The Land of Omelas

I don’t know how many of you pay attention to my banner quote, or wonder where it came from. Hopefully, many of you do. For those of you that don’t, here’s the story:

The quote is a reference to “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas,” an award-winning story written by Ursula K. Le Guin in 1973. The story describes a utopian city called (what else?) Omelas, where all the citizens enjoy unbelievably wonderful lives. All but one, that is. The exception is a child, stunted of growth and indeterminate of sex, held in a dark cellar of a room, naked and squatting in its own filth, fed gruel and water, and with a completely justified fear of the mops that are stored there. Everyone knows of the child. Many, when they are between eight and twelve years old, are taken to see the child. Most accept the misery the child is forced to endure, for if it even receives so much as a kind word, the prosperity and good fortune of the city will be lost immediately.

Many of us, on reading the story, would like to claim we wouldn’t be a part of it, but if this Omelas were real, I think it more likely that most of America would sooner wield the mops themselves than free the child. We find it all to easy to separate ourselves from “them” (however exactly we may define “ourselves” and whatever makes “them” different). Just look at the antebellum South and the apartheid of South Africa. Not that the difference need be as obvious as skin color, or require justification–however illogical–of superiority.

I discovered the story via TV Tropes, where it showed up as an example of the trope “Powered By a Forsaken Child,” defined as having to “pay a really ghastly price… or have someone else pay that price for you.”

Personally, I use a somewhat narrower definition. I say it’s getting a benefit by causing “someone else” (not related to or more than abstractly known to the instigator) to endure ongoing suffering through a means that the sufferee is in no position to fight against. One castaway killing another doesn’t count, because they both know there’s only enough food for one of them, and the survivor knows full well what he’s doing to the other. A family being stricken with cancer because a factory farm upwind of them is using a carcinogenic herbicide to increase crop yields does.

I also count laws that are passed with the intent of saving and/or improving the lives of many at the expense of causing some to suffer. Remember the old saying, “One man’s food is another man’s poison”? What is life to the man for whom the “food” is poison in a land that mandates the “food”? If you’ve read the rest of my blog, you should know what my poison is. And out of sympathy for other folk for whom other things are poison, I’ve developed a very libertarian stance. And an absolute conviction that the higher in the bureaucracy the decision is made, the more children we cage in Omelas. And we don’t even get Omelas.

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