In 1973, Ursula K. LeGuin wrote a short story called “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.” It posits a perfect city and a perfect society where everyone is ideally happy and productive. However, the machinery of this immeasurably beautiful place rests on the agony of one nameless child.
The idea that civilized society requires blood in the gears to run is, sadly, not a new observation.
LeGuin’s inspiration (other than the name which came from seeing the sign for Salem, OR in her rear-view mirror) comes from this quote from William James:
…if the hypothesis were offered us of a world in which Messrs. Fourier‘s and Bellamy‘s and Morris‘s utopias should all be outdone, and millions kept permanently happy on the one simple condition that a certain lost soul on the far-off edge of things should lead a life of lonely torture, what except a sceptical and independent sort of emotion can it be which would make us immediately feel, even though an impulse arose within us to clutch at the happiness so offered, how hideous a thing would be its enjoyment when deliberately accepted as the fruit of such a bargain?James, William. “The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life”. April 1891
Spoilers, so forgive me if you’ve already figured out this part, but: We live in Omelas.
I have quite literally heard people justify buying a chocolate bar despite the fact the company has admitted they use child slave labor. Other companies openly abuse their employees to the point where suicide nets have to be put up.
Still everyone still buys their product and it makes them happy. And productive. Can’t forget about that.
There’s a lot more suffering in this version of Omelas than in the storied one. A lot of people medicate themselves to get through it, whether it’s booze, legal or illegal narcotics, psychedelics, compulsive behaviors, watching TV, playing video games, or going to Church ™. That hope that the promised happiness is just out there, just out of reach…
Then came the celestial monkey-wrench of a global pandemic.
Too much blood and the gears would lock, forever.
It makes sense, in that context, that there next came a brief pause.
And the world cracked.
People are seeing the suffering in real-time and they are no longer in a position to ignore it or do something about it. Not in the ways that keep Omelas v2.0 running, at least. It’s forced some people to work and build networks of support and compassion around them, for sanity and survival. It’s forced people to understand that this system is Not Good. For the planet, for its inhabitants. For people.
Some folks though, have lost it.
It’s legitimate why the people on the street, suddenly forbidden to make the ways of living that they’ve relied on, are frustrated, angry and frightened. But they’re not the ones I worry about; it’s the people pushing at them from on high. The True Believers in Omelas.
“On high.” What does that mean? Some sort of conspiracy? Nope. It’s simply the folks who are the most insulated and carry the most benefit from this society. They don’t want their lives to change. They don’t care about your lives.
And they will happily put their boot on your neck if that helps them preserve their illusion of the perfect world.
From them, the “push” to re-open the economy is NOT so that people can get a paycheck or have the right to earn a living (though that’s how they phrase because that’s a cool sound-byte).
It’s so the True Believers can get their suffering servants back. Quietly, efficiently and without incident.
Don’t believe me?
Let’s take a look at what the OPEN NOW movement has to gain if they win.
The vast MAJORITY of businesses that open now will fail (a) due to lack of customers (b) the obvious spread of infection among staff and customers or (c) when they are sued out of existence for infecting -someone-.
However, if businesses are open, this ensures that people -cannot- get unemployment or social security or medicaid or government stimulus. That means they must get another job serving those with the most resources (the True Believers) or be ruined.
So maybe businesses shouldn’t open, right?
Except because businesses “can” re-open, any business that is NOT re-opening is obviously “trying to suck on the government tit”. Yes, this specific propaganda is already making the rounds, along with the idea of workers committing ‘covid-19 fraud’ because, according to the media narrative, these people really want to just “be lazy”.
The True Believers are not trying to “flatten the curve”. Their sole interest is to lower the impact on their economy. The only other option they see available to them is to drain a load of their profits off and they don’t want to do that.
They justify this by saying that if the economy closed stays closed, the True Believers’ profits will drain right when the common man needs help and folks start to starve.
Since the True Believers can’t understand a miserable society, they will fight to retain what they have left. And that historically, is what leads to a revolution.
To bypass this, instead, they will force open the economy (which they know won’t work. Period. It won’t work. Seriously, I can’t repeat this enough). That means they can blame you and it’s your fault that you can’t survive. Not them. Crisis averted.
The little people will squabble about what is “essential”, how to make businesses “work”, how to transition in the middle of a crisis without much needed support. And they’ll fail. But they’ll feel it’s their fault, not the True Believers.
This isn’t a conspiracy thing. This doesn’t require scores of evil people to pull this off. This just requires some folks understanding basic psychology and the rich ignoring what they do.
Which they are.
Perhaps there is no way to stop this, except by fighting it everywhere we find it. Perhaps people will flock and support other ways of being. After all, that was in Ursula K. Le Guin’s story:
“The place they go towards is a place even less imaginable to most of us than the city of happiness. I cannot describe it at all. It is possible it does not exist. But they seem to know where they are going, the ones who walk away from Omelas.”Le Guin, Ursula K. 1993, The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas, Creative Education, ISBN 978-0-88682501-0.
This is a crossroads, though, and even though the path may not be clear, this is the call to action.
We can no longer simply dwell in Omelas.