Pulp Modern (newly revived Vol. 2, No. 1 now out), Cizak has a reputation for both writing (Crooked Roads, Manifesto Destination) and publishing hard-hitting work that’s not afraid to go places that make people uncomfortable. Cizak’s latest, Down on the Street (June 16 from ABC Group Documentation/Down&Out), continues that gritty approach, with Cizak using the story of two desperate people who use each other to try to escape the circumstances they each find themselves in as an opening to explore the “inhuman nature of conformity.”

What Would Harrison Bergeron Do?

The extended dance remix of Mao’s Cultural Revolution currently taking place on the Evergreen State College campus in Olympia should not surprise anyone at this point. A combination of weak leadership on the part of college administrations and the toxic bigotry of identity politics, a cult of indoctrination that has replaced education in most liberal arts programs, has led to similar temper tantrums by misguided students and student bodies across the nation. We seem to forget that college students are still, basically, children. Children require clear boundaries, or they will misbehave to signal to the nearest adults that they are frightened by the lack of boundaries. Anyone who has seen the pathetic videos leaked from Evergreen State has witnessed the horrific consequences of an adult admitting he is incapable of creating boundaries. In a sane world, George Bridges, the president of Evergreen State, would have stepped down by now and allowed a competent adult to restore sanity.

I had a front row seat to this madness in 2014 when I was subjected to a witch hunt at a university I worked for in Minnesota. The official story went something like this: I laughed at an inappropiate joke told by two of my colleagues and that, somehow, constituted the creation of a “hostile environment.” Apparently, my colleauges were discussing an essay they’d read in a British Lit class in which the author of the essay stated, “In Victorian literature, rape is romantic.” A histrionic classmate of ours, a terrible poet incapable of writing about anything but an alleged sexual assault she experienced as a teenager, overheard the part about rape being “romantic.” She reported the comment as a joke, as opposed to someone quoting from an academic article, and the equally histrionic English department chair (a spineless simp who just might put the cowardice of George Bridges to shame), in conjunction with an overzealous, recently nationally-shamed Title IX officer, launched the bogus investigation.

After threatening legal action, all three of the accused were declared innocent. It was revealed that I, in fact, wasn’t even in the room when the comment was made. None of the accusors—the student, the department chair, or the disgraced Title IX officer—ever apologized to me or the other two teaching assistants for the professional and psychological damage their misplaced zealotry caused us. The school never even suggested that maybe, just maybe, the administration should take a step back and consider the source(s) when hearing such allegations.

Doing some basic deduction, I realized the real reason I was lumped in with the other two teaching assistants was a lesson I had taught in my developmental writing course the previous semester. I asked my students to read the Kurt Vonnegut story “Harrison Bergeron” and, in a literary analysis, explain why the story is relevant today. The majority of my students were white farm kids from Minnesota. They had conservative tendencies. So when we brainstormed ideas on how to write the essay, I allowed them to consider both affirmative action and political correctness as modern examples of state-imposed “equality.” I implored them to use reliable sources to back up their claims. I made it clear I did not want to read a bunch of diatribes about various ethnic groups “taking our jobs.” The object was critical thinking, nothing more.

Well, my class was a “stretch” course, meaning it lasted two semesters and my students were supposed to stay with me for both semesters. I noticed, early in the discussions about the Vonnegut story, that two of my minority students couldn’t hide their displeasure with the associations made between “Harrison Bergeron” and affirmative action. One of them, nearly in tears, told me her mother “wouldn’t have a job” if it weren’t for affirmative action. I assured her I would not allow any students to turn the conversation into a referendum on race or anything else related to identity politics. I insisted all students treat the assignment as an objective, critical inquiry. Neither of the offended students stayed with me for the second semester. I was disappointed they couldn’t tackle a basic, critical thinking exercise. I would learn, in a roundabout manner, that either one or both of them complained about the “Harrison Bergeron” lesson.

Shortly after the conclusion of the witch hunt, I conferred with the other two teaching assistants who had been persecuted and, in comparing our notes over our individual meetings with the Title IX officer (who, it must be noted, worked in the affirmative action office), I discovered that I had been subject to something they had not: The first half hour of my meeting with the Title IX officer had been dedicated to me receiving a lecture on why affirmative action exists. It’s clear to me now that I was punished, essentially, for teaching “Harrison Bergeron” to college students in an age when collectivism is favored over the virtues of individuality. And why not? It’s easier to control a mass of people than it is a lone man or woman capable of thinking for him or herself.

I bring all this up because my new novella, Down on the Street, is the kind of book that would most certainly be banned from a modern university campus. The story is told from the point of view of a middle-aged man who pimps out his twenty-two year old neighbor. In discussions with the publisher, I worried, for several months, about possible backlashes—about being called a misogynist, one of the favored ad hominem attacks liberal arts cultists use to deride opponents and shut down conversations in effort to avoid confronting harder truths. After chastising myself for being a wuss and worrying about the insane ramblings of campus psychotics, I got over my trepidation. What kind of world would we live in if we allowed officious control freaks like that Title IX officer to decide what is and isn’t literature?

I’m happy to say that, following several independent investigations into what happened at the university, the Title IX officer was finally, thankfully, fired. To absolutely no one’s surprise, she was hired by someone in the UC system, the same system that encourages lunatics in Berkeley to riot any time someone who is not a member of the cult is invited to speak on campus. Sadly, the spineless English department chair still holds his position in spite of this and several other incidents demonstrating he is in no way fit to be in a position of authority. But that shouldn’t be too shocking. The gutless president of Evergreen State College, apparently, has yet to find reason to update his resume. Let us assume, for the time being, the children, the lunatics, will continue to run our asylums of so-called higher education.

Alec Cizak is a writer and filmmaker from Indianapolis. His fiction has appeared in several journals and anthologies, including Beat to a Pulp, Unloaded, and Crack the Spine. He is also the editor of the fiction journal Pulp Modern.

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