Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Omelas Awaits

FUN FACT: “Occupy Wall Street” is difficult to explain.

Unless, of course, you take enough time to think about it. It’s too bad most people do not. In a political realm where soundbites are king and talking points reign supreme, most people are only interested in answers to difficult questions that end before their attention spans wane.

Over the past few weeks, the thousands of people who have descended on the streets of New York and other major cities have been accused by many in the media and political circuits of lacking a clear motive or objective.

This complaint is, frankly, illegitimate. Most of those who care enough to take the streets of New York, many of whom have traveled from across the country, know exactly what they’re protesting and the change they wish to affect. It just doesn’t fit neatly into the 2-3 minutes most news outlets have allotted to explain the protests, before they have to turn things over to a ten minute” Dancing With The Stars” recap.

Perhaps this is why the much smaller, even more poorly organized Tea Party protests are able to get so much coverage. When the crux of a movement seems to be based on silly costumes, poorly-spelled posters and race-based outrage directed at President Obama, their “protests” can be easily promoted, covered and dismissed in a manner of minutes.

So if we only have a few minutes to discuss a movement that threatens to expose and combat some of the worst excesses and abuses of the corporate sector, let’s use that time as wisely as we can – and read a story.


The story is “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” a short story written by Ursula K. Le Guin that won the Hugo Award for Best Short Story in 1974. In the interest of brevity I will provide only a summary, but I strongly suggest it be read in full – a free copy can be found online at http://harelbarzilai.org/words/omelas.txt.

The story depicts the city of Omelas, a perfect utopia where every citizen is educated, intelligent, well-fed and blissful. There was no violence to speak of; even horses wore no harnesses, and every man, woman and child of Omelas lived in joyous harmony.

That is, save for just one child. Le Guin never explains how or why, but makes it clear that the good fortune of the city is contingent on the deliberate torture of a single child, who is kept in perpetual darkness and squalor and ceaselessly begs for mercy. The story’s narrator, a recent visitor to Omelas, emphasizes that “the beauty of their city, the tenderness of their friendships, the health of their children, the wisdom of their scholars, the skill of their makers, even the abundance of their harvest and the kindly weathers of their skies, depend wholly on this child's abominable misery.

Even though the child is locked away inside a dark, dingy cell, its suffering is common knowledge. Every child in the city is told the story of the child’s anguish as they come of age, and while they are initially disgusted, most citizens of Omelas ultimately come to terms with the price this child pays for their happiness.

Not everyone, however, can come to terms with living so well at the expense of an innocent child’s purposeful destruction. The story ends as the narrator describes these citizens who renounce their citizenship and wander into the distance, presumably in search of a more noble existence. "The place they go towards is a place even less imaginable to 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."


Omelas may not actually exist, but it is certainly comparable to the world we occupy. Nearly everything comes at the expense of another’s toil in misery.

Don’t believe me? Take a look at the labels on your clothing some time. Chances are they came from China, India, Bangladesh, or another nation that allows children to work as sweatshop seamstresses, making less in an entire day than the average St. Louis Community College employee makes in an hour.

Our clothing, food, and precious electronic devices are all made by people who live in conditions not unlike the suffering child of Omelas. Their shackles are economic. And because so many of them are forced to live in dingy conditions halfway around the world, they’re easy to forget.

Yet our society differs from the world of Omelas in one crucial way – no one can walk away. Every place on Earth plays by these rules, and there’s simply no place to go for those who don’t wish to profit off the backs of tortured children. Omelas spans the globe, and we have no choice but to justify the system if we wish to preserve our own happiness.

This is the crux of the Occupy Wall Street movement. The ones who line the New York streets in protest are those who wish they could walk away from Omelas, but can’t. With no other choice, they have marched right to the suffering child’s cell and demanded its freedom.

In this case, the cell lies at the heart of America’s financial sector, where billion-dollar, multi-national corporations have earned all but complete legal clemency for their illegal behavior that contributed to the fall of our economy, and the suffering of hard-working Americans who were left to foot the bill for the reckless carnage invoked on the rest of the world.

So if all the Occupy Wall Street movement lacks is a catch-phrase to win over a soundbite-driven media in a manner of seconds, they can look no further.

“I’m walking away from Omelas.”

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